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.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Kinship of Secrets

Title:  The Kinship of Secrets
Author:  Eugenia Kim
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1328987825 / 978-1328987822

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

Opening Sentence:  "On a chilly summer night, a newsmonger trudged uphill to a residential enclave of Seoul, the last neighborhood on his route."

Favorite Quote:  "... change happens with the slip of a word ... and one's view of the past and future were mutable."

War divides families in so many ways. This has been a reality through history and continues to be a reality for so many throughout the world. It is in fact the reality of the author's family. This fiction is written based on Eugenia Kim's own family history - modified and fictionalized but, at the heart of it, true.

Korea was divided into two sovereign nations in 1948, the point at which this book begins. The Korean War began in 1950 and ended in 1953 although technically no peace treaty has ever been signed. Technically, the war still goes on.

This book tells the story of a family - specifically, two sisters - divided and then reunited. In 1948, Najin and Calvin Cho leave South Korea for the United States. The seek better opportunities and leave with the hope of one day coming back. They are parents to two daughters - Miran and Inja. They take Miran with them and leave Inja behind with extended family. The decision is based on practicalities - health, travel, and economics. Even more so, perhaps, it is promise to return.

In alternating chapters, this book tells the story of Miran and Inja. Miran grows up, safe and secure in the United States. Yet, she faces the challenges of a first generation immigrant. She is also continually in the shadow of the sister left behind and aware of her parents' sorrow. Inja survives the harrowing years of the war; she grows up poor and at risk but always loved. It takes years, but finally at age sixteen, Inja is reunited with her parents. At this point, her parents and sister are not the family she knows, and the United States is not the culture she knows. That brings with it its own transition and challenges.

As is common with books that alternate perspectives, one side of the story calls to me more so. In this case, it is the Inja's story. Hers is the story of war, survival, and the immigrant experience. It is the story of the child left behind and then of the child separated from all that she knows and thrust into a new culture and a new life. She is always surrounded by love and yet faces hardship after hardship. Miran's story is the quieter one also of the immigrant experience and also of a child who grows up knowing that her parents' life is not complete with just her. She sees a longing in her parents for her sister that, in her thoughts, sometimes surpasses the love they show her.

The one jarring note in this book is the ultimate secret of why the Najin and Calvin take Miran and leave Inja behind. To me, that history becomes an unnecessary distraction from the heartbreaking choice to leave a child behind. It creates a difference between the two sisters that undermines that choice by placing an external burden on it. It is an unneeded note in an otherwise powerful and moving book.

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

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Rain Watcher

Title:  The Rain Watcher
Author:  Tatiana de Rosnay
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1250200016 / 978-1250200013

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

Opening Sentence:  "I will start with the tree."

Favorite Quote:  "... how come  his own mother had never noticed? The answer was clear, then. It was because she had never wanted to see it."

A family with secrets and history. A father whose passion is trees. A mother who marries in a whirlwind romance and then has a lifetime of secrets. A son who has yet to feel comfortable in his own skin, particularly around his family. A daughter with a dysfunctional marriage and a past buried in guilt. A beautiful city about to drown as the river floods. A few days time but a lifetime of memories and history.

This is the background of The Rain Watcher set in Paris as a family comes together to celebrate the father's birthday. As you might suspect, this is cause of reflection and conversations and history and perhaps a reckoning. You might expect this to be a powerful novel of strong emotions about a city, about family, about love and about acceptance.

Except that it is really not. Even now, I am not really sure what the point of the book really is. There are so many story lines opened and questions asked. None of them really go anywhere. Affairs. Accidents. Survivor's guilt. Abuse. Sexual identity. Parent-child bond. Marriage. Infidelity. Family expectations. Suicide. All of these familial ties wind back and forth through time and the history of this family; it is easy to get lost. All are set within the impending doom of the Seine flooding except that there is never a climactic culmination to that sense of anticipation.

An interesting naturalist note in the book. Paul Linden - the father - is a world renowned tree expert. The trees are his passion. You might even say the trees are his life. The how and the whys of this are never really explained except that the point is made that this passion seems to exclude pretty much everything else in his life. His two children are named Tilia and Linden. Tilia is a group of about 30 species of trees native to the Northern Hemisphere. Linden is the name given to the European varieties of that tree. Coincidence? Probably not, but then again not explained in the book.

