Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Lido

Title:  The Lido
Author:  Libby Page
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  150118203X / 978-1501182037

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

Opening Sentence:  "Step out of the Brixton underground station and it is a carnival of steel drums, the white noise of traffic, and that man on the corner shouting, 'God loves you,' even to the unlovable"

Favorite Quote:  "Stories were Kate's friends when she found people challenging. She searched them out, hiding among them in the library and tucking herself into their pages. She folded herself into the shape of Hermoine Granger or George from The Famous Five or Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey and tried to be them for a day."

Sometimes you just need a feel good book, a book in which the "good guys" or in this case the "good strong women" take on the big bad corporations. You cheer for them, and you worry for them. You hope they win. If they do, wonderful. If they don't, the community they develop during the fight makes it all worthwhile. The Lido is such a book.

As a non-British reader, I had to look up the word "lido" which, in British English, means a public outdoor pool. Our community has two of them, and they are a hub of activity all summer long. The lido of this book is based on the Brockwell Lido in South London. This lido operated from 1937 until 1990; a local community campaign brought it back into existence a few years later. That is the historical context for the book.

The lido provides the setting. Beyond that, this book is the story of Rosemary Peterson and Kate Matthews. Both are alone in their own way. Rosemary is around eighty years old and a widow. Her husband George died after decades of them being together. Rosemary is also a swimmer. The lido has been the place where her entire life's story has played out. Kate is twenty-something year old and a relative newcomer to the area. She suffers from panic attacks and loneliness; her efforts to hide those isolate her further and further from even her own family.

Rosemary and Kate meet when Kate is assigned to write about the possibility that the lido is being sold to a private developer who will take a public gathering place and turn it into a members only club. The book proceeds along three threads. The first is the fight to save a public resource that means so much to so many. The second is Rosemary's memories of a lifetime - her childhood, her love, her marriage, and how it all revolved around the lido. The third is of the friendship that forms between Rosemary and Kate and how that helps Kate find her way. "She took the loneliness out of being alone."

Surrounding these endearing women is a cast of equally charming community of diverse characters. Hope is Rosemary's friend and someone with an equally long history with the lido. Jay is the photographer for the Brixton Chronicle, where Kate works as a reporter. Phil runs the Brixton Chronicle and has to worry about the economic impact of his decisions. Erin is Kate's sister. Geoff is the manager of the the lido. Ahmed is the young man who finds a safe haven at the lido that allows him to stay focused on school and higher goals. Frank and Jerome are partners in life and in the local bookshop. Through these characters and more, the book paints a picture of a diverse community that cares about each other and stands together.

The book is simple, not dramatic, and predictable. And, for this story, that is all okay. It leaves me smiling, and with the reminder quoted in the book description. "We're never too old to make new friends - or to make a difference."


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Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Subway Girls

Title:  The Subway Girls
Author:  Susie Orman Schnall
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Griffin. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250169763 / 978-1250169761
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "After extensive research and considerable internal deliberation, Charlotte had submitted employment applications to five advertising agencies, their prestigious footings in Madison Avenue's most glimmering and stalwart buildings having nothing to do with her choices."

Favorite Quote:  "Time has a really incredible way of dulling feelings that you think will be sharp for your entire life. One day you wake up, and sometimes it takes something like this for that to happen, but you realize that the point isn't so pointy. And the edge isn't so jagged. And you find in your heart a way to accept people for who they are, because it's not always entirely their fault."

The Subway Girls, or rather the Miss Subways, are real. It was a group of about 200 women. They were selected about every month to two months between the years 1941 to 1976; the Miss Subway for the month had her photograph and a short description of her placed on posters around the New York City Subways. The women were selected by the John Robert Powers modeling agency.

Was this akin to a beauty contest? Yes. The aimed for look was that of a girl who might be your neighbor or who you might find yourself riding the subway with. These days, the posters can still be seen in books, at the New York Transit Museum, and Ellen's Stardust Diner because Ellen herself was  a Miss Subway.

