Saturday, June 30, 2018

Bella Figura

Title:  Bella Figura:  How to Live, Love, and Eat the Italian Way
Author:  Kamin Mohammadi
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0385354010 / 978-0385354011

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

Opening Sentence:  "She walks down the street with a swing in her step and a lift to her head."

Favorite Quote:  "Contentment is probably consumerism's biggest enemy."

Bella Figura is a memoir of a woman's recovery from loss and her redefinition of herself  in a trip to Italy. Kamin Mohammdi is a British author who was born in Iran and left the country during the Iranian Revolution. Her previous work celebrates that heritage and her life in her adopted homeland of Britain. Ten years ago, life brought her to Florence Italy. She now lives and works in the Tuscany region on Italy.

Her work has been appeared in a wide range of publications from the Financial Times to Condé Nast Traveller to Men's Health to the Sunday Times of India. Beyond writing, her work includes running a Tuscan olive grove, producing small batch olive oil, creating and selling olive oil based skin care, teaching yoga, practicing Reiki healing and massage therapy, and hosting workshops and tours based around this book. In other words, she has a fascinating and varied background, one I want to read about.

This book focuses on a period of time when personal heartbreak leads her to Florence, Italy to heal. Mind you, she has the financial resources to do so and a friend with a home to lend her. Through the book, she defines what the idea of bella figura means:

  • "The concept of bella figura is about making every aspect of life as beautiful as it can be, whether in Rome, London, New York, or Vancouver."
  • "But it's more about taking care, of speaking beautiful words, being beautiful to yourself, even in private."
  • "Waiting for a party or a man to make you take care of yourself is bullshit. Make la bella figura and make it for yourself. Is not hard."

The advice is sound. Make life beautiful. Make it beautiful for yourself wherever you are. It is an idea that begins on the inside. You carry it with you. I wholeheartedly agree.

So, an author whose experiences I want to read about and a premise I agree with should set up for a moving reading experience. I expect an intersection between memoir, travelogue, and self-help. It is that to an extent with the added bonus of recipes with each chapter although the recipes are not really an integral part of the book. Near the end is also a "how to" on bella figura; again, that too seems simply added on and not necessary to the story actually told in the book. Beyond that unfortunately, for me, the majority of content of the book goes in an entirely different direction.

The bulk of the book seems to be about her dating adventures in Italy and the differences in the dating culture in Italy. To make matters worse, one of the relationships described is an unhealthy one, but for a long while, it persists. This focus in a book about personal development and finding your own joy in life seems to lead away from the concept of bella figura. I am still fascinated by the author and will likely look for her other work; this one was just not for me.

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

Thursday, June 28, 2018


Title:  Sociable
Author:  Rebecca Harrington
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0385542828 / 978-0385542821

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

Opening Sentence:  "Facebook:  An article called '15 images of a sloth that will just make you laugh.'"

Favorite Quote:  "It is especially important for women to write about themselves because women's narratives have been silenced over the years, just as their labors have been ignored and their feelings shunted aside. Women weren't allowed to tell stories. So I am proud to be of a generation that gives voice to women and helps to mentor and highlight different women writes as they come along."

Elinor Thomlinson is a twenty something, a few years out of college and armed with a journalism degree. She lives with her boyfriend in a basement apartment with a mattress pad for a bed and not much else besides. Instead of the literary journalism job she envisioned, Elinor is barely making ends meet, working as a nanny.

Then, jobs happen for both Elinor and her boyfriend. he is hired to write political articles and commentary for a "real" website. She is tasked with producing content - short and catch - that will go viral for, a media project of a celebrity. Think BuzzFeed and top ten lists.

Perhaps, I am not the right audience for this book. I do not see the humor in it. I find myself more inclined to tell Elinor to stop whining, grow up, and be an adult. I suppose the fact that the character elicits a reaction - positive or negative - is a positive indicator for the book. However, this depiction of Elinor does not really change from beginning to end. No growth or emotional maturity leaves Elinor as a shallow character who is more annoying than endearing.

The book casts a wide net in Elinor's life - a lot of story lines that could have developed into more. First and foremost, this book centers on Elinor's breakup with her boyfriend and her inability to get over it. That seems to fuel her competitive approach to her job, her interactions with other, her social life, and pretty much everything else. Unfortunately, if the objective of the book is a satirical look at the millennial generation, this story line does not feed into that. The story of a bad breakup exists in every generation.

In her job, two men competing professionally with each other seek to "mentor" Elinor. Essentially, they don't care about the relationship but rather outdoing each other to please their boss. Elinor allows herself to be caught in the middle. She is shown as lacking the confidence to stand her ground and take charge of her own career. Is there a sexist message here as well? I am not sure, but it does seem like they want to pat her on the head and want her to follow along. Again, the story line just highlights Elinor's immaturity and not in a humorous way. There is a moment or two (as in the quote above) that I think more may be coming, but it does not.

Elinor's friendships, the one with her "best" friend in particular, seem to lack sincerity and emotion. Strong, meaningful friendships exists between women of all ages and generations; these friends build each other up and sustain each other through all that life brings. Most of all, they tell each the truth, whether or not the other wants to hear it. That is the heart of a true friendship. It seems sorely lacking between Elinor and her friends.

Satires can be biting and funny. For me, unfortunately, this book becomes about unlikable characters with situations that are just irritating. Perhaps, I am removed from the millennial generation, but I sincerely hope this book is not indicative of their behavior. One thing is clear; unfortunately, I am not the reader for this book.

