Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Twenty-one Truths About Love

Title:  Twenty-one Truths About Love
Author:  Matthew Dicks
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1250103487 / 978-1250103482
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Ways to keep Jill from getting pregnant..."

Favorite Quote:  "Wanting to be a better human being and finding a way to become a better human being are two very different things."

Daniel Mayrock writes "lists so I won't stop existing like my father stopped existing for me." It is a way of dealing with anxiety.  I completely understand that, but an entire, over 300 page book written in lists. I don't know. Gimmicky? Yes. Does it work? In this case, yes it does.

Through the lists and no other perspective, the book manages to convey an image of Daniel Mayrock...
  • He has never recovered from the way in which his father left his life.
  • He loves his wife Jill.
  • He fears that he will never live up to the memory of Jill's first husband (he died).
  • He was at one point a teacher but quit his job to start his own business.
  • He runs a bookshop but is unable to quite make it a success.
  • He is terrified of being a father.
His lists range from the mundane to philosophical musings about life...
  • "If the childhood version of yourself would hate the adulthood version of yourself, you suck at life."
  • "Truth is not what you believe in. This is the problem with the f****** world. Truth is no-longer fact-based."
  • "A person is more than a person. A person is the promise of everything that person can be."
  • "To truly love someone, you must love the person you never knew, the person you know today, and the person that will someday be."
The two books I have read by Matthew Dicks both have had unusual perspectives. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend was told as a first person narrative in the voice of a little boy's imaginary friend. This book is in the form of the lists of a flawed and ordinary man who is trying to chase his dream and get through life the best way he knows how.

The one jarring note in the book is the wild plan Daniel concocts to solve his money problems. Really? Understandably, everyone has wild thoughts at times. Very rarely do people actual research the hare-brained schemes and even less so, act on them. From a story perspective, this component seems like filler and distracts from the main story, which is of this couple who loves each other.

The main reason this book still works for me is that Daniel feels real. I sometimes think I would like to hear his wife Jill's perspective, but that too is a testament to the fact that the entire situation feels real. A set of lists somehow manages to create a cohesive and sweet image of characters and a family I want to know more about.

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

The Family Upstairs

Title:  The Family Upstairs
Author:  Lisa Jewell
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501190105 / 978-1501190100
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It would be inaccurate to say that my childhood was normal before they came."

Favorite Quote:  "They weren't bad books ... They were books you didn't enjoy. It's not the same thing at all. The only bad books are books that are so badly written that no one will publish them. Any book that has been published is going to be a 'good book' for someone."

Libby Jones turn twenty-five and inherits a house. Not just any house, but a house from her past. The house itself has a disturbing history. Twenty-five years ago, the police arrived at the house. They found three dead bodies and a happy, healthy baby. Four other children known to be living at the house were nowhere to be found.

Two time periods - the story of the present as Libby turns twenty-five and the story of the children twenty-five years ago.

Characters with disturbing tendencies - a man who watches and waits and an entire household locked away from the world.

Adults looking back vs children living a nightmare - the adults who were the children forced to grow up way too soon to survive and who remain forever scarred by their childhood.

Mystery as to which of the children these adults are  - Who is Henry? Who is Lucy? Where does Libby come from?

The book has an intriguing premise. A family of four buys a house. Dad, Mom, a boy, and a girl are the wholesome family next door. Then, Mom lets a couple film at the house. Okay, except they never leave. Mom encourages it; Dad does nothing. Then, Mom invites another family to move in. Odd and even more so as they completely take over the household. Again, Mom is all for it; Dad seems unable to do anything.

This story is about this odd and disturbing combination of people living in the same house. It is about two sets of siblings living in one household. It is about a family that turns into a cult. It is about adults who return to that childhood to perhaps find closure, perhaps move past, or perhaps something else entirely. It is about a dysfunctional family - dysfunctional in the worst possible way. Trigger warning - this book features abuse of all kinds against children. This is the piece that I do not know that I can see past.

This is not really a thriller. It is more disturbing and depressing than thrilling in its twists and turns. There are twists, some predictable, some less so. That and the multiple time periods make this book a very quick read. However, when the "twist" does come, my reaction is not of surprise but of disgust. EEEwwww.

The setup had all the makings of a great and chilling story even without its twist. Unfortunately, with the twist, the image of that young child is what remains.

The ending hints at something beyond, something that may come as a next step. A setup for a sequel? Perhaps. Will I follow along? While the idea is intriguing as it was in this book, given where this one led, I think not.

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

Monday, December 30, 2019

Death in Kew Gardens

Title:  Death in Kew Gardens
Series:  A Below Stairs Mystery Book 3
Author:  Jennifer Ashley
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2019. 304 pages.
ISBN:  039958790X / 978-0399587900

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

Opening Sentence:  "The Chinese gentleman ran from between the carriages that packed the length of Mount Street and straight into my path."

Favorite Quote:  "If we'd been born monkeys or some such animal, there would be no difference between us at all. We'd share a space on a branch without thinking a think about it."

