Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Alternate Side

Title:  Alternate Side
Author:  Anna Quindlen
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0812996062 / 978-0812996067

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

Opening Sentence:  "'Just look at that,' Charlie Nolan said, his arm extended like that of a maître d' indicating a particularly good table."

Favorite Quote:  "When people divorced, she was often surprised, and when they stayed together, sometimes more so. She thought that people sought marriage because it meant they could put aside the mascara, the bravado, the good clothes, the company manners, and be themselves, whatever that was, not try so hard. But what that seemed to mean was that they didn't try at all. In the beginning they all spend so much time trying to know the other person, asking questions, telling stories, wanting to burrow beneath the skin. But then you married and naturally were supposed to know one another down to the ground, and so stopped asking, answering, listening."

Alternate Side is a cynical and sad commentary on marriage:

  • "It was notable because they rarely quarreled anymore. Their marriage had become like the AA prayer: 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.'"
  • "When one of you wanted one life, and the other wanted something completely different, there was a technical term for that:  irreconcilable."
  • "The truth was that their marriages were like balloons:  some went suddenly pop, but more often than not the air slowly leaked out until it was a sad, wrinkled little thing with no life to it anymore."
  • "It's actually fairly typical. What's not typical is that while many marriages run out of steam, most of them keep on going. Or at least endure, steamless."

Within a marriage, the book is a commentary on settling in life. "Nora remembered drawing in the sand of her future with a stick. What she couldn't recall was when the sand had become cement, the who-I-want-to-be turned for once and for all into who-I-am." So many of us have asked that question at some point in our lives.

The book tells this story through the marriage and life of Charlie and Nora Nolan. They both have seemingly successful careers. They appear to be happily married. They are ensconced in a clannish, small street of stately homes in New York cities. They are well off. They are parents to two twins now in college. They seem to lead a charmed life. However, unlike the relationship depicted in Miller's Valley by Anna Quindlen, the cracks in this marriage and this lifestyle are visible.

The book is a slow burn. At the beginning, I am not sure where it is going or if I even want to follow along on the journey. It is set in the world of the well-to-do; in fact, those wealthy enough to own a house on a dead end street in a lovely neighborhood in New York City. The squabbles and concerns seems small. It takes a while to realize that this book is more about the city and the characters than a plot.

Then, an incident turns this book into a discussion of prejudice and of economic and social differences. I am intrigued for the book develops into a statement, perhaps about the diversity of the city and perhaps about systemic inequities. Each character seems poised to presents a different perspective - their alternate sides, if you will - on the issue.

Then, the book turns again for it is not the incident itself but rather individual reactions that draw the differences in this book. The incident brings to the forefront differences in approach and thought that have always existed within this household and within this neighborhood. However, this book is not about one defining moment, but rather a collection of differences that come together into a bigger statement. The book comes to its main point about life and about relationships. I go from not being sure I am enjoying the book to crying by the end because the emotion creeps up on me.

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Brightest Sun

Title:  The Brightest Sun
Author:  Adrienne Benson
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  077833127X / 978-0778331278

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

Opening Sentence:  "One of the old women severed the umbilical cord and passed the tiny body, slippery and warm, up into Leona's arms."

Favorite Quote:  "The forest breathed, and its heart beat; it was a unified body that lived and moved, its cells the countless creatures and plants that made it, and the rocks and the dirt and the air."

Set in the cities and villages of Kenya, The Brightest Sun is about women, specifically about mothers and daughters. It is about three specific women and their relationship to Kenya and life in Kenya.

Leona comes to Kenya as an anthropologist to study the Masaai lifestyle and to find ways to protect it. She finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy and a daughter. It changes her entire life. "But somewhere, somewhere Leona couldn't identify or pinpoint, there was something new. Being a mother was confusing and hard."

Simi is a Masaai woman. She is a mother to many, but is physically unable to bear children. "We say that a woman who hasn't given birth is like a wilderness. A woman or a man with children to remember them can never die. But a person like me? When I am gone, nobody will remember."

Jane is an expatriate wife. Her husband and daughter are her world as she follows her husband around the world from post to post. "It's not perfect, nothing ever is. Kids arent' yours to keep, in the end ... You can't control every outcome ... We had to accept him the way he is ... It was our gift to him to finally acknowledge that. Children become themselves. You can't force an outcome just because you want to."

Surrounding them is the world of Kenya - its natural grandeur, its people, its politics, and its culture. Kenya provides the background.  "It was a Kenyan sun; the kind she loved best - the brightest sun Leona had every seen." The story is the women and their daughters. The women come to life in this beautifully rendered debut novel with its vivid imagery of the Kenyan landscape. I could visualize it to the point of almost feeling like all my other senses were immersed in the environment as well.

In the stories of these women is a discussion of motherhood - reluctant, coveted, and sometimes taken for granted. The other concept rooted in the stories of these women is the feeling of being the outsider and the need to find a place to belong. Leona, as a single white female living with the Masaai and simply living in Kenya, stands apart. Leona, to whom motherhood does not come naturally, is different. Simi, as a woman unable to bear children, is a solitary figure in a society that values fertility. Jane spends her life as an expatriate, by definition an outsider. Even their daughters are outsiders. Adia, born and raised in Kenya, has two women who both mother her and a father who is not aware of her existence; this makes her different than the children around her. Grace is used to constantly having to start over with new friendships.

The emotions - both the joys and the heartbreaks - are universal. This feeling of not fitting in and the need to belong is also a universal one. It is these emotions that make the story of these women such a compelling one.

