Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mary B

Title:  Mary B:  An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice
Author:  Katherine J. Chen
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399592210 / 978-0399592218

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

Opening Sentence:  "A child does not grow up with the knowledge that she is plain or dull or a complete simpleton until the accident of some event should reveal these unfortunate truths."

Favorite Quote:  "There are many things in life that only seem impossible, and it is part of the challenge to decide when we should take action and when we should hold back. If you aim for the best, you might achieve second best, but if you aim for what society thinks you deserve, you'll be a pauper for life."

Pride and Prejudice is perhaps one of my all time favorite books. I have read it multiple times, and find myself enjoying it each and every time. When a retelling or spin-off comes around, I am enticed into reading it. At the same time, I am hesitant to read it because can a retelling ever really measure up to the original?

A few years ago, I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and enjoyed it because it was so true to the original characters and chronology and yet so far out there with zombie mayhem. The storyline comparisons hold in that book, and the introduction of zombies is just funny. Longbourn by Jo Baker tells the story of the "downstairs" in the Bennett household; this story presents an alternate view that may be true to the times but was not the view for me. Death Comes to Pemberly by PD James is a murder mystery set in the "happily ever after" of the Pemberleys, and I suppose I prefer the "happily ever after" to stay untarnished. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld a modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and unfortunately, for me, the premise of the urgency to get daughters wed does not translate to the more modern setting.

This book is a different take on the Pride and Prejudice story. As the title suggests, it is Mary's story. Mary is the middle sister, the "plain" one interested in her books and her music. This book is a first person narration that Mary may not be quite what she seems. It begins with the coming of Mr. Collins, an event directly from the original book. It continues to beyond the end of Pride and Prejudice, as Mary resides at Pemberly for a long visit.

This book ends up not being the book for me for two primary reasons. First is Mary herself. She is not a likable character. The beginning sets her up as a sympathetic child, who is repeatedly told she does not measure up. However, as the story progresses, she comes across as a self-centered, self-conceited woman who thinks herself better/smarter/etc. than those around her. "How well you put it, Miss Bennett, when you say you have tortured yourself these last few days. You seem very talented at that - holding on to things, taking them to heart, feeling offended. What good does any of that do, I ask you." She suffers some heartbreak, but the refrain of people not appreciating her loses its impact when it continues to come from her perspectives. Along the way, she also makes some pretty unforgivable decisions, further leaving nothing to sympathize with.

The other reason that this book presents a challenge to me is the fact the other characterizations in the book bear no resemblance to the characters from the original, except the names. This is particularly true of the Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. I understand that the implication is that people change. However, these two are nothing like the individuals in the original. Their actions and words make no sense in light of the original. For example, Elizabeth is quoted as saying, "All I wanted was a comfortable life ... When I married Darcy, I was so happy. It was the attainment of an impossible dream. I felt ... I felt I'd done something unprecedented. Me, mistress of this place - could you imagine it? But I didn't realize that it came with a price, and that price would be my life." The implication is that she married for the money, which is a complete opposite from the original. So, the book loses me.

Unfortunately, I am not the reader this take on the Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps, after now having read several and disliked them for different reasons, I think I might say that I am not the reader for most retellings.

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

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Baby Teeth

Title:  Baby Teeth
Author:  Zoje Stage
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250170753 / 978-1250170750

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

Opening Sentence:  "Maybe the machine could see the words she never spoke."

Favorite Quote:  "Please let reason be enough."

Alex, Suzette, and Hanna are a family. Alex and Suzette are married, and Hanna is their seven-year old daughter. Hanna is selectively mute. She cannot or will not speak; the answer depends on who you ask. Alex and Suzette have had her evaluated for physical ailments; Hanna is physically healthy. She does not speak and has other behavioral issues. At age seven, she has been kicked out of several schools. Suzette is her full-time caregiver while Alex is out of the house, working and financially supporting the family.

What makes Hanna unusual is the fact that she wants her mother dead. She wants her father all to herself. Yes, that's right. A seven year old character is depicted as purposefully altering her behavior to torment her mother and yet appear innocent and angelic to her father.

On the other side, Suzette is a overwrought mother. She is overwhelmed not just with motherhood and the sinister behavior of her child but also with physical ailments and unhealed wounds of her own past. She believes that Hanna is purposeful in attacking her, but Alex refuses to see.

This is an unhappy household!