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Balcony

Title:  The Balcony
Author:  Jane Delury
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0316554677 / 978-0316554671

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

Opening Sentence:  "In June of 1992, I left Boston for France with everything in front of me."

Favorite Quote:  "Yet, I'm sure you know about the meanings one makes when first in love. Coincidences becomes destiny."

The Balcony belongs to the manor house of an estate in a small village outside of Paris, France. In its centuries of existence, the balcony and the house sees numerous families who call the estate a home. Some occupy the manor house itself, and some live in the nearby servants' cottage. The house bears witness to all their lives and to the history that touches these lives through the years.

This book is somewhere between a collection of stories and a novel. I feel that there are connections that exist between the characters and the stories. In fact, I know there are. The descriptions points to "cross-generation connections and troubled legacies." However, I cannot quite capture those relationships, but it is frustrating to expect to be able to. For that, the book contains too many stories and too many characters. After a while, I stop trying, but the feeling of having missed something remains.

Another factor that makes the connections challenging is that the book is not linear. It is not chronological but rather wanders back and forth through history. The book promises a look "over the course of several generations, from the Belle Époque to the present day." The book may be that, but unfortunately not in a way that allows that course of history to be followed. I almost wanted to rearrange the book and the read the book chronologically to see if more of the themes emerged. Realistically, I never vested enough in the book to actually do that.

The book anchors the stories to not a time but a place. The stories all "haunt the same spaces, so that the rose garden, the forest point, and the balcony off the manor's third floor bedroom" are the focal points of the book. Oddly, for a book so centered on a physical space, I walk away without a real sense of what this estate looks like. Through the words, I cannot conjure up an image. The focal point of the estate is at odds with the completely character focus of the stories.

The character focus of the stories is also implied in the synopsis which promises "a fascinating cast of characters ... rich and poor, young and old, powerful and persecuted." Unfortunately, for me, the characters do not become one very important thing. They are not memorable. Not one stands outs. The description promises a narrative that weaves "a gorgeous tapestry of relationships" and "that burrows deep into individual lives." Again, perhaps, it is the lack of chronology, but for me, the tapestry and the depth do not emerge. I am, however, left with an image of darkness and sadness surrounding the house.

The point of description that does hold true is that of "fleeting moments across the frame of the twentieth centuries." I like the premise of history through a home, but I hoped it would convey that feeling of history. Unfortunately, fleeting moments do not allows for connections to form and ultimately, for me, result in an unsatisfying reading experience and leave me knowing that there was something I missed.

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

Monday, June 25, 2018

Laura & Emma

Title:  Laura & Emma
Author:  Kate Greathead
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501156608 / 978-1501156601

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

Opening Sentence:  "Laura sometimes woke up in the night, rattled by thoughts she'd never have during the day."

Favorite Quote:  "Buck up. Fake it till you feel it. The show must go on. This was the way they did things - These people in the world she'd grown up in."

Laura and Emma is a book about life centered around Laura who lives in New York City. When Laura is in her thirties, an accidental pregnancy leads to the birth of Emma and to Laura's adventures in parenting. This book follows Laura from the point of her pregnancy until Emma's high school years.

The story is really Laura's story, reaching beyond her life as a single parent to Emma. It reaches into her relationship with her parents, her brother, and her friends. It reaches into a professional life and into her forays towards a social life. Emma is present in the story as a part of Laura's life rather than a freestanding character whose life the reader follows.

The book is somewhat chronological, but is really a series of sequential snapshots. The reader has to connect the dots to see the progression. I keep expecting an epiphany or a moment of reflection or growth to emerge to tie the story together. However, it never does. The snapshots of Laura's life remain that - a series of sometimes amusing and sometimes annoying mundane events in the life of a wealthy, thirty-something year old woman.

Throughout, there are hints at subplots that could develop into stories with greater depth. The book touches on many different many. The decision surrounding an unplanned pregnancy. Postpartum depression. The struggles and joys of single parenthood. The mother-daughter relationship both between Laura and her mother Bibs and Laura and her daughter Emma. The competitive world of New York private schools. The AIDS epidemic. The role of the hired help. The ending, I think, tries to reach a philosophical point. I am not entirely sure what it is. Unfortunately, the book just touches on these things and then flits away to another.

The hardest part of this book is that I find myself completely unable to relate to Laura in so many ways. I want to relate to her challenges in parenting and her anecdotes of life in New York. However, Laura's lifestyle puts her completely in a different world for Laura's world is the world of the rich - of old money.

Her apartment may not be what she considers the right neighborhood, but it is a penthouse. She has her job because her family is part of the Board of Trustees. When Emma is born, the job conveniently becomes part-time with the hours matching Emma's preschool hours. Oh, and at her full salary and with eight weeks of paid vacation time in the summer. That summer vacation is spent in the family "cottage" on the shore. Emma goes to the same prestigious private school that Laura attended as a child; Laura is disappointed that it is not the more progressive private school that she wanted for Emma. Laura and her brother's sibling arguments are over how much of their expenses their parents pay for - her apartment, his country club membership, her daughter's private school tuition, and so on. Laura considers taking the subway and doing her own grocery shopping major accomplishments. After a while, it is difficult to concentrate on the issues faced by the characters because they have absolutely no concept of the issues faced by the majority of the readers of this book.

All in all, the book leaves me slightly amused if only at the "cluelessness" of the main character. Even more so, it unfortunately leaves me wondering what the point was.

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

Saturday, June 23, 2018


Title:  Kicks:  The Great American Story of Sneakers
Author:  Nicholas Smith
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0451498119 / 978-0451498113

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 gotta be the shoes."

