Sunday, May 20, 2018

Surprise Me

Title:  Surprise Me
Author:  Sophie Kinsella
Publication Information:  The Dial Press. 2018. 432 pages.

ISBN:  0399592881 / 978-0399592881

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

Opening Sentence:  "I have this secret little vocabulary for my husband."

Favorite Quote:  "I think a relationship is like two stories ... Like ... two open books, pressing together, and all the words mingle into one big, epic story. But if they stop mingling ... Then they turn into two stories again. And that's when it's over ... The books shut. The End."

Sylvie and Dan have been married for ten years. Life and marriage has settled into a routine. They are happy together ... for the most part. They know each other so well ... for the most part. They have a life together that works ... for the most part. "How many divorces are caused by the word nothing? I think this would be a very interesting statistic." Nothing is wrong, but is that good enough?

Sylvie and Dan don't pose this question much until an off the cuff remark by a doctor about life spans. It sets them wondering about the same old thing over and over again for how long? So, they set out to reignite the spark and to find a way to break the routine and to, as the title suggests, surprise each other.

So begins this book with a fun premise about a question many have been fortunate enough to consider. I say "fortunate" because the question presupposes a healthy, stable relationship in which life brings ups and downs but in no which no catastrophes (a death, an illness, a family crisis) emerge to make the daily routine something to covet. Sometimes, the reminders to be grateful are gentle ones, and sometimes, the routine is jarred and shaken to its core. This book has a bit of both.

Sylvie and Dan's first attempts at surprises are funny. Let's just say not all surprises turn out to be quite what the person intend. Also amusing are Sylvie's descriptions of her work with a nonprofit; I do wish that aspect of the story was more developed. As it is, it seems more there to fill space, interesting but tangential to the main story.

However, then the book takes a serious turn. Surprises turn into secrets, unpleasant secrets. The humor in the situation is lost in the serious concerns. The secrets come from a place of love but raise questions about the trust and the equality in a relationship between two adults. What secrets do you keep to protect the one you love? What trust do you place in your loved one and their ability to handle a secret? At what point does protecting someone go too far and become a commentary on their ability to handle the truth?  The book depicts Sylvie's perspective; I am left wondering what Dan thinks about this whole escapade. His perspective would add an interesting element particularly to the  more serious side of the book.

To some extent, this book is like two different stories - the first an amusing lighthearted one and the other tackling the more serious questions of parents, children, spouses, relationships, and even mental  health. The two didn't quite flow together for me. I am a little disappointed because I wanted the lighter, amusing story about two people rediscovering what brings them together in the first place.  The caring is there through the end of the book, but the humor and "feel good" portion of the story is lost along the way.

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

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Title:  Freshwater
Author:  Akwaeke Emezi
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2017. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0802127355 / 978-0802127358

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

Opening Sentence:  "I have lived many lives inside this body."

Favorite Quote:  "Understand this if you understand nothing:  it is a powerful thing to be seen"

Freshwater is "dedicated to those of us with one foot on the other side." Is that you? Is that me? Is that all of us? Is that any of us at all? What also is the other side? The other side of what? This book poses questions before it even begins.

The question simply grow in this surreal debut novel. This story is of one women but three characters. Ada is the young woman of Nigerian heritage. Asụghara and Saint Vincent are two distinct, unique selves that also occupy Ada's body. Each one of the three characters within this one young woman by turn narrate this story of being born, growing up, of growing into yourself, and of mental health. Within this personal story also weaves a cultural one with Ada's birth and childhood in Nigeria to her education and further life in the United States.

As with most books that introduce me to a new history or a new culture, I research this to see if it is based in Nigerian mythology. I research mythology for the ideas in the book of multiple selves and of spirits competing to control a physical body are mythological in presentation.

The first piece of information I encounter in my research is on the author's website. This book is Akwaeke Emezi's debut novel and considered autobiographical. Autobiographical. That puts this entire reading experience into a new light. This surreal story is someone's reality captured in fiction. This calls for further research.