Susi Orman Schnall takes this bit of history and builds a novel around it. As with many books, this story features two women, two different times, and intersecting stories.

The older woman is Charlotte. Her story begins in the 1940s and with her dream of getting a job in advertising. Mind you, her initial goal is to be selected for the typing pool at one of the agencies; even that would be considered a huge accomplishment for a woman at this time. She dreams of things well beyond that. Family restrictions, societal norms, glass ceilings, and so many other hindrances all tell her that her dreams are beyond reach and take her life in a different direction and to the Miss Subways. "Her mother had always taught her to keep her expectations in check. That way she'd never be disappointed. Yes, Mother dear, ... , but that way you can never dream."

The young woman is Olivia, an executive in an advertising agency. The agency is struggling, and one last opportunity presents itself to preserve the future of the agency. The opportunity becomes a competition between Olivia and a male colleague. The account being pitched is the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the agency responsible for much of the public transportation network in the New York area.

Embedded in both women's stories are love stories. Charlotte's love story is about the freedom to be an individual within a relationship; it is also about the power to decide how far that love exists and what it is willing to forgive. Olivia's love story is about recognizing what true love, based on friendship and respect, means. "Very few things in life unfold the way we thought they would. In fact, you should be suspect when they do. Who cares when the best things in life happen? Don't you see? You're getting everything you wanted. The packaging is a little unexpected and not idea, but the stuff inside, the stuff that really counts, is just right."

Ultimately, this is the story of strong women standing up for their rights and breaking through the obstacles in their way. "Life is all about collecting experiences..." In many ways, Charlotte and Olivia's story are separated by time and change. In many ways, though, the choices that face them and the challenges placed in their way reflect the reality that the gender gap has evolved but not gone away. It is the strength of these characters and the extrapolated vision of the women who became the Miss Subways that give this book its impact.


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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Eagle & Crane

Title:  Eagle & Crane
Author:  Suzanne Rindell
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0399184295 / 978-0399184291

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

Opening Sentence:  "They bump along the country road, rolling through golden hills that are punctuated with granite boulders and dotted iwth clusters of oak trees that appear blackish green from afar."

Favorite Quote:  "In a war filled with so many tragedies, it is difficult to think the dead would begrudge anything that might help to alleviate the suffering of the living."

Newcastle, California. 1943. World War II. Japanese internment in the United States. A plane crash. Two dead. A local and an FBI investigation. Those who know but aren't saying. An agent with an agenda of his own. This is the initial setup of Eagle and Crane.

Then, the story starts winding in circles casting a wider and wider net around the characters to depict their stories and what leads them to this moment. Louis Thorn is of California, born and bred in this town. Haruto, aka Harry, Yamada and his family are immigrants from Japan. The boys grow up around each other, not friends but not not-friends either. Passed on to them is the fued between their families. They may have more in common than they think, but they are taught to focus on their differences.

A dare brings them together at a daredevil air show owned and operated by Earl Shaw. It brings them to a semblance of a friendship, but the rivalry also continues. In other words, it's complicated. This dare also brings them both to Ava Brooks, Earl's stepdaughter, and, I presume, the one pictured on the cover of the book. Ava's mother has learned to survive, and Earl is a part of that survival.

The histories of the Thorns, the Yamadas, and the Brooks wind chapter by chapter to this plane crash in which supposedly Harry and his father die. Do they? Did the plane crash or was there something else? The local sheriff thinks so, but an FBI agent does not. Turns out the FBI agent has reasons and a story of his own.

In other words, this book has a lot of stories going on. However, it does not have the story I expect to read given the time and the place. In the 1940s in California with a book in which a main character is Japanese, I expect to read much more about Japanese internment, an act that one would never have dreamt possible in a land of immigrants and the American dream. In fact, this is my primary reason for choosing to read this book.