The message I walk away with from this book is that children, no matter how old they get and no matter how successful they become in other parts of their lives, still seek and need their parents' approval. That approval may never come. Logically, the child (even adult children) may realize that it may never come, but the need for it never really goes away. A sad and emotional reality that unfortunately does not quite take center stage in this book. The stories are opened and the questions are asked. However, they don't really go anywhere. Perhaps, there is a greater metaphorical point to be made in that structure. Unfortunately, I don't get it.

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Well-Behaved Woman

Title:  A Well-Behaved Woman:  A Novel of the Vanderbilts
Author:  Therese Anne Fowler
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1250095476 / 978-1250095473

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

Opening Sentence:  "When they asked her about the Vanderbilts and Belmonts, about their celebrations and depredation, the mansions and balls, the lawsuits, the betrayals, the rifts - when they asked why she did the extreme things she'd done, Alva said it all began quite simply:  Once there was a desparate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying almost as quickly as his money was running out."

Favorite Quote:  "... a change in fortune doesn't change who a person is. It reveals your true self, the one you were maybe hiding away."

The well-behaved woman of the title is Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva Smith was the name she was born with. Vanderbilt was the name she married into, and Belmont came later. While Smith may not be a recognized name, the Vanderbilt and Belmont names have both provided this nation with a legacy. Alva is a part of that legacy, with a contribution all her own.

This book is part of a growing trend of fictionalizing the lives of actual historical figures. The books don't simply reference historical characters. They create an image of what that life may have been like. Rule #1 of reading these books is to always remember that the books are not biographies. They are not history. They are a carefully crafted fiction - an author's imaginings of conversations and emotions and of events of which there may be no history. Typically, the works are researched so as to be based in history, but they are not history.

What I love about historical fiction is that it sends me in search of the history. I likely would never have picked up a biography of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. This fiction though did set me reading briefly about her actual life. What I learned is fascinating. Alva's legacy finds a home in the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument in Washington DC. Alva was a notable member of the National Woman's Party, which was active in promoting the women's suffragette movement and critical in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

I learned most of this from researching nonfictional sources about Alva's life but unfortunately not this book. The book does get there but late and only briefly. The bulk of this fictional story focuses on Alva's life as a young woman, her quest to marry William Vanderbilt, and their married life. It speaks to a life of poverty and a determined, concerted effort to emerge from that life through the way open to women at that time - marriage. It is about a marriage with its conveniences, its compromises, and its betrayals. It speaks to the gilded age of New York city, the lifestyles of the rich, and the glamorous homes they built. It is about the navigation and machinations to achieve and maintain a social strata and pecking order if you will.

I do wish the focus of the book had been flipped. It ends almost as Alva's true contribution to this nation's history begins. This story takes the history of a strong woman and makes it about money and marriage rather than work. It does lead me to research and learn about that contribution but unfortunately fails to capture it in the book itself. Interesting but leaves a lot missing.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Widow of Pale Harbor

Title:  The Widow of Pale Harbor
Author:  Hester Fox
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1525834266 / 978-1525834264

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

Opening Sentence:  "This was the fourth dead raven to appear on Sophronia Carver's front path in as many weeks, and there was no explaining it away as coincidence this time."

Favorite Quote:  "A bird in a cage was no safer than a bird in a bush if someone chose to reach their hand in and pluck it out. At least the bird in the bush had the chance to fly away."

The Widow of Pale Harbor is Hester Fox's sophomore novel. Her debut was The Witch of Willow Hall. Both books have a similar structure and feel. The main character is a woman. Both are set in small towns and around atmospheric, old houses. Both have elements of witchcraft and past scandals and a very Gothic feel. Both have an element of romance.

This book adds a recurring reference to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which adds interest. In fact, it prompts an interest in rereading some of his amazing works. Interesting, this October marks the 170th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps explaining the time and the references in this book. The setting for this book is in Maine in 1846; it is concurrent with the final years of Edgar Allen Poe so his work is the "current" work of the day.

The Witch of Willow Hall ultimately was about a young woman finding her voice and owning her strengths and abilities. I enjoyed that story. The Widow of Pale Harbor unfortunately veers too much in the direction of a romance, which is not my preferred genre of reading.

