Friday, March 3, 2023

Black Cake

Black Cake
  Black Cake
Author:  Charmaine Wilkerson
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2022. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0593358333 / 978-0593358337

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "He should have known it would come to this."

Favorite Quote:  "Are you going to let someone else's view of who you should be, and what you should do, hold you back?"

The origin of black cake lies in British plum pudding, but the heart of black cakes lies in the Caribbean. The tradition is to bake the cake just before Christmas and eat a lit bit at a time until all it gone. Baking the cake is a days long process because the cake takes its flavor from fruits soaked in rum and/or brandy for days before the bake. Like many traditions, the cake takes on unique renditions in each family and becomes part of the family heritage passed down generation from generation.

"There it is, where it has always been, a piece of folded, lined notepaper where her mother had scribbled down the recipe for her black cake .... Rum, sugar, vanilla. And the occasional verb. Cream, rub, mix... the recipe has no number no quantities at all. Wait, was it always this way? ... her mother's recipe was never so much a list of firm quantities and instructions as a series of hints for how to proceed... What Benny learned from her mother had been handed down through demonstration, conversation, and proximity."

For Benny and Byron Bennett, a black cake is a last gift from their mother Eleanor. A cake and a recording of Eleanor telling her story is their heritage. Eleanor's history becomes the story within the story of this book. And a complicated story it is! Benny and Byron are estranged, but their mother's death brings them together. Each brings their own history, emotions, and baggage of their childhood. For each, it forms who they are as individuals. Through their mother's story comes the story of their own self-discovery and a path forward.

Through Eleanor's story, they realize how little they know - or knew - of their childhood and the woman who was their mother. Eleanor's story is that of a swimmer, of the islands, of a marriage bargain made for family finances, of friendship, of a death, of an escape, of reinvention, of leaving behind all that you are, of immigration, and of legacies like the black cake that you take with you.

This book covers a lot of ground. Through all the characters and their individual stories, the book delves into societal and political issues. Sometimes the story starts to scatter into the issues. Sometimes, the plot moves conveniently like family members uniting quickly and seamlessly after years of estrangement. Yet, the thread always winds back to Eleanor's story, which is emotional and compelling. 

Charmaine Wilkerson is a journalist turned novelist. Given that this is Charmaine Wilkerson's debut novel, I very much look forward to what she writes next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Good Rich People

Good Rich People
  Good Rich People
Author:  Eliza Jane Brazier
Publication Information:  Berkeley. 2022. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0593198255 / 978-0593198254

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "There is blood in the fountain turning the water an eerie rust color."

Favorite Quote:  "A life is a dangerous things to have. I'm surprised everyone get one. Most people don't know what to do with it."

Some are rich, so rich that it seems that money does not matter and poverty is not within their realm of imagination. Some are poor, so poor as to be homeless. Either end of the spectrum looks only at those richer than themselves. When the two collide, a story of social commentary ensues. It has the potential to be powerful commentary.

Lyla and Graham are the rich. Graham and his mother Margo have this "hobby". Their hobby is to invite someone to live in their guest house and then proceed to ruin their life. It is a competition between the two. Why? The only point in the book appears to be why not? The "someone" is usually a self-made success, and these rich cannot abide another success. They must reduce the person and take away that success. As a mother-son dynamic, much can be read into that disturbing relationship.

Lyla has never been a party to this. However, at this point, she is forced. She must take on the next tenant of the guesthouse. "I have known money long enough to realize that it always comes with strings attached. And I have known the world long enough to know that at its core, it's a game. Either you play or you are the one being played with." The book reminds me of a mix of The War of the Roses and The Most Dangerous Game.

Demi is the poor. She is in the wrong place at the wrong time or perhaps the right place at the right time. She finds herself in Lyla and Graham's guesthouse. They mistake her for their guest. She may not understand that for Lyla and Graham this is a game. However, she at the same time decides to outplay the gamers.

Neither knows the other truly. 

The story is told from the perspectives of the two women - Lyla and Demi. The chapters are short and choppy. A set of chapters tell a part of the story from one woman's perspectives. A subsequent set tells the same scenario from the other perspective. Sometimes, the telling gets confusing as the reader has to pull back to the point at this a section picks up.