Favorite Quote:  "For everything sneaker brands have done to get us to notice, choose, and stay loyal to them, our relationship to sneakers is still defined, ultimately, by what we do with them once we buy them. Sneakers might be worn every day or only for special occasions. They might be for sport or for style. They might be kept pristine in a box to be resold. They might be burned in a garbage can for social media to see. They might be loved or barely thought about. Even an identical show can have innumerable meanings depending on the wearer."

I know the brand names. I know the names of the athletes who market the brands. I know the quality of the shoes. I know my preferences. What I did not know was the history and the business that turned these household names into ... well ... into household names. Adidas. Converse. Nike. New Balance. Puma. Reebok. Vans. And others. Note that I list the brands in alphabetical order. No endorsement here. The choice of a shoe is a very personal although it is fascinating to read about the work that goes into influencing that choice.

The introduction to the marketing copy for the book reads, "A cultural history of sneakers, tracing the footprint of one of our most iconic fashions across sports, business, pop culture, and American identity." The "cultural history" defines the objective of the book. The book goes into materials, manufacture, and the science of design. The focus, however, is most definitely on the people and the societal factors that lead and follow the development of sneakers. The tongue in cheek use of "tracing the footprint" for me matches the tone of the book. The book presents a lot of research and a lot of facts. It does so, however, with a base in storytelling and a very easy and very quick to read conversational style. The "American identity" I find interesting because so many of the brands and so much of the history have origins outside of the United States. This book, however, is written perhaps for the American audience so it presents everything through that lens. Even though the brands may not be American, their prevalence in the United States is definitely a statement of culture.

Centering a history around the individuals responsible means there are a lot of names in this book. Many of them repeat and pop up at different points in the book. At first, I try to keep the names and personalities straight, until I realize that what I want to follow is the trajectory of the companies and the brands not necessarily the individuals. That focus is much easier because there are fewer brands than people and because the brand names are so familiar to me.

The book covers a lot of mileage. The impact of the rubber industry on sneakers. The competition between two brothers that gives rise to two major brands. The impact of World War II on the industry. The differences in brand association between different sports. The transition of a shoe into a statement of fashion and identity. The race to identify the next sports hero to then court them as a sponsor. Some of the history is dark - wages, factory conditions, affordability, and even murder. All in all, it is a fascinating look at the wide impact the industry has had and continues to have on American culture.

Who would have thought that someone would write a book about sneakers? Who would have thought I would choose to read it? Who would have thought that I would really like it? If you have an interest in the topic, I would recommend this very niche history book.

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

Friday, June 22, 2018

Flying at Night

Title:  Flying at Night
Author:  Rebecca L. Brown
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399585990 / 978-0399585999

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

Opening Sentence:  "You would think that a woman names after a plane, the daughter of the briefly famous emergency-landing pilot 'the Sliver Eagle,' would feel at home in the sky."

Favorite Quote:  "Through I was used to adjustments for Fred's quirks, I had been raised to prize politeness above all else, so I always slunk away with my tail between my legs instead of marching out with my middle finger raised in salute to all the assholes who judged my son and me."

The author's note to the book reads, "Flying at Night is an ode to mothers who fight impossible battles for their children every day without blinking, go to sleep and get up and do the same again. We never know the hidden struggles that others are waging unless we bring our own pain and heartache out of the darkness and share it. We share it for one reason:  so others know they are are not alone." It is, however, than that.

It is about the challenges of being the sandwich generation, taking care of both children and aging parents. It is about the complicated, relationship between a daughter and her father - the sense of responsibility and the pent up emotions of things left unsaid and unquestioned. It is about the scars emotional abuse suffered as a child leaves behind. It is about the struggle with depression. It is about the unique parenting challenges of raising a special needs child. It is about the bond between a grandparent and a grandson, a relationship in which you can have all the joys of enjoying the child and none of the responsibility.

Piper is the daughter of a father who was a hero to the public and a distant, controlling man at home. She is also mother to nine year old Fred, who she at first deems idiosyncratic but knows deep down that it is more than that.

The plot of this character driven debut novel is a relatable one. Fred is learning to navigate his world. Piper is learning a whole new language as she loves her child and tries to do the best for him. Lance, Piper's father, has always been distant. That is, until he has a heart attack and suffers brain damage, and his wife leaves him. Out of a sense of responsibility, Piper takes on his care. In doing so, she invites Lance back into her life and into Fred's life. In living together, life and relationships evolve.

The book alternates chapters between the perspectives of these three main characters. The chapter titles are the names, but their voices are so distinct that the jumps are clear. For the two adults, their "voice" also includes reflections of the past, and how the relationship between father and daughter changes through the years.

The author's biography adds a very personal perspective to this book. Ms. Brown is a mother to three boys; her oldest was diagnosed with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder at age ten. She is mother writing something that is her reality. I don't know if Fred's character is based on her son, but in my mind, that connection to her life gives credibility to both the characters of Piper and Fred.

There are aspects of the story that leave me wondering - Lance's attachment to his dog and the role of Piper's husband Isaac in particular. Both have significance, but both are left open to interpretation.  The book is touching, and the ending is a surprise to me. In hindsight, I can see it, but not in first reading the book. It leaves me thinking at the end.

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

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Swimming Between Worlds

Title:  Swimming Between Worlds
Author:  Elaine Neil Orr
Publication Information:  Penguin Group. 2018. 416 pages.