Let's set the stage. Sophronia (Sophie) is a wealthy young widow living a secluded life in Pale Harbor. She is deemed a witch and responsible for the death of her husband. She is the scapegoat for all that goes wrong in the town. Gabriel Stone is the new transcendentalist minister in town except for the fact that he is not really a minister. He is here trying to fulfill the dream of his dead wife. Strange happenings - dead animals, warnings, threats, and more - abound in this town. The mystery is who is truly responsible.

Ultimately, this book ends up being more Gabriel's story and more romance than anything else. Unfortunately, Gabriel's character does not ring true. He is set up as a man devastated by his wife's death making his purpose in life to fulfill her dream. He meets Sophie, and there is instant attraction and an instant love story. The "instant" belies the depth of his feelings for his wife. The book also reveals in a sentence or two the back story of Gabriel and his wife. The events so succinctly written also belie the idea of Gabriel's grief at her death and the idea that he will dedicate his life to making her dream a reality.

The mystery of the book also has a very prosaic, very worldly ending. The supernatural and Gothic elements are lost in those very human, very criminal actions.

What made The Witch of Willow Hall work was the strong female main character and her growth and progression through the book. Sophie, the widow in this book, demonstrates no such change. She is depicted more as a victim, which makes for less engaging reading.

Although I was not the reader for this particular book except for the Edgar Allen Poe references, I do look forward to seeing what Hester Fox writes next. I enjoy the atmospheric setup and hope that the next book comes back to telling the story of a strong woman rather than that of a romance.

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

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Lost Letters of William Woolf

Title:  The Lost Letters of William Woolf
Author:  Helen Cullen
Publication Information:  Gradon House. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1525892088 / 978-1525892080

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

Opening Sentence:  "Love letters have  only one hope for survival."

Favorite Quote:  "You were my best friend. Whenever anyone hurt me, you made me better. Whenever I was scared, it was into your arms I ran. Whenever I was lost, you found me. So what do you do when the person you count on most in the world is the person that's hurting you? Where do you go? To whom do you turn?"

There is a song called Escape or The Pina Colada Song by Rupert Holmes. That is the soundtrack of this book for me. If you know the song, you know how that story ends. The question is ... how does the story of William Woolf end? The book itself poses the question.

"It wasn't just their physical selves that had changed, though, that part was easily understood; what confused him was trying to identify when their feelings had altered. Was it a million little incremental changes over a long period of time? Or something obvious he had missed. If their essential selves were still the same, couldn't they find each other again? Or had they traveled too far down separate roads to reconnect in a different but happier place?"

That question arises in so many relationships somewhere along the way. The story lies in what each person in the relationship does with that question. What decisions are made? What compromises? What mistakes? At some point, what is done that is irrevocable.

The fact that this is the main point of the book is not clear from the beginning. William Woolf works at the Dead Letters Depot, a final repository of letters that for some reason or another have been undeliverable. William's journey of self-reflection begins with letters addressed to "My Great Love." I expect the book to be more about the letters and the potential and the mystery of letters that never arrive. To me, the letter has the potential to change lives. In this day and age, letter writing is unfortunately a dying art. I know, however, that I have certain letters in my life that are a part of my history and that I will hold on to forever.

I am a little disappointed that this is not the direction the book takes. As it evolves into a book about relationships, the letters and the Dead Letter Depot becomes just the background environment. The story the book tells still has relevance and emotion for many people. It is just not the story I expected to read.

Intermingled with the story of the marriage is William and Clare's history and their individual disappointments with the direction life has taken. William's goals for developing his work at the Depot into more seems thwarted at every turn. Clare has given up her passion to purse a career that supports financial security. Loneliness exists in this togetherness, and loneliness leads to dreams and other decisions that do not belong in a marriage. At the same time, their history demonstrates what brought them together.

There is also no real surprise or twist to the story of that relationship. It is a quiet exploration of what it means to love in the context of a long-term marriage. In that, the book makes a sad statement. "... the older I get, I realize that love is not enough on its own. It's the day-to-day reality of living with someone that really counts? What's love got to do with it?" To me, it depends on the definition of love and commitment. Love should have everything to do with it just as I wish the Dead Letter Depot had more to do with this story.

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

Monday, September 9, 2019

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl

Title:  A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl
Author:  Jean Thompson
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1501194364 / 978-1501194368

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was the end of lilac season, that brief, heady time."