Death in Kew Gardens is the third in the series of Below Stairs Mysteries featuring Kat Holloway. While it is not absolutely necessary to have read the books in order, it is beneficial in this case. Many of the characters from the other books feature in this book. Although the mystery is new, most of the secondary plot lines continue from the previous books.

These books are a little bit of an upstairs downstairs story as Kat is a cook in a wealthy household. She is the hired help but also friend to at least one of the family - Lady Cynthia carries on with her independent ways. This book adds a multicultural element into this very British setting. The mystery centers around Chinese tea, trade between the two regions, and a Chinese gentleman who becomes a murder suspect. Given the time and place of the setting, this is significant.

It is good to know that Kat Holloway's character stays true to form. She continues to speak her mind, take no nonsense, and stand up for what she believes in. In this book, that issue becomes racial prejudice. The Chinese gentleman is the "other". He is the different one. Thus, his actions are automatically deemed more suspect. Fortunately, Kat stands up to that prejudice and for someone she befriends. She makes judgments based on fact not prejudice.

The theme of prejudice spills over into Kat's personal story as well. The household has a new housekeeper who clearly looks down upon Kat, who is only the "cook." She makes it clear that Kat should stay in her place, and that is clearly below the housekeeper's. In a different way, Kat's fear of prejudice and judgment makes her keep her daughter a secret from most of the world. The secret is revealed to Lady Cynthia in this book. She, too, stays true to form and offers acceptance and understanding not judgment.

The mystery and the progress of the book has the same look and feel as the first two books. That, of course, is the charm and the challenge of a series. How to grow the characters and create a unique story and yet keep the recognizable look of the series. That theme of understanding and acceptance to me becomes the lasting message of this book more so than the mystery itself. This is what makes it unique from the first two.

If you are interested in the author's other work, note that she writes under three names. As Jennifer Ashley, she writes historical, paranormal, and contemporary romance. As Ashley Gardner, she authors mysteries. Allyson James is the name for the paranormal romance and urban fantasy books. Worth exploring!

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

Things My Son Needs to Know about the World

Title:  Things My Son Needs to Know about the World
Author:  Fredrik Backman
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2019. 208 pages.
ISBN:  1501196863 / 978-1501196867

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

Opening Sentence:  "To my son:  I want to apologize."

Favorite Quote:  "I just want you to know that I love you. Once you're older, you'll realize that I made an endless line of mistakes during your childhood, I know that. I've resigned myself to it. but I just want you to know that I did my very, very best. I left it all on the field. I gave this every ounce of everything I had."

I have read four previous books by Fredrik Backman. A Man Called Ove is still on my to read list I have rated three out of the four with five stars. In other words, I have loved most of the books. This one is no exception even though it is a completely different book.

This is a nonfiction collection of essays written about the same time as A Man Called Ove. The collection was released in Sweden several years ago. It is just this year being released in the United States. The essays, as the title suggests, are lessons for his son who was then very young. It would be interesting now to see what the young man has to say about these lessons. Actually, Fredrik Backman now has two children. It would be wonderful to know if his lessons remain the same.

As a parent myself, I find myself nodding along with many of the stories - laughing, reminiscing, and reflecting on my own parenting adventures. My favorite aspect of this book of lessons to a child from a father is the unequivocal love he displays for his wife - the mother of his children. ".. the reason I don't know much about love is that I've really only ever loved one woman. But every day with her is like being a pirate in a magical land far away full of adventures and treasures. Making her laugh is a bit like wearing rain boots that are a little too big and jumping into the deepest of puddles. I'm blunt and sharp and full of black and white. She's all my color."

It is clear that the love encompasses his wife and his children. "And when you dance, you and she... if I could choose one single moment to live inside for all eternity, it would be that."

The remaining lessons vary from the mundane to statements of love to philosophical lessons about equality and tolerance. At times, the book is corny and cheesy as you might expect in a collection as this one. At times, it is pensive and serious. "So...it's not easy to teach you what a man is. It's different things for different people. With different people." What shines through is the love and the recognition that we as parents may not always know what we are doing, but hopefully, we do the best we can.

In a world where negativity is so prevalent, I will take the positive message of love. "You and your mother are my greatest, most wonderful, scariest adventure. I'm amazed every day that you're still letting me follow along."

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

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Farm

Title:  The Farm
Author:  Joanne Ramos
Publication Information:  Random House. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1984853759 / 978-1984853752

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

Opening Sentence:  "The emergency room is an assault."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes a person has no choice but hard choices."

The Farm - Golden Oaks - is a beautiful place set in the Hudson Valley of New York. Its business objective is a conceptually simple one. They market babies. The wealthy come to Golden Oaks seeking a "host" to carry a baby for medical and/or lifestyle reasons. The Farm provides the carefully chosen hosts and then houses and cares for them for then in months of the pregnancy. The amenities are many, but so are the rules, all designed to ensure the "production" of a healthy baby.

The women of this story...

Jane is a single mother and an immigrant with few prospectives for a better future. She joins the Farm as a host for the money to start a better life for her own daughter. At the same time, she leaves behind her daughter in the care of others to carry someone else's child.

Reagan is also a host but with a completely different story than Jane's. At the heart of it, she wants to do good and give someone the gift of a child.