ISBN:  0425282732 / 978-0425282731

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

Opening Sentence:  "Early mornings on the university compound were quiet as the dawn of the world."

Favorite Quote:  "This seemed, finally, the clear truth of the camera:  that the eye sees what it expects to see ... Unless the eye is corrected, all vision is lost."

The 1960s in the United States were a tumultuous time. It was a time of cultural and political revolution. There were heated debate about equality across gender, sexual orientation, and in particular about race. The South was still deeply embedded in its cultural of segregation. This book sets the story of three young people - Tacker, Kate, and Gaines - in this time in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Tacker is a local high school sports hero. A job takes him to Ibadan, Nigeria. He comes home, seemingly disgraced. His "crime" is breaking the social constructs set up by the company he worked for. He comes home, alone and unsure of his place in his own world. His views have changed, but his world has not.

Kate is a young woman, adrift by the loss of her family. Yet, she is financially independent and able to pursue life as she chooses. Yet, that security may be based on a history that puts into question her right to use that security.

Tacker and Kate are white. Gaines is a young man just like them. He is attempting to work hard for his family and to find his way in the world. Gaines, however, is black. Unfortunately, that alone is enough to put Tacker, Kate, and Gaines worlds apart.

This book through its characters presents the fight for equality that has always and still continues to exist in the United States. There is a lot going on in this book. The story is primarily from Tacker's perspective. It narrates the "present day" story and also presents snapshots of Tacker's time in Nigeria. As such, it shows his growth and the changes in his views when his horizons grows beyond his home town. Kate's perspective is still from that home town; as she gets to know Tacker, she begins to question her own beliefs. This book is about their change in world views.

Gaines and his family and friends are the context of Tacker and Kate's thoughts on the divisions in the South. Tacker and Kate are the ones trying to bridge the paradigms they were raised with against their own thoughts about what is right. These are the worlds they "swim between." However, I don't feel that Gaines' perspective is portrayed as well;  his interactions with Tacker and Kate depict the changes the two undergo. Perhaps, depicting Gaines' perspective is not the objective, but it does make him seem like a lesser character in the book. In a book about equality, that is unfortunate.

This is the first book I have read by Elaine Neil Orr, and her background explains both the topic and the settings. Ms. Orr's parents were medical missionary; she was born and raised in Nigeria on one of their mission. She came the United States at age sixteen. She studied and now lives in the South. She is a Southern writer with an African background taking on the history of racism in the South.  Regardless, a book that confronts the history of racism in the United States and propels the conversation forward as it continues even today is an important one to read.

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

Women in Sunlight

Title:  Women in Sunlight
Author:  Frances Mayes
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  045149766X / 978-0451497666

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

Opening Sentence:  "By chance, I witnessed the arrival of the three American women."

Favorite Quote:  "A house in Tuscany where they know no one. Everything open to reinterpretation."

The women in sunlight are at a certain age and at a certain stage of life. Are the junctures in their lives endings or new beginnings? The women are Julia, Camille, and Susan, all in their sixties. They meet by chance near their homes in the United States. They find a bond and shared experiences. They all find themselves at a crossroads.

A bold plan and the financial ability to make it happen leads them to a beautiful home in Tuscany. There, they meet Kit. Kit is a fellow American living in San Rocco, Tuscany working on her book. For the four, this becomes a journey in friendship, reflection, self-discovery, and new beginnings.

In some ways, this book is very similar to Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun. Find the perfect house. (Big caveats: Would you have the ability to afford it as these women do?) Pack up and come to Italy. Enjoy something about the house or make a discovery. Settle in as if you have always been there. Explore and reflect.

Unlike Under the Tuscan Sun, this book then is not about the renovation of the house, but rather about the new adventures these women encounter in Italy. Under The Tuscan Sun, however, does a much better job of painting a picture of an idyllic Tuscan location; this book does not leave the same imagery. The tone of the book, however, is very similar. Make a new discovery. Find some interesting character. Reflect and make decisions on the past and the future. Repeat many times from the start to the finish of the book. This is the feel good story of the book.  However, it is a little too idyllic for my taste. Everything seems to come or resolve itself too easily.

Added to this story is Kit's story or rather, I should say, Margaret's story. Kit has been living in Italy for ten to fifteen years. She is writing a book on her mentor Margaret. The story of the mentor becomes a part of this book. These reflections are by far my least favorite part of the book. Margaret is not a character in the book but, at the same time, seems to take up a lot of the story. I am still not entirely sure why. What does Margaret have to do with this story?

As with Under the Tuscan Sun, I want to like this book better than I do. The ideas of reinvention at any age and the strength of friendships between women all appeal to me. The idea that these women display the gumption to move so far away from what they know is appealing. Of course, the move and the sojourn in Tuscany is idealized, but the idea still intrigues.

Unfortunately, the story itself seems to drag. There are the back stories of these women. There is Margaret's story. There are the four families. At times, it is just confusing as to which of the women is involved with which story line. It just never quite comes together, and the character never quite develop enough. Sadly, I don't invest in the story beyond the initial draw of the idea.

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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Coincidence Makers

Title:  The Coincidence Makers
Author:  Yoav Blum
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1250146119 / 978-1250146113

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

Opening Sentence:  "Look at the line of time."

Favorite Quote:  "'At the far left ... are all of the people who really think that everything is completely coincidental ... And on the other end are all of the people who are sure that there's a reason for everything ... The people standing at the two extremes are the happiest people in the world. At both ends. Do you know why? because they they don't ask why. Never. Not at all. There's no point, because either they believe there's no answer, or they believe that someone is responsible for the answer and that it's none of their business. But these people aren't even one-thousandth of the population. Most people stand in the range between them. No, they don't stand. They go, they move. They constantly move in one direction and then the other. They think they're on one of the sides, but occasionally, nonetheless, they ask themselves why and don't understand that they'll be happy only if they let go of this question, for whatever reason."