Ms. Emezi identifies as black, gender non-binary, and Nigerian. In another article, Ms. Emezi describes the surgeries she has had to align her physical body with her non-gender specific identification. Throughout, she identifies the idea of being a ogbanje. In Igbo tradition, ogbanje is a spirit born into a child with the objective of bringing grief to the family. The child dies; the ogbanje returns as another child. And again and again, the spirit comes and goes. Families attempt to stop this cycle in varying ways ranging from preventing pregnancy to mutilating a child's corpse prior to burial. So, this autobiographical fiction story has its roots in life and in belief.

This unusual reality brings me to the book itself as a reading experience. This story is challenging to follow because it is nonlinear. The "characters" all embody what happens to one individual. So, the plot such as it is centers on one person, but the story comes from three very different emotional and mental perspectives. It makes it difficult to follow the chronology of Ada's life.

To make the challenge greater, the plot follows a rather graphic story line. Self mutilation, rape, and sexual encounters are a big part of this story. At times, the book seems rather focused on sexual exploration. That focus takes over and makes the book a difficult one for me for get through.

In between, though, the book offers glimpses of the person beneath all these layers. "... I inhabit a space between depression and happiness, a sweet spot, a brilliant spot. I .... wondered if it was true. If it was, could that spot be more real than either end of that spectrum? It would be a point of perfect balance, I thought." I wish her that balance.

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Two Girls Down

Title:  Two Girls Down
Author:  Louisa Luna
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385542496 / 978-0385542494

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

Opening Sentence:  "Jamie Brandt was not a bad mother."

Favorite Quote:  "You said every day we make a million little choices, and we should try to make the right ones as much as we can. And you said rarely in life do the big choices present themselves, so when they do, we have to take advantage of the opportunity. We have to do the right thing."

This mystery uses a formula that works in many books. Max Caplan is a down and out, divorced ex-cop. He is also honest and a great father to his intelligent teenage daughter. Alice Vega is an independent enigmatic private investigator with a behind the scenes IT expert who seems able to locate any and all information.

Their paths cross in a small Pennsylvania town. Two young girls disappear from a car in a parking lot while the mother runs quickly into the store. That image conjures up a parent's nightmare. The family calls in Alice Vega from California. Research leads Vega to Max. The police want neither of them involved, but a reluctant partnership forms nevertheless between Vega and Max. The clock ticks in rapidly in the race to find the missing girls before it's too late.

For what should be an action packed book, the story seems to move rather slowly. Much of the book reads like a police procedural. A lead is identified. It is followed. Interviews are done. A new lead is identified. And so on in a methodical, meticulous approach which works to solve a mystery but needs something more to fully engage. As is common with mysteries, the book has a lot of characters. In a small town, the stories of some overlap, and some just pick up and drop off. At times, it is difficult to follow who is being talked about as conversation shift throughout the book.

The main characters are a bit more developed. Throughout, the book drop hints and clues about the back stories for Max and Vega. However, the stories are never completely developed; they leave me wishing more details were given. It would perhaps make the characters more real and more memorable. A romance between the two is also hinted at, which I don't need to see in this book. Sometimes, it should be possible for two professionals to work together and create a successful duo without venturing into romance. It is not necessary. The fact of the undeveloped back stories, the hint of a romance, and the fact that the ending statement is a promise to return leaves me thinking that a series may be planned featuring the two characters.

Interestingly, while I enjoy reading about strong, female characters, Max is the one who engages me more in this book. Perhaps, his relationship with his daughter introduces a more emotional side which becomes more appealing than Vega's aloofness. The point of Vega's toughness seems pushed too hard in the book; it does not ring true. She is a little too perfectly imperfect. Max's daughter is perhaps my favorite character in the book. She is just a little too good and too perceptive to be true. However, she adds a bit of lightness to what is a dark and heavy story.

