Sunday, January 13, 2019

January 2.0

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
A life lived right in my own back yard, a single mother tries to provide for her young daughter in Skagit County of Washington State. Stephanie has a high school diploma and some college community credits from Running Start, yet is stuck in a cycle of low-paying jobs. Once her daughter comes along and an abusive relationship spirals out of control, Stephanie must rely on the only safety net she has: herself and the government. Unable to get help from generations of poverty in her own family, she takes the one job she can - cleaning homes. We see the private lives of many of Stephanie's clients, the results of a low-paying job with no benefits, no sick pay, no vacation, and what life is like living on the edge, one mistake or life accident away from disaster. Often, I found myself being judgmental and then stopping myself, acknowledging my own privilege, and learning from Stephanie's heartfelt story of her life. This book will provide a ton of conversation at your next book club, trust me.

Southern Discomfort: A Memoir by Tena Clar
Hands down, this is one of my favorite listens in the last year. Tena Clark, successful songwriter and music producer, grew up in Mississippi the youngest of four girls, raised by a black maid, a racist father, and an alcoholic mother, and just to throw in another complication, she is gay. Her memoir shows us the many facets of her childhood and young adult life: pulled back and forth between two parents following divorce, dad's multiple relationships, mom's addiction issues, the racism in her small town, wild teenage years, parenthood, sorrow. The author pulls no punches and shows her parents, and her community, in all its glory and in all its messes. The author narrates the book in a thick southern accent, drawing one deeply into the heavy heat of a Mississippi summer day. Tena Clark shows the complexities of loving one's parents while also being terribly hurt by their actions - ditto for Mississippi, which draws her back constantly and hurts her heart as well. This is just a fabulous memoir.

The Gilded Wolves by Roshana Chokshi
I was rather torn by this new YA fantasy series; I loved the set of friends who direct and inhabit the story, but found the plot itself a bit confusing. Set in 19th century Paris, this Paris shows the clash between the established families that have all the money, power, and magic, and the ones that don't. The leader of the gang, Severin, runs a beautiful old hotel but is haunted by the disinheritance of years ago, relegating him to a back seat in the power circle. His gang of thieves who help him recover 'artifacts,' are a creative group: the mathematical genius with social issues; the gentle soul who knows everything there is about plants and keeps a pet tarantula; the once-dead Indian femme fatale; the history buff and gifted symbologist who helps get them all out of tight jams; and the arrogant but needy heir from the power brokers. Incredible character development, but put into a plot line that has to do with stealing stolen objects, unrequited love, mysterious bad guys, that ultimately left me a bit unclear as to what was really going on. Perhaps I read too late at night, or perhaps my brain was more muddled than it should be but I needed a bit more clarity on this one. I'm hoping book two will clear some things up for me.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Critically acclaimed, on everyone's "Best" lists of 2018, and beautifully written...yet it was a very 'meh' book for me. The story begins with a young slave boy on Barbados called George Washington Black. No parenting, no schooling, and surrounded by violence and the degradation of violence, somehow this young man is chosen to become a house slave. Wash then goes on to help in the scientific experimentations of the son of the plantation, and thus his adventurous life begins. A life that takes him into the air, up to Boston, on to the Arctic and to England and even to Morocco, all the while narrating his story to us in an erudite, educated manner that seems completely out of sync to me with his beginnings. I just felt like the story was implausible and it dragged on and on and on in a rather dull fashion. Perhaps I missed the boat on this one, but it just did not grab me.

An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks
This is a page-turner of a second novel (The Wife Between Us) by a dynamic and talented writing duo. The premise: young struggling make-up artist steals a client's appointment to become part of a college psychological study due to the high pay. We can all see where this is going, right? Well not exactly. The questions that Jessica first answers seem innocuous, yet they then become more nuanced, more complex, and once Jessica is then asked to actually meet with the female psychiatrist, the world becomes very weird. Told from two perspectives, Jessica's and the doctor's, I thought I knew where the story was going but the turns down the rabbit hole were surprising and shocking. This one will keep you reading late through the night.