Mae is the director of the farm. To her, this is a business venture and a stepping stone of her career. She is also in a committed relationship and considers starting a family.

Ate is Jane's cousin. What her role in this story is and why slowly emerges.

In alternating perspectives, the book tells the story of the farm. Beyond that, it also tells the story of the challenges women face and the choices mothers make. It should make for a serious, emotional story.

The story is a serious one, but one interesting aspect of this book is that it does not deal with the emotional implications of surrogacy. Most of the emotion in this book comes from these women and the children they already have or dream of having. The emotion is not about the surrogacy itself; that is portrayed as the business deal. The emotion of that is missing. How difficult is it to give up a child that a mother has carried for nine months and felt the pain of delivering? How challenging is it to make the decision to let another carry and birth your child? What are the other implications when surrogacy is chosen not for medical reasons but for convenience and lifestyle? Is it a deliberate choice or missed opportunity in this book to not address these questions? I am not sure but it leaves me wondering.

The most challenging aspect of this book is that throughout the book carries a tone of underlying menace. "An unsettling sense that the Farm is a set piece created for the Client on the other end of Dr. Wilde's wire, and behind its pretty face lies the truth." However, the truth is that the farm is a prosaic business enterprise where the product is babies, the employees are fixed-term, the job requirements are stringent and absolute, and the management is concerned with profits and brands. Some might say that the idea of big business is menace enough. However, the idea that first comes to mind is more of scientific experimentation and a "Big Brother" approach to controlling the "host" mothers. That sense of foreboding and danger never comes to fruition, leaving me wondering what this book was really about.

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

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss

Title:  Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss
Author:  Rajeev Balasubramanyam
Publication Information:  The Dial Press. 2019. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0525511385 / 978-0525511380

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

Opening Sentence:  "It should have been the greatest day of his life."

Favorite Quote:  "I realize now ... that my mistake was in thinking that I had nothing else to learn in life. I think if there's nothing new to learn, there's probably no point being alive at all."

Many books have been written recently about curmudgeonly old characters who are at a crossroads in their life and find a new direction. Some discover joy right where they are. Some make dramatic changes to find the peace and satisfaction they seek. Either way, the books impart some life lessons about finding our own bliss. Most of the books that work do so because the main character is either charming and endearing that I, as a reader, root for them or because the character is compelling in some way as to keep me reading.

That is the expectation with which I begin this book. Professor Chandra is divorced, estranged from one of his three children, and has not indeed won the Nobel Prize as he thinks he should. An accident forces him to change paths. According to the book description, "he's about to embark on the journey of a lifetime."

This journey brings him from Cambridge to the United States, where his ex-wife lives with her new hippie significant other. The issue is that, for me, the professor or his family are not characters I relate to or find likable. Unfortunately, the professor, as the main character, does not evolve into a compelling character through the book either. He remains somewhat pompous, presumptuous, and self-centered. The fact that the book uses the character to also repeatedly pass judgment on American culture:

  • "Jean was bored, Chandra decided that Western ailment caused by the collapse of the joint family and the invention of labor-saving devices."
  • "It was six promiscuous yet deeply conservative youngsters who lived well below their means and, with the exception of the academic, lacked any ambition, drive, intelligence or common sense. In economic terms they were idiots, though this was also true of ninety percent of undergraduates."
  • "... he still blamed them for failing to elect Hillary Knows-Some-Economics Clintons, which was more than could be said for the Oaf who wouldn't know a demand curve curve it if wrapped itself around his pizza-laden stomach."
  • "But this was the way it was nowadays:  those who had a proper education used it for knavery, while those who lacked one did not think it important."

The fact that Professor Chandra's adventure in the USA leads to Esalen seems to just build on the stereotype of self-discovery. In the professor's context, it just does not ring true.

Satire? Perhaps that is the intent. Unfortunately, for me, it does not work.

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

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Light over London

Title:  The Light Over London
Author:  Julia Kelly
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2019. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1501196413 / 978-1501196416

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was the discovery the Cara loved most:  digging through the forgotten, the memorialized, the tossed-aside, and the cherished.

Favorite Quote:  "When Cara couldn't unearth the history of a piece, she spun stories for herself. It was easier than thinking about her own mistakes and the regrets she carried. While she worked, she could escape into the comfort of someone else's life for a few hours."

2017. Cara. Recent divorce. Recent loss of her parents in a car accident. Recent new job with an antique dealer. Recent relocation to a rental house. A lot in Cara's life has changed recently. A lot exists that she must still work through and reconcile with. Her support is her grandmother. Despite the love between her and her grandmother, Cara knows there are secrets that must be talked about. Enter stage left - A handsome new neighbor who happens to be a history professor.

1941. Louise. An only child. A young woman whose path in life seems to be chosen for her - an expected marriage to a local boy and life in the same small village - Haybourne, Cornwall - in which she has lived her whole life. A dream of a life beyond the expectations. Her support comes from her more outgoing cousin Kate. Enter stage left - A handsome pilot who says all the right things. Surrounding all of them is the war.

