Monday, May 22, 2017

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

Title:  The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Author:  Amanda Quick
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0399174478 / 978-0399174476

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 abstract painting on the bedroom wall was new."

Favorite Quote:  "Both of them had been damaged when they arrived ... Each of them had made a fresh start in a town that encouraged reinvention. Each had done a good job of concealing the damage, but neither of them tried to pretend to the other that the damage didn't exist. Maybe that was the real reason for their friendship."

What a fun book, perfect for a summer beach read. A gusty independent heroine on the run. An handsome, injured, brooding hero. A mysterious book that many people are after. A glitzy 1930s Hollywood setting. Three women, all dead by accidental drowning. A mob connection. Some magic. A little romance. This book has so many fun elements, perfect for a summer read.

Anna Harris aka Irene Glasson is the girl who knows too much. The book begins on a bloody murder scene as Anna discovers the body of her boss and a message written in blood. Run. Anna heeds the warning and runs, going from the east coast to the place where so many reinvent themselves - Hollywood. Anna becomes Irene, a novice reporter for a small Hollywood scandal sheet.

This job brings her to the small town of Burning Cove, home to an exclusive resort where the rich and the famous come to play and to hide in privacy. The same job and the same resort unfortunately land Irene into the middle of another mystery. The woman Irene is supposed to meet ends up dead in the resort pool. Now, Irene has a mystery to solve and a story to scoop.

This predicament brings Irene to Oliver Ward, mysterious ex-magician of the Oliver Ward Show and now owner and operator of the exclusive Burning Cove Hotel. Oliver has an investment to protect; a murder at the hotel with other guests as suspects is not a good combination for business.

Irene and Oliver meet, and sparks fly.

Of course, Irene's aka Anna's past is not done with her yet either. Two mysteries intermingle, and her past comes back to haunt her.

Both mysteries of course come together in a dramatic conclusion. Along the way, the book throws out a lot of red herrings to keep you guessing as to the identity of the murderer. The murderer is in plain sight throughout the book, but I did not guess that ending, making it all the more fun. When I finally connect the dots, my reaction is, "Of course!" That is the best kind of mystery - one in which the ending is a surprise but at the same time not so far out of reach that there was no way a reader could have seen it coming. Too easy to guess leads to the reaction what's the point. Too hard to guess makes it frustrating. This book finds that perfect balance.

The book does end in a neat package with all the mysteries solved, all the "bad guys" in a bad state, and all the "good guys" with a happy ending. However, the ending in its own way is a beginning. Perhaps, another book with these characters is to come?

This is my first book by Amanda Quick who was born Jayne Castle and also writes under the name Jayne Ann Krentz. So, I cannot compare it to other books. I just know I am adding this author under all her names to my list for when I need a quick, light escape into a fictional world.

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

There Your Heart Lies

Title:  Their Your Heart Lies
Author:  Mary Gordon
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0307907945 / 978-0307907943

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

Opening Sentence:  "He offers her a coat."

Favorite Quote:  "I learned a very long time ago that if you wait for the perfect action, you'll never act. In a situation like this, all you can do is the least bad thing. And be truthful about the cost of what you've done, of what's been brought about, or allowed to come about, for which, you must also understand, you are responsible."

Here is another book that takes what is by now a very familiar approach - two time periods, two women, a granddaughter trying to uncover all that she does not know about her grandmother's life. The broader context of the past is a history of Spanish civil war. It is a history about which I know very little, hence my interest in the book. This is one of the things I love about historical fiction; it introduces me to history I might not otherwise read. Fiction prompts me to research and learn the actual history that underlies the book.

The Spanish Civil War took place between 1936 and 1939, right before the start of World War II. This is the war that brought the conservative General Francisco Franco to power. Franco then ruled Spain for over thirty-five years until his death in 1975. The idealism of this war drew volunteers from around the world; the international brigades came with the idealistic notion of joining a fight against fascism to protect the world. Sadly, what they found was that the atrocities of war were perpetrated on all sides, and that war became about self-interest not idealism.

The fictional story of this book is of one such volunteer from the United States. Marian is born into a wealthy, privileged, conservative American family. This life of privilege has embedded in it all kinds of prejudice - race, religion, gender, sexual orientation - that Marian wants no part of. Her beliefs and ideal lead far away from most of her family except for her brother Johnny. Johnny's untimely and tragic death pushes Marian further away and on a path that leads to the war in Spain. Her life in Spain shatters her idealism and leads in directions she could never have imagined.

Fast forward many decades later, Marian leads a quiet life in Rhode Island. Her granddaughter Amelia is a source of joy, and finally, Marian decides to talk about the past and tell Amelia the story of her life, from her brother's death to her life in Spain and then back in the United States.