This book is billed as horror and a suspense thriller. For me, the "horror" of the horror movies or books lies in their believability. What can be terrifying is the thought that the events depicted could happen. For me, this book never establishes that connection. The story is told in alternating chapters from Hanna's point of view and from Suzette's perspective. Hanna's chapters do not sound like that of a young child - a conniving villain, yes but not the child she is depicted to be. Suzette's chapters focus a lot on her past and on physical illness which is exacerbated by the stress of the situation. As an adult, I would think that other choices and other venues would be available to Suzette, but none emerge in this book.

After a while, the book becomes a repeating loop of Hanna trying to maneuver her mother out of the picture, and Suzette becoming more and more overwhelmed. Alex floats somewhere in the middle, pacifying both sides...
  • Hanna:  I don't like Mommy. I want Mommy gone. I want Daddy all to my self.
  • Suzette:  Hanna's causing problems and has problems. I have Crohn's Disease. I cannot cope. Alex won't listen.
  • Alex:  Hanna's my "squirrelly" girl (I assume that's a term of endearment, but I don't know what that means). I am Swedish (it's said a lot, but I don't know what relevance it has).
The book never really evolves beyond this point.

What makes a suspense thriller work is a twist or an unexpected surprise. That too does not emerge in this book. The ending seems almost prosaic and anticlimactic.

The book has been compared to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. To me, the comparison does not hold true. This book lacks the intensity or the depth of characters that those books had. Those books left me with a lot to think about; this one just does not.

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

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Tell Me You're Mine

Title:  Tell Me You're Mine
Author:  Elisabeth Norebäck
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0735218544 / 978-0735218543

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

Opening Sentence:  "I'm lying on the floor."

Favorite Quote:  "What is it to miss someone? When someone is taken from you, they take a piece of you with them. A piece that can never be replaced by anything else. The grief, the loss is there forever. And it hurts. It bleeds and aches. It becomes a scab, and it itches, and then it falls off. And it bleeds again. One day it becomes a scar. The wound heals, but the scar remains"

Tell Me You're Mine is a literal title. What makes a mother? Is it giving birth? Is it nurturing? Is it acknowledgement? What creates the bond between a mother and daughter? Is it giving birth? Is it nurturing? Is it acknowledgement?

Having now read the book, the title seems to imply a menace or a threat. Tell me you're mine or else! You are mine whether or not you want to be. You are mine whether not you actually are. That menace does not match the presumption of a mother's love for her daughter, but, then again, not all mothers are nurturing or loving. The question arises. What takes a supposed unconditional love over the edge into an obsession?

These are the questions in this story of three women. Stella is married with a family of her. She is a psychotherapist. She is also a mother who continues to grieve for a lost child. Baby Alice disappeared years ago during a family vacation. The authorities said she drowned, but she was never found. Stella blames herself and believes that Alice is still alive and will be found. No one, including her family, believes that this is possible. As a result, she has been deemed mentally unstable in the past, and now once again walks the same path. Is she though?

Kerstin is a widow with a daughter who is grown and out of the house. She is alone and lonely so she tries to hold on to her daughter. The tighter she holds on, the more distanced her daughter becomes. Embedded in Kerstin's past is a lifetime of secrets.

Isabelle is a young woman trying to find and define her place in life. She has a sense of not belonging and an unstated fear. She seeks help in a group therapy session. This, and perhaps more, brings her to Stella.

The book has other characters, but the three women are the focus. The story shifts perspective from woman to woman, bringing the pieces of the past together and putting their present on a collision course.

With such a small cast of characters, the suspense in this book is not there for me. I guess the dynamic early on. The question is not who did it or even how. The question is why.

The other question, for me as a reader, is do I care? That becomes the biggest stumbling block for me in this book. Perhaps because of the shifting perspectives, perhaps because of the lack of suspense, or perhaps because something is lost in translation, I don't. I am not invested in any of the three main characters. I do keep reading until the end to determine if there might be a twist I don't see coming. Unfortunately, I do not.

Without a compelling suspense to keep me turning the pages, the book becomes a very slow read. The characters don't evolve or change so that does not prompt the page turning either; it becomes somewhat monotone and repetitive. The later part of the book has more "action," but by that time, it's too late for me. Even the action brings no twist or surprise, so the book ends on the same note on which it begins.

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Lido

Title:  The Lido
Author:  Libby Page
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  150118203X / 978-1501182037

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

Opening Sentence:  "Step out of the Brixton underground station and it is a carnival of steel drums, the white noise of traffic, and that man on the corner shouting, 'God loves you,' even to the unlovable"

Favorite Quote:  "Stories were Kate's friends when she found people challenging. She searched them out, hiding among them in the library and tucking herself into their pages. She folded herself into the shape of Hermoine Granger or George from The Famous Five or Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey and tried to be them for a day."