The history. Louise makes an impulse decision to run away and volunteer for the war effort. A recognition of her aptitude lead to becoming a gunner or "ack-ack" girl. The "ack-ack" stands for anti-aircraft artillery. It took a crew of specialists to work each anti-aircraft station on the ground. The women joined the war effect through the Auxiliary services including the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Allowing women on mixed-gender ack-ack crews was a new decision. Only the men were allowed to load and fire the guns; the women comprised the rest of the team.

The connection from 1941 to 2017. Louise kept a journal. Cara comes upon the journal which taking inventory of an estate whose contents are to be sold. The journal is worthless in the sale, but it captures Cara's imagination. She sets on a mission to discover the writer and to restore the journal to the owner or at least her family. Cara's other connection is her knowledge that her grandmother was also part of the war effort, and the secrets she refuses to talk about relate to the war.

The book, like many others, goes back and forth between Cara's story and Louise's story. Louise's story is more about her relationship with a soldier than about the ATS service. The book really has no surprises. It is pretty clear from the beginning where Louise's story with the pilot is going and where Cara's relationship with her new neighbor is going. The secret that Cara's grandmother has been keeping does not come as a shock either. While the history of Louise's story is more interesting, Cara's story itself is the more compelling. I do wish there was a surprise or more of a focus on the history, but an entertaining story that led me to learn a little more history.

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

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Once Upon a River

Title:  Once Upon A River
Publication Information:  Atria/Emily Bestler Books. 2018. 480 pages.
ISBN:  0743298071 / 978-0743298070

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

Opening Sentence:  "There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a day's walk from the source."

Favorite Quote:  "A river no more begins at its source than a story begins with the first page."

The river in question is the River Thames. It is not as it flows through London but by an ancient inn a ways away. This is a place where stories are told, and sometimes stories happen. This particular story involves an injured man and, more importantly, a small child. This child - a girl - appears lifeless. Until she awakens.

So begins this story of what is deemed a miracle and, more importantly, a mystery. Who is this girl? How did she come to this place? Three possible answers arise. A young mother's daughter has been missing for two years. A farmer stands ready to welcome a granddaughter he never knew he had. A lonely woman sees her sister. Who is right? Where does the girl belong?

The cover, the setup, and the description are beautifully atmospheric. The writing creates a vivid visual of this place - the inn and the river - and a sense of isolation. The book creates a sense of something coming - an impending revelation or climax. However, for me that never happens. Like Bellman and Black, this book creates a wonderful atmosphere and builds an anticipation. However, that moment never comes.

To some extent, the book describes itself. "Something happens and then something else happens and then all sorts of other things happen, expected and unexpected, unusual and ordinary." Some things happen, but the pacing of the book is very very slow, particularly since it does not build to a more dramatic conclusion. The book seems to slowly wander and meander through the story as the river does through the countryside.

The other issue is that the "something" that happens happens to a lot of people. The book has a lot of characters, each with its own complete story line it seems. The inn keeper and her husband. The wealthy couple navigating through marriage and the loss of a child. The farmer who is in search of his lost son. The lonely woman who longs for company. The young boy who dreams of running away. The young girl herself. All the stories could possibly be untangled and stand on their own.

I walk away feeling like I missed something. Was this a mystery? Was it a book about the supernatural? Was it a metaphor? I still have a vivid image in my mind of the river and the cold, but no real idea how to interpret the rest.

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

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Gods of Jade and Shadow

Title:  Gods of Jade and Shadow
Author:  Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publication Information:  Del Ray. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0525620753 / 978-0525620754

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

Opening Sentence:  "Some people are born under a lucky star, while others have their misfortune telegraphed by the position of the planets."

Favorite Quote:  "Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there's power in the myth. Yes, the things you name have power."

Casiopea Tun is the poor relation. She is being raised by a single mother, whose family does not approve of the choices she has made. Circumstances and economics have forced Casiopea and her mother to live with the family. They are treated as the servants of the house somewhat like a Cinderella.

Casiopea dreams of more, and in this, she is very much unlike Cinderella. The dream is not of a prince charming, but of independence, escape, and a future that lies beyond the small town in the Yucatan in which they live. This is the very "real" story of a young woman finding courage and strength to live that dream.

She is, however, very much forced into this choice by a god. One day she opens a box in her grandfather's room and gives rise to Hun-Kamé, the "Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba." Xibalba is the Underworld, and Hun-Kamé is the god of death. A fued with his brother left him defeated and only a set of bones in a locked box. Casiopea's grandfather is the keeper of the box.

Now released, Hun-Kamé is out for revenge and out to regain his throne. In this quest, he requires Casiopea's help. Casiopea, despite her fears, has no choice but to help. So begins a grand adventure that traverses the Yucatan and eventually makes it way to California.

This story is based on the Popul Vuh, a text of Mayan mythology about brothers, twins, the underworld, and a fight filled with tricks and treachery. The text dates from the sixteenth century and is purported to be the story of Creation. The title translates literally to "the Book of the Mat" for the woven mats people sat on to hear the text recited. The text has been referred to as the Mayan bible, but its history is not that of scripture but as a documentation of the universe as the people understood it.

Gods of Jade and Shadow sets its story in the Jazz Age, which is an interesting, almost modern, touch to a story that is ancient ancient mythology.