Favorite Quote:  "Most marriages had their share of bad spells, or of just bumping along. Laura knew that now. Knew that most people stayed married in spite of the unhappy parts. They hung on and waited for things to get better, or they walled themselves off from each other, or built their enmity for each other into a solid and enduring structure."

Grandmother. Mother. Daughter. Evelyn. Laura. Grace. All are women. All are girls. These women are three generations of a family in a small Midwestern town. This is a book not about a story but about women and the choices they make and the reverberations of those choices through the generations.

The choices most influential in their lives have to do with the men in their lives. All three in one way or another cater to the men in their lives.

Evelyn once dreams of getting a PhD. An affair in college leads to an unplanned pregnancy. Fear leads to a hasty marriage of convenience. She fulfills the duties of her marriage but builds a lifetime of resentments for the dreams she walked away from.

As a child, Laura finds her mother distant perhaps because Evelyn dreams of another life. Laura goes completely the direction. She is not looking for a career. Home and a family are her calling. Unfortunately, the man she marries turns out to be a drunk. Early on in their marriage, Laura finds herself increasingly isolated because of her husband's offensive behavior. To make matters worse, their son Michael, unfortunately is also in and out of rehab.

Grace is still young, at about 20 years old. She has watched her mother and learns the lessons from her mother's behaviors. Will she make the same choices as her mother and her grandmother? Will she change the paradigm to live a different life?

Evelyn and Laura make the choices they do, and then live in the unhappiness of the consequences and the unhappiness of the path not taken. Grace's story is still beginning so perhaps there is hope. However, for the most part, that sense of sadness permeates the book.

Be prepared. This book is a slow moving contemplation of these ideas and not really about a plot line. That meandering pace and the overwhelming sadness make this book a challenge. The bigger challenge to the book though is the characters. The men in the book range from needy to cruel with none aware of or caring of the women in their lives. In other words, the men are one-dimenstional, serving only to accentuate the women's unhappiness. None of the three women stand out or make a lasting impression.

Much has been written about the choices you make when caught in an unhappy situation. Either change the situation or change yourself. The "situations" in this book cover a wide range - unexpected pregnancy, addiction, war, infidelity, illness, death and even more. The book is mostly about the impact of these factors on these women and their increasing resentment and unhappiness. It is considerably less about these women standing up and determining the course of their lives in these circumstances. I spend part of the time feeling sad for them and part of the time wanting to jolt them into action and make a different choice.

So, sadness and annoyance in equal measure seem to be sum total of this book for me.

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

Monday, August 12, 2019

Between Earth and Sky

Title:  Between Earth and Sky
Author:  Amanda Skenandore
Publication Information:  Kensington. 2018. 336 pages. 
ISBN:  1496713664 / 978-1496713667

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

Opening Sentence:  "Her past arrived that morning on page ten, tucked between a cross-hatched cartoon of striking trolley workers and an advertisement for derby hats."

Favorite Quote:  "You see life as a straight line. But for us, life is a circle. After something or someone enters our circle, they travel with us foever, influencing us even if they are not physically present. To us, there is no such thing as a goodbye."

Tasunka Ota "Plenty Horses" was a man from the Lakota tribe. In the 1880s, as a child, he was separated from his family and sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The school, founded in 1879, was a boarding school for the single purpose of assimilating Native American children into the "civilized" world of the white. No consideration was given for honoring the culture or traditions of the Native Americans. Children were removed from their families and dropped into the schools, and they were expected to be happy at the opportunity.

Plenty Horses was a resident of the Carlisle School for a number of years. He then left and was expected to make his own way in the white world. Years later, in the days following the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1891, Plenty Horses shot and killed Army Lieutenant Edward W. Casey. The history, the why and what happened after is the basis of this fictional account.

Note that the ending is not historically accurate, but the fictional story portrays the sad history in a powerful way. This is history we need to remember and ensure that it can never ever be repeated.

"Nine years I attended Stover School for Indians and was educated in the ways of the white man. But all the education in the workd could not change the color of my skin. I was not a white man and would never be treated as a white man. So I returned to my people. But even there I was an outcast for I no longer remembered the ways of the Indian. For years I lived a lonely life. A shadow life."

These are the words of Asku Muskrat, the main character in this book formulated from Tasunka Ota. The book, however, is more than his story. It centers around Alma Mitchell. She was the daughter of the man who founded and ran the assimilation school which Harry (his given white name) was forced to attend.