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

Title:  Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen
Author:  Sarah Bird
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1250193168 / 978-1250193162

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

Opening Sentence:  "Here's the first thing you need to know about Miss Cathy Williams:  I am the daughter of a daughter of a queen and my mama never let me forget it."

Favorite Quote:  "You'll see what black folk won. War was the easy part, buttercup. Peace with white folks gon be a whole new war. War we be fighting alone."

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen does so many things that I love about historical fiction. It introduces me to a history I did not know. It presents the basis of a history in a readable story. It motivates me to research the actual history for I always remember the wide gap between actual history and historical fiction.

Cathy Williams was born into slavery but always taught that she was the daughter of a daughter of a queen. She was taught that she was a captive and not a slave. Those lessons came from her mother and from stories of her grandmother.

This book begins during the Civil War when Cathy is a young woman. The plantation on which Cathy lived was attacked by Union soldiers following the command of Philip Sheridan. This corps applied General Sheridan's approach of destroying the food supplies, crops, and homes of those they attacked. The logic was that destroying the infrastructure cripples the enemy from recovering and attacking. At the conclusion of the attack, Cathy was mistaken for young man and taken by the unit as an assistant to the regiment cook. The truth is discovered, but Cathy remained with the unit until the conclusion of the war.

The end of the Civil War brought a new conundrum. These former slaves were now free, but they truly had no where to go and no support system to turn to. Cathy Williams made a bold decision. She disguised herself as a man and joined the US Army under the name William Cathay. Even under false pretenses, she was the first African-American woman to enlist in the US Army. She became a member of the Buffalo Soldiers. This nickname was given to the all-Black regiments that were part of the peacetime US Army. The regiments headed west and fought in the Indian Wars. Interestingly, the US Army was not operationally integrated until the Korean War, and all combat positions were opened to women in the US armed forces only in 2016.

I won't say what the end of the story was for that is the book. Several things indicate that this book is more fiction than history. The basis of the story is true as researched. However, the research I have done does not show much detail about Cathy William's life, just scant highlights. That appears plausible for her story did not come to light until much later in her life; not many would have had reason to track the life of this one woman. Also, this book is a very personal story of a woman's life and presents both personal and romantic details that are likely not documented in history. That tone is my reminder that historical fiction is indeed not history. In addition, the characters in the story are relatively one dimenstion; the good are all good, and the bad are awful. That does not capture the dimensions of each individual.

Regardless, the book is readable. It reinforces the point that US history is comprised of the contributions of people of all races, colors, and backgrounds. It also reflects on the history of slavery, racism, and sexism. Most of all, the book brings to light an inspiring story of a courageous woman and prompts me to research and read the actual history.

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

Monday, September 10, 2018

Orchid and the Wasp

Title:  Orchid and the Wasp
Author:  Caoilinn Hughes
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1524761109 / 978-1524761103

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

Opening Sentence:  "It's our right to be virgins as often as we like, Gael told the girls surrounding her like petals round a pollen packet."

Favorite Quote:  "And that is that we have a very simple choice to make. Do we aspire to have worth and influence and risk tragedy; or do we aspire towards love and togetherness and risk that it won't have been enough. You can't have both aspirations be equally weighted."

In the botanical world, certain types of orchids and certain types of wasps have a particular relationship. The structure of many orchids resembles that of female insects; the structure attracts male insects. A hammer orchid is pollinated by a thynnid wasp. The thynnid wasp female is flightless; copulation occurs when a male carries a female to a food source. The orchid mimics the attraction of the female. The structure of of the orchid is such that pollination occurs as the wasp attempts to carry the "female" away. The wasp is unsuccessful in carrying away the "female" but pollination occurs successfully as the wasp travels to another orchid to try its luck.

What relevance does a biology lesson have to this book? Maybe none at all. However, with such a title, I assume symbolism, and that has been confirmed in interviews by the author. The question is whether the main character is the orchid or the wasp. The further question is does it matter since both in this case seem to benefit from this interaction. Both use the other for their own purposes.

This book like many others is about a family. The father is in finance; he abandons his family and leaves them to fend for themselves. The mother is a well-known orchestra conductor but not much of a nurturer of her children. Both parents are busy living their own lives and are simply neglectful of their children. The son Guthrie thinks he is an epileptic but in actuality suffers from delusions; he is also an artist. Then, there is the daughter Gael Foess. She is the conniving hustler and the opportunist; she is an unapologetic young woman and sexual being. She is the heroine - or rather the anti-hero - of this debut novel.

The opening chapter of the book has two scenes that stand out more than the rest of the book. The book opens as Gael is trying to convince girls in her school of how they can be sexually active and yet still appear to be virgins. She is hustling a product. Later in the chapter, Gael watches her father masturbate in the shower; they then proceed to have a conversation as he cleans himself up and dries himself off. Gael is a teenager at this point.

From there, the book travels with Gael until she is in her twenties. It goes from Dublin to London to New York. It depicts her pulling away from and towards and away from and towards her family. That cycle I do understand. Our families, dysfunctional or otherwise, are our families whether it's love, approval, acceptance, acknowledgement, or redemption we seek. So it is with Gael

I love strong female characters, and unlikable main characters sometimes make for the best stories. Unfortunately, in this case, that graphic and unpleasant opening image sets a tone that I cannot get past. I need a connection to develop to envision the opening in another light. Unfortunately, that connection never develops. I am left wishing I could unsee that opening.