The book has an interesting premise, and satire and social commentary couched in this premise could make for a powerful book. At times, it is entertaining. However, in these games, none of the characters are likable. There is no one to root for to win this game. There is a twist; however, the book does not reach the point of being a page-turning thriller. It is dark and at times disturbing. The story does not carry the power that the premise holds.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

The Last House on the Street

  The Last House on the Street
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2021. 352 pages.
ISBN:  125026796X / 978-1250267962

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I'm in the middle of a call with a contractor when Natalie, our new administrative assistant pokes her head into my office."

Favorite Quote:  "You've led sort of a protected life, you know? The world out there ain't as kind as you seem to think it is."

The small wealthy town of Round Hill in Derby County, North Carolina. A history of racial divides and and the never-ending work to encourage voters of color. A beautiful, young power couple building their dream home. An accident. A death. A piece of land said to be haunted. 1960s in the South. 2010.

What haunts the land? Is it supernatural ghouls or secrets of a small town some would rather keep hidden? What happened all those years ago that still casts a shadow on the present? What will happen next?

In the 1960s is young Ellie Hockley. Born and raised to be a proper Southern belle, Ellie has other ideas and ideals. The fight for civil rights and voter registration for voters of color is not a popular one in Ellie's neighborhood. She earns her family's ire, and her family feels the judgement of friends and neighbors. Decades later, Ellie finds herself home again.

In 2010, Kayla and her husband Jackson design and build their dream house - their forever home. It is, in fact, the last house on a quiet neighborhood street on a lovely, large wooded lot. Kayla and Jackson are architects and pour their hearts into their own design. Unfortunately, Jackson dies in an on-site accident. The dream turns into Kayla's nightmare. Nevertheless, Kayla moves ahead and moves into the house despite the tragedy and despite the warnings to stay away and leave the land be.

The story builds around the racial divide in the South and the specific history of the The Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led a voter registration civil rights initiative, recruiting white college students to help prepare African Americans for voting and to continue to lobby Congress to pass what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It is interesting that both main characters in the book are white women. It is through their eyes that the reader sees this history. To me, the book works even without the voice of a person of color to depict this history. I see the history identified in the story, go off and read some nonfiction articles about the history, and then come back to the story with a better understanding of its context. Going in, I did not expect the history lesson I got. 

For me, the book works because Ellie and Kayla work as characters. Their stories are told in parallel, the heartbreaking connection only coming together at the end. However, both their stories are stories of shocking and sudden loss; so, perhaps, there is some similarity. The ending is at the same time shocking and predictable given the history of our nation. It once again leaves me thinking of the divisions we create based on race and the atrocities that leads to.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry
  Lessons in Chemistry
Author:  Bonnie Garmus
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2022. 400 pages.
ISBN:  038554734X / 978-0385547345

Book Source:  I read this book as a selection for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "Back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbeltless cars without giving it a second though; back before anyone knew there'd even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over."

Favorite Quote:  "Courage is the root of change - and change is what we're chemically designed to do. So when you wake up tomorrow, make this pledge. No more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to others' opinions of what you can and cannot achieve. And no more allowing anyone to pigeonholed you into useless categories of sex, race, economic status, and religion. Do not allow your talents to lie dormant, ladies. Design your own future. When you go home today, ask yourself what you will change. And then get started."

Elizabeth Zott is a TV star. She hosts her own cooking show titled Supper at 6. She is a single mother to young Madeline. Elizabeth Zott was once a research chemist. She had no intentions of becoming a mother. Her dream was of scientific discovery.

How one chapter of Elizabeth's life leads to the other is the premise of this book. What happened after is the story of this book. In that context, this book touches on so many issues - feminism, motherhood, gender biases in professional environments, scars of childhood trauma, grief, friendship, and love.

Each of the characters - including the dog - represent a different perspective on these issues. Elizabeth is the scientist no one takes seriously because she is a woman. Her word and her work is not believed. That forever alters the path of her life. Calvin is the absent-minded scientist, who is brilliant but who also gets away with behavior because he is a man. No one questions his abilities or his behavior, at least not in public. Harriet is the woman who finally finds her voice and the courage to listen to that voice. Madeline is the five year old, who, despite her genius level precociousness, needs to know that her world is safe. Six-Thirty, the dog with the unusual name, embodies unconditional love and a fierce protectiveness for those he loves. He combines that with a huge dose of guilt. Despite being a dog, he is very much a "human" character in this book. Oh, the dog is also a genius for he recognizes language - actual words - and follows stories.