That story, however, is only one of many in this book and as a result, for me, gets a little lost. This book is about a feud over land. It is about a complicated friendship. It is about a woman and two men who love her. It is about the adventures of barnstorming and daredevil flying. It is about an abusive relationship. It is about a man looking for his past. It is about a mystery and the investigation surrounding it.

For me, this book is about too many stories; it dilutes the impact of any individual one. Some, like the personal story of the FBI agent, would not be missed if eliminated. The cover seems to imply that this is Ava's story; however, it seems more Louis and Harry's story. In fact, by the end, this book seems more a collection of bits and pieces rather than a cohesive whole.


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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Weight of a Piano

Title:  The Weight of a Piano
Author:  Chris Cander
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0525654674 / 978-0525654674

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Hidden in dense forests high in the Romanian mountains, where the winters were especially cold and long, were spruce trees that would be made into pianos:  exquisite instruments famous for the warmth of their tone and beloved by the likes of Schumann and Liszt."

Favorite Quote:  "I've heard it said of immigrants like my parents that they crossed the wide ocean to pursue the American Dream, that fabled happy existence characterized by prosperity for those who work hard and lead lives of integrity. It has always seemed to me, though, that you need to keep your eyes wide open to achieve that kind of life, don't you? A dream is only a dream while you sleep, when your eyes are closed to outside forces. The way I see it, you can't work hard and be a good person with your eyes closed. That means the American Dream is not a dream at all. It's a wish. You can make a wish with your eyes closed, but you open them after you blow out the candles. With your eyes wide open, you labor to lead an honest life while you wait to see if your wish will come true."

I am not familiar with the name Blüthner. The company is a piano manufacturer and considered one of the four powerhouses of the industry. The history of the company does indeed go back to the 1800s to the Romanian woods outside of Leipzig, Germany. This is the story of one Blüthner piano and the two girls who owned it decades apart.

Katya, a young girl, is bequeathed the piano in her childhood. Katya grows up and becomes an accomplished pianist. Marriage and a child enter her life. The piano is forever there as her comfort and her love. Life and the world changes. It is the 1960s in the Soviet Union. Communisms threatens Katya's way of life and her family, particularly since they are Jewish. Her husband makes a dramatic choice. Life and the world changes again. At every turn, the piano or the dream of her piano is the heart of Katya - her joy and her solace.

In 2012, Clara Lundy owns the piano. It is memory of her father and of all the losses in her life. The emotional scars of her childhood send her from relationship to relationship. Yet, she is able to settle nowhere and with no one. The people around her are true friends, seeing her through everything. Unlike Katya, Clara never was able to play the piano. Yet, she hangs on to it.

A broken relationship, an injury, a move, and dire financial need lead Clara to post the piano for sale. She gets an immediate buyer but then has second thoughts. She is not quite ready to let go of the past.  The buyer has his own connection to a Blüthner piano. That connection is quickly discovered in the story.

The parallel stories of Katya, Clara, and the one who wishes for Clara's piano are all stories of loss and of the past and of coming to terms with the past. Each character takes a different direction in dealing with the "weight" of their past. The title, in that sense, is both literal and metaphorical.  A piano is a large, weighty object. For each character, the piano also represents the emotional weight of the past.  For Katya, the piano represents her dreams and all that she could have been.  For Clara, the piano represents her disappointments and all that she could never leave behind.

Can you sees where this is going? Absolutely. The connections and the parallels are too clearly drawn. To me, this book is a forced and contrived story. Too many circumstantial things align to bring this story together in too fitted a way. The emotional scars of both main characters are drawn in parallel, if only to contrast with their eventual decision in how to deal with it. The story loses its sense of emotion and its sense of reality. Mind you, I realize that all fiction is a created and contrived story. I know I am reading fiction, but I want to be taken on a "real" journey. That is the power of fiction. However, in this one, the seams show if you will.

The most beautiful part of this book is the opening chapter, and that feels the most real. I was in the forests of Romania, watching that piano come to life. I wish the rest of the book lived up to that opening.