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

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Quiet Side of Passion

Title:  The Quiet Side of Passion
Author:  Alexander McCall Smith
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0307908968 / 978-0307908964

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

Opening Sentence:  "'Gossip?' asked Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher, wife, mother, and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics."

Favorite Quote:  "People who said they were the last person to do anything were usually confessing to something of which they were ashamed - to some flaw. Although not always - some people were the last people to claim to be the last people..."

Confession:  Alexander McAll Smith is an author who has long been on my to read list, but this is the first book I have actually read by him. He is the author of many series including the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Isabel Dalhousie / the Sunday Philosophy Club series.

This book is the twelfth and latest installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series set in Edinburgh, Scotland. It's probably not the best idea to start mid-series, but my understanding is that the books can stand alone. So, this book becomes my introduction to the author, and starting in this manner, I am sure, impacts my reaction to it.

Isabel Dalhousie is in her forties. She is independently wealthy. She is married to a bassoonist; he also happens to be her niece's ex-boyfriend. They have two sons. She works at her leisure as the editor of an obscure publication called the Review of Applied Ethics. (Aside:  Because I wanted to know, I looked it up. Applied Ethics is the application of ethical constructs and theories to a particular field, for example, bioethics, environmental ethics, and business ethics. The question I am left with. What is the purpose of ethics if not to apply them?)

Despite financial security, a husband who shares household responsibilities, a housekeeper, and a job done at her leisure, Isabel seems to have no time for herself. In this book, this results in the hiring of an au pair and an assistant. Yet, somehow, that seems to make things worse and not better.

The plot of this book is about the mother of the friend of one of Isabel's boys. What starts as an attempt to help a single mother turns into the mystery and intrigue of this book. The book is not truly a mystery though just a situation in which Isabel gets involved and feels compelled to fix. However, the plot of this book is almost incidental to the characters, primarily to the character of Isabel.

Unfortunately, I find the character of Isabel Dalhousie very difficult to relate to. Her lifestyle and her complaints about having no time are at time just annoying. First world problems, if you will. She seems to get involved in a lot of things, many of which are really none of her business. Her interference at times is unkind.

To me, she also comes across as somewhat spoiled and somewhat of a pontificating busybody. Her reflections, which seem to comprise most of the book, cover a realm of topics and often seem to go off on tangents. The book seems to have a lot of sub stories, some of which remain unresolved.

Perhaps, starting mid series was not a good idea. Perhaps, this was not the Alexander McCall Smith series to begin with. It was not quite the introduction to the author that I was hoping for, but perhaps, I will give a different book a try. This one was unfortunately not for me.

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

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Story of a Marriage

Title:  The Story of a Marriage
Author:  Geir Gullliksen
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 160 pages.
ISBN:  1524759678 / 978-1524759674

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

Opening Sentence:  "Tell me about us."

Favorite Quote:  "All we could do now was to find a way to leave each other, quietly and in a civilised manner and with a sort of tender affection."

What happens when a marriage breaks up? Do you go back to the beginning and analyze every piece and every point? Do you dwell in that sadness for a while to try and understand? If your spouse is leaving for a new love, do you want to know every detail of this new relationship to try and understand? Do you look at it from the other person's perspective to try and understand?

The answer for Jon is yes as it was for the main character in Long Players. Unfortunately, neither book is the really the story of a relationship. They are both rather the musings of a man wallowing in the tragedy of a breakup. Jon, in his effort to understand, tries to see it from his wife perspective and also the perspective of the other man.

Jon and Timmy have a relationship and marriage that has lasted for many years.  They have both progressed in their careers and built a life and a family together. They think they have been happy together. Timmy is a doctor and the primary earner; Jon is a writer and the primary caretaker of home and children. The very basis of their relationship, sadly, is in a betrayal. They meet when Timmy, a doctor, treats Jon's child in a health clinic. Their marriage starts from an ending.

They have what is termed a "modern" marriage. For them, it means that they are both free to "explore" beyond their relationship and in fact share those explorations with each other. That is, until Timmy finds herself get more and more involved with someone new; exploration evolves into a relationship. All of a sudden (or perhaps it was coming all along), Jon and Timmy find themselves at the crossroads of a breakup.

What should be a story of emotion and reflection unfortunately for me is not. The book description purports a discussion of gender roles, relationships, and a larger philosophical statement. At the end, I am unsure what exactly this slim volume attempts. What stands out unfortunately is the explicit, sexual scenes which I don't need or enjoy in a novel. A relationship that should be about emotional connection and intimacy becomes relegated to instances of physical contact.

Accompanying these scenes are other descriptions of the minute details of appearance and attire. What stands out most from these descriptions is that Timmy is a runner; a lot of time is spent getting ready to run, running, and then recovering from running. Again, the emotional gives way to the physical details. Perhaps, Jon thinks the answers are to be found in these mundane details? Truly, they are not. The emotional connection for me is missing in this book. It does not become clear in the relationship, and it does not convey itself to this reader.

At the end, I am not even sure my interpretation of the mechanics of the story are correct. I am left with general sadness and much confusion. Perhaps, something is lost in translation. I just don't get it.

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

I Was Anastasia

Title:  I Was Anastasia
Author:  Ariel Lawhon
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0385541694 / 978-0385541695

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

Opening Sentence:  "If I tell you what happened that night in Ekaterinburg I will have to unwind my memory - all the twisted coils - and lay it in your palm."