A formula for a book becomes that for the reason that it works for the most part. This structure leads to a quick, engaging read. However, it is the books that diverge from the formula that become memorable. This one really does not. It is momentarily engaging, but ultimately forgettable.

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

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Next Year in Havana

Title:  Next Year in Havana
Author:  Chanel Cleeton
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0399586687 / 978-0399586682

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

Opening Sentence:  "'How long will we be gone?' my sister Maria asks."

Favorite Quote:  "... but the older you get, the more you learn to appreciate the moments life gives you. Getting them certainly isn't a given, and I feel blessed to have carved out a life  here where I could be happy even if it wasn't quite the happiness I envisioned, if the things I dreamed of never quite came to pass."

The title of this book is a literal wish. "As exiles, that hope is embedded in the very essence of our soul, taught from birth - 'Next year in Havana' - It's the toast we never stop saying, because the dream of it never comes true."

The tumultuous history of Cuba continues. Over the last couple of months, the world press has focused on the elections that took place in Cuba on March 11. The articles focus not on election issues but rather on the fact that for the first time in decades, the leadership of the Cuba is not in the hands of someone with the name Castro.

This book picks up on this current history and also takes it back to the beginning of the Castro regime. As often in historical fiction, this book follows the story of two individuals in two time periods. In 1959 Havana is nineteen year old Eliza Perez. Her family is Havana aristocracy, but the coming revolution puts their home and their very lives at risk. In 2017 Miami is Marisol Ferrera, the granddaughter of Eliza Perez. The only thing she knows of Cuba is through the stories of her family who left in 1959 and never went home again. Their stories are anchored in the past. "To be in exile is to have the things you love most in the world - the air you breath, the earth you walk upon - taken from you. They exist on the other side of a wall - there and not - unaltered by time and circumstance, preserved in a perfect memory in a land of dreams."

Her grandmother's dying wish brings Marisol to Havana. Her experiences there and her discovery of her grandmother's past cast all the family stories in a different light. The book traverses both time periods, looking at Cuba in both times in history and the challenges and choices that face the Cuban people.

As with books of this structure, the story one time period and one character has a stronger pull. In this case, it is definitely the story of the 1950s, not just Eliza but the entire Perez family. "We are silk and lace, and beneath them we are steel." Their relationships, their impossible choices, and the heartache of having to leave all they know makes for a compelling story.

Marisol's story draws me in less so for a few reasons. First, both time periods involve a love story. Eliza's is intense and integral to her story. Marisol's appears more a distraction and unnecessary. Statement like I "can get through a day with him as long as I focus on the sites before us and not his tanned forearms" and "the scent of his soap - clean and strong - fills my nostrils" seem out of place in what is otherwise a serious and sad tale.

Second, because Marisol is new to the reality of Cuba, those in Havana become her guides, often sounding like a history class. Luis, who becomes Marisol's partner in this journey, is in fact a history professor. The history is necessary, but at the same time, again listening to history is an entirely different experience than watching that history come to life. It reminds me of a basic school writing lesson of "show, don't tell."

Finally, that experience of living in this history is not Marisol's. The story of the past belongs to her grandmother, and the story of the present belongs to Luis and the people she meets in Havana. She sees and tells the story, but in so many ways, it is not her story. However, Eliza's story is very much hers, and it keeps me reading until the final page.

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

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Great Alone

Title:  The Great Alone
Author:  Kristin Hannah
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0312577230 / 978-0312577230

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

Opening Sentence:  "That spring, rain fell in great sweeping gusts that rattled the rooftops."

Favorite Quote:  "... home was not just a cabin in a deep woods that overlooked a placid cove. Home was a state of mind, the peace that came from being who you were and living an honest life. There was no going halfway home. She couldn't build a new life on the creaky foundation of a lie. Not again. Not for home."