A coincidence maker is a trained individual skilled in nudging events that cause a ripple effect of other effects. Chaos theory uses the classic example the butterfly effect. The bat of a single butterfly wing can be traced to impact the path and occurrence of a tornado weeks later. Given the precise set of circumstances and occurrences, a seemingly insignificant coincidence can potentially change an entire life.

This novel puts forth an unnamed organization that in different way interact with and influence the human world. Imaginary friends exist only as long as someone imagines them. Coincidence makers are recruited, trained, and given mission creating coincidences. The higher the level of the coincidence maker, the more complex the coincidences they create and the more complex the tools they have available to them. The rules are strict, and the consequences of breaking the rules are severe. The department is run by someone named only The General.

Eric, Guy, and Emily meet as one incoming class of coincidence makers. Surrounding them are the subjects of their coincidences. The book focuses primarily on Guy, but flips back and forth between the three and even the targets of their coincidences. The book also is nonlinear in time going from the present into Guy's past. Flashbacks introduce a few more characters. At first, that makes the book a bit challenging to follow. Then,  I realize that the confusion matches the theme of the book. I allow myself as a reader to be nudged back and forth between the threads of the story. I enjoy the process of thinking about what direction is going to go.

The targets of Guy's mission are a businessman and a killer for hire. That implies a thrill ride and action.  However, I realize that the book is more about the characters and the emotions; this is about the coincidence makers not the coincidences. That gives the book almost a philosophical bent and raises questions about free will versus predetermination, choice versus coincidence, and other such questions. The story anchors these questions in characters who become real and a story of love achieved and lost.

"There's always a broader picture. There's always something beyond the system you're concentrating on. Never forget that. There are no clear boundaries. Life doesn't stop at the boundaries of the table. And there are always more than six pockets you can fall into. There is always something beyond. Always, always, always."  This statement in a nutshell is the lesson of this book. For most of this book, I don't see where this book is going. I mean that in the best way possible. At times, the story is a set of distinct threads. I know that they are coming together. I have hypotheses as to how and why, and I am completely wrong. It is not until almost the end that everything does come together. It does so in a way I do not see coming. So, clearly, I concentrated on the wrong thing, and as a result had a great reading experience.

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

All the Beautiful Girls

Title:  All the Beautiful Girls
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399181067 / 978-0399181061

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

Opening Sentence:  "The line of Aunt Tate's jaw was fierce and unyielding, like a hammered steel length of railroad track, but her eyels were soft and puffy from furtive crying."

Favorite Quote:  "You can't let what's happened make you a victim. People will want to see you that way; they'll say, Oh, that poor little girl. She's so pathetic. Let's just let her get away with anything and everything.' But I don't want for you to live your life trading on being a victim. I will not let that happen. You have to face life, head on."

Lily Decker is a survivor. She somehow survives a car crash that leaves her entire family dead. She is put in the care of her aunt and uncle. She survives years of her uncle's abuse and her aunt's unwillingness to see it. The "Aviator" is both the cause of and her savior from this heartache. He is the driver responsible for the accident that kills Lily's family. He is also a magnanimous presence in her childhood, providing books and dance lessons and material things. Yes, he has an actual name, but Lily rather annoyingly refers to him as the "Aviator" throughout the book

Dance become Lily's outlet and leads to her transformation from Lily to Ruby Wilde. She leaves her small town for a life of glamour and dancing as a Las Vegas show girls. Over the years, through ups and downs, Lily survives and even thrives. She finds a community of her own.

The shadow of abuse and the scars it leaves, however, are never far. These wounds consciously and unconsciously drive Lily's decisions. Through it all, the Aviator remains a presence in her life. In many ways, he is the only family she has, and he is more her family than her aunt and uncle ever were.

The base of this book is the sexual abuse of a child is a brutal and heartbreaking one. It sets up Lily as a truly sympathetic character. The image of this little girl who loses her family and then is forced into the trauma of horrific abuse lingers through out the book. Through her positive and self-destructive choices, I want things to work out for Lily.

This book is in turn joyful for Lily saves Lily. She is responsible for finding her way out not only from her abusive home but through other struggles in life. She has help along the way - the Aviator, teachers, kind bosses in Las Vegas, and the friends she finds in Las Vegas. Yet most of all, the story is of Lily finding her strength and her voice.

So, a heart wrenching premise and a strong character should make for a moving, emotional read. This book is that to an extent. It stops short. It takes me a while to puzzle out why. The book leaves a big open question about the accident that is at the foundation of the book. Lily is eight at the time. Yet, she never once displays anger towards the Aviator who is responsible. He becomes almost a mythical heroic figure in her mind. A way of coping with grief? A way of escaping the abuse at home? A child's fantasy? This question is never explored.

Although it sounds contradictory, but this book about abuse is too perfect and too neat. The "good" characters are all good. The "bad" characters seems to have few or no redeeming qualities. The life of a Las Vegas show girl is for the most part presented as a sanitized sisterhood of entertainers. Lily's transition out of serious situations seems to be relatively quick and seamless. Even the ending seems to wrap everything up with a neat bow. People, as we know, are not one dimensional. Life, as we know, is not that simple.