The Shadows We Hide / The Deep Dark Descending by Allen Eskens
Allen Eskens has become one of my favorite fiction writers to listen to, telling solid police procedural stories that have very human elements and relatable characters. Shadows actually involves the characters from a previous much-liked read, The Life We Bury, as the young man who is now guardian of his autistic brother and has a girlfriend studying for the bar exam gets pulled into the murder of his father, the father he has never met. The second one is a series Eskens has written about Detective Max Rubert, a curmudgeonly man still haunted by his wife's tragic hit-and-run death. In this book, Max is pulled into the underworld of Russian sex trafficking that leads him to shocking revelations of his past. Eskens is a compelling writer; if you like mysteries with humanity, he's your guy.

That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron
I always find the Victorian era intriguing, especially when combined with the mother of a towering historical figure such as Winston Churchill. Alas, this book was rather disappointing. Following the life of Jennie Churchill, we hear about her childhood sporadically sprinkled throughout the novel, as well as her marriage to politician and younger son of a duke, Randall Churchill. The focus is mainly on her affair with an Austrian aristocrat and supposedly, her 'independence.' I was underwhelmed by her so-called flouting of society however, as she seemed to bend every frivolous and shallow Victorian rule but nothing all that substantial. Ultimately, the only interesting thing I found out about Jennie Churchill was that she gave birth to Winston. Well-researched and written, but rather dull.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

January 2019

The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
The latest book by one of my favorite authors (Jane Steele, Gods of Gotham) has a new one out, based in the PNW and it is gooooood. It begins in the 1920's, New York City, where a young girl named Alice has, shall we say, an 'interesting' childhood. Sprinkled throughout the book, we slowly understand how a neglected little girl becomes a gangster, a thief, and a runaway. In fact, Alice runs so far from New York that she winds up in Portland, Oregon where she is adopted into the Paragon Hotel. Patronized only by the few African-Americans who inhabit this incredibly racist city (Oregon's constitution made it illegal to move there if one was black + had the largest KKK group west of the Mississippi - yep, who knew??), Alice finds a plethora of intriguing characters: the drunk doctor and uncle to the beautiful yet mysterious singer, the Pullman car porter who is also a WWI decorated hero, the stern, religious front desk maven, the complicated siblings who work the elevator and clean rooms, the Southern cook, and the little boy who is raised by the entire population at the hotel. Throw in a bleeding-heart liberal woman who also happens to be married to the police chief, a burning cross, and some star-crossed lovers, and yes, you've got a humdinger of a story. Don't miss this fascinating book:)

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
Hedy Lamarr...European refugee, Hollywood siren, famous beauty, but scientist? Who knew? Marie Benedict's latest (The Other Einstein, Carnegie's Maid) takes on the story of the real Hedwig Kiesler and paints the picture of a complex, intriguing woman that she was, not as Hollywood portrayed her. Born into a Jewish family, Hedy was raised in Vienna, wed to a powerful man in the Nazi party, and a victim of abuse. Benedict spends half the book on Hedy's early life, showing us the traps she had to escape to become the woman of the silver screen. Her life in Hollywood, under the MGM studio system, is equally as fascinating as her escape from Nazi Austria. Once she gets involved with the invention of a radio system to improve torpedo accuracy, wow, just wow. This story is reminiscent of Hidden Figures and Radium Girls, as the "why didn't we know all this sooner?" factor. Having done outstanding research and delving deeply into the characters, this is definitely my favorite of Marie Benedict's historical fiction dynasty that she is building.