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.
The Shooting of Dan McGrew
Robert W. Service

This verse written about the vast beauty of Alaska is the source of the title for this book. The other inspiration for the setting comes from Kristin Hannah's own life. Part of her life was spent in Alaska after her parents left corporate life for a different adventure in Alaska.

The flip side of the incredible beauty of Alaska is a darker side. It is a harsh environment in which to live, and potential dangers - isolation, extreme weather, wilderness - are ever present in the environment. Within that, too, lie vibrant, close knit communities of individuals who call Alaska home. "Any life that could be imagined could be lived up here."

These layers carry over into the dark and often times sad story of this book. This is the story of POW and veteran Ernt Allbright suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and its devastating effects on him and his family. This is the story of an abusive marriage and Cora, a woman who time and again makes the choice to stay. Ultimately, it is the story of Leni, the child of that marriage.

Ernt Allbright on a quick decision moves his family to Alaska, with a wish to start over. "Alaska isn't about who  you were when you headed this way. It's about who you become." Unfortunately, he brings his demons with him. Cora and Leni survive as they always have. In Alaska, though, they find beauty, friendship, and a community. The community sees the reality of their lives and is ready to help should Cora and Leni choose to accept it.

I am not going to presume to judge why Cora stays. Based on nonfiction research, I know that staying in an abusive relationship for a long period of time happens with greater frequency than we would like to imagine possible. I also know that help can often times not be given unless the individual in the situation takes the first step. Actions have to be reported. Cases have to be filed. Conversations need to be started. In this story, Cora stays, and therefore, so does Leni.

The setup and the beginning of the book is intense in the characters, the setting, the situation, and the emotion. It has a sympathetic main character to care about. The events seem frighteningly real especially narrated from Leni's perspective. Surrounding it is the ever present vast beauty and danger of Alaska.

However, as the book proceeds, it is the same characters and the same theme, but the story loses its intensity and its believability. It seems like a race to incorporate every bad thing that can happen into this one story. With a small cast of characters, it is impossible to say where this book goes without a spoiler. Let's just say that it goes too far and undermines the "reality" of the powerful setup of the book. This is one that would receive a higher rating from me had it stopped at one major turning point in the story and left the reader with that dramatic conclusion.

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

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Winter Station

Title:  The Winter Station
Author:  Jody Shields
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0316385344 / 978-0316385343

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 Andreev said two bodies had been discovered outside the Kharbin train station, the Baron had an image of the dead men sprawled against snow, frozen in positions their bodies couldn't hold in life."

Favorite Quote:  "People can be reassured by a tone of voice. By a touch. A gesture. Even if the voice and gestures are false, the innocent person meets the liar halfway to complete the lie. It's a partnership."

The setting and the unusual-for-me theme are my reasons for reading this book. The setting is a Russian-ruled city of Kharbin, a major railway outpost in Northern China. The theme is an outbreak of the plague!

Researching the city, I learn that this story has an actual historical basis. The city of Harbin in the Heilongiang province was founded in the 1800s with the coming of the railways. It played a key role in the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900s. Following the war, the city drew a diverse international population as a gateway into northeastern China. In 1910, the railway brought an outbreak of the pneumonic plague to the city. In a period of under a year, over 1,500 city residents - about five percent of the city population - died as a result. Ultimately, the plague claimed over 60,000 victims though Manchuria and Mongolia!

This story takes place in the fall of 1910 as the first victims are discovered. A lot of factors come into play as to what happens next. This region experiences bitterly cold winters; the cold and dark winter add an additional somber note to an already dark story. The city is depicted as a Russian-controlled, Chinese city. Cultural overlaps and differences add both additional complexities and conflicts as not everyone is respectful of the knowledge each culture has to lend to a solution. Different medical practises suggest different possibilities. Some are open to that; some are not. "We need all types of knowledge. Why not expand our circle of information?"

The history is fascinating. This book once again reaffirms the role historical fiction plays in introducing me to history I don't know. I find myself reading about the city and about the outbreak of the plague and about cultural interactions in the region. I end up spending more time with the history than the story itself.

