Saturday, May 27, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon

Title:  Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murder and the Birth of the FBI
Author:  David Grann
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0385534248 / 978-0385534246

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

Opening Sentence:  "In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma."

Favorite Quote:  "An Indian Affairs agent said, 'The question will suggest itself, which of these people are the savages?'"

The history is disturbing and chilling, made even more so because it is an actual history not fiction. The theme is ages old, forever present in this world. People kill for money. The extent to which such greed can reach is scary in the history of the Osage murders. The book is intense and compelling.

Let's set the stage. The Osage nation lives and prospers. The settlers come and want the land. Gradually, the Osage are pushed in land allotments with the settlers getting the pick of the fertile farm land. Even worse, the Osage are deemed incapable of managing their own financial affairs; the finances of many are placed in the hands of guardians who are not of the tribe. Many guardians use this as a opportunity to line their own pockets.

The Osage own their land under the Allotment Act, and they own the rights to deposits of oil, gas, coal, or other minerals found in the land. Land could be bought or sold; mineral rights had to be inherited through the tribal rolls.

In the early twentieth century, the tribe leases out its land for exploration. Oil is discovered and discovered in such abundance that the Osage are wealthy beyond anyone's imagination. As the book jacket describes, "In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma."

"Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off." Some were outright shot. Some disappered. Some appeared to have died of no cause; it was later clear they were poisoned. Some of those who came to investigate also met a similar end. Then, the newly created FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover got involved and exposed the diabolical plan underlying these deaths.

This book recounts this history in three main sections. Chronicle One:  The Marked Woman anchors the story and makes these murders about individuals and a family. Mollie Burkhart survived this systematic extermination but lost most of her family. This section of the book walks through the lives of specific individuals who were killed and the impact of the deaths on their families and communities. It depicts those who came to help, those who appeared to help, and lays the groundwork for the shock of discovery as to who is actually the mastermind of this plot. This section is also the emotional anchor of the book because it takes the history and makes it intensely personal. This is not reading about a case; it is the story of Mollie and her family.

Chronicle Two:  The Evidence Man is about the involvement of the newly created FBI, the investigation, and the prosecution of those deemed to be guilty. This section appears to bring to closure the story of Mollie Burkhart family as those responsible are brought to justice. This is the story of an investigation and a court trial. Sadly still relevant today are the discussions that the level of prosecution, accountability, and punishment depended both on the race of the victim and the race of the perpetrator. Justice was sadly not, and still is sadly not, color blind.

Chronicle Three:  The Reporter is the surprise in the book. The case of the murders of Mollie Burkhart's family was resolved. What more was going to occupy a third of this book? That is when the history becomes even more disturbing and chilling. This reporter delves into the fact that the scope of the murders did not end with the case of Mollie Burkhart's family. Many more cases went unsuspected, unreported, and unresolved. Justice was not done. The book leaves the reader with a reference to the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible. "The blood cries out from the ground."


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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Child

Title:  The Child
Author:  Fiona Barton
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1101990481 / 978-1101990483

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

Opening Sentence:  "My computer is winking at me knowingly when I sit down at my desk."

Favorite Quote:  "People say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. They say that when you been through something terrible ... But it doesn't. It breaks your bones, leaving everything splintered and held together with grubby bandages and yellowing sticky tape. Creaking along the fault lines, Fragile and exhausting to hold together. Sometimes  you wish it had killed you."

A gruesome discovery opens this story. On a construction site, a body is discovered. a skeleton of an infant lies buried in the foundations of a house being torn down. Who is the building site baby? Who would commit such an act?

Like Fiona Barton's first book The Widow, this book tells its story through different perspectives.

Angela is a distraught mother. Years ago, her newborn daughter Alice disappeared from her hospital room. Angela's life has ranged from being accused of harming her daughter to following up on false leads on Alice's whereabouts. The underpinning of a her life is a never ending grief and the void of not knowing. Is Alice dead? Is she living a life Angela knows nothing about? What happened to Alice?

Jude is a mother to now-adult Emma. She has been and continues to be self-centered to the point that her life seems to have no room for Emma. A big marking point of their relationship is the fact that at one point, Jude threw Emma out of the house. Tough love and understandable or something else and completely selfish?

Emma is a young woman with secrets and fears of her own. She is now married with a spouse who clearly cares for her. Yet, the point is made that something is amiss in that relationship because she married a father figure. Her relationship with her mother is fraught with pain and regret; yet, she is drawn back to her. Emma has love, caring, and stability; yet, her life is overridden by anxiety. The reason why slowly emerges through the book.