Favorite Quote:  "When you've lived as long as I have you take each day at a time. I've not settled on any firm plan."

The story of Anna Anderson is known history. The mystery of what happened to Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, the youngest child of the Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra has long been solved. The story began with the 1918 execution of the Romanovs by communist revolutionaries. Anastasia's story eventually found a resolution in 2007. For decades, the mystery remained, and many offered solutions. Many claimed to be Anastasia. Of these, Anna Anderson is perhaps the most famous. Many books, movies, and theatrical productions, including one currently on Broadway, have told the story.

That being said, many of the stories are beautifully told. Knowing a history does not make reading a story of that history any less engaging or entertaining. This book, however, bills itself as a book of "historical suspense". Unfortunately, because the history is known - or rather because I know the history, the suspense in this book appears manufactured. Perhaps, that is my shortcoming as a reader who knows the history; my reaction may have been different had I not. Unfortunately, for me, the suspense does not ring true. I would have preferred emotion to suspense.

A big reason this book does not work for me is the circular structure. It weaves through several different time periods in several different locations. In fact, the book summary bills it as "a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents." First of all, that becomes confusing especially with abrupt jumps within the same chapter; even paying attention to the dates at the beginning of sections, I was at times lost. Secondly, the time periods and locations are sometimes so different that the jump is jarring. Third, some characters carry from time period to time period and some don't, making the trajectory of relationships at times hard to track. Finally, such a structure runs the risk of breaking the emotional connection with a story, and unfortunately, for me, that is what happens. This story has been told many times for a simple reason - it captures the imagination; it does not really need the embellishment of such literary techniques.

The story of Anna Anderson itself is a fascinating one. Unfortunately, this book does not really delve into the psychological reasoning of her actions and their consequences. It is an interesting take away in a book wholly centered on Anastasia/Anna and in which parts are told in her voice - a first person narrative. The opening and the closing of the book in fact are her addressing the reader directly. At the beginning, it is intriguing pulling the reader in. The tone of the book then goes in a different direction, only to pull back to that personal note at the very end. At the end of a circular three hundred and fifty some pages, that tone is somewhat patronizing and sadly annoying.

I would love to hear the perspective of a reader not familiar with the history. Perhaps, the fault lies with me, and I am simply not the reader for this book.

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

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Italian Party

Title:  The Italian Party
Author:  Christina Lynch
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1250147832 / 978-1250147837

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

Opening Sentence:  "Newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Michael Messina drove down the Via Cassia from Florence, he at the wheel, she with the map."

Favorite Quote:  "She began to realize that most of what we say in the follows predictable patterns. We use the same phrasings for asking for things, for talking about the weather, for expressing sympathy, for expressing affection. There are scripts we follow without even thinking about it. She wasn't learning the language word by word; she was learning it by living it."

The Italian Party is a book that tries to define itself within its own text. "Sometimes Michael felt like he was not an intelligence officer for a superpower locked in a cold war that could lead to nuclear destruction, but instead had written himself into a screwball comedy about rich people's hijinks, like My man Godfrey or Bringing up Baby. The Italian Party."

Newlyweds Michael and Scottie arrive in Siena in 1956, as Italy is still recovering and trying to move on from the effects of World War II. After a quick courtship and wedding, they are still getting to know each other. Both have their secrets and their own reasons for the wedding. Regardless, they are prepared to make a go of it. Michael's job brings him a grand vision of saving the world from communism. Scottie comes along for the ride.

 Along the way, they meet a whole cast of American and Italian characters. They also realize that their story is a very small part of grander machinations at play. The book tumbles through both their getting to know each other and getting to know Italy and perhaps most of all, acknowledge who they are themselves.

The broader story offers a commentary on America's role in the world particularly in that era. "They were arriving in Siena as part of a wave of missionaries bringing the American way of life to what they were certain would be a grateful populace." The reality they discover is, not surprisingly, quite different from what they imagine. At the same time, the broader story encompasses life in Italy, some real and some as a stereotype might image. It also transports the reader back into the Cold War era of espionage.

The narrower story of Michael and Scottie is the story of a marriage and of two people who must still grow into and own who they are as individuals. Certain big lies are at the foundation of this relationship. "That was what she had been taught. That was what he believed she had learned." The subtle difference between those two thoughts creates a huge divide. The question becomes if they can grow and mature and still create something real and true out of those lies. The issue for me is that their story fails to draw me in emotionally. I don't invest in the two characters enough to really care where their story ends up.

Perhaps, the biggest reason is that throughout the book, I am unsure if this is satirical comedy or a serious story. This applies to both the broader story and to Michael and Scotti's story. The setup of Cold War threats imply a seriousness; Michael's bumbling almost childish attempts at espionage portray a comic character. Scottie's appearance of immersing herself into the local culture imply a thoughtful look at that culture; her frequent return to memories of the United States and her obsession with horses pull away from that theme. At the end, I am somewhat entertained but somewhat confused as to what the book is really about.

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Mermaid

Title:  The Mermaid
Author:  Christina Henry
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399584048 / 978-0399584046

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

Opening Sentence:  "Once there was a fisherman, a lonely man who lived on a cold and rocky coast and was never able to convince any woman to come away and live in that forbidding place with him."

Favorite Quote:  "I don't belong to you ... You thought if I married you that I would, but I don't. I don't belong to any man ... I only belong to myself. But belonging to myself doesn't mean I don't love you or that I don't want to stand beside you."