Sometimes you just need a feel good book, a book in which the "good guys" or in this case the "good strong women" take on the big bad corporations. You cheer for them, and you worry for them. You hope they win. If they do, wonderful. If they don't, the community they develop during the fight makes it all worthwhile. The Lido is such a book.

As a non-British reader, I had to look up the word "lido" which, in British English, means a public outdoor pool. Our community has two of them, and they are a hub of activity all summer long. The lido of this book is based on the Brockwell Lido in South London. This lido operated from 1937 until 1990; a local community campaign brought it back into existence a few years later. That is the historical context for the book.

The lido provides the setting. Beyond that, this book is the story of Rosemary Peterson and Kate Matthews. Both are alone in their own way. Rosemary is around eighty years old and a widow. Her husband George died after decades of them being together. Rosemary is also a swimmer. The lido has been the place where her entire life's story has played out. Kate is twenty-something year old and a relative newcomer to the area. She suffers from panic attacks and loneliness; her efforts to hide those isolate her further and further from even her own family.

Rosemary and Kate meet when Kate is assigned to write about the possibility that the lido is being sold to a private developer who will take a public gathering place and turn it into a members only club. The book proceeds along three threads. The first is the fight to save a public resource that means so much to so many. The second is Rosemary's memories of a lifetime - her childhood, her love, her marriage, and how it all revolved around the lido. The third is of the friendship that forms between Rosemary and Kate and how that helps Kate find her way. "She took the loneliness out of being alone."

Surrounding these endearing women is a cast of equally charming community of diverse characters. Hope is Rosemary's friend and someone with an equally long history with the lido. Jay is the photographer for the Brixton Chronicle, where Kate works as a reporter. Phil runs the Brixton Chronicle and has to worry about the economic impact of his decisions. Erin is Kate's sister. Geoff is the manager of the the lido. Ahmed is the young man who finds a safe haven at the lido that allows him to stay focused on school and higher goals. Frank and Jerome are partners in life and in the local bookshop. Through these characters and more, the book paints a picture of a diverse community that cares about each other and stands together.

The book is simple, not dramatic, and predictable. And, for this story, that is all okay. It leaves me smiling, and with the reminder quoted in the book description. "We're never too old to make new friends - or to make a difference."

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

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Subway Girls

Title:  The Subway Girls
Author:  Susie Orman Schnall
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Griffin. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250169763 / 978-1250169761
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "After extensive research and considerable internal deliberation, Charlotte had submitted employment applications to five advertising agencies, their prestigious footings in Madison Avenue's most glimmering and stalwart buildings having nothing to do with her choices."

Favorite Quote:  "Time has a really incredible way of dulling feelings that you think will be sharp for your entire life. One day you wake up, and sometimes it takes something like this for that to happen, but you realize that the point isn't so pointy. And the edge isn't so jagged. And you find in your heart a way to accept people for who they are, because it's not always entirely their fault."

The Subway Girls, or rather the Miss Subways, are real. It was a group of about 200 women. They were selected about every month to two months between the years 1941 to 1976; the Miss Subway for the month had her photograph and a short description of her placed on posters around the New York City Subways. The women were selected by the John Robert Powers modeling agency.

Was this akin to a beauty contest? Yes. The aimed for look was that of a girl who might be your neighbor or who you might find yourself riding the subway with. These days, the posters can still be seen in books, at the New York Transit Museum, and Ellen's Stardust Diner because Ellen herself was  a Miss Subway.

Susi Orman Schnall takes this bit of history and builds a novel around it. As with many books, this story features two women, two different times, and intersecting stories.

The older woman is Charlotte. Her story begins in the 1940s and with her dream of getting a job in advertising. Mind you, her initial goal is to be selected for the typing pool at one of the agencies; even that would be considered a huge accomplishment for a woman at this time. She dreams of things well beyond that. Family restrictions, societal norms, glass ceilings, and so many other hindrances all tell her that her dreams are beyond reach and take her life in a different direction and to the Miss Subways. "Her mother had always taught her to keep her expectations in check. That way she'd never be disappointed. Yes, Mother dear, ... , but that way you can never dream."

The young woman is Olivia, an executive in an advertising agency. The agency is struggling, and one last opportunity presents itself to preserve the future of the agency. The opportunity becomes a competition between Olivia and a male colleague. The account being pitched is the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the agency responsible for much of the public transportation network in the New York area.