The book is violent at times, but, at the same time, has a light-hearted and sweet note. The fight amongst gods is a the background. So is the undercurrent of a brewing love story. Ultimately, this is, however, Casiopea's story, and she is a strong, female hero. She is often the one doing the saving rather than waiting to be saved. The final test is also hers to endure and decide. The final decision is completely a deliberate and conscious choice.

The presence of a strong female protagonist makes this book. Caseiopea and Hun-Kamé proceed from location to location on their quest. This episodic structure makes the book a very quick read. Casiopea's age and the adventure based plot give the book a young adult vibe. The basis in Mayan mythology points me in a direction to read a little bit more about that mythology. All in all, a dose of fun and adventure that is much needed.

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

Monday, December 2, 2019

Home for Erring and Outcast Girls

Title:  Home for Erring and Outcast Girls
Author:  Julie Kibler
Publication Information:  Crown. 2019. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0451499336 / 978-0451499332

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

Opening Sentence:  "Even when Mattie's great big dreams had troubled Lizzie, she'd envied her something fierce, for Lizzie came from nightmares, too fearful to dream."

Favorite Quote:  "It's possible to long for home, even when you don't have one."

The Berachah Industrial Home for the Redemption of Erring Girls was founded in 1903 on the outskirts of Arlington, Texas by Reverend James T. Upchurch and his wife Maggie May Upchurch. The word berachah means blessing in Hebrew.

The concept was a revolutionary one. The home was to provide support and guidance for "erring girls" / "fallen women". The home took in young women, often pregnant, and provided a home, education, and work. There were two stipulations. The girls were to "err" no more, and the babies would not be given up for adoption but raised by the mothers. The home operated until 1935. All that remains of the home today is a cemetery which contains about 80 graves. Many are simply labeled "infant" to the point that the cemetery is referred to as the Lost Cemetary of Infants.

Inspired by this history, Julie Kibler brings to life the Berachah Home in this fictional story. The book uses the approach of two time periods - a current day character who stumbles upon the history of the home and two women - Lizzie and Mattie - who were residents of the home.

Cate Sutton is a university librarian with a history and a past that results in a solitary life. In her new job, she stumbles on to the cemetery that is the only remaining monument to the home. That sets her on a search to uncover more. At the same time, she stumbles upon a tenuous friendship with a student, who has a hidden history and past of her own.

Lizzie and Mattie come to the Berachah Home for the same reason that many others did. There was simply no other option if they were to survive and perhaps protect their children. The two form an instant bond that lasts throughout their lifetime. The two make very different choices for their lives, yet throughout, the bond of friendship - a family found - remains.

Through Lizzie and Mattie, the book explores the work of the Berachah Home - its workshops providing dignity of work, its faith based teachings, its sometimes contentious presence in the community, and its ability to create a family and a sanctuary for women who had no other. It also explores the other end of this story in that "everyone might be worth saving, but not everyone can be saved."

Both the current day story and the story of the past put forth an emotional connection. The "surprise" of Cate's story is not really a surprise. The only connection of her story to Lizzie and Mattie's stories is that of acceptance - by family, by friends, and by certain parts of society. That connection too is at best tenuous.

As is common with books using this structure, I find the story of the past the more compelling and more emotional one. In addition, that story does what I love about historical fiction. It introduces me to history I did not know, and it motivates me to go and research that actual history. The fiction creates the introduction, and the research teaches me the history.

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

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Bad Axe County

Title:  Bad Axe County
Author:  John Galligan
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1982110708 / 978-1982110703

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

Opening Sentence:  "The clammy hand of state representative Cyrus Johnsrud (R-Portage) has released her elbow and is drifting down her spine, stopping to savor each vertebra through the fabric of her gown."

Favorite Quote:  "... nobody is cutting you slack for your pain from the past. You're in charge here. You're the boss ... You can either do this job or you can't. We need you to do do it ... but if you can't separate the past from the present, even the people who support your are going to freak..."

Bad Axe County is place in rural Wisconsin. This is book one in what is planned to be series. The main character is Heidi Kick, the first female sheriff of the county - at least an interim sheriff. Heidi is Bad Axe County born and bred.

She is a police officer despite, or perhaps because of her traumatic childhood. When Heidi was in high school, her parents were shot dead on their farm. It was ruled a murder suicide with her father accused of killing her mother before he shot himself. Heidi never believed it, but she survived. Now, Heidi is a police officer, a wife, a mother, and she still does not believe the story told about her past. She wants to prove it otherwise. She may have survived the trauma, but she has never recovered.

That is the background and the past coming into Heidi's present. That present also holds secrets of its own. There are many in town who would like to see her fail. There are many with secrets of their own. It is Heidi's job and quest to unravel it all.

All this angst and intrigue manifests itself in an ice storm and in a missing teenager. That is the current mystery of the book. This mystery goes in a direction I completely do not see coming especially in a setting like rural Wisconsin.

Without saying where this book goes, I will say the topic really surprises me. I had no idea, and it sent me researching. It turns out that the issue is a very real problem in the area, and it endangers some of the most vulnerable in our society. The fact that the mystery centers around a missing teenage girl should give you a clue as to the nature of the crime. Trigger warning:  The book does depict horrific and violent treatment of young women.