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Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Dreamers

Title:  The Dreamers
Author:  Karen Thomspon Walker
Publication Information:  Random House. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0812994167 / 978-0812994162

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

Opening Sentence:  "At first, they blame the air."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes a big fear can magnify the smaller ones."

Santa Lora, California is a small town on the edge of a lake surrounded by forests. One road leads in and out of the town. The heart of the town is the college. A quiet, dreamy setting. One day, stranger things begin to happen. A young woman falls asleep and cannot be woken. It is deemed an isolated case. Then, another case occurs, and another. It is deemed localized to a floor of a dorm at the college. The students on that floor are isolated. Then, a case outside occurs and another and another and another. It reach epidemic proportions for town. Then, it is deemed necessary to contain it to the town. Does it spread beyond? Does it not?

The book centers on a few main characters. A young woman whose roommate is the first to be stricken. An idealist college student who is not quite who he seems to be. A couple with a precious young baby. However, the story grows exponentially larger as more and more people are introduced and as the sickness spreads. These individuals - the professor and his family, the clerk at the store, the business people who happened to be in town, the doctor who comes to treat and study the disease, and more. Their stories are introduced but don't really develop into much.

The first three quarters of the book and the ending of the book go in completely different directions. The bulk of the story is about a disease, its spread, efforts to contain it, and the stories of those impacted. It is the reactions of people - both positive and negative. Some of those not stricken rise to the occasion and prove themselves heroes.  It is a struggle to survive and protect those we love.

The ending of the book goes in an entirely philosophical directions implied by the title word "dreamers." Without a spoiler, let's just say it suggests bigger, metaphysical questions that are posed but not answered. In other words, it leaves you wondering both about the grander questions and the pragmatic questions about the virus itself.

Both directions of the book are interesting and can make for a great read on their own. Most of the book suggests a science fiction race against time to save a town and its inhabitants. The book never quite gets to the level of intensity of the science fiction thriller, however. There is almost a quietness and matter of fact nature to the events. The focus remains repeated incidents of more and more people getting the sickness, and the containment facilities getting larger and larger. There does not really seem to be a sense of danger or an urgency to find a cure. Yet, the book reads with the potential of what could be there.

The ending focuses on those stricken and could be developed into an entire tale of the experiences of the stricken. Again, the book does not go there but simmer with the potential of that story. It can be imagined.

The potential in the story and the pace keeps me reading to the last page. The book does not ever really reach that potential, but it proves entertaining nevertheless.


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Thursday, February 28, 2019

House of Gold

Title:  House of Gold
Author:  Natasha Solomons
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  073521297X / 978-0735212978

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The Goldbaum Palace was made of stone, not gold."

Favorite Quote:  "Her life had been carefully planned on her behalf:  she felt detached from it all, as though she was not so much living as watching herself in a play, one where she already knew the plot and it appalled and bored her. Yet she was starting to realize that she could endure it all so long as she had freedom in this one place. Here, she would obey only herself."

The title House of Gold is a play on words. The "house" is a literal one but also more a symbolic one, standing for the family of... the clan of... the tribe of... the business of... the dynasty of...

The "gold" is literal also for the family is a wealthy and influential one, dealing with actual gold among other things. Of course, the "gold" is also symbolic of the fact that the family name is Goldbaum.

The Goldbaums are an influential Jewish family in Europe. The faith and the location are both important for the time period of the book begins in 1911. The specter of World War I looms. The branches of the Goldbaum family can be found in London, Vienna and spread across Europe. Their business interests are as varied. As political divides arises, so do fractures in the business interests, putting family members on opposite sides.

This story comes from the Goldbaum tradition of only marrying within family - distant cousins but within family. It keeps the money in the family and maintains solidarity across the branches of the clan. Such a marriage brings Greta Goldbaum from Vienna to her groom Albert's home in Hampshire, England. So begins the story of a young woman placed in a marriage to a virtual stranger and in a place that is not home.