She Lies in Wait (DCI Jonah Sheens, #1) by Gytha Lodge
If you like police-centered mysteries and love BBC shows like Broadchurch, this is a good book choice for you. A new series picked up by Random House, Lodge shows her writing chops as well as her knowledge of how a detective unit works as she explores a cold case in a small British town. Thirty years ago, a fourteen year old girl went missing from a camping trip that involved her sister and five other teens. Leaving a lingering mystery in the town, her skeleton is then discovered and the search for her killer commences. An intriguing cast of characters inhabit the story: DCI Sheens, the head detective with some secrets in his past; Hanson, the 'newbie' who is dogged in her pursuit of answers and seems to have a sixth sense about lying; Topaz, the sister with a dark past; Jojo, the studly rock climber who hides information; Brett, the Olympic athlete with the perfect home; Benners, a politician who was the teen drug dealer in years past; Cooper, the previous bad boy turned college professor; and Coralie, the forgotten girl of the group. This is a definite page turner and solid writing - I look forward to the second series to see how the unit detectives are further flushed out.

The Au Pair by Emma Rous
The premise is intriguing...coast of England, a brother and a set of twins, and mom falls off cliff on day of twin's birth leaving many secrets behind. The story switches back and forth between Seraphine, one of the twins, in today's world and Laura, the au pair from the past who was present the day of their birth. The first half was compelling reading, as in I did not want to put it down. However, the last twenty percent got a little ridiculous and long-winded for me, with some pretty implausible 'solutions' to complete the tale. Beach read that will keep you reading...yes. Will it satisfy you? Questionable. However, as a debut writer, I do think Emma Rous has good potential - the story is plotted well, the characters are intriguing, and the twists are definitely there. Just needed a better grounding in reality for me, and a tighter wrap-up.

Watching You by Lisa Jewell
This is a solid 3.5 star thriller, yet nothing special. As always, Lisa Jewell gives us a page-turner that involves some secrets amongst the characters, a British setting, and some twists in the end that are intriguing. In her latest book, an interesting collection of people live in a fancy neighborhood in Bristol, up in the Heights where a young boy takes pictures of everyone, a mother with mental illness haunts the streets, a sister tries to get her life together as she lives with her brother and his wife, a girl tries to protect her friend, and a school head is either a compassionate kindly teacher who wants to help students in trouble, or he's a creepy pedophile who should know better. Good for a beach read if you're looking for a quick page-turner, but not nearly complex enough to keep my brain thinking or deep enough into development to care for these characters.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


There, There by Tommy Orange
Let me preface this with...this book may not be for everyone. It is a string of individual stories of Cheyenne tribe members who live in Oakland, CA, but it is for those of us who want to hear unique stories of people often neglected in society, who feel the need to hear the wrenching tales of sadness, who are compelled to try to understand more. Debut author, Tommy Orange, speaks through his characters with raw honestly, and from his own knowledge of what it is to grow up Native in an urban area. His novel is inhabited by a variety of characters: the boy born with fetal alcohol syndrome, the daughter who lived on Alcatraz in childhood now raising her three grand-nephews, the woman adopted by white parents searching for her Cheyenne roots, the mother who seeks the baby she gave up in her youth as she battles alcoholism, the teenage boys caught up in drugs, the young man searching online for his biological father.All these characters circle around the axis of the Great Oakland Powwow, culminating in an ending that will stop your heart. This book will sit inside my heart for quite some time.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis
Admittedly, I spent a few months after the 2016 election with a Pigpen cloud following me for months. I wondered about the Trump transition team- how do we go from competent governance (hard to argue competence even if one doesn't agree with the policy direction) to a group of people who know absolutely nothing about government? Michael Lewis pulls back the curtain and shows us into a few specific departments (Energy, Commerce, Agriculture) and it will scare the bejesus out of you! Did you know the guy in charge of nuclear weapons safety had to begged to come back to man the desk again? How about how climate change impacts the severity of weather events but all that info has been pulled from govt. websites? I found Lewis' detailed research to be utterly fascinating - who knew that NOAA and the weather service is part of the Dept. of Commerce? The data, facts and science buried in all these obscure departments were sewn together into an absorbing story, soon to be a documentary produced by the Obama foundation. Highly recommend - just be thankful we haven't had a nuclear accident yet - fingers crossed:)