The two time period structure is not quite successful in this book for a couple of reasons. First, Amelia is not really developed as a character and does not really have a story of her own. This book is Marion's story and only hers. The book starts off strongly as it begins with Marian in the 1930s, and the reader lives Marian's life with her. Once the present day story kicks in, the book switches to Marian now telling the story of her life. The history of the war is fascinating, and everything Marian endures is dramatic. However, the story seems removed because at this point the reader is being told a story rather than living that story. Later in the book, the book switches to Amelia's perspective, removing the story even further from Marian's story.

I wish the book had stayed with Marian's story from the 1930s such that as a reader, I lived it through her. That would make for a much more compelling book set against this turbulent history.

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

After the Bloom

Title:  After the Bloom
Author:  Leslie Shimotakahara
Publication Information:  Dundum. 2017. 328 pages.
ISBN:  1459737431 / 978-1459737433

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Their house had always been a wreck."

Favorite Quote:  "For so long no one talked about anything - it was like those memories of the internment years never even existed. Massive blackouts, collective amnesia. Just put it all behind you, block it all out, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, move the **** on. The first step in rebuilding community is allowing those memories to surface."

After the Bloom is a story structured in a commonly used framework - two time periods, two women, a daughter trying to untangle the puzzle of her mother. The broader context of the past is a sad part of United States history - the internment of the Japanese in the United States during World War. The reprecussions of this history are felt today in the community who suffered through it and in others who fear that history may one day repeat itself.

Many books have taken this approach to this history - The Japanese Lover by Isabelle Allende, When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, and perhaps my favorite, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. The history is a sad and shameful one as citizens of the country were stripped of rights and freedom and treated as potential criminals because of their ethnic heritage. This book takes a different approach to the camps in that it does not just show the conditions and privations forced from the outside. It also shows the strife within as different people struggle to deal with this reality. There is talk of peace and acceptance, and there is talk of rebellion.

The personal story in this book is that of Lily Takemitsu, who is a young adult when her family is forced into interment. Hers is a story of the camp but also a story of a young woman who seems to have no healthy male relationships ever in her life. She talks about neither, such that her daughter Rita has no idea what her mother has gone through. Rita's life is 1980s Toronto with a mother who disappears. Rita is not surprise as this has happened before, but this time, Lily does not return and cannot be found. In her search, Rita discovers the truth of her mother's past and of her own heritage.

What I find intriguing is the theme of shame and something not to be talked about that is evident throughout the book. Lily feels the shame of her background and never talked about it to her daughter or her husband. Those in the internment camps are wrongly made to feel ashamed of their heritage. The country is ashamed of this history such that kids grow up not ever learning about it. The glimmer of a bigger message is there in the book; it just never makes its way forcefully out.

The key to a historical fiction for me is the balance between history and fiction. The fiction should bring the history to life and bring emotion to historical facts; the characters become anchors for the history. By the same token, the history should become the central drama and conflict of the fictional story.

In this book, the fiction and the history take two different paths. While Lily's story is set in the World War II internment camps, it is much more of a story of a young woman with troubling relationships - her father, her daughter's father, and others she meets at the camp. The same story could be set in a completely different context and still be essential the same personal story.

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Hidden Thread

Title:  The Hidden Thread
Author:  Liz Trenow
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1492637513 / 978-1492637516

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Anna rests her head on the cushion and traces her finger along the stems of daisies and the nodding heads of bluebells embroidered onto its calico cover."

Favorite Quote:  "You have your whole life before you, and all you need to do is observe until you feel you know every detail of every leaf, every petal, every stalk. And then you must record, and look, and look again, and look yet again."

The Hidden Thread, like Liz Ternow's other book The Forgotten Seamstress, has a beautiful silk fabric at its core. Set in late 1700s London, the book brings to life the silk industry - the London aristocracy who are the customers, the British mercers who are the sellers, and the weavers who are often French refugees.

Anna Butterfield is a country girl from a poor but respectable family. She is sent to London to visit her wealthier aunt and uncle. The hope is that Anna may make a good match, which will provide for her and her sister. Anna, however, is an independent spirit and an artist. Her interest lies in capturing the shapes and colors of the natural world.

A chance meeting introduces her to Henri Vendome, a French weaver. He is a journeyman looking to qualify as a master weaver. His ultimate goal is to have his own workshop and make a better life for himself and his mother. Another chance introduces Anna to Miss Charlotte, a dressmaker to the aristocracy including Anna's aunt.

Anna's aunt and uncle do not approve of these associations, but Anna pursues her friendships and their shared love for fabric, shape and color. Anna wants to draw inspiration from nature. Henri wants to weaver it into his masterpiece. Charlotte may one day create a beautiful gown out of it.