Of the three, Angela is the most sympathetic character - a mother who loses a child. Her highs and lows of hope and despair bring the reader along with her feelings. Jude is unlikable one because of her self-centered, boyfriend focused outlook. Emma is the enigma for her story is the unknown that slowly comes to light. Be warned, some of the backstories delve into rather sordid circumstances.

Surrounding these main characters are supporting characters that repeat from The Widow. Detective Sparkes is on the investigation, both of Alice's disappearance and now of this mystery building site baby. Kate is a reporter, who catches the glimmer of a story when she hears of the found skeleton. Gradually following her leads, she is pulled further and further into the story of these women. Kate becomes the thread through which the stories of Angela, Jude, and Emma are stitched together. Kate provides the commentary, evaluates the facts, and draws the conclusions for the reader.

Alternating chapters depict the perspective of each woman with their charged emotions and anxieties. Those feelings permeate the book and create a tension that keeps me reading. Mind you, this structure and the emotions make this book a psychological mystery much more so than a thriller. Action is not the heart of this book; thoughts and feelings are. Given the number of characters and the relationships, the ending is not really a surprise, but getting there is an entertaining reading journey.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.

Goodreads Link: http://bit.ly/2oD9jdX

Buy Links: 
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/2oDa5rC
Book Depositoryhttp://bit.ly/2oK9i4W
IndieBound: http://bit.ly/2nc4tE4



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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.


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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.


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Monday, May 8, 2017

In Other Words

Title:  In Other Words
Author:  Jhumpa Lahiri (Author). Ann Goldstein (Translator).
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2016. 256 pages.
ISBN:  1101875550 / 978-1101875551

Book Source:  I read this book based on the author's previous work.

Opening Sentence:  "I want to cross a small lake."

Favorite Quote:  "I write in order to break down the wall, to express myself in a pure way. When I write, my appearance, my name have nothing to do with it. I am heard without being seen, without prejudices, without a filter. I am invisible. I become my words, and the words become me."

What an odd little book, and I mean that in the best way possible. In Other Words is a slim little book. It's a little over 200 pages even in a small hardcover edition. The actual length of the writing is about half that length for the text appears twice through the 200 pages. One side is the original Italian in which Jhumpa Lahiri writes it, and the other is the English translation which was not done by the author but by someone else.

Wait. Italian. Jhumpa Lahiri. That is an unexpected combination. Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London. Her parents are from West Bengal. When she was two, the family moved to the United States. She grew up in Rhode Island. She has won the Pulitzer Prize and been nominated for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. Her original language is Bengali, and her published works are written in English.

That is, up until this book. This book, she chooses to write in Italian, her third language. Then, she chooses not to translate the book herself so as to avoid the temptation to correct the writing with her comfort level in English. Instead, the translator is Ann Goldstein, who also translated Elena's Ferrante's work into English.

This book is also her first foray into nonfiction for this book is a personal memoir. This book is self-reflective look at her own immigrant experience and her own experience with language. Although she studied Italian for years, she and her family also moved to Italy for a while for a completely immersive experience. This book comes from a perspective at the end of that experience, but it truly covers her experience with displacement and language throughout her life. She writes from the perspective of her craft, and her ability to work in a different medium (i.e., a different language) than the one she typically uses for her craft. It all presents unique challenges but also unique opportunities.

What comes through the strongest is the idea of being always a foreigner: "Those who don't belong to any specific place can't, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn't a true exile:  far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile." Those who have lived the immigrant experience will recognize it and find something of their own experience in it. "Because of my physical appearance, I'm seen as a foreigner ... No one, anywhere, assumes that I speak the languages that are a part of me ... the wall keeps me at a distance, separates me. The wall is inevitable. It surrounds me wherever I go, so that I wonder if perhaps the wall is me."

With no knowledge of Italian, I cannot comment on the original. The philosophical musings in translations, however, speak to me. It is a completely different experience than reading her fiction, but beautiful nevertheless.


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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Beartown

Title:  Beartown
Author:  Fredrik Backman
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1501160761 / 978-1501160769

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

Opening Sentence:  "Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead, and pulled the trigger."

Favorite Quote:  "Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn't through love, because love is hard, It makes demands. Hate is simple. So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that's easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe - comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy."

This is the third Fredrik Backman book I have read. I loved the first two - Britt-Marie Was Here and And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer. The two books couldn't have been more different. Britt-Marie is about the title character - an elderly woman who finds the courage and support to start her life anew. The other book deals with the issue of Alzheimer's and dementia. What the book have in common is the emotion they convey and the fact that they made me both laugh and cry.