Dry by Neal Shusterman, Jarrod Shusterman
In this dystopic novel of one of my favorite writers, Southern California is in the beginning of the "Tap Out," as in, no water comes out when one turns on their faucet. As is very DRY. In just a few short days, we see society completely unravel with the electrical grid off line, all internet down, grocery stores supplies depleted, martial law installed, and anarchy in the street. Shusterman plays on all of our fears of climate change and shows us what the future is like (hint: it is scary). The main characters are a motley crew of teenagers trying to just find a sip of water: the nerdy kid next door whose parents are survivalists and have booby traps for intruders, the sister who is wise beyond her years, tries to do what is right, but is also pragmatic; the little brother with the creative ideas; the 'bad girl' from the high school who saves everyone's neck more than once; and the pathological liar who will either save them or kill them all. This is a roller-coaster of a ride and a frightening look into a possible future.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
I have been counting the days (or should I say years?), waiting for a new book by the author of The Thirteenth Tale, one of my favorite gothic tales from years ago. Her much-awaited new book is finally out and it is a magical turn into a mysterious tale. It all begins at the Swan, a pub set by a river known for its storytellers. On a dark and stormy night (yes, seriously), a strange man walks into the Swan with a dead little girl in his arms. Yet, hours later the little girl awakens and thus the mystery begins. Who is she? Who does she belong to? How did she get into the river? Why are so many people claiming her? The book has maaaany characters to keep track of: Margot, the pub owner, her sickly husband, and her prescient disabled son; the photographer who saves the little girl; the nurse who wants scientific answers to the child's recovery; the grandfather who claims her and his dissolute son who abandons her; the couple whose lost child nearly destroys them; the ferryman, a legend from long ago; and the little girl herself, whose chameleon charms softens everyone's heart. Told in beautifully poetic writing, the story dragged at times for me, with too many characters waltzing in and out of the story. With some further editing, I think it would have gripped me a bit more. With that said, if you like magical realism and tales of olde, this might be the book for you.

The Fire Witness (Joona Linna Series #3) by Lars Keppler
This Swedish mystery series has been compared to the Girl with Dragon Tattoo books, as well as the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo. Unfortunately, I did not feel as favorably towards it as I did the other Nordic series. Yes, Keppler is dark and creepy, he writes a tense plot line, but the translation is stilted for me and most importantly, the characters are rather one-dimensional. The mystery begins with a double murder at a home for disturbed teenage girls, and then follows suspended National Crime Unit policeman Joona Linna as he searches for the answers. It is a page-turner, but I wanted to understand the motivations of the characters better, particularly the lead detective. I never got a sense of Joona and the demons that drive him, not until the very end, which by then was a little late for me. I love the Scandinavian mystery writers, but this one was a miss for me.

For Better or Worse by Margot Hunt
How was this a Book of the Month pick? Good grief, this was a completely implausible plot line (as in two attorneys choose to commit murder when their son is sexually molested - two people who know full good and well the legal consequences and the ins and outs of investigations???), shallow one-dimensional main characters that are impossible to care about, and a questionable ending. Do NOT waste your time - trust me. Doesn't even deserve a picture:(

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


WINNER: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
This book is the most creatively plotted book I have read in my lifetime. The main character wakes up in an unknown body, gets a new identity each day, and has seven days to solve the mystery of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. The consequences for failure are severe: reverting to the beginning of the week and reliving it all again, forever. Beautifully written with each subsequent character developed to complement the plot twists, this book will keep you turning pages and reveling in the unique story. It. Is. Brilliant.

General Fiction:  A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
This is a completely different turn for the author of The Heart's Invisible Furies, this time exploring the age old siren's song of success and greed. The life of Maurice Swift, a man who relentless seeks stories, is a tal eof greed, obsession, desperation, and unmitigated ambition. The question is, what came first...the evil or the ambition? This is a provocative novel that will provide a book club with endless conversation and an individual with haunting thoughts.