The book is interesting in its use of historic characters and stories. This books centers on PT Barnum and the Feejee (Fiji) mermaid exhibit in his museum in New York. The exhibit was the torso and head of a monkey sewn onto the back half of a fin. The hoax sold was that this was a mermaid captured around the Fiji Islands in South Pacific. The controversial exhibit was supposedly lost in one of the many fires at the museum.

The author's note to this book acknowledges the story and its inspiration for this book. However, the author clearly states that both the legend of the Fiji mermaid and the character of PT Barnum has been fictionalized and depicted in a way that suits the story the author is trying to tell. It has no relevance to the actual historical rendition.

This book imagines what if the mermaid was real? Amelia is a mermaid, an actual mermaid. A love brings her to a small fishing community. Loss and a new beginning brings her to the world.

The first part of this book reads like a magical fairy tale. A fisherman captures a mermaid but lets her go. The mermaid responds to the loneliness of the fisherman and returns. She takes a human form, and the two for an idyllic bubble with the small community in which the fisherman lives. Even the community comes to accept the mermaid and guard her secret.

Then, things change. With a goal to be adventurous and embrace life, Amelia leaves her quiet home for the hustle and bustle of New York City and beyond. She becomes part of the curiosities exhibited by PT Barnum. This decisions brings Amelia travels and new relationships. It also brings fear and ridicule in a way she could not have imagined. Throughout it brings a conflict between PT Barnum's focus on business and money and Amelia's attempt to protect her own interest. She is pretty savvy for a mermaid who has led a very secluded life.

In this way, the remainder of the book changes from the magical fairy tale into a conversation about human beliefs and actions in the names of those beliefs. "Belief was more dangerous than all the tale-telling in all the pubs of the world. Humans, Amelia knew, would do anything for belief. They would proselytize from the highest mountain for belief. They would collect like-minded people and form mobs for belief. They would kill one another for belief."

In doing so, the book unfortunately loses its magic and brings the reader back to the very human world of money, business deals, religious diatribes, and sadly even violence. The latter part of the book also introduces a new love story which I find to not really developed and not necessary. I have greater appreciation for Amelia finding her own way in the world.

I enjoy the character of Amelia and her perspective of the world. I also enjoy the other female characters in the book. The book touches on the independence in women but just barely. "Women who did what they liked instead of what other people wished were often accused of witchcraft, because only a witch could be so defiant, or so it was thought."

So, an interesting premise, a magical beginning, and a story that for me does not find its way back to that magic.

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

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Place for Us

Title:  A Place for Us
Author:  Fatima Farheen Mirza
Publication Information:  SJP for Hogarth. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1524763551 / 978-1524763558

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

Opening Sentence:  "As Amar watched the hall fill with guests arriving for his sister's wedding, he promised himself he would stay."

Favorite Quote:  "But what I have never told any of you, never even explored within myself, is that it has been a habit, my faith, a way of living I never questioned, and once you three were born it was for you all that I adhered to it as I did. I wanted you three to grow with an awareness of God, and with that order and compass and comfort it provides, safe from dangers I could not imagine and I could not protect you from."

A Place for Us is the story of a family and the struggle between generations as children make choices that seem foreign to the parents. This book is unique for two reason - its publication and the cultural context in which it sets the story.

This book is the first novel for the SJP for Hogarth imprint, a joint endeavor between actress Sarah Jessica Parker and Molly Stern, Publisher of Crown and Hogarth. The goal is for the imprint to publish books that Ms. Parker acquires and that reflect her reading tastes. She also is the guiding vision for the editorial process. This book is also the debut novel for the author.

The cultural context of the book is its other unique feature. The family at the heart of the story is an Indian American Muslim immigrant family. The book is about the process of assimilation that immigrant families go through down the generations. Rafiq and Layla are from India. For their children, India is the land of their parents. They straddle both cultures much more so than their parents are able to. This cultural conversation adds to the already existing divide between generations in any given culture.

The plot of this book centers on the wedding Haadia, one of Rafiq and Layla's children. The wedding and Haadia's request brings home her brother, Amar who has long been estranged from the family. In between is Huda, the almost invisible middle child. The history of this family collectively and each family member's secrets come to light as the book weaves memories and flashbacks through different time period over the the course of the wedding.

The story of the book is not unusual - in life or in books. Parents have expectations and plans. Children have dreams and desires. The two often don't match. They result in conflict even though love may exist on all sides. Where conversation and respect exist, the family members find a way. Otherwise, estrangement occurs, and words are said that cannot be taken back.

What I find challenging about the book is the timeline. The book bounces back and forth to different periods of time in the family's life sometimes with no warning. It takes a while to straighten out what occurs when in a more linear fashion. It makes the book difficult to follow at times.

What I appreciate most about this book is that it writes about an Indian American Muslim family not as a statement on the American diaspora, not as a depiction of the immigrant experience, not as an overt statement of diversity but just as a family like thousands of others that are part of the fabric of America. This nation is a melting pot with diverse traditions reflecting the diverse backgrounds of our immigrants. Yet, at the end of the day, parents, children, and families face so many of the same challenges and struggles no matter what the cultural background. It seems obvious when stated, but so often, as readers and as people, we look for the differences rather than the commonalities. So, kudos to SJP for Hogarth and Ms. Mirza for presenting a family as a family not as a political statement. That is the beauty of my America. There is indeed a place for all of us.

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Long Players

Title:  Long Players:  A Love Story in Eighteen Songs
Author:  Peter Coviello
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2018. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0143132334 / 978-0143132332

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 must have been in the eighth or ninth song."