So, I knew I wanted to read Beartown because of the two books. Nevertheless, I was hesitant. This book is set in around ice hockey, a sport about which I know nothing and a sport in which I have very little interest. However, the opening sentence of the book clearly says that there is more to the story. Because of this and the author's other books, I went ahead. I am so glad I did!

Beartown is a small town, that is slowly fading like so many other small towns. It is overshadowed by the more prosperous communities around it. Jobs and, therefore, people are leaving Beartown. The one thing that still ignites Beartown's passion is ice hockey. The town has an active program ranging from seven year old boys to seniors. Some players historically have made it big and played in the major leagues. Certain players, particularly some on the junior team, now exhibit a talent that could take them all the way. They are the hope and pride of the town.

The beginning of the book is all about hockey and putting the club first, above all else. The beginning also introduces a lot of characters and their perspectives on both Beartown and ice hockey. I read on with hesitation, unsure whether the focus on hockey and the seemingly large number of characters is going to work. Again, because of that opening sentence and the author's other books, I keep going.

Quickly, somewhere along the way, the characters and the background fade, and people emerge. Peter, the general manager of the club, is pulled between the demands of his job and his personal choices. He and his wife Kira are also haunted by ghosts of the past. Sune, the coach of the senior team, knows that his time is ending, and the torch is soon to be passed. David, the coach of the junior team is part coach and part father to these players but always keeps his lesson focused on winning. Kevin is the star athlete. Benji is Kevin's best friend but keeps secrets that not even his best friend knows. Amat is an immigrant, who dreams of playing hockey and making life easier for his single mother. Maya and Ana are teenagers and best friends, seeing each other through everything.

The story remains about ice hockey, but not in the way you might imagine. The story becomes about the question about how far a person, a set of people, or a town will go to put club above all. What will be the price for putting club first? Will that be a price that everyone is willing to pay or will someone stand up for what is right? As with Fredrik Backman's other books, the people and the emotions take over, and I read furiously until the end to find out the answer.

The ending, too, is not a neat package, and because of that, feels as real as the rest of the book. I continue to be a Fredrick Backman fan!


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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Border Child

Title:  Border Child
Author:  Michel Stone
Publication Information:  Nan A. Talese. 2017. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0385541643 / 978-0385541640

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

Opening Sentence:  "Lilia thrashed and called out, uncertain if she's given voice to her cry or just dreamed the sound."

Favorite Quote:  "We can't shield our children from pain, even if we carry them in a sack against our breasts. Still the bee can sting, the thorn can prick."

As a parent, what would you do to make sure your child had the best life possible? What would you do to make sure your child was safe? Or rather, is there anything you would not do? This is the question at the heart of the immigrant story of Border Child by Michel Stone. In its setup, this book reminds me of Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran.

Héctor and Lilia are parents to Alejandra, Fernando, and a baby yet to be born. They have dreams for their children as does every parent anywhere. They wish for their children a better life than they have, and they are prepared to work hard to make that possible. Sadly, they come from a tiny village in the poverty stricken Oaxaca region of Mexico.

Héctor's dream of a better life leads them north to the United States of America. He crosses the border illegally, hoping to find honest work to provide for his family. Lilia follows, crossing separately. They find work and settle in the Carolinas and make a life. They learn. "People are people ... That's what I learned in el norte. Some good, some bad. Their birth country matters nothing where their hearts are concerned." Their illegal status is discovered, and they are deported. That is the immigrant story.  Note: This piece of Héctor and Lilia's life is the subject of Michel Stone's book The Iguana Tree. Prior to reading this book, I did not know that this book is a sequel. It makes no difference at all. This book is able to stand alone; the story is complete on its own.

The immigrant story sets the basis for the story of parenthood. At the time of their crossing to the north, Héctor and Lilia are parents only to four year old Alejandra. Héctor goes first. Lilia trust her life and her baby's life to a different coyote (a person in the business of helping people cross the border). The coyote separates Lilia from her child, promising her that they will meet again across the border. That never happens, and Alejandra disappears from others.

That grief of loss, the guilt of responsibility, and the hope that Alejandra is still out there somewhere drives this book. Some years later, Héctor and Lilia are back in their village with the second born Fernando and awaiting the birth of their third child. They get a possible lead on Alejandra's whereabouts, and Héctor is off on a quest. This quest leads him away from his family, into the "business" world of the city, and further into an impossible decision.