Honorable Mention: There, There by Tommy Orange, A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult, Virgil Wander by Leif Enger, The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland, Us Against You by Frederik Backman, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Night Child by                                          Anna Quinn, American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Mystery: The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
A woman visits a funeral home to plan her own memorial, and is then found strangled just six hours later; a deliciously clever cast of suspects abound as we see the latest crime-solving duo created by Anthony Horowitz. writer Anthony Horowitz (yes, one and the same) who Hawthorne wants to write up his life story into true-crime fashion. These two are hilarious, brilliant, and ultimately completely ingenious as we watch the mystery unfold. As with any British caper, red herrings are rife in the scenery and Horowitz uses his own bungling to mirror the reader's confusion as to whodunnit.

Honorable Mention: The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn, The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware, The Plea by Steven Cavanaugh, The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor, Into the Black Nowhere (Unsub #2) by Meg Gardiner, Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

Historical Fiction: The Silence of the Women by Pat Barker
The traditional version is of Achille's anger when his slave girl Briseis is taken from him by Agamemnon, thus leading to Achille's temper tantrum and his refusal to fight for the Greeks on the plains of Troy, all about taking back the beautiful Helen. However, author Pat Barker has her own opinion of how the story actually played out, and in this one, the truth of rape, war, deception, and loyalty is revealed in the most beautiful prose and from the woman's point of view. The consequences of war on the women and children of an occupied country are powerful and unforgettable.

Honorable Mention: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, How to Stop Time by Matthew Haig

YA Fantasy: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Set in the world of Orisha, the magic has been vanquished years ago through murder and destruction, killing the maji off and leaving their children, the diviners behind. The diviners have no magic, but have stark white hair against their brown skin to set them off. Enslaved and abused, the diviner society is set for rebellion. This is an incredible gift of storytelling to the world. If you like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and every other magical tale of friendship, loyalty, family bonds, destruction, power, fear, you name it, pick up this book. You will not regret it.

Honorable Mention: Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl, Legendary (Caravel #2) by Stephanie Garber, Court of Thorn and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Science Fiction: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
This dystopic novel takes place in a world of 'today' - no spaceships, no Big Brother computers, just normal Pacific Northwest setting. However, the federal government has recently outlawed all abortions, as well as invitro treatments, making them crimes for which young unwed teens and grown married women can be imprisoned. And just for an encore, the latest law is the "two parent family, only mom and dad" rule, stopping all single people, much less (gasp!) gay people, from adopting the unwanted babies. The premise is creative and oh so topical.

Honorable Mention: Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe #2) by Neal Shusterman, Dry by Neal and Jarrod Shusterman

Memoir: Educated by Tara Westover
Raised in a strict Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho, Tara and most of her siblings were kept out of school, not to be educated at home, but to work in their father's scrap yard and their mother's homeopathic and unlicensed midwifery business. It is a profound look at what happens when one doesn't educate a child on things we think are basic. How does this skew their view of the world? How does the world look on this child, when as an adult their questions and comments show not only ignorance, but whiffs of racism and hatred? Whose fault is it? Parent, society, the  individual herself? Can a lack of education, or conversely a formal education, fundamentally change society?

Honorable Mention: Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom by Ariel Burger, Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow, Heartland by Sarah Smarsh, The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, Southern Discomfort by Tena Clark

Non-Fiction, History: The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Revolving around the story of the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central library, this is a love letter to all things "library" - the history, the buildings, the administrators, and the frontline people who devote their lives to books, as well as some investigative journalism over 'whodunnit.'

Honorable Mention: The Soul of America by John Meachum, The World As it Is by Ben Rhodes, The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, The Day the World Came to Town by Jim Defede, American Nations by Colin Woodard

Non-Fiction, Social Justice: One Person, No Vote by Carol Anderson
This short book by Carol Anderson, recommended by both President Obama and former AG Eric Holder, is a fascinating look at what has happened to the voting rights of all Americans over the past decade. It also looks at the history of of the past one hundred years, including the poll taxes, the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This research will give one a deeper knowledge of the systematic manner in which voting rights have been stolen from millions of Americans, especially those who live in poverty and/or are people of color: the purging of voter rolls, voter suppression campaigns through social media, the removal of polling places and places to register, the myth of voter fraud, and the illegal use of voter ID laws.