Favorite Quote:  "Songs are not guidebooks, any more than novels. They do not offer instruction in how to live a life - unless your life impressively more dramatic than my own. but they are for many of us where we encounter possibilities, inferences, angles of blossoming though, that for whatever reason come to be accessible to us in no other human way."

The subtitle of this book states that it is "a love story in eighteen songs." With that and the cassette tape on the cover, I expect the book to be about music or at least feature a lot of music. Combine that with the fact that this book is about a man writing about being blindsided by a divorce and his resulting alienation from all he thought was his life, including  his two stepdaughters. I now expect an emotional book about grief and recovery and the ability to music and songs to say what we are unable to sometimes find the words to say.

That I relate to. I am a listener - not maker - of music. I haven't had mix tapes in a long time, but I capture the same thought now through playlists. One to match every mood. I have songs that I return to time and again because they are the soundtrack of my life. This book so sounds like it is for me.

Unfortunately, in reading it, I find that I am not the reader for this book. The vision I had upon reading the description is not the vision I end with. This occurs for three reasons.

First, the book is based on grief and the devastation of an unexpected end to a relationship. Other books and other authors have written about grief arising from different sources. Typically, the book is the author's journey through grief leading to a growth, a change, and possibly a new beginning. In this book, sadly I do not see the evolution. It begins and end with that grief. Unfortunately, almost 300 pages of that after a while just sounds repetitive and self-pitying. I don't mean to undermine his experience or the extent of his sadness; I just don't need to read about it again and again. I want there to be an answer or a change or life beyond the sadness, but unfortunately, that never comes.

Second, for me, the writing style of the book is a challenge. The author is a professor of English and has the word range to prove it. I am all for literary style and an extensive vocabulary, but then again, I I do not need the reminder that the author is an English professor. Most times, for me, strong emotions - as his are - simply conveyed are powerful; they don't need the embellishment of vocabulary.

Third, despite its title and the cover art, the book seems only tangentially about music and its power to heal. Music here more triggers memories, but that is different from the restorative power of music. Perhaps, the music gets lost in the journal like, self-pitying tone of the book. Perhaps, it's just not there. Either way, having read it, I cannot recall any of the more than eighteen songs nor was I inspired to find and listen to the tracks.

I wish the author well in dealing with his grief. I hope that music does help as it does for so many.

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

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Recipe Box

Title:  The Recipe Box
Author:  Viola Shipman
Publication Information:  Thomas Dunne Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1250146771 / 978-1250146779

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

Opening Sentence:  "Alice washed her hands in the kitchen sink, looked out the window, and smiled."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is divided into shadow and light ... You can see it either way, based on your own perspective ... Based on your own light level."

Sometimes, I just need a feel good book that reminds me of the priorities in life and the bonds of family. This is one of those books. Since I love to cook, an added bonus is the fact that it is also a foodie book centered around a recipe box passed down from generation to generation.

The plot of the book is a simple and predictable one. Samantha "Sam" Mullin grows up in a strong and loving family with multiple generations on her family farm in northern Michigan. As is often the case, her struggle is the pull of family tradition and a need to define herself separately and distinctly from that heritage. So, she leaves the family business to seek education and a career as a chef . Circumstances come together to bring her home again. Part of Sam's story, as you might expect, is a love story - sweet and predictable.

Surrounding Sam's story is the story of the recipe box and the generations of strong women who have both contributed to and worked with the recipes in the box. The book weaves in their stories and their choices through vignettes and flashbacks. These women's are both Sam's anchors and the ones who give her courage to find her own path. As the author's note states, "The book is a tribute to our elders, especially the women in our lives whose voices were often overlooked in their lifetimes."

Anchoring each section of the book is a recipe from the recipe box with smells and flavors that rise up from the page. The recipes include apple crisp, peach-blueberry slab pie, cider donuts, cherry chip cake, triple berry galette, thumbprint cookies, ice cream sandwiches with maple spice chocolate chip cherry chunk cookies, the perfect pie crust, strawberry shortcakes, rhubarb sour cream coffee cake, apple and cherry turnovers, and pumpkin bars wit cream cheese frosting. All are made with farm fresh ingredients of course. The recipes do not tie exactly to what may be found on a farm in Michigan at that time of year, but that does not really matter. The recipes sound delicious!

Now, the practical stuff. The story is predictable. The life advice is full of cliche reminders. Certain themes - family, history, choices, regrets, joy, relationships - repeat again and again throughout the book:

  • "Life's an adventure ... You have to keep your eyes open or you'll miss it."
  • "Love isn't a game in which you give up control. It's a partnership."
  • "Only you can decide what makes you happy."
  • "There's always beauty to be found."
  • "I need to be grateful for the simplest of things."
  • "But don't live with regret, sweetheart."
  • "We are who we are based on the history and sacrifices of all those who came before us."

Regardless, the book works because sometimes we all need those reminders. At least I do.

Also, the images of the Michigan countryside are serene. The idea of history and continuity passed through generations of strong women is an appealing one. Recipes and gatherings of family and friends conjure up cozy images of a warm hearth. Mind you, there are hints of seriousness with harvests lost, crops destroyed, and even the challenges faced by migrant workers. However, the heart of the story is a sweet, simple, feel good tale perfect for a summer beach read (or really a cozy fall read with cup of cider and a baked goodie in hand!).