Embedded in both women's stories are love stories. Charlotte's love story is about the freedom to be an individual within a relationship; it is also about the power to decide how far that love exists and what it is willing to forgive. Olivia's love story is about recognizing what true love, based on friendship and respect, means. "Very few things in life unfold the way we thought they would. In fact, you should be suspect when they do. Who cares when the best things in life happen? Don't you see? You're getting everything you wanted. The packaging is a little unexpected and not idea, but the stuff inside, the stuff that really counts, is just right."

Ultimately, this is the story of strong women standing up for their rights and breaking through the obstacles in their way. "Life is all about collecting experiences..." In many ways, Charlotte and Olivia's story are separated by time and change. In many ways, though, the choices that face them and the challenges placed in their way reflect the reality that the gender gap has evolved but not gone away. It is the strength of these characters and the extrapolated vision of the women who became the Miss Subways that give this book its impact.

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Eagle & Crane

Title:  Eagle & Crane
Author:  Suzanne Rindell
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0399184295 / 978-0399184291

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

Opening Sentence:  "They bump along the country road, rolling through golden hills that are punctuated with granite boulders and dotted iwth clusters of oak trees that appear blackish green from afar."

Favorite Quote:  "In a war filled with so many tragedies, it is difficult to think the dead would begrudge anything that might help to alleviate the suffering of the living."

Newcastle, California. 1943. World War II. Japanese internment in the United States. A plane crash. Two dead. A local and an FBI investigation. Those who know but aren't saying. An agent with an agenda of his own. This is the initial setup of Eagle and Crane.

Then, the story starts winding in circles casting a wider and wider net around the characters to depict their stories and what leads them to this moment. Louis Thorn is of California, born and bred in this town. Haruto, aka Harry, Yamada and his family are immigrants from Japan. The boys grow up around each other, not friends but not not-friends either. Passed on to them is the fued between their families. They may have more in common than they think, but they are taught to focus on their differences.

A dare brings them together at a daredevil air show owned and operated by Earl Shaw. It brings them to a semblance of a friendship, but the rivalry also continues. In other words, it's complicated. This dare also brings them both to Ava Brooks, Earl's stepdaughter, and, I presume, the one pictured on the cover of the book. Ava's mother has learned to survive, and Earl is a part of that survival.

The histories of the Thorns, the Yamadas, and the Brooks wind chapter by chapter to this plane crash in which supposedly Harry and his father die. Do they? Did the plane crash or was there something else? The local sheriff thinks so, but an FBI agent does not. Turns out the FBI agent has reasons and a story of his own.

In other words, this book has a lot of stories going on. However, it does not have the story I expect to read given the time and the place. In the 1940s in California with a book in which a main character is Japanese, I expect to read much more about Japanese internment, an act that one would never have dreamt possible in a land of immigrants and the American dream. In fact, this is my primary reason for choosing to read this book.

That story, however, is only one of many in this book and as a result, for me, gets a little lost. This book is about a feud over land. It is about a complicated friendship. It is about a woman and two men who love her. It is about the adventures of barnstorming and daredevil flying. It is about an abusive relationship. It is about a man looking for his past. It is about a mystery and the investigation surrounding it.

For me, this book is about too many stories; it dilutes the impact of any individual one. Some, like the personal story of the FBI agent, would not be missed if eliminated. The cover seems to imply that this is Ava's story; however, it seems more Louis and Harry's story. In fact, by the end, this book seems more a collection of bits and pieces rather than a cohesive whole.

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

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Weight of a Piano

Title:  The Weight of a Piano
Author:  Chris Cander
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0525654674 / 978-0525654674

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

Opening Sentence:  "Hidden in dense forests high in the Romanian mountains, where the winters were especially cold and long, were spruce trees that would be made into pianos:  exquisite instruments famous for the warmth of their tone and beloved by the likes of Schumann and Liszt."

Favorite Quote:  "I've heard it said of immigrants like my parents that they crossed the wide ocean to pursue the American Dream, that fabled happy existence characterized by prosperity for those who work hard and lead lives of integrity. It has always seemed to me, though, that you need to keep your eyes wide open to achieve that kind of life, don't you? A dream is only a dream while you sleep, when your eyes are closed to outside forces. The way I see it, you can't work hard and be a good person with your eyes closed. That means the American Dream is not a dream at all. It's a wish. You can make a wish with your eyes closed, but you open them after you blow out the candles. With your eyes wide open, you labor to lead an honest life while you wait to see if your wish will come true."

I am not familiar with the name Blüthner. The company is a piano manufacturer and considered one of the four powerhouses of the industry. The history of the company does indeed go back to the 1800s to the Romanian woods outside of Leipzig, Germany. This is the story of one Blüthner piano and the two girls who owned it decades apart.