The book does not depict the physical beauty or grand natural vistas of Wisconsin. Rather, it focuses on the human-created terror and despair. It leaves a one-sided image of corruption and violence. I hope future books show some of the peace and beauty the images of Wisconsin conjure up for me, if only to contrast with the actions of the characters. It would reinforce the point that good can survive in the most inhospitable surroundings just as evil can thrive in a serene, bucolic setting.

Both the story of Heidi's past and the current mystery of the missing girl lead to an action packed book travelling the back roads of Wisconsin. The two stories, however, travel in tandem and have only a tangential connection. Even Heidi's marriage and children become a background to the action of the book.

Perhaps, the back story is there to establish Heidi as a character. Perhaps, it is something that will be explored further up in subsequent books. Regardless, I find myself much more interested in the current day mystery and the social issues it leads me to research and learn more about. For that reason, I may look for the next in the series.

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Call Your Daughter Home

Title:  Call Your Daughter Home
Author:  Deb Spera
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0778307743 / 978-0778307747

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

Opening Sentence:  "It's easier to kill a man than a gator, but it takes the same kind of wait."

Favorite Quote:  "Listen to what I tell you ... If you reach a point in life where it feels there is only dark around you, that's 'cause there is. You got to find the light. A hole can be a haven, but you can't stay in a hole forever. What's dark must come to light. Every person needs the sun."

The 1920s in Brancheville, South Carolina was a time of racial and economic divisions. Those differences and divisions permeate this book but are not the story of this book. This is a book about women and about mothers. It is about mothers' love that transcends race, religion, and culture.

This is the story of three very different women and the heartaches they bear and the choices they make to protect the ones they love.

Annie is the lady to the manor born. She is the matriarch to the Coles family. She is mother to four grown children - two men and two women. She is a successful business woman in her own right and, at the same time, the Southern belle at the side of her husband. She has seen much in her life, and yet much that should have been evident escaped her notice until now. The question is what will she do now that she knows?

Gertrude is white and poor, married to an abusive drunk. She too is a mother to four children - four young children. Her single sole purpose is to survive and to protect her children from that which she has suffered. She is willing to do whatever she has to save her children.

Retta is a first-generation, freed slave. She works for Annie and is a friend to both Annie and Gertrude. She is in a strong, loving marriage made perhaps even stronger by the losses of their past.

Seemingly, these women have nothing in common, and yet, they are united. That is the theme of this book. What unites these women is their combined strength in standing up for and in protecting their children. "Can't always stand to the side... Sometimes you got to try to change what you don't like."

The story is told through the alternating voices of these three women. It is slow paced and character driven until towards the end. The ending is one I do not see coming but which connects the dots and seems clear when the revelation does arrive. Reader warning: This book does go into issues of abuse against women and children.

"Sheriff said to me, before he left, that maybe people get what they deserve. But I don't believe that's true. My mama didn't deserve to forget the family who loved her, any more than we deserved to see her suffer, any more than Retta and the Missus deserved their heartache. People get what they get." These women get what they get and yet manage to create a life and a family. It is the characters and voices of these women that make the book come to life and create the emotional connection that make this a memorable read. "Men can't bear what women must. They jump to cry insanity as cause for a woman's unhappiness; the utterance of the unutterable must be dementia. It's just too much to consider otherwise."

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

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Mrs. Everything

Title:  Mrs. Everything
Author:  Jennifer Weiner
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2019. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1501133489 / 978-1501133480

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

Opening Sentence:  "Her cell phone rang as they were on their way out of the movies."

Favorite Quote:  "She'd lost her taste for fiction. Sometimes she thought it was because spending even a few hours in an imaginary world would make it too tempting for her to consider other versions of her own story, other ways it could have unfolded. A different ending, a truly happily-ever-after."

Mrs. Everything, as the title implies, is a story of women. It is a story of a woman trying to do everything and be everything that society expects her to. It is a story of that continuing for a long time until finally she cannot. It is a story of a woman making the choice to go her own way and of the impact that leaves on her family.

The story begins with Jo. It is a story that begins at the end. It begins with a diagnosis that signals an ending. It offers a final opportunity to make things right, to impart lessons, to heal wounds, and to soothe a conscience:

  • "Women had made progress ... but she wondered whether they would ever not try to have it all and do it all all and do all of it flawlessly. Would the day ever come when simply doing your best would be enough? Her generation hadn't managed it, and neither had her daughters."
  • "We lose ourselves ... but we find our way back ... Wasnt' that the story of her life ... You make the wrong choices, you make mistakes, you disappear for a decade, you marry the wrong man. You get hurt. You lose sight of who you are, or of who you want to be, and then you remember, and if you're lucky you have sisters or friends who remind you when you forget your best intentions. You come back to yourself, again and again. You try, and fail, and try again, and fail again."
  • "She wished she'd spent more time teaching her girls that women should forgive themselves, showing them how to take care of themselves with kindness. The world was hard enough, would beat them up enough without them adding to the pain."