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

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Melody

Title:  The Melody
Author:  Jim Crace
Publication Information:  Nan A. Talese. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0385543719 / 978-0385543712

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was not unusual for Alfred Busi - Mister Al - to wake up in the shallows of the night and overheard a cacophony of animals, hunting for food in his and his neighbors' metal rubbish bins or drinking water from the open drain, water that the residents had used to clean their teeth or wash their clothes and dishes."

Favorite Quote:  "Death does not tidy up or sweep as it departs. We all of us leave traces other than the ashes and the bones. "

I am not entirely sure what this book was about exactly; I do not understand it. Several threads of stories carry along, but for me, they don't come together, and they don't seem to individually conclude either. I am still looking for the connections and the main idea.

Alfred Busi is an old man, a widower still living in the villa he shared with his wife. He is a musician, but now performs only for small events in his local community. This description predicts a story of a curmudgeonly and older character, perhaps reflecting on life or finding that a new beginning can be found even now as many other current books have shown. The book does include thoughts of his wife, a determination to stay in his home, and flashbacks of childhood. However, I don't seem to know him any better at the end of the book than I do at the beginning. The book begins with sad and eccentric and ends there as well.

The first page of the book talks about Alfred's fear or and fascination by the things that go bump in the night. He watches creatures eat from the rubbish bins and keeps a record. Towards the beginning of the book, he is attacked in his own kitchen by one such creature. Is is a ghoul? Is it an animal? Is it a naked, feral child as Alfred thinks? A lot of time is spent on this attack and Alfred's interpretations. The book has flashbacks to other encounters in Alfred's childhood. Yet, who or what this creature is or its significance to the story is never completely resolved. A second attack on Alfred occurs later in the book, but it seems entirely unrelated to this story line.

The first few pages of the book also confirm Alfred's love for his house for it is a physical manifestation of his life. His home is one of the few remaining villas on this seaside promenade in this unnamed town. Others have sold to developers. "The offers from housing factors, architects and agents - none of whom had any desire to live in the villa and enjoy it, but only plans to knock it down and built - were delivered to the door in stiffly embossed enveloped, but most left unread." This is a town in the middle of a destruction or a revival depending on your perspective. From Alfred's perspective, his house is home, and it is a link to his wife. Age and other factors though impact his ability to stay. However, this conflict too is not fully addressed or resolved; it simmers along.

Finally, the last section of the book switches narrators. The switch is not explained, and neither is the connection between the new narrator and the story. It is a marked and abrupt switch and begs the questions who and why? It leaves me a little confused at the end. The only thing I am sure of is that I clearly missed something in this book.

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

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Small Country

Title:  Small Country
Author:  Gaël Faye
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 192 pages.
ISBN:  1524759872 / 978-1524759872

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

Opening Sentence:  "I don't really know how this story began."

Favorite Quote:  "Not one of them fails to ask me the same loaded question ... 'So, where are you from?' A question as mundane as it is predictable. It feels like an obligatory rite-of-passage, before the relationship can develop any further. My skin - the colour of caramel - must explain itself by offering up its pedigree. 'I'm a human being' My answer rankles with them. Not that I'm trying to be provocative. Any more than I want to appear pedantic or philosophical. But when I was just knee-high to a locust, I had already made up my mind never to define myself again."

The "small country" referenced in the title is Burundi in the 1990s. Burundi is a small land-locked nation in Africa, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The city of Bujumbura is the capital. The country's three main ethnic groups are the Twa, the Hutu, and the Tutsi.  Struggle between the ethnic groups have unfortunately long been part of the region's history. In 1993, an election lead to an assassination which in turn led to genocide. The result was years of violence and an estimated 300,000 victims. This is the historical context of this book.

Interestingly, this book is a novel but reads very much like a memoir. To a great extent, the story line seems to parallel Gaël Faye life. Gaël Faye is a rapper, singer, and writer. He was born in 1982 in Bujumbura, Burundi. His mother was Rwandan, and his father was French. In 1995, after the outbreak of civil war, he fled to France where he spent the remainder of childhood.

The book begins with the main character Gabriel as a young man in France reflecting on his childhood. It then proceeds to ten year old Gabriel, the son of a Rwandan mother and a French father, growing up in Bujumbura. The book describes an idyllic childhood that descends into the atrocities of war up to the necessity to flee. The story then cycles back to the older, although still young, man.

The parallels are clearly there. This may not be completely the author's own life, but is heavily based in that reality. A statement is clearly made. "I'm neither Hutu nor Tutsi ... Those are not my stories. You're my friends because I love you, not because you're from this or that ethnic group. I don't want anything to do with all that!"

This story, to some extent, is like reading two different books. Most of the book sets up Gabriel's childhood; the story reads like a coming of age story of a young boy. There are tales of friendships, of playing in the street, grabbing fruit off of trees, riding bikes, and even of childhood arguments. Then arrives the brutal story of war, genocide, and its innocent victims. Even for such a short book, the first component becomes a very long lead up to what felt like the real story. Hints are dropped and I know what is coming, but the wait seems long.

The second part is the story I was expecting from the book, but the depiction seems a little rushed. Perhaps, however, that is the story of itself. It goes from leisurely childhood days to a frantic fear and a struggle for survival. Innocence is lost, and all the realities of the world come rushing in. The ending surprised me, and I am left with the question if that too parallels Gaël Faye's own life.

Sadly, the need exists for another book that yet again documents the cruelty of mankind against itself. I still hope that one day it will not. Meanwhile, we as readers count on writers and journalists to give voice to the history all around us.