The story as told in the book is less interesting - compelling in the intensity of the situation but less interesting to read. The narrator is the Baron, a Russian aristocrat and Medical Commissioner in the City. Through his eyes, the situation unfolds. Through his eyes, the reader also gets a glimpse of the culture and his respect for all the traditions he encounters. I love that respect.

That descriptive note though becomes the heart of the book. Nothing much happens in the plot itself. The book is slow-paced and sometimes seemingly repetitive. The plot essentially is the fear of contracting the plague and the desire to work to bring dignity to those who do suffer and to contain and stop the outbreak. This seems to repeat in a loop with different characters and in different social settings.

That is followed by what I feel is an abrupt and unexpected ending. I find myself turning the page to see if there is more, but there is not. The book has an ending, but no conclusion which leaves me unsatisfied as a reader. History tells us there was a conclusion; the book does not quite get there.

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Still Me

Title:  Still Me
Author:  Jojo Moyes
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0399562451 / 978-0399562457

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 the mustache that reminded me I was no longer in England:  a solid, gray millipede firmly obscuring the man's upper; a Village People mustache, a cowboy mustache, the miniature head of a broom that meant business."

Favorite Quote:  "You and I. We are both immigrants. We both know it is hard to find your place in this world. You want to make your life better, work hard in country that is not your own - you make new life, new friends, find new love. You get to become new person! But is never a simple thing, never without cost."

Still me is the third in what is now a series about Louisa Clark. Me Before You was the first sensation. Then came After You. Still Me brings Louisa Clark across the pond to New York. This is one series that really should be read in order. Each book is a continuation of the Louisa's story from the previous book. The arc of the story projects, and the characters evolve from one book to the next. Without the background of the first two books, this one will definitely be lacking.

For the sake of background, here goes a quick synopsis. In Me Before You, Louisa meets the love of her life who teaches her how to grasp life. Unfortunately, he dies. In After You, Louisa tries to deal with her grief and follow that lesson; a new life emerges. In this book, that same challenge to "live your life" brings Louisa to New York City, seeking new adventures. In particular, it brings her to a posh condo in the Lavery, which "was a scaled-down imitation of the famous Dakota building." (I love when I find random connections between the books I read!)

The first book deals with the serious issue of an individual's right to die. The second book deals with grief. This book shifts focus to a woman's journey of self-discovery and her ability to find her own voice. All three books weave the stories with compassion and humor.

This book proceeds in a more predictable fashion than the other two. As a reader, I see things - actions and decisions by other characters - coming that Louisa does not. She does seem rather innocent of the machinations going on around her. Naivete? Stupidity? Innocence? At this point, because I am engaged in Louisa's story, it doesn't really matter. I go with a sweet innocence because it makes for a sweet, feel good story.

Therein in lies the success of these books for me. They all work because the writing draws these characters and makes them come to life and makes them "real." I vest in their stories and laugh and cry along with them.

Mind you, this holds true even of the side characters and plot lines. This book wins me over because it tries to capture some of the diversity that is the heartbeat of New York City. It further captures me because one of the side stories is about book and the importance of libraries! "Books are what teach you about life. Books teach you empathy. But you can't buy books if you barely got enough to make rent. So that library is a vital resource! You shut a library, Louisa, you don't just shut down a building, you shut down hope." In the middle of Louisa's individual story, the book manages to successfully incorporate bigger societal statements.

Finally, without a spoiler, I will say I loved the ending. It is sweet and romantic, but more important, it is about a woman finding her strength and standing on her own. "The key was making sure that anyone you allowed to walk beside you didn't get to decide which you were, and pin you down a like a butterfly in a case. The key was to know that you could always somehow find a way to reinvent yourself again."

The only question that remains mirrors my thought at the end of the previous book. Is another chapter in the life of Louisa Clark yet to come?

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