Honorable Mention: Janesville by Amy Goldstein, What Truth Sounds Like by Michael Dyson

Non-Fiction, Science: Rocket Men by Robert Kurson
This new book on the historic first orbit of the moon is a wonderful walk down a lot of exciting memories, but it is also an outstanding reminder of what hope, determination, and plain ole hard work can accomplish. It is as an incredibly inspiring story of what three men did for our country on Christmas Eve in 1968.

Honorable Mention: The Brain's Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, Cure: A Journey into the Science of the Mind by Jo Marchant

Friday, November 16, 2018

November 2.0

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

The author of The Heart's Invisible Furies, my pick for best book of 2017, is back with another incredible story, exploring the age old siren's song of success and greed. The life of Maurice Swift, a man who relentlessly seeks stories, is a tale of greed, obsession, desperation, and unmitigated ambition. Told through the eyes of the many characters who inhabit the decades of his life, we see Maurice at the beginning of adulthood, willing to do whatever it takes to obtain a publishable story. Next, we observe his mid-life years in the world of writers and publishers, and how his raw need for subsequent stories will drive him to ever darker behavior. Ultimately, we witness his elder years, where life has taken unexpected turns and another's ambition will seek to destroy Maurice. The question is, what came first...the evil or the ambition? This is a provocative novel that will provide a book club with endless conversation and an individual with haunting thoughts.

The Witch Elm by Tana French
Having read every one of Tana French's previous books (yep, there's six of them, all part of the Dublin Murder Squad series), I was itching to get my hand on this stand-alone novel. It did not disappoint. I understand some reviewers on line being frustrated with the length of it, but for a 500 page book, it did not move slowly at all for me. French is the master at developing characters, which is one of the reasons I love her writing. I can see deep into the soul of the people she creates, helping me to better understand the complicated plot lines she lays out. In this book, Toby is our main character, suffering from a traumatic brain injury following a home invasion. As he recovers at his uncle's house outside of Dublin, this home of special childhood memories begins to take on a dark side as a skull and a murder are discovered. French builds the characters and plot methodically and deliberately, but not pointlessly. Great twists and turns abound, leaving the reader satisfied but not in a perfectly-wrapped-package kind of way. If you like Tana French, you will like this book.

Lethal White (Cormoran Strike, #4) by Robert Galbraith
Yes, I love JK Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith) and of course I love HP. But seriously, this woman is just a great storyteller. Her main character of Cormoran Strike is one of my favorites in today's world of British mysteries; he is wretchedly smart, wryly funny, tortured by his past, frustratingly oblivious to his own feelings, and thoroughly delightful. If you haven't read the other three in the series, catch up! But if you haven't, this can be read as a stand alone, but you would miss the development of the relationship between Strike and his assistant/now partner, Robin. This time around these two have their noses in the government, with some crooked ministers, a creepy old country mansion, and a mysterious crime. Solid mystery + engaging characters + thoughtful prose = a hit for me.

The Gods of Gotham (Timothy Wilde #1) by Lyndsay Faye
One of my favorite "listens" over the last few years was Lyndsay Faye's 2016 book, Jane Steele. I loved her sassy voice, her prowess with vocabulary without being too verbose, and the wickedly complex character she creates. So, I thought I should go back and read an earlier series, based around Timothy Wilde, a New York cop. For the record - good decision! Timothy is an interesting man; half his face burnt from a home fire that killed his parents, desperately in love with the pastor's beautiful daughter, complicated relationship with his brother, and a reluctant cop on the newly formed NYC police force, Timothy then decides to adopt a little girl who has information on a murder case. Mid-century New York is a fascinating setting and Faye creates a city that sings with darkness, crime, and rotten politicians, but with a couple good "copper stars" who don't mind getting their hands dirty. Lyndsay Faye is one talented story teller - don't miss her novels.