Alma's perspective in the book bring power to the message. As a child, she found friendship and acceptance amongst children even as she was taught that she did not belong with them, that she was separate, apart better. Throughout her childhood, she struggled between the taught idea that this school was trying to do its best for these children and the inequities and questions she witnessed. As an adult, guilt and sorrow follows her as she is confronted with the reality of a murder accusation.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote has been attributed to different people. The idea comes to mind today in this book as it does today. In the misguided attempt to assimilate Native Americans, homes and families were destroyed. Children were uprooted from their traditions and thrust into a world that would not accept them no matter what the assimilation lessons. Evil was perpetrated purposefully but also a tragedy was allowed to happen and enabled by those with seemingly good intentions. That is the sad, sad reality of this story and perhaps also of today. A powerful message.

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

Monday, August 5, 2019

We Were Mothers

Title:  We Were Mothers
Author:  Katie Sise
Publication Information:  Little A. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1503903621 / 978-1503903623

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

Opening Sentence:  "Swooning over a man who wasn't her husband made Cora feel terribly guilty, but how could anyone not swoon over Jeremy?"

Favorite Quote:  "... having a child is a tremendous act of optimism bordering on magical thinking. It was the biggest chance you could ever take."

We Were Mothers would probably better be titled ... We were wives. We were significant others. The book is much more about the relationships these women are in than their roles as mothers. The "drama" is about the children, but the story is really the marital, ex-marital, and extra-marital relationships. All these variations are present in this book, and then some.

The book is written in alternating chapters through four different points of view - Cora, Sarah, Jade, and Laurel. Cora is at the heart of the story. She is married to Sam and mother to twins. Sarah is Cora's mother. Her husband, Cora's father, left her for another woman, and her younger daughter Maggie died at age 22. These two facts have forever altered Sarah's life and have repercussions throughout this group. Jade was Maggie's best friend; she is married to Jeremy, whose main characteristic seems to be his physical appearance. Laurel is Cora's neighbor and is married to a surgeon named Dash (yes, Dash). Yes, they have children or are planning of having children. The plot of the book is about some of these offspring, but the story is about these marriages.

Confused yet? A little bit. It takes work to follow the alternating points of view and to keep track of who's who. The book, however, is a very quick read. Although marketed for its "suspense," the book is more like a soap opera. All the women are victims although some do eventually find their voice. All the men are ... well, to put in one word ... dirt. None of them seem to have any redeeming qualities. The marital relationships in the book range from sad to truly disturbing (reader, beware!). That imbalance of virtuous mothers and terrible husbands is a little too simplistic and too one-sided for me. It keeps the book from achieving greater depth, or, for me, a sense of reality.

The plot of the book is that Cora finds a journal belonging to Laurel's daughter in her house. Of course, she reads it. Perhaps, it is left there with that intent. Perhaps not. Of course, she learns a shocking secret. Then, Laurel's daughter disappears. Of course, one secret leads to a whole host of other secrets surrounding these women. Hence, while the question of what happened to Laurel is not all that mysterious at the end, it is also not truly central to the book. The marriages, relationships, and the secrets of the past are.

The story takes place over the course of the weekend, but the secrets cover a lifetime. The book is a very quick read, but it begins slow as a lot of time is spent on describing the setup & relationships of the lives of these women. Unfortunately, the setup does not successfully establish these women as characters I empathize with. They are in sad situations but unfortunately not particularly likable characters. That is perhaps because the secrets of this book are situational, and that is where the book stays. The characters do not seem to round out into individuals beyond the secret that defines their relationships. At the end, I am left with what appears to be a soap opera of a relatively affluent set of people in a quiet suburban community.

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

Friday, May 31, 2019

Daughter of Moloka'i

Title:  Daughter of Moloka'i
Author:  Alan Brennert
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250137667 / 978-1250137661

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

Opening Sentence:  "A wave of Kona storm clouds rolled across the jagged peaks of the Wai'anae Range, arriving in Honolulu with a cannonade of thunder and the kind of wind and rain Hawaiians called lani-pa'ina, 'crackling heavens.'"

Favorite Quote:  "How can this be happening? This is America. Covenants of trust had been broken, faith in law betrayed."