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Mirage Factory

Title:  The Mirage Factory:  Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles
Author:  Gary Krist
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0451496388 / 978-0451496386

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 gatehouse blew shortly after one a.m. - a powerful blast that ricocheeted off the wall of mountains to the west and resounded across the dark, lonely valley."

Favorite Quote:  "That this megalopolis had grown up in such an unlikely place was, in retrospect, little short of miraculous - a bravura act of self-invention reooted in a culture of titanic engineeing and cunning artifice. Beginning with its conjuring of an oasis in the desert, an achievement itself made possible only through a campaign of deception and elusive intentions, the city had attracted the population it needed by selling another mirage:  a lifestyle image of leisure, health, easy prosperity, adn spiritual fulfillment, all in a a place where it never rains or turns cold."

Say the city name Los Angeles and it conjures up an image. Sunny days. Beautiful beaches. Crowded streets of a buzzing metropolis. The glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Hillside homes of the rich and famous. What it does not conjure is the image with which this book begins. "Little more than a century ago, the southern coast of California—bone-dry, harbor-less, isolated by deserts and mountain ranges—seemed destined to remain scrappy farmland."

This book follows the history of the city from 1900 to 1930, during which time the population grew from about 100,000 to over 1 million. More than that, it follows the contributions of three individulas who were instrumental in that growth:
  • William Mulholland — The Engineer — engineered a marvel and brought fresh water to a basin bounded by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. The Los Angeles Aqueduct   is over 200 miles long and brings fresh water from the Owens River in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to Los Angeles.
  • D. W. Griffith — The Artist — is considered a pioneer of modern cinema. He was in fact one fo the founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Oscars). The cinematic techniques he introduced changed the industry and the future of Hollywood and hence Los Angeles.
  • Aimee Semple McPherson — The Evangelist — came to Los Angeles because of a vision. Sister Annie, as she was known, established The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, an evangelical Pentecostal Christian denomination commonly referred to as the Foursquare Church. She is also credited for building the first megachurch in the country and for mobilizing followers and contributers through the use of the media.
What makes this story - and it is a story - more fascinating is the flawed and checkered history of these three individuals. William Mulholland's career ended when a dam he inspected and cleared failed. D. W. Griffith was known for and ostracized by many for the racist content of his films. Aimee McPherson was accused of fabricating her own kidnapping. It is these individuals that give this history its Hollywood flair. Despite their failures, these individuals left an indelible imprint on the city. "By the mid-twentieth century, then, the Artist, the Evangelis, and the Engineer were all gone from the scene, but the marks they had left were evident everywhere."

Because of the colorful facts of this history and the storytelling style of the writing, this book makes a quick read. Don't get me wrong. The research and the factual details are all meticulously presented. They are simply packaged in an easy to read narrative.

A note about this reader: I am not from Los Angeles but have visited. I don't have a particular interest in Los Angeles history but rather an interest in history overall. Until this book, I was not familiar with this aspect of history. I don't know if it is because of these reasons or despite these reasons that I found myself a receptive audience for this book.

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Tin Man

Title:  Tin Man
Author:  Sarah Winman
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0735218722 / 978-0735218727

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

Opening Sentence:  "All Dora Judd ever told anyone about that night three weeks before Christmas was that she won the painting in a raffle"

Favorite Quote:  "And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth."

Two young boys meet by circumstance at the age of twelve. They become the best of friends drawn together by loneliness and grief. Choices of one drive them apart. Fast forward several years. One is married, and the other has seemingly disappeared. The rest of the book is a tortured look at that friendship and what it meant. As the book description states, "This is almost a love story. But it's not as simple as that."

To me, it is more than that. It is one man's search for his own identity. He questions it once as a young man, putting his love at risk. He questions it again years later, again risking his love and this time also his marriage.

Michael. Ellis. Annie.  A pair. A trio. A couple. A triangle. At different points in their lives, they are all these things. There is a permeating love in all the variations of these relationships, and there is an overwhelming sense of sadness and melancholy.

The writing style clearly lends itself to that tone. It is more poetic than narrative. Some things it describes in great details; I am not a fan of graphic sexual descriptions. Some things it leaves completely unexplored. For example, the first chapter is about a woman, an abusive marriage, and a painting as a statement of freedom. It intrigues me, and I want to know if the woman will exert her freedom further. Yet, the book is not about the woman, the painting, or that statement. In fact, the book does not go back to that at all.

Similarly, Michael, Ellis, and Annie's story is presented as points on a map. I don't mind things being left to the reader's imagination, but in this case, the gaps are so wide that I don't really get a sense of them as individuals. That is truly surprising since part of the book is narrated as a first person journal. It is even more surprising that some of those descriptions deal with harrowing experiences during the AIDS epidemic. It should be intense and emotional, but for me, it just always seems at a far distance.

The clear dichotomy between the first half and the second half perhaps adds to the that feeling of distance as does the fact that the book focuses more on descriptions, telling not showing the story. Perhaps, that distance is a deliberate choice given the choice of the title; after all, the tin man in The Wizard of Oz thought he had no heart. Of course, the title could simply be a reference to the profession of one of the men, but somehow, I think not. Unfortunately, deliberate or not, it makes for a challenging reading experience.

I understand the angst that is at the heart of this book, but, for me, it needs to be grounded in a story about people who become real. That is what makes me care. This book feels more like reading a conceptual tale about relationships than a story that comes to life.

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