The book then follows Greta and Albert and the rest of the Goldbaum clan to and through the tumultuous times of war. The issue arises because the book tries to follow the stories of too many members of this clan. Greta and Albert's marriage and whether or not an arranged marriage blossoms into love. Albert's brother Clement and his troublesome business ventures. Greta's brother Otto in Vienna and his trips to England. The elders of the Goldbaum family and their financial and political ventures. Greta's garden and the role of a female head gardener. The beggar boy Karl and his relationship to the family. The men of the Goldbaum clan going off to war. The impact of war on the home front.

The history in the book is interesting because I have read much more about World War II than the onset of World War I. Some have said that the Goldbaum family and the outlines for this story are based on the Rothschild family, a Jewish family who established a banking business and then established themselves internationally as five brothers settled in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Naples. I do not know if this is actually the case, but once again, historical fiction leads me to an interesting bit of history I did not know.

The story in this book unfortunately gets muddled because there are so many subplots. It is sometimes challenging to know where the main story lies. The cover implies that this is to be Greta's story, but the book does not settle into that. At times, there also seem to be jumps in time and place, leaving me wondering if I missed something. The history was there. The potential for story was set up. Unfortunately for me, it didn't quiet come together.


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Monday, February 25, 2019

The Secret of Clouds

Title:  The Secret of Clouds
Author:  Alyson Richman
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2019. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1984802623 / 978-1984802620

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She walks the cobblestone streets, her lithe body moving quickly."

Favorite Quote:  "Deep down, I believed a story could change us, and that if we read it deeply enough, a good book could transform our souls."

Two women - a mother and a teacher. Two back stories of loss and love. One very sick child. These are the basics of The Secret of Clouds. The husbands in this book are in the background. Even the sick child is in the background. This is really the story of two women coming to terms with the losses in their lives.

Maggie's life:  Maggie is a dedicated and passionate teacher. She and her husband Bill have recently moved to Long Island to get away from city life. Maggie is asked to take on home tutoring for a young boy too ill to be around other children.

Katya's life:  Katya was a rising ballerina in Kiev. Because of changing conditions in Kiev, her husband Sasha convinces her to move to the United States. Sasha settles in to a new job. Katya feels alone and lonely. She has no career and no friends in her new home. Her life revolves around caring for her son. She adores him but also blames herself for his illness. Being the primary caretaker of a ill child further isolates her.

Yuri's life:  Yuri is an intelligent and articulate little boy. A rare heart condition means that he needs constant care and that he cannot be around other people for risk of infection. He hungers for connection and for a child's life.

The story:  Maggie is asked to home tutor Yuri. She agrees with trepidation for the situation brings out memories and emotions deeply embedded in her childhood. Nevertheless, she agrees. As you might suspect, this arrangement leaves all three of these individuals changed.

The book goes into the back stories for both Maggie and Katya. Yet, neither one feels fully developed or explained. The book also tells the story primarily from Maggie's perspective - her job, her anxiety at teaching an ill child, her childhood memories that feed that anxiety, and even her marriage.

As such, the balance of the story between Maggie and Katya is missing. Katya's trajectory from Kiev to Long Island, from a promising career to isolation, and from a joyful pregnancy to the reality that she might lose her child is by far the more interesting story. I wanted to know more of her perspective and her journey.

The emotion in this book should come from the fact of a very sick little boy and those who love him, an inherently tragic and emotional situation. Yet, the more memorable emotions of this book are the ones from Maggie's and Katya's past. It is these memories that impact their feelings towards Yuri, especially Maggie's. To some extent, Maggie's story seems to be not about Yuri at all; he is simply the catalyst for her reckoning. This focus lessens the impact of this book.

The impact of the book is also lessened by the ending. It is not really a surprise. Without a spoiler, I will say that the ending packages everything to a conclusion. Given the subject matter, it unfortunately feels like too simple a package. Real life is rarely that simple.


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