Their story takes place in the world of the silk trade in England. The fashions of the aristocracy are fickle, moving from big bold colors and patterns to more subtle lines and shades. The mercers want to to control the supply of silk and purchase at the lowest prices domestically or internationally for the biggest profits. The weavers fight for what they consider a fair price and a living wage. This history creates the bigger drama into which Anna and Henri's story is set.

What I find fascinating about the book is the description of the silks and work that goes into designing and weaving each one. Most of the clothes we wear are made to a uniform standards with the use of a lot of technology in weaving the cloth itself. It is fascinating to read about the labor intensive process of loom weaving and the constraints put on the design because of the limitations of the loom itself. How wonderful to imagine that no two pieces of fabric are alike and that there may indeed be hidden threads, unseen by the wearer but necessary to the creation of the fabric and its design.

What I love about the writing is how seamlessly the history and the fiction story is blended together. Each enhances the other. Mind you, Anna and Henri's love story is not an unusual story -  a young woman and a young man from opposite sides of track drawn together against family wishes and societal concerns. However, Anna and Henri themselves along with the others in the book are engaging characters. The characters and fiction provide the human anchor and emotions for the history, and the history adds the drama to the fiction.

The Hidden Thread Blog Tour
Title: The Hidden Thread
Author: Liz Trenow
Publication Date: May 1st, 2017
Publication Date: Trade Paperback
ISBN: 9781492637516

Summary: The Hidden Thread is a breathtaking novel about the intricate craft of silk and the heartbreak of forbidden love.

When Anna Butterfield’s mother dies, she’s sent to live with her uncle, a silk merchant in London, to make a good match and provide for her father and sister. There, she meets Henri, a French immigrant and apprentice hoping to become a master weaver. But Henri, born into a lower class, becomes embroiled in the silk riots that break out as weavers protest for a fair wage.

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Wherever You Go, There They Are

Title:  Wherever You Go, There They Are
Author:  Annabelle Gurwitch
Publication Information:  Blue Rider Press. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0399574883 / 978-0399574887

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

Opening Sentence:  "Moo Goo Gai Pan was a swashbuckling adventurer who sailed the seven seas carousing and plundering and generally yo-ho-ho-ing it up."

Favorite Quote:  "The bosom of your family can be comforting but it can also be smothering."

The story of Wherever You Go, There They Are is really more like wherever you go and whatever you do, they may or may not be there, but their impact on your life and the legacy of them that you carry within you will always be. You will think of them. You will hear their voice in your head. They, of course, are your family. Call it baggage. Call it family love. Call it whatever you want, it will be with you wherever you go.

The subtitle of this book reads, "Stories About My Family You Might Relate To." In other words, this book is a collection of stories, really essays, that relate or include reference to the author's family. Some, like those about her aging parents and her mother's illness, are really personal. Some are less personal and more social commentary. Some, in fact, have little if anything to do with her family at all.

The publicity for the book states, "A hysterically funny and slyly insightful new collection ... about her own family of scam artists and hucksters, as well as the sisterhoods, temporary tribes, communities, and cults who have become surrogates along the way." The book blurb sets really high expectations. The book does not live up to that expectation in either being funny or being about family.

 The overall tone of the book is very conversational. Reading the book is almost like listening to someone tell this story. This makes the book a very easy and quick read. As is the case in all collections, some essays appeal to me more than others. The first and last are my favorites because they are the ones centered on family. These are the stories that give a glimpse at emotions and feelings. The others seems more concept centered and as such more essay than story. Some I relate to, but I end my reading without a real connection to or feelings towards the characters. It's interesting, but it does not elicit an emotional reaction.

That being said, parts of the book are definitely funny. However, a lot of the tongue in cheek commentary is presented as footnotes in the book. I have no idea why that format is chosen other than to draw attention. After a while, it is just annoying. I would much rather see it incorporated into the text and not have the flow of thought interrupted to look for the footnote at the end of the page. At some points, I find myself reading the footnote on the page first and then looking to the text to see what the joke is. Note that on a Kindle, this issue is made worse by the fact that often a footnote continues on to the next page. I am unsure if that is by intent, or an issue with format.

This forced break in reading is perhaps one reason the book fails to connect emotionally. In addition, the collection does not have the continuity of a timeline or another organization really pulling it together. It is simply a collection, with each essay going from topic to topic rather than a composite, emotional story of a family.

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Little Sister

Title:  Little Sister
Author:  Barbara Gowdy
Publication Information:  Tin House Books. 2017. 300 pages.
ISBN:  1941040608 / 978-1941040607

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "From her office above the Regal Repertory Theater, Rose Bowan watched a Coke can roll down the sidewalk across the street."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is all doing and undoing."

Rose Bowan has a pretty great life in some ways. She owns and runs a family business - a historic theater. She is in a stable, long-term relationship. She is independent. She has the love of family and friends.