This is about the reaction I had to to Elizabeth Church's The Atomic Weight of Love. I enjoyed parts. I sympathized with the main character. Yet at the end, I am looking for something more.

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

Other People's Houses

Title:  Other People's Houses
Author:  Abbi Waxman
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0399587926 / 978-0399587924

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 was amazing how many children you could fit in a minivan, if you tessellated carefully and maintained only the most basic level of safety."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes life is just what it is, and the best you can hope for is ice cream."

Imagine one neighborhood street and four families who live on that street in a world of shared friendships, shared carpools and secrets that are not shared. Imagine now a myriad of "family" issues that may occur... Stable marriage that may border on boring. A woman who epitomizes the stereotype of the frumpy minivan soccer mom. An affair. A midlife crisis. A spouse who is away for reasons unknown. An illness. A difference between spouses on the decision to have another child. One spouse's career taking precedence over another... Now throw in a set of children belonging to each set of parents and their angst. Add the mundane household tasks of carpools, groceries, laundry, and dinner.

There in a nutshell is this book. Abbi Waxman's last book The Garden of Small Beginnings was a predictable but sweet book about grief and new beginnings. The sweetness won out in the end, making it an enjoyable beach read. I pick up this book hoping the same especially with the characters from the first book do make a cameo appearance in this book.

This book is as predictable, but unfortunately, the story is not a sweet, uplifting one. The characters are not particularly likable, and their "issues" seem to fit the envisioned stereotype. This book also has a bigger cast of characters, each with their own stories. So, the book seems scattered. The emotions and the handling of the "real life" problems seems superficial. The relationships also seem not to truly embody friendship. Actually, these four families share a carpool. That really seems to be it, but somehow they end up embroiled in each other's family issues, a role that should presumably be for a friend. From personal experience as a soccer mom, friendship may begin with a carpool, but it takes a lot more to change a convenient exchange into a friendship.

My other big issue with this book is the off putting beginning. The book opens on a scene of a middle aged married woman having a dalliance with someone who is not her husband in the daytime hours in her kitchen. Eeww. This is not a love affair, at least not for her. It is a mistake. I am not saying it doesn't happen. I am just saying I don't need to "see" that.  EEwww. It's hard to recover from that image and move on with the book.

Perhaps, I could have put the image aside. However, the narrator of the book - also a middle aged mom, the carpool driver, the soccer mom - indulges in language I don't care for. The book has a lot of gratuitous cursing. It is unpleasant, gets in the way of the story, and seems out of character for someone who spends the majority of their day around children.

I liked the premise of the book that we truly do not know what happens behind someone else's closed door. The book could have led to deeper questions about the strength of a marriage and the building and destroying of trust in a relationship. Unfortunately, for me, it does not.

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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

I Have Lost My Way

Title:  I Have Lost My Way
Author:  Gayle Forman
Publication Information:  Viking Books for Young Readers. 2018. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0425290778 / 978-0425290774

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 have lost my way."

Favorite Quote:  "To be the holder of other people's loss is to be the keeper of their love. To share your loss with people is another way of giving your love."

Three young people. One day. A series of coincidences. Their lives will never be the same. Freya is a singer who is on the brink of stardom but has lost her voice. Harun's life is taking him in a direction that may take him far from his family. Nathaniel is new to town and lost in more ways than one.

Below the surface, each one carries with them their secrets and their griefs. A coincidence introduces them to each other. As with Leave Me, at this point, I have to suspend my disbelief as a reader. To follow this story of friendship, I have to believe that the instant bond between these three young people occurs.

Although the circumstances of each are completely different, they see reflected their own sadness and loneliness in each other.

Freya is a solo artist signed by a big name manager in the industry. She is in the process of recording her debut album. In the past lies the fact that she was part of duo with her sister, and they achieved some success on their own. What lies between those two facts is the sadness of Freya's life.

Harun is part of a large and loving family. Part of who he is, however, may never be accepted by his family; love may have its boundaries. Therein in lies Harun's sadness. Does he deny who he is or does he risk his family's reaction?

Nathaniel has only just arrived in New York; he is seeking a new beginning. In his past are the place, the people and the secrets he thinks he left behind. Those secrets hold the key to his loneliness.

As they learn about each other in this day, the three discover in each the courage to face their own dilemmas.

What I appreciate most about this book is the diversity of the characters. It is purposeful but not forced. The "diverse" point is not the forefront of these characters; it is naturally and simply a part of who they are. The diversity of the characters is a reflection of New York City and this nation itself. That is who we are.

The plot is based on coincidences, but the emotions are real. It is the feelings of being lost and lonely and alone that draws these three very different people together. It is their common bond even though their lives couldn't be more different. That is what makes this book work for this is a feeling many people can relate to not matter how different they may be from these characters. Most people at some point in their lives have felt lost and alone. Someone or something - a book, a song, a movie, anything - that reflects that emotion and says that you are not alone can make a huge difference in a life.

The news these days brings what seems like daily messages of a person felt so alone and desperate as to end their life. In such a time, the message that no matter what the trouble, you are not alone is such an important one. That is the question to ask. If the stars had not aligned and these young people had not met, how different would their story be? How would their stories end?

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

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Italian Teacher

Title:  The Italian Teacher
Author:  Tom Rachman
Publication Information:  Publisher. Date. pages.
ISBN:  073522269X / 978-0735222694

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

Opening Sentence:  "Seated in a copper bathtub, Bear Bavinsky dunks his head under steaming water and shakes out his beard, flinging droplets across the art studio"

Favorite Quote:  "What is have never been what ought ... You pose an is/ought question. When I was younger, I dabbled in 'oughts.' I have retired to 'is.'"