The ending to this book is a surprise. I did not see that coming. The writing beautifully draws me into Héctor and Lilia's world - their poverty, their struggle, the love for each other, their guilt over Alejandra's disappearance, and their absolute love for their children. All emotions that parents everywhere relate to. Best of all, the book leaves me thinking. What would I do? Faced with Héctor and Lilia's impossible decision, what would I do?


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Monday, April 24, 2017

My Last Lament

Title:  My Last Lament
Author:  James William Brown
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0399583408 / 978-0399583407

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

Opening Sentence:  "Now let me see, how to I turn this thing on?"

Favorite Quote:  "For me the thought of my becoming an older version of myself was troubling. What would happen to the person I already was? Would it disappear inside the older one. I wanted to grow up, but I didn't want to let go of what I meant when I thought I or me."

How to describe my reaction to this book? It's tough. I like the story better than I do the book, if that makes sense.

The story is of World War II and its aftermath in Greece. It is the story of Aliki, a young girl who sees her father executed in front of her. It is a story of a young woman who survives through everything life hands her - death, desperation, poverty, hunger, loss of home, loss of love, everything. It is the story of a young woman who feels responsible for one young man, falls in love with another man, and spends her life torn between the two.

It is the story of two young men who both love the same girl. One is a boy with medical challenges in a time and place when mental health and other such medical issues are not and cannot be provided for. The other is a young man who is a refugee, a survivor, and an artist. Through his shadow puppets and his plays, he expresses himself. Between the three of them lies a story of love, jealousy misunderstandings, and all emotions that surround such a love triangle. The story of these three young people is set in the atrocities of war, with executions, bombings, camps, and the plight of refugees.

The story has characters you can feel for. It is a piece of World War II history not often told. It is an emotional, dramatic story. It has all the making of a great, engaging read.

Yet, here is my dilemma. This book fails to engage me. I want to know what happens, but, at the same time, I don't really want to read through the entire book to find out. I am not entirely sure what it is, but something keeps me from fully vesting into this story.

Perhaps, it is the structure. The story is told in the voice of the old woman Aliki looking back on her life. The setup is that Aliki is on of the last of the lamenters, giving voice to the grief and mourning of others. In this book, Aliki does not set out to be a lamenter; it comes to her and from her unbidden. The narration of this story is through Aliki telling her story on tape at the request of a researcher. The chapters of the book correspond to the sides of the cassettes as she records her story. At the end of a side of cassette, the book pulls back to Aliki's present and the impending death of an old friend. The back and forth ultimately makes sense but is somewhat jarring if you don't pay attention to the connection between past and present.

Perhaps, the disconnect in the story occurs because the telling of this tale seems to be mired in details that don't change. The basic story is one of episodes between these three individuals. The dynamics of this triangle don't really shift. They seem to repeat in various forms throughout all the different background situations. For a historical fiction book, this book is very narrowly focused on these three lives, the dying art of lamenting, and the dying art of shadow puppets. The political and war history is on the periphery; it provides context but not the main story. The book is much more about an undiagnosed, untreated mental issue and about Aliki's balance between self-preservation and responsibility.

My parting thought on this book is that in some ways, it reads like a memoir of Aliki's life, her last lament becoming a lament of her own life, if you will.


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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Miss Mary's Book of Dreams

Title:  Miss Mary's Book of Dreams
Author:  Sophie Nicholls
Publication Information:  Zaffre Publishing. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1785761765 / 978-1785761768

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

Opening Sentence:  "When I first scribbled those words in my notebook a couple of years ago, I thought that I was writing the end of a particular story, the story of Mamma and me."

Favorite Quote:  "We all have so many different selves inside us, like Grace's set of Russian dolls, made of painted wood. You opened one to find another, and another inside that and another, until you discovered the tiniest doll, not much bigger than a seed or a grain of rice ... Who was the Ella in the centre of it all - the Ella that she was when every other self had been opened up and set aside? That, she thought was what she was searching for."

This is a a book about magic - literally and figuratively.

It is the story of three generations of women - Maadar Bozorg, Fabia, and Ella - and of two sisters Selena and Bryony who enter their lives.

Maadar Bozorg is the storyteller and spell weaver in her homeland in Tehran, Iran. Fabia's story and the beginning of Ella's is told in the book The Dress. In that book, Fabia and young Ella come to York, and Fabia opens a shop of vintage clothing. The book is about hints of the the "Old Country;" about Fabia and Ella having the gift to see "the signals" in the world about situations, emotions, and people; and about the secret messages Fabia embeds in the embroidering or sewing the clothes. This book continues their story.