On the other hand, Rose has tragedies in her life. Her father passed away. Her mother is descending into dementia. Her sister Ava died in childhood, and Rose feels responsible. Something seems missing in her relationship with her boyfriend. On top of all that, Rose thinks she may be losing her mind.

Every time a storm comes, Rose finds herself transported to another woman's life. She becomes Harriet, living her life and her relationships. The episodes last a short time, and then Rose is pulled back to her own life. At first, she thinks it's an anomaly and just moves on. Then, she thinks there might be something wrong with her. Then, she find herself more and more drawn to this other life. To her surprise, she discovers that Harriet is not only a real person but living in the same time and the same city as Rose herself. Gradually, Rose finds herself seeking out storms for Harriet's life seems so much more intriguing and beguiling than her own.

In her real life, Rose is caring for her mother, trying to run her business, and trying to decide is her relationship with her boyfriend is worth salvaging. Harriet is involved in an affair with a married man and facing a pregnancy. The decision as to what may happen to this unborn child weighs heavily on Rose. She feels a sense of responsibility for a life that is not her own.

Within this surreal story, the book gradually reveals the secret of Rose's childhood, and the collection of eccentric characters that inhabit that childhood. What happened to Ava? What was Rose's role in Ava's death? How has that trauma of her childhood impacted Rose's entire life?

The book is based on the premise that an ordinary person living an every day life all of a sudden finds herself entering another woman's body and life. This happens with regularity. Rose becomes another woman. Yet, her reaction displays an equanimity that belies her unusual circumstances. She seems very matter-of-fact - too much so - about everything. Her moment of surprise does come at the very end of the book, but, at that moment, the book ends. It would be intriguing to see more of that emotional reaction throughout.

What strikes more a chord with me is the character of Fiona, Rose's mother. Fiona's struggle with her worsening dementia and Rose's role as caregiver are touching and sad, but they are is side story line not the main story.

I appreciate the premise of the book and the touch of magic realism. However, ultimately I am not the reader for this book. The physical descriptions that occur frequently in this book are just not for me. In addition, the entire book and especially the ending seems anticlimactic. Overall, though, I leave this book thinking that somewhere along the way I missed the point.

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Garden of Small Beginnings

Title:  The Garden of Small Beginnings
Author:  Abbi Waxman
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0399583580 / 978-0399583582

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

Opening Sentence:  "It's been more than three years since my husband died, yet in may ways he's more useful than ever."

Favorite Quote:  "I'm generally a grumpy, reclusive person on the inside, but sometimes on the outside I surprise myself with my friendliness."

This book starts off in a tragedy that happened about three years previously. Lilian's husband died in a car accident, leaving her in shock, heartbroken, and single parent to their two daughters. Lil has managed to keep her job and life together for her kids, but in many ways, life is frozen in that instant. Her younger daughter has very little if any memory of her father while, for her older daughter, no one will ever take her Daddy's place.

Lil finds herself unable to move forward either. She has the support of her family, her husband's family, and her friends. They supported her at the time of Dan's death, through her breakdown and hospitalization after, and ever since. Yet, ultimately, the grief seems hers alone. How to go on - at that moment, three years later, or ever?

As part of a work assignment, she is asked to attend a gardening class, taught by master gardner Edward Bloum, who is, as you might, guess eligible and handsome. The class also brings a new set of friends to Lil's life; each one has his or her own story. The story unfolds over the course of the six week class.

In between each chapter of the story are gardening tips, which are fun and sometimes funny to read but don't really flow with the rest of the book other than the fact that the book is set around a gardening class. Sections like "How to Grow Garlic" or "How to Grow Zucchini" are actual garden advice but not really relevant to the story going on in the book.

The story is sweet. Even with its sad premise, it has an uplifting message about finding the strength to move forward and about new beginnings. The planting of a garden is literal but also becomes, of course, a metaphor for new beginnings. You plant, you nurture, and then you watch it flourish.

Two reasons keep this book from a higher rating. First is the main character. It took a while, but then a character - Lil's sister Rachel - in the book articulates my thoughts. "... what about your martyr complex ... Poor Lilian, lost her husband, love of her life. Well, what about me I lost one of my best friends. What about the kids? They lost their dad. what about Maggie, eh? She ... lost her only brother. It's not all about you, and it's about time you realized that." Grief is never comparative, but grief is never one person's alone. The fact that this book is a first person narrative adds to that feeling of everything being Lil-centered, if you will.

The other reason is that the book is predictable. A sad beginning and a sad main character. An incorrigible sister who tells it like it is. A handsome new man. A small cast of characters, each with their own eccentricities. A common bond - in this case, a gardening class - that draws them together. New friends. New love. A gradual new beginning. Sweet but expected. I keep waiting for more and for something unexpected. Without that, it is ultimately forgettable but a sweet story for an afternoon.

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