At time, this book is funny. At times, it is heartbreaking. Some of it seems farfetched and over the top. At times, it seems like everything that could go wrong for Elizabeth does. At a different point, it is the complete opposite and it all goes her way. There are points at which I wonder if a different path may have been found or followed. The ending and the connections drawn to achieve that ending are a little too conveniently placed.

All that aside, the book nevertheless resonates with me for one primary reason. It is set in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, so many of the conversations - particularly about gender biases - continue today. So much has changed, and yet, at times, it is as if nothing has changed. 

To me, that often speaks to the success of a book. It takes me as the reader on a journey, and somewhere along the way, I see some part of my own journey reflected in it. Two interesting pieces of advice I walk away with:
  • "Don't work the system. Outsmart it."
  • "Take a moment for yourself... Every day. A moment. A moment where you are your own priority... Whatever you need, whatever your want, whatever you seek, reconnect with it in that moment... Then recommit."
Given that this is Bonnie Garmus's debut novel, I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Wish You Were Here

  Wish You Were Here
Author:  Jodi Picoult
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2021. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1984818414 / 978-1984818416

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When I was six years old, I  painted a corner of the sky."

Favorite Quote:  "The Japanese believe that it takes three generations to forget. Those who experience a trauma pass it along to their children and their grandchildren, and then the memory fades. To the survivors of a tragedy, that's unthinkable - what's the point of living through something terrible if you cannot convey the lessons you've learned? Since nothing will ever replace all you've lost, the only way to make meaning is to make sure no one else goes through what you did. Memories are the safeguards we use to keep from making the same mistakes."

I finish many of Jodi Picoult's books and think I did not see that coming. They leave me thinking and reflecting long after I finish. This book is no exception. This book does what most Jodi Picoult books do. They take on big issues. Small Great Things took on race, prejudice and the justice system. Leaving Time centered on grief. The Storyteller left me thinking about forgiveness.

This is also the first book I have read that is fiction around the COVID pandemic. I love historical fiction, but this is so immediate that it is challenging to think of it as history! I leaves me wondering. We read history. We study history. We are and will be history. Do people living through a period of time think about the fact that the period will be a significant history. Naive as it may sound, it seems odd to think of our reality as history. Yet, it is, and here we are.

That being said, this book does not end up where I think it's going to. The premise is seemingly simply. Diana and her boyfriend Finn have a trip planned to the Galapagos Islands. Perhaps, a proposal is to come to take their relationship to the next step. Finn is a medical professional. It is the very start of the virus. He cannot leave. Diana goes anyways as the trip is not refundable. Once there, the world shuts down, and she is stranded. She is forced to disconnect from the world she knows and establishes new connections.

Diana's perspective is that of those isolated and how they coped with that isolation. The book highlights that in that isolation lay self-discovery for many. We realigned priorities. Relationship altered. The sense of loss permeated.

Finn brings in the plight of the first responders and the front line healthcare workers at the forefront of this pandemic. Perhaps no one from outside of the medical profession can understand that stress or the devastation.

Part of the plight is the political response and the divided way in which this pandemic was approached. To mask or not to mask and to vaccinate or not to vaccinate became political rather than scientific conversations. The book has a clear viewpoint on this.

Where the book goes brings in all we still don't know and all the uncertainty about what can be. At times, it seems farfetched. Yet, so many real stories of COVID depicts things that seems hard to believe. Is this possible? I don't know, but then again, science is still working on discovering what may be possible.

At times, this book was hard because the events are so recent and part of my own personal history. Yet, at the same time, it is amazing to see the experience articulated. As I turn the last page, I want more to see how it turns out.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, January 9, 2023

A Man of Honor

A Man of Honor
  A Man of Honor
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2021. 464 pages.
ISBN:  1250187451 / 978-1250187451

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was very windy on the top of the cliffs."