The story begins with sisters, Jo and Bethie. The names, of course, make me think of Little Women. Coincidental or not? I have no idea, but misplaced in this setting. The correlation, intended or imagined in my mind, does not work here.

The story is also Jo and her own daughters - the decisions, the choices, the heartbreak, and the love as it can only exist between mothers and daughters.

I appreciate the premise of this book. I even somewhat agree with the thought of women who still try and do it all and be everything to everyone. I even see the futility of that.

Yet, I end up not the reader for this book for a couple of reasons. I am not a reader for books with a lot of sexual display or discussion, and this book has both. I am also not a fan of the drug use and discussion that finds its way into this family story. Mostly, though, the book loses me because I find it to be over dramatized. To me, the need to include drama after drama and a little bit of everything that could face a woman in the book diminishes the challenges that the title of "Mrs. Everything" poses. There are challenges enough in daily life without reaching out for the extremes. The extremes leave the lasting impression rather than the strength of the women navigating the challenges.

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Sunset Beach

Title:  Sunset Beach
Author:  Mary Kay Andrews
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2019. 432 pages.
ISBN:  125012610X / 978-1250126108

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

Opening Sentence:  "Drue turned the key in the ignition and the white Bronco's engine gave a dispirited cough, and then nothing."

Favorite Quote:  "I'm afraid of lots of things ... I just hide it better than most people."

The cover and title of this book indicates chick lit, women's fiction, and a summer beach read. What this book delivers is that plus an actual, entertaining mystery.

An accident ends Drue Campbell's athletic career. Her mother dies. Her estranged father reappears at her mother's funeral. She inherits a dilapidated cottage, which just happens to be right on the beach. She is in trouble emotionally and financially. Her father offers her a job. It's a job she does not want but may be forced to take. Her car dies. She meets a new friend. Did I mention her father happens to now be married to someone she knew in middle school?

Let's just say life is not going Drue Campbell's way. So, what does she do? Sulk? Wallow? Nope. She picks up the pieces and keeps going. Her new job with people very much from her past lands her in the middle of a murder mystery.

It all begins with wanting to help a grieving family. Good intentions that open up a whole mountain of corruption, money, and cover ups. It turns out Drue Campbell has a penchant for adventure and a flair for detective work. Who knew?

This is actually the first Mary Kay Andrews book I have read. I understand that this book is a departure from her recent works, which have very much been summer beach reads with a Southern flair in the sense that the cover of this book implies. This book has caught some of her fans unaware because the expectations do not match the reality. Interestingly Mary Kay Andrews started her career as a journalist and wrote ten mysteries under her real name, Kathy Hogan Trocheck before changing directions into the work she is currently known for. After her success as Mary Kay Andrews, the original mystery series has been released under the pen name "Mary Kay Andrews writing as Kathy Hogan Trochek." So, a mystery is not really a departure for her but rather a return to her roots. For me, with this being my first book by the author, I have no expectations.

Getting back to this book... A likable main character? Not always. A created romance? Most definitely. A contrived set of circumstances that enable a rookie to solve a mystery that has been a cold case for years? Too much so. A quiet book about beach days? Not quite. A light entertaining beach read? Not quite in the way I envision based on the cover and title but yes. Quickly read, quickly forgotten, but fun while it lasts.

The only remaining question is... Is this the start to a new series and an introduction to Mary Kay Andrews, mystery writer?

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Ash Family

Title:  The Ash Family
Author:  Molly Dektar
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501144863 / 978-1501144868

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

Opening Sentence:  "Bay and I approached the farm at dawn."

Favorite Quote:  "... time is not a daisy chain but a big stack, each moment stacking on top of the next. You're always watched over by your future self. So your departed ... are always with you, and a moment of love is as good as a lifetime of love."

Berie is nineteen and on her way to college. Her mother has worked hard all her life to get Berie to this point and continues to make sacrifices to make college possible. Berie meets a random stranger at the bus stop and decides to take off with him in search of a different life. This brings her to a commune and the makeshift Ash "family."

So begins the story of this self-entitled teenager who goes in search of herself. Some of her internal dialogues express her level of maturity or lack thereof:
  • "But it was easier to love the Ash Family as an act of defiance, an act of scorn against all who had hurt me - rather than to love the Ash Family as a last resort."
  • "Oh, why couldn't I just be content with what I had? I was always looking for more. Maybe I would never be satisfied. The fake world was not enough, and neither was the real world, and I didn't know what to do; I hated myself."
  • "I reminded myself, 'Get relativity." Who was I to know whether something was good or bad? By what standards did we judge? The saddest moment might be the happiest moment. The thing and its opposite are kissing cousins. When you're sure that you're right, you're most wrong."
Not unexpectedly, she discovers that things with the Ash "family" are not quite as they seems and that this supposed, off the grid utopia may be hiding secrets more sinister than she imagines. The question is what choice will she make? Will she stay? Will she try and get out? Will she succeed?

Unfortunately, I find that I am not the reader for this book for many reasons. I find none of the characters likable. The main character is loved in her life; as such, I find her choices self-indulgent. The Ash "family" is a cult, and what they stand for unfortunately does not end up being a philosophical or ethical ground.