Daughter of Moloka'i is a follow on to Alan Brennert 2010 bestseller titled Moloka'i, but it is not essential to have read that one first. This book does stand on its own and goes in a direction mostly independent of the original book.

Moloka'i was the story of a young Hawaiian girl, Rachel Kalama, in the 1890s. She is diagnosed with leprosy, now called Hansen's disease. As a result, she is wrenched from her family and sent to a quarantined colony of the island of Moloka'i. Rachel does indeed give birth to a baby girl; the baby is removed from the parent's care and removed from the island. The hope is that the baby will remain healthy, no matter the emotional devastation of the parents.

Ruth is the daughter, brought to an orphanage. After a few years, she is adopted by a family of Japanese heritage. After another few years, the family moves to California. Then comes years of settling in, growing up, and making California and the United States home. Then comes World War II and the distrust of Asians. It brings the reality of being judged "less than" because of physical appearance and cultural traditions. Then comes Pearl Harbor and the label of enemy. All of a sudden, home is deemed not yours, and the family is sent to the government established and government run internment camps. What follows is the years of strife, struggle, and life as essentially a prisoner for no reason other than your ethnic background.

As in his other books, Alan Brennert brings to life a time and place with his vivid imagery and his characters that pull you into the story. The story remains a very personal one centered on Ruth and her family. At the same time, the book makes broader statements that remain true today:
  • "If you ask me ... someday this country is going to regret what it's doing today."
  • "Now FDR says, quote, 'Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.'"
  • "If America is not willing to honor its principles ... how can I?"
  • "The war is over, and we can move on with our lives. We're owed that much. To live a quiet, ordinary life again."
This conversation has relevance in this historical context, but also in light of the comparisons of strife due to race, religion, identity, and culture today. This is a history that must never be lessened or forgotten. The fact that this book adds to the conversation and provides that reminder make it a relevant book for today.

The book remains grounded in Ruth's story for it continues beyond the war and winds its way back to Rachel and to Ruth's birth. That is a particularly poignant moment in the book, and also the point at which I think the book should have ended. The book continues on in Ruth's life, but it begins to feel like it is creating an ending for each character, which to me is unnecessary. Aside from this facet, Daugther of Moloka'i is another memorable book from Alan Brennert, and I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

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

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

Title:  The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls
Author:  Anissa Gray
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2019. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1984802437 / 978-1984802439

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 do a lot of thinking in jail."

Favorite Quote:  "Handing them off ... and disappearing ... because you think you've lost yourself along with everything else .. that's almost easy. Showing up, when it's everything you can do to crawl and claw your way through this life? That's hard. That much I've done. I'm doing it right now."

Girls and women hunger for many things. There is the universal need for physical nourishment, and then, there is the hunger for love, protection, caring, belonging and other needs often left unsaid.

The understanding that this is the theme of the book comes slowly. The book is slow to start and slow to unfold especially as it seems to begin in the middle of the story. It starts as a woman goes to jail. The crime is unclear. The motivation for the crime is unclear. What is clear is that parents are going to jail and leaving behind daughters.

My initial thought is that the past is going to be unraveled. How did this family at the junction of the Saint Joseph and Portage Rivers in New River Junction, Michigan, get to this point? Hence, initially, I am confused. In fact, the facts of the crime, the motivation behind it, and its impact are never really delved into. That is something I would still like to know, but it does not really matter. At some point, the fact that I want to know becomes a testament to the fact that I am pulled into the story and the characters have become real.

Althea, Lilian, and Viola are the older generation. Kim and Baby Vi are Althea's teenage daughters. Althea and her husband Proctor are arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sent to jail for a crime no one could imagine them committing. Althea, Lilian, and Viola's stories go back to the their childhood and their own dysfunctional childhood. Those childhood experiences also create the women they are today and their reactions to the current situations. Reader beware, some of the images of that childhood are disturbing. The story becomes about taking the experiences that form you and then creating yourself - the person you choose to be:
  • "Sometimes life can pull a lot out of you, Althea. Just squeeze you dry. And if you don't have a way to get back whatever's good and precious to you, it's like losing your soul."
  • "Some things that happen to you, or the way somebody treat you, sometimes it ain't got nothing to do with you ... That's something it's important to learn. Before you get too old and can't let loose the burden of them things."
  • "Sometimes it's good to view the past from the distance of another time."
Kim and Baby Vi's story is one of the love-hate relationship that can often exist between teenage girls and their mothers. "Daughters carry the hopes & promises of their mothers." Their story is also one of loss - loss of their parents, loss of a community that turns away because of the parent's crimes, and loss of childhood taken away by an adult world. Ultimately, for Kim, the story is also one of guilt.