Although a sequel, this book does stand alone. The story and the characters are easily followed without the background of the first book; in fact, it may add to the mystery and magic about them. This book is Ella's story - her mother's dress shop which has now evolved into Ella's bookshop, her marriage, her young daughter Grace, and a new customer - Bryony - to whom Ella's finds herself drawn.

This book is also about Ella's discontent, a feeling that life is somehow off kilter. Is it that she misses her mother? Is that her writing does not seem to progress amidst the demands of family? Is it her husband's beautiful co-worker? Is it the constant denials of "the signals" she sees emanating from other people? Is it that her vision for her life seems clouded?

This is book about all that but not just for Ella. This book is about each of these women finding a path forward for their lives - their own bit of magic, if you will. "When we finally listen to our instincts, when we're able to listen past all the chatter in our hearts, past all the things that other people tell us, all the advice and information, everything we read or learn and everything we think we should be thinking ... right back to what we feel, deep inside our own bodies ... that, my dear, is the strongest magic of all." For each of the women - Fabia, Ella, and Bryony - this discovery takes a different direction. It becomes a choice of where to live. It becomes a choice of career. For all three, it becomes decisions about relationships. A little actual magic helps things along, but what really draws these different stories together is that for each, it becomes about making that decision for themselves.

You might ask. In the middle of all this, who is Miss Mary? Miss Mary is not actually a character in this story. Her book is. Miss Mary is described as a witch who lived centuries ago. She can to an unfortunate end at the hands of the society she lived in. Her wisdom and her spells were left behind in her book - the book of dreams. This is one of those special books that finds its way to a reader who needs it. Snippets of advice from this fictitious book find their way sprinkled throughout the story of these women.

Strong women. A bookshop. A really special book. A little big of magic. A beautiful combination for a sweet, engaging story. Definitely one for the "feel good" pile of stories.


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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Long Black Veil

Title:  Long Black Veil
Author:  Jennifer Finney Boylan
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0451496329 / 978-0451496324

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

Opening Sentence:  "This was a long time ago, before my first death, and none of us now are the people we were then."

Favorite Quote:  "There are so many things I'd like to explain. That when I was young I did not have the language to describe the workings of my own heart. That if I had it all to do over again, I would have told my truth from the beginning. That the struggle to find a connection between the people we have been and the people we become is not some crazy drama unique to people like me. It's all of us."

August, 1980. Philadelphia. A wedding. A museum. An abandoned penitentiary. Six friends - Rachel, Quentin, Tripper, Maisie, Wailer, and Casey; a younger sibling - Benny; and a teacher - Herr Krystal - go exploring the ruins of the Eastern State Penitentiary at night. Why? Who knows. It seems like a teenage prank except that this is a group of college friends the day after celebrating the wedding of two in the group. It never quite makes sense to me, and let's just say it proves to be a bad decision.

One of the group never emerges.

July 1987. The group has, for the most part, scattered, not necessarily because of the events of that night but just because that is how life goes sometimes. One of the friends makes a dramatic decision about their life, again not necessarily because of the events of that night but because it is the right choice for a life. The connection back to that fateful night is incidental at this point.

September 2015. A body is discovered at the penitentiary. Not just any body but the body of the one who disappeared all those years ago. Another member of the group is accused of murder. A friend can bear witness that the accused is not the murderer. However, that defense of a friend could cost this person their own carefully built life.

Confused yet? Me too. The book very quickly introduces many characters and the relationships between them. The same cast of characters appears in all three time periods; however, people change, and relationships shift. At the same time, the characters seem not to mature much beyond that night twenty-five years in the past. It is, at times, difficult to keep every thing straight; it is even more challenging to vest in any one character's story.

Eventually, this story is really about one member of the group. It is about coming to terms with one's own identity. It is about making the choices that are right for yourself. It is about a tough choice between the safety of self-preservation or the risk to help a friend and let the truth emerge.

The issue is that all these choices really have nothing to do with the dramatic event that begins this book. As such, the two stories compete with each other. On the one hand, this book is about an individual emotional journey of self-discovery. This is a journey about identity and about giving voice to your true identity. That by itself has the potential to be a powerful story. This is the "character" part of the book.

On the other hand, this book is about a murder mystery and about a group of friends who survive a severe trauma. As a reader, I expect that trauma to leave an impact, and the story of subsequent time periods to deal with that impact. It really does not. This is the "plot" part of this book. Unfortunately, the two do not go together, making this a challenging book for me.


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