The Italian teacher, Charles "Pinch" Bavinsky, is an artist. Or at one time, he was an artist. Or at the very least, at one time, he wanted to be an artist. He is at one time also an academic and an author. He ends up as a teacher.

Pinch is the child of two artists. His father "Bear" Bavinskly is a painter and a big personality. He is also world famous and completely self-involved. Pinch's mother Natalie is a sculptor, who fades under Bear's shadow. Pinch's life is a testament to trying to gain his father's approval and recognition.

His half-sister Birdie takes a different approach. She advises Pinch to not look for that personal connection with his father. "When you see what he accomplished ... maybe he was right how he acted. Would it be better if he’d shown up for softball games ... without doing what he knew, knew, would be so great? It’s bigger than us. Bigger than us, Charlie…” In real life, is there a balance possible? I would like to think so. In Bear's narcissistic life, there is not. In Birdie's life, it is acceptable for there  not to be balance. In Pinch's life, there is a hope that it may come one day.

The book follows the trajectory of Pinch's life in four sections - childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. Childhood is spend in artistic endeavors waiting for Bear's visits for Bear is not a permanent fixture in his life. He comes and goes and has an entire life separate from Pinch and his mother; he has in fact fathered more than ten children with several different women!

Pinch lights up with his father's attention, and tries to hold on to his father. That becomes the theme of his life. He takes up painting only to give it up because of his father. He tries to find a place in Bear's other life only to see that it does not exist. He tries to write a biography of his father only to give it up because of his father. So it continues until almost the end of the book. The ending, when it comes, is surprising and, in retrospect, completely fitting.

This book reminds me in some ways of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Both books begin with this little boy being batted around by circumstances completely out of his control. As a reader, he elicits that sympathy and that feeling that he needs to be protected. Both books follow the trajectory of the boy's life, centering sections around different phases of life. Both characters spend their lives seeking something out of reach. In Pinch's case, it is his father's approval and attention; it is an existence in his father's life.

This book is sad, but not quite as sad as The Goldfinch. Both good and bad things happen to Pinch in his life. He makes both good and bad choices. He forms some relationships that last. Through all the good and the bad choices, I care about Pinch and what happens to him.

That is the skill of Tom Rachman's writing. The characters feel so real. I find myself searching for "Bear Bavinsky" to see if he may have existed or if he may have been based on a historical aritst. The book is pure fiction, but it feels as if it is a real story about real people.

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

Winter Sisters

Title:  Winter Sisters
Author:  Robin Oliveira
Publication Information:  Viking. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  039956425X / 978-0399564253

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

Opening Sentence:  "Two days before Emma and Claire O'Donnell disappeared, a light snow fell from the dawn sky above Albany, New York, almost as a warning mist."

Favorite Quote:  "Every inch toward courage was a decision. Even ten feet on her own would be a triumph. The line between coercion and choice for her was the line between darkness and light."

It takes me a while to think about the central theme of this book; it reveals itself gradually. The story is of a family and a city. It is about the devastation of a storm and about the lumber industry. It is about the pursuit, destruction, and rediscovery of a dream. It is about marriages and about parents and children. It is about a disappearance and its aftermath. It is about abuse and its aftermath. It is about corruption. It is about a quest for justice. It is about love. It takes a while, but then, I have a definite "a-ha" moment. What draws the entire book together is the women - young and old - and their ability or inability to survive and thrive in a male-dominated world.

The central emotionally intense story is the story of two young girls - the winter sisters - who disappear during a snowstorm in Albany, New York in 1879. The author's note at the end of the book includes an appalling fact. "In 1879, the age of consent in New York sate was ten years old. The NY Statute regarding rape read, in part: 'Every person who shall be convicted of rape either, 1. By carnally and unlawfully knowing any female child under the age of ten years; or, 2. By forcibly ravishing any woman of the age of ten years or upwards...'" Ten years old. Ten years old! The fictional story elaborates that in a victim above the age of ten, "survival is considered an indication of acquiescence." In other words, if the girl fights to the death, rape may be proved. If the girl survives, then she did not fight hard enough and is deemed to have given consent. At the age of ten!

Of the sisters who go missing, Emma is above the age of ten, and Claire is not. I leave you to imagine what comes next. Ten years old. What happens to them has repercussions through the town, bringing to light the darker and evil side of some of its most illustrious residents. The identification of those involved is not really difficult with the small cast of characters in this book. So, I would not term it a mystery, which works because the mystery is not the focus of this book. The fact of the girl's age and the law is. Ten years old.

This book is broader than Emma and Claire's story; this book is about women of different ages and professions all made to suffer by a society in which women do not have the same position or rights as a man. Mary Sutter is a qualified physician but is not given the same respect for her skills as her husband and fellow physician William is. Elizabeth is a gifted violin player whose confidence and dream is shattered by a man telling her she is not good enough. Viola is a woman caught in an abusive marriage with the thought of having no other alternatives. Darlene is a prostitute. The men are more than willing to visit the brothels, but the women there are treated as objects who should in no way come into contact with the rest of society.

Mind you, the book is not unbalanced in the male characters. Obviously, there are the monsters who prey on children and hide behind a cloak of respectability. There are the men who take advantage of their position to bully and abuse those below them. Equally though, the book presents strong men able to stand up for what they believe and stand up for what is right. They embody the image of what relationship ought to be. "Theirs was a tenacious kind of love, as solid and true as granite. Neither of them could think of a time in their life together when either had let the other down."