Favorite Quote:  "He understood he could erase the past, create a new future for himself. Who could stop him? He had the time."

Years ago, I read A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford. Perhaps, it was the story. Perhaps, it was the strong female lead character.  Perhaps, it the was idea of taking what happens to you and creating it into your future. Perhaps, it was the strength of the relationships. Perhaps, it was who I was as a reader at the time. No matter what the reason, that book left a lasting impression on me. The story still remains vivid in my mind.

Although that book and subsequent series was very much Emma's story, Emma's story would not be complete without Blackie - Shane Patrick Desmond O'Neill - her best friend, her life long friend.

This book - book eight in the series - is somewhat a prequel to the original. This is the first book to tell Blackie's story, beginning when he is only thirteen years old. The other books all hint at and share glimpses into the challenges Blackie faced in his life. This is the fist that proposes to go behind the jovial, intense, friend and brings to life in great detail what makes Blackie Blackie.

A Woman of Substance was Barbara Taylor Bradford's debut novel. This one is her thirty first novel. Perhaps, all other Barbara Taylor Bradford's books suffer for the impact the original left on me. This one does. 

First of all, a prequel in and of itself is a challenge because you know how it turns out. The sections of the book that are also Emma's story seems to correlate very closely to the original. Blackie's viewpoint could have been and should have been different.

Second, this book never builds to the same emotional intensity that the original did. Although about Blackie, this book seems to have many characters and story threads that don't pull together into his story. In fact, at times, they seem only tangentially related to the main character.

I do wonder if my reaction would have been different had I not read several of the books of the Harte series. A story about a young, orphaned boy who survives and thrives against the odds holds appeal. In fact, it sounds very much like a Woman of Substance ... perhaps A Man of Substance. Unfortunately, the book is part of the series and cannot be held apart and separate, at least not by me. I think I will let this one go and revert back to the Blackie and Emma of the original.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Gastro Obscura

Title:  Gastro Obscura:  A Food Adventurer's Guide
Author:  Cecily Wong. Dylan Thuras. Atlas Obscura
Publication Information:  Workman Publishing Company. 2020. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1523502193 / 978-1523502196

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Eating may be the most immersive visceral travel experience."

Favorite Quote:  "We have always believed that wonder can be found wherever you are open to searching for it."

Atlas Obscura is a crowd-sourced database of place and foods current numbering at over 25,000. The project began as the brain child of Dylan Thuras and Joshua For. It was an effort to "inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we all share." It began with places not found in ordinary guidebooks and perhaps off the beaten path. It expanded in 2017 to include exploration through food. It has since beyond writing its reach into education and travel. At this point, they are "a publisher of best-in-class journalism about hidden places, incredible history, scientific marvels, and gastronomical wonders."

This book, as the title suggests, is about food but more than that "it's a collection of forgotten histories and endangered traditions, obscure experiences, culinary ingenuity, and edible wonders." It traverses the globe. The book is laid out by region:  Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, Canada, United States, Latin America, and Antartica! Each section is further divided geographically. Within each smaller section, each entry is about half a page - some longer, a few shorter. Each is titled by the topic, followed by the location, following by a half-page description of history and evolution. An offset identifies "how to try it." Images accompany some of the entries. 

You can read the book beginning to end, pick up and read an entry or two, or use the included index to look for something specific.

I have followed Atlas Obscura for a while. As a lover of travel and food, the gastronomic aspect immediately appeals to me. Food is a universal language and a part of every life occasion happy and sad. Food brings people together. In a world so divided, it is wonderful to see every effort to identify that which unites us. Though the foods from other parts of the world may seem unfamiliar, the emotion, love and sense of heritage embedded in each item is universal. 

In the past few years when travel has been limited, the ability to armchair travel has become even more important. This book takes us around the world. It is also a reminder that "wonder can be found around every corner - not just in uncharted and far-flung locales but down the street, down some stairs, into the Victorian-era public toilet that now houses a London coffee bar. While travel is a beautiful way of seeking wonder, you'll find within these pages that adventures don't always require a planet ticket ... wondrous food is everywhere."

This book is one that will sit nearby and that I will pick up time and again to peruse. I look forward to that and to seeing what new adventures this team uncovers.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.