The best thing about this debut novel is that the characters become real. They develop into complete individuals. In some ways, the cover of the book replicates that. Initially, I look at it and see an abstract image. Then, gradually I see the the curves and edges of the images. Then, it seems that all of a sudden, faces emerge. This book is an impressive debut, and I look forward to seeing what Anissa Gray writes next.

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

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Girls at 17 Swann Street

Title:  The Girls at 17 Swann Street
Author:  Yara Zgheib
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2019. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1250202442 / 978-1250202444

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

Opening Sentence:  "I call it the Van Gogh room."

Favorite Quote:  "There is no tragedy to suffering. It is, just as happiness is. To be present for both, that is life, I think."

Two perspectives...

"I do not suffer from anorexia, I have anorexia. The two states are not the same. I know my anorexia, I  understand it better than the world around me. The world around me is obese, half of it. The other half is emaciated. Values are hollow, but meals are dense with high fructose corn syrup. Standards come in doubles, so do portions. The world is overcrowded but lonely. My anorexia keeps me company, comforts me. I can control it, so I choose it."


"I did not choose anorexia. I did not choose to starve. But every morning, over and over, I choose to fight it, again."

17 Swann Street is a fictional place. It is an in-patient treatment center in Saint Louis to help those with eating disorders such as anorexia heal / grow / change / transition / .... from one to the other. The stories and the journeys are as diverse as the women themselves. Some are successful; some are not.

This is the world Yara Zgheib pulls me into. Yara Zgheib is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD in International Affairs. She is fluent in English, Arabic, French, and Spanish. She has also fought her own battle against anorexia. This work, her debut fiction novel, comes from that reality.

Anna Roux is one of the girls at 17 Swann Street. She was a professional dancer in Paris. Love, marriage, and her husband's job bring her from Paris to Saint Louis, Missouri. The loss of dancing, the move, loneliness, and so many other fears send Anna in a downward spiral, dealing with anorexia and depression. She is forced - from love and from fear - to seek treatment.

At Swann Street, she meets the other women, each battling her own demons. She continues to be surrounded by her husband's love. She continues to struggle toward recovery.

At one point, Anna notes, "How little of an eating disorder the naked eye can actually see." This book  tells the story from Anna's perspective, from inside of the eating disorder. The idea of a bite creates extreme fear. The isolation she feels takes her far away even though she has love and support. Each moment feels like a battle. She bears witness to the struggles of others; her successes and failures symbolize whether or not she will succeed or fail. Time with her thoughts brings back memories of the past and the unresolved emotions that surround childhood trauma.

Anna's journal like story is punctuated by notes from her medical file. The matter of fact, unemotional recording of her conditions is the jarring context in which I read her story.

The story and the characters are compelling. I feel myself at 17 Swann Street as if the world outside fades away as these women struggle moment by moment. The women and the place becomes real to the point that I wonder if the place actually exists - not treatment centers which I know do but this actual place which I know does not. I hope that Anna will recover but fear that she may not.

A memorable story!

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

Monday, May 20, 2019

Here and Now and Then

Title:  Here and Now and Then
Author:  Mike Chen
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2019. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0778369048 / 978-0778369042

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

Opening Sentence:  "No pulse beat beneath the skin."

Favorite Quote:  "Look, it's possible to start over. Completely over. You survive, you adapt. You can find love and be happy and live. You can do that while still honoring your past - even when your past is taken from you. The only thing you can do is run with it and turn it into something good."

What would you do to protect your child? For most parents, the answer requires no thought - anything and everything I possibly could. The question and, for the most part, the answer is universal. It provides the emotional connection to a story about a father and his daughter.

For Kin Stewart, the question becomes all the more complicated because his daughter was never supposed to have been born. Kin has lived for eighteen years in San Francisco. He is happily married and a father to a teenage daughter Miranda. He has health issues, including blackout and memory loss.