The plot of the book centers around the sisters and their disappearance, but well developed characters create the bigger themes of rights and equality in a story that draws me in and keeps me reading until the very last page.

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Gun Love

Title:  Gun Love
Author:  Jennifer Clement
Publication Information:  Publisher. Date. pages.
ISBN:  1524761680 / 978-1524761684

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 mother was a cup of sugar."

Favorite Quote:  "Dreaming is cheap. It doesn't cost a thing. In dreams you don't have to pay the bills or pay the rent. In dreams you can buy a house and be loved back."

Margot and Pearl, mother and daughter, are a family on to themselves. Margot became a young mother through a pregnancy hidden from her family. When Pearl was a few weeks old, Margot took her and ran, seeking a different life for herself and her daughter.

Where does life lead them? Home becomes a '94 Mercury in a parking lot on the side of a trailer park in Putnam County, Florida.  Pearl's room is the front seat while Margot has the back. This is the only home Pearl has ever know. "We lived a dot-to-dot life, never thinking too much about the future." Pearl is now fourteen years old.

Regardless of the conditions of her upbringing, Pearl is loved. Her mother works hard and cares for Pearl. She also teaches her the spirit of resilience and survival. "Thanks to my mother I knew memory was the only substitute for love. Thanks to my mother I knew the dream world was the only place to go." Despite the hardships, the enclave of their car seems a cozy haven until the outside world and its threats enter.

Their community is the trailer park residents, an eccentric and eclectic cast of characters. What becomes the resounding theme of Pearl's life though is guns and gun trafficking that passes through this trailer park. A gun also forever changes Pearl's life.

Based on the setup, I am not entirely sure the book is for me. Guns are not my thing. The cast of characters and the setting are odd enough to be close to the boundary of going too far into "odd." The leaps of logic especially about the lack of and then sudden appearance of social services is a stretch. The open-ended conclusion to this book ends the narrative, but Pearl's story is left in the middle.

Yet, despite all of that, the book works. Frankly, only one thing holds me back from a higher rating. That is the depiction of social services in this book. It's hard to give details without a spoiler. However, a big part of the book has me wondering where social services has been for the fourteen years of Pearl's existence. Their sudden appearance has me equally surprised because they show up instantly. What follows is a depiction of the system that is uncharitable at best and does a disservice to those who faithfully work in the system and genuinely try to make a difference.

That point aside, the book works. The writing is beautifully visual in creating the setting. The characters are not as memorable, but the images of this car that is a home and the trailer park will stay with me for a long time.

I don't particularly like any of the characters. I particularly don't understand Margot and her decision to live the way she does. I definitely don't like the role guns play in this book. In some sense, the title of the book is literal; it is about a love affair with gun. However, even then, the book works because more than Margot's decisions and the guns, what I leave this book with is the image of love from the beginning to the unexpected ending.

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

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Long Way From Home

Title:  A Long Way From Home
Author:  Peter Carey
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0525520171 / 978-0525520177

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

Opening Sentence:  "For a girl to defeat one father is a challenge, but there were two standing between me and what I wanted, which was - not to fiddle faddle - a lovely little fellow named Titch Bobs."

Favorite Quote:  "This was Titch's only fault, the belief he could have anything he wanted. This is how birds fly into window glass, how women fall pregnant. This is no sense in it, only wanting what you are not allowed to have."

The Redex Trial was an actual car racing event in Australia. It began in the 1950s with the loose goal of circumnavigating Australia. The trek covered thousands of miles with cars and drivers gaining points at various checkpoints along the way. The first Redex covered about 6,500 miles with subsequent ones being substantially longer. More than a race, it was a test of the durability of cars, particularly in extreme conditions. Of course, it also became a race.

This book is the fictional story of one team that undertakes this event in 1954. Irene Bobs loves fast cars. Her husband Titch is a car salesman, reputed to be the best in the country. Joining them on this trek is their neighbor Willie, who happens to be a disgraced school teacher and somewhat of a celebrity for a radio quiz show.

The book has a long setup. It introduces Irene and Titch as they move into a new home and they seek to set up their own car dealership. Titch has worked for his father for a long time, but a falling out has led them separate ways. Now, life is more about a father and son competing. The story at this point is about the relationships and about the car industry in Australia at that time. The narration flips between Irene and Willie.

The book changes direction as they decide to take on this trek. The element of competition and will to succeed changes focus from the dealership to the race.

Then, the book changes direction again as the race takes them well off the beaten path - literally and figuratively. Literally, proper roads don't exist where they drive. Figuratively, this trek introduces the tree to an Australia vastly different from the one they call home. The book takes on social commentary on the race and social inequities of the times particularly in the treatment of the aboriginal populations. For Willie, this journey takes him on a journey of his own family history.

I love the setting of the book. I find Australia fascinating and hope one day to travel there - a "bucket list" trip if you. I love learning about the aboriginal cultures and the cultural history embodied in the book. That being said, I have a really hard time engaging with the book.

The setup of the book takes a long time - over a hundred pages. The dual narrators with completely different lives at the beginning cause confusion until the connection is made. The characters start off almost caricature like, and their stories have an element of randomness to them. It is hard to recover from that as the book turns. The book begins as a mad dash adventure and veers completely into a simultaneous look at a dark history and the vibrant culture that was almost destroyed. It's all a little bit confusing and a little bit too much. The historical and the cultural aspects are the ones I find most interesting in the book. Unfortunately, I am not the right reader for the fictional context the book places around the history.

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