Perhaps, the biggest issue I have is the book's continuous reference to the "false" or "fake" world and the "real" world. The real news these days is a quagmire of claims of fake news and other such things. To me, it is a dangerous thing to see it mirrored in fiction, particularly in one that has a young adult as the main character and young adults as the potential audience.

The book may have been saved for me had there been a reckoning or a epiphany at the end. Unfortunately, that does not happen either. Rather, it seems to end just as randomly as it begins, with no apparent lesson learned. Sadly, I am really not the reader for this book.

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

Monday, November 11, 2019

Josephine Baker's Last Dance

Title:  Josephine Baker's Last Dance
Author:  Sherry Jones
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501102443 / 978-1501102448

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

Opening Sentence:  "Sleep?"

Favorite Quote:  "People don't come to the theater for truth. Her fans want the dream, the candy coating:  a face with no lines, a heart never broken, a life free of cares."

Josephine Baker's Last Dance is another entry into the cadre of books that presents fictionalized stories of historical figures. So, who was Josephine Baker? Josephine Baker was an American who made France her adopted home. She was a woman of color who found greater acceptance and tolerance in Europe than in the United States as a young woman and even later in life during the 1960s and 1970s. She was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture. She was an entertainer. She was an agent of the French resistance during World War II. She was a civil rights activist.

Once again, fiction introduces me to a strong woman who I might never have met through the history books. I read the fiction and then go off to find out more about the history. However, I have high standards for the fiction as well. In this one, the lasting image of the book is not one of Josephine Baker, resistance fighter and activist but rather of Josephine Baker, a woman who survives a myriad of relationships.

The focal point of the book definitely is the men in Josephine Baker's life and the relationships - business and personal, loving and dysfunctional to the point of abusive. A lot of time is spent describing her childhood which ranged from neglectful to abusive. This felt like the most "real" part of the book as I feel for this little girl who wants her parent's love and is rejected time and time again. Her survival is a testament to courage and grit. Yet, the time developing this aspect of the story seems disproportionate to what comes after and how the rest of the story is told.

For example, the book tells briefly about the move La Sirene des Tropiques (The Siren of the Tropics) but focuses on one of her marriages which occurred at that time. It is only in my nonfiction research that I discover the significance of her role in that movie. The book makes it appear as a minor element of her career.

Similarly, later in life, Josephine Baker adopted children of different religions and ethnicities, hoping to create a "Rainbow Tribe" showing that we are one. The book speaks of the first adoption but focuses on her husband's anticipated and actual reaction more so than on her dream. Again, this aspect of her life is touched on and then passed over.

Along with the sometimes misplaced focus comes a feeling that I have throughout the book. It feels like I am being told a story. Something is missing in that the story never quite seems to come to life. It seems always from a distance. That is surprising as the woman and what I have read of her in historical sources seems larger than life with a vibrancy and spirit that should jump off the page. This fictional telling never quite gets there, but I am glad for the introduction it provides to this unique woman.

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

Friday, October 11, 2019

Night of Miracles

Title:  Night of Miracles
Author:  Elizabeth Berg
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  052550950X / 978-0525509509

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

Opening Sentence:  "Surely you've had this happen."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is a mystery, death is a mystery, and everything in between is a mystery, too. The main thing is, people who are here, are here, for their own unique time upon earth."

The Story of Arthur Truluv was a story about loneliness and about friendship that can be found in the unlikeliest of places and about the family we create. For that, it was a sweet, sentimental, and heart warming story set in the small town of Mason, Missouri.

This book continues on the story of this small town. Lucille and Maddy - primarily Lucille - from the first book feature in this one also. This book introduces a new cast as well with their own need for support and community. This book is a sequel in the sense that it is the same place and some of the same characters. It stands alone in that reading the first book is not essential to following or understanding this story.

This is a book about recognizable, ordinary people living every day lives. Lucille is reflecting on age and the people she has lost. Maddy is contemplating marriage and the changes that will bring. Abby is facing illness and an uncertain future. Monica is looking for love, sometimes in all the wrong places. Iris is looking for a new beginning.

As with the first, the characters of this book embody a "character" - the lonely older woman, the divorced woman starting over, the ill mother, the happily engaged having misgivings, the father trying to keep home stable as his wife battles illness, and the little boy who steals everyone's heart.

This book is about not character growth or development. It is not about major plot twists or drama. It is not about depth of story. What happens is about what you would expect to happen. The book is just a quiet, sweet story about community and the families we create.

Mind you, this book is not as spiritual or metaphysical as the title would suggest. Visits from the angel of death also happen in this book, but that is an odd note in a book that is other wise about community and "regular" people. The other odd note in the book is the death of a character and the circumstances that is placed in. A bathtub? Really? To me, that too is not in keeping with the otherwise quiet and sanitized tone of this book.

This is not a lighthearted book either. Lucille's musings are focused on the losses in her life. A young mother fights a life-threatening illness. Another works through the loneliness of betrayal.

What resonated about The Story of Arthur Truluv also resonates about this book. It is a book about recognizable, ordinary people living ordinary lives. This one just does not strike the chord quite as strongly as the first one did.

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