What he shares with no one is that he knows the reason why. He is actually from the year 2142. He was sent back in time on a mission and got stranded there. He has been stranded for all this time. His health issues are a time travel illness. Now, a team has arrived from 2142 to "rescue" him. In 2142, he has only been gone for a few weeks, but for him, it's as if a lifetime has passed.

The question is does Kin want to be rescued? He has a wife, a child, and a life now. He also has one in 2142, but he does not remember that life or that family. He wants to choose the one he knows and loves.

Kin, however, is not given a choice. "We're all different people all through our lives, but that's okay, as long as you remember all the people you used to be." Kin is asked to forget, his wife and daughter labeled an aberration that should never have been.

Now, the dilemma is how can Kin adapt to life "back home" in 2142. That life presents its own friendships, relationships, and love. However, how can he simply walk away from a wife and child he has loved and built a life with?  The dilemma deepens when his daughter is threatened. What to do? How to balance the pull of both of his lives and of the wonderful people in both of his lives? Can he save both?

Add to this premise the assumption that all moments in time exist simultaneously. Thus, it is possible to return to any moment in time. The cardinal rule in Kin's work has been to cause no disturbance and alter nothing such that the future remains unaltered. This, of course, is the rule he breaks by building a life in what, for him, are years stranded.

From this premise, Mike Chen builds a story that is part adventure and party emotional family story. Science fiction and family drama make for an interesting mix. I expect what Kin will want to do as a father. However, I completely do not expect where this book goes and how the ending brings it full circle.

"I'm asking you to take a leap of faith. Sometimes when nothing makes sense, it's the only thing you can trust." That's pretty much what I feel about this book. Take a leap of faith and enjoy the ride.

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

Friday, May 17, 2019

Talk to Me

Title:  Talk to Me
Author:  John Kenney
Publication Information:  GP Putnam's Sons. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0735214379 / 978-0735214378

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

Opening Sentence:  "Ted Grayson has been pushed out of an airplane."

Favorite Quote:  "Alone with their thoughts. The bravest thing. Today we would do anything to run from our own thoughts. The noise of our minds, the voices. So we check the phone, the text, the email, the alert. Why look inside for the answer when you can look outside?"

This book begins as if picked from the headlines these days. A news anchor - a man with a long, well respected, public career - makes an entirely inappropriate comment to a young woman. The moment is captured on camera. The video is posted online. It goes viral. The commentary comes from all sources, reviling the man.

Initially, I am not sure that I want to read fiction about today's headlines. I don't know that I want to follow along on a conversation between his defenders and his accusers. Who is right? Who is wrong? Who wins? Who loses? The reality of that is enough to not need the fiction right now.

Much to my surprise, the book turns in a different direction - a far more compelling fiction. The book turns into a story of a father and a daughter. "Why are we here? What's the point? After we are stripped bare, naked before the world, after everything is taken away, all we have is our children. And we have two basic, fundamental jobs as parents. To love them. To protect them." It also becomes a commentary on quickly changing public opinion especially as influenced by today's overabundance of "news" sources and open forums on which to state that opinion. "The history of the world is the history of miscommunication."

The personal story is that of Ted Grayson, an almost sixty-year old TV anchor. He has seen considerable professional success and is well respected in this field. His personal life, however, is a shambles. His time on the road as a reporter and his focus on his career leaves him estranged from his family. Claire, his wife of thirty years wants a divorce.  His daughter Franny harbors a lifetime of regrets and resentments. At the same time, Franny wants to somewhat follow in her father's footsteps. Her career is beginning; she writes for an online website. It purports to be "news" but is truly aiming for the sensationalist clicks. Her father's downfall offers Franny a chance to build her own career as her boss offers her the opportunity to write and publish a interview. Where the conversation between father and daughter goes, I leave to your imagination or reading. What a sensationalist website does with that conversation, I also leave to your imagination or reading. Bonds are broken and healed.

The broader social commentary of this book is all about social media and its "news". The basis of this book is a casually made video that is posted online and that goes viral. Ted Grayson's fate is decided in the court of popular opinion based on this video. A sensationalist website preys upon a private conversation to gain "clicks" and exacerbate the situation. What they do may be legal, but ethics is a whole other question. Public opinion, just as quickly, turns on another video.

We knows this happens. Unfortunately, we see it in the daily headlines these days. This book does a great job of laying it out as a story. It is really this process that is the story of this timely book. The book is entertaining but does leave me reflecting on this very serious reality.

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