Katya, a young girl, is bequeathed the piano in her childhood. Katya grows up and becomes an accomplished pianist. Marriage and a child enter her life. The piano is forever there as her comfort and her love. Life and the world changes. It is the 1960s in the Soviet Union. Communisms threatens Katya's way of life and her family, particularly since they are Jewish. Her husband makes a dramatic choice. Life and the world changes again. At every turn, the piano or the dream of her piano is the heart of Katya - her joy and her solace.

In 2012, Clara Lundy owns the piano. It is memory of her father and of all the losses in her life. The emotional scars of her childhood send her from relationship to relationship. Yet, she is able to settle nowhere and with no one. The people around her are true friends, seeing her through everything. Unlike Katya, Clara never was able to play the piano. Yet, she hangs on to it.

A broken relationship, an injury, a move, and dire financial need lead Clara to post the piano for sale. She gets an immediate buyer but then has second thoughts. She is not quite ready to let go of the past.  The buyer has his own connection to a Blüthner piano. That connection is quickly discovered in the story.

The parallel stories of Katya, Clara, and the one who wishes for Clara's piano are all stories of loss and of the past and of coming to terms with the past. Each character takes a different direction in dealing with the "weight" of their past. The title, in that sense, is both literal and metaphorical.  A piano is a large, weighty object. For each character, the piano also represents the emotional weight of the past.  For Katya, the piano represents her dreams and all that she could have been.  For Clara, the piano represents her disappointments and all that she could never leave behind.

Can you sees where this is going? Absolutely. The connections and the parallels are too clearly drawn. To me, this book is a forced and contrived story. Too many circumstantial things align to bring this story together in too fitted a way. The emotional scars of both main characters are drawn in parallel, if only to contrast with their eventual decision in how to deal with it. The story loses its sense of emotion and its sense of reality. Mind you, I realize that all fiction is a created and contrived story. I know I am reading fiction, but I want to be taken on a "real" journey. That is the power of fiction. However, in this one, the seams show if you will.

The most beautiful part of this book is the opening chapter, and that feels the most real. I was in the forests of Romania, watching that piano come to life. I wish the rest of the book lived up to that opening.

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

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Dreamers

Title:  The Dreamers
Author:  Karen Thomspon Walker
Publication Information:  Random House. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0812994167 / 978-0812994162

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

Opening Sentence:  "At first, they blame the air."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes a big fear can magnify the smaller ones."

Santa Lora, California is a small town on the edge of a lake surrounded by forests. One road leads in and out of the town. The heart of the town is the college. A quiet, dreamy setting. One day, stranger things begin to happen. A young woman falls asleep and cannot be woken. It is deemed an isolated case. Then, another case occurs, and another. It is deemed localized to a floor of a dorm at the college. The students on that floor are isolated. Then, a case outside occurs and another and another and another. It reach epidemic proportions for town. Then, it is deemed necessary to contain it to the town. Does it spread beyond? Does it not?

The book centers on a few main characters. A young woman whose roommate is the first to be stricken. An idealist college student who is not quite who he seems to be. A couple with a precious young baby. However, the story grows exponentially larger as more and more people are introduced and as the sickness spreads. These individuals - the professor and his family, the clerk at the store, the business people who happened to be in town, the doctor who comes to treat and study the disease, and more. Their stories are introduced but don't really develop into much.

The first three quarters of the book and the ending of the book go in completely different directions. The bulk of the story is about a disease, its spread, efforts to contain it, and the stories of those impacted. It is the reactions of people - both positive and negative. Some of those not stricken rise to the occasion and prove themselves heroes.  It is a struggle to survive and protect those we love.

The ending of the book goes in an entirely philosophical directions implied by the title word "dreamers." Without a spoiler, let's just say it suggests bigger, metaphysical questions that are posed but not answered. In other words, it leaves you wondering both about the grander questions and the pragmatic questions about the virus itself.

Both directions of the book are interesting and can make for a great read on their own. Most of the book suggests a science fiction race against time to save a town and its inhabitants. The book never quite gets to the level of intensity of the science fiction thriller, however. There is almost a quietness and matter of fact nature to the events. The focus remains repeated incidents of more and more people getting the sickness, and the containment facilities getting larger and larger. There does not really seem to be a sense of danger or an urgency to find a cure. Yet, the book reads with the potential of what could be there.

The ending focuses on those stricken and could be developed into an entire tale of the experiences of the stricken. Again, the book does not go there but simmer with the potential of that story. It can be imagined.

The potential in the story and the pace keeps me reading to the last page. The book does not ever really reach that potential, but it proves entertaining nevertheless.

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