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton
Curiosity about Cuba led me to this book, as well as the rave reviews. Admittedly, I am a bit torn. The story is told from two different perspectives: the tale of long ago during the revolution, involving Elisa and her siblings as the privileged planter class watches their world be destroyed; the other story is one of Elisa's granddaughter, coming to modern day Cuba, to sprinkle her grandmother's ashes. I was absorbed with the story of the revolutionary with whom Elisa falls in love, the story of how and why rebels chose to follow Castro, and how it impacted the people of Cuba. However, I would have enjoyed some different viewpoints. Elisa and her family are quite wealthy and they have the means to escape; while Cleeton gives some details of the poor and middle-class left behind, it is quite sparse. And the modern day story was a bit too romance-y for my taste, reading more like a Harlequin novel. With that said, I did enjoy the richness of the Cuban story and might be willing to try the sequel, which is about the older sister Beatriz (more of a rebel, she may be more interesting to me than Elisa). If you're planning a trip to Cuba, this would definitely add to one's knowledge base.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom by Ariel Burger
Having taught Night, Elie Wiesel's first book chronicling his horrific time in Auschwitz, I could not wait to get this book into my hands. Ariel Burger was Wiesel's student for more than two decades and had a front row view of his teacher: his philosophies, his faith, and his extraordinary ability to open a classroom wide for his students. What I would have given to be a member of one of Professor Wiesel's classes - what a gift he was to this world. Admittedly, at times I got a bit bogged down in the story of Burger's search for his life direction, but I could understand those diversions better as the ending developed. Ariel Burger did outstanding research, and gave us a very personal look at this heroic man, giving him some feet of clay and reminding us that Wiesel was human. This book is a 'must-read,' 'must-have,' in a teacher's hands who uses Night in their classroom, as well as anyone who wants to see the power of learning, the power of love through forgiveness, and the power of the search for meaning through the questioning of life.

One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy by Carol Anderson
This is the most most important book to read in the context of what is going on today in America. I find myself frustrated and angry when I listen to the news, so I stop. Burying my head in the sand, however, is not the answer. So once again I went searching for some answers in the place I depend upon: books. This short book by Carol Anderson, recommended by both President Obama and former AG Eric Holder, is a fascinating look at what has happened to the voting rights of all Americans over the past decade. It also looks at the history of of the past one hundred years, including the poll taxes, the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I will now think twice before blaming "those people" who chose not to vote in 2016. I have a deeper knowledge of the systematic manner in which voting rights have been stolen from millions of Americans, especially those who live in poverty and/or are people of color: the purging of voter rolls, voter suppression campaigns through social media, the removal of polling places and places to register, the myth of voter fraud, and the illegal use of voter ID laws. Do yourself a favor and read this book (I listened to it - excellent narrator); the facts found here will arm you for the fight in front of America.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
Having heard about this book all last year, I finally got around to picking it up and YES, it is worth it. Set in New York City, in a lovely brownstone near Columbia University, the mysterious story slowly introduces its characters: Anna Fox, severe agoraphobic, alcoholic, retired child psychiatrist; the handyman who lives in Anna's basement - handsome, wild, mysterious; Anna's husband and child, who no longer live in the house with Anna but whose conversations pepper the story; and the new neighbors, the Russells, who Anna fears are involved with dark secrets and violence as she spies on them through her window. This book had me chasing lots of clues down the wrong hallways and kept me reading voraciously far past my bedtime. Highly recommend this one -it will not disappoint you.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The story of the Iliad, but told from the woman's point of view? Perfect timing for me, as I read it during the Kavanaugh hearings and could place my anger into Briseis' hands, and not into my own anger backpack. Do you have to know the story of Helen, of Agamemnon, of Achilles, to enjoy this book? Absolutely not. In fact, it is a spectacular introduction to the foundation on which much of western literature is based. However, if you do know the story, you will find it even more enjoyable. The traditional version is of Achille's anger when his slave girl Briseis is taken from him by Agamemnon, thus leading to Achille's temper tantrum and his refusal to fight for the Greeks on the plains of Troy, all about taking back the beautiful Helen. However, author Pat Barker has her own opinion of how the story actually played out, and in this one, the truth of rape, war, deception, and loyalty is revealed in the most beautiful prose. I was gripped by Briseis' voice as she told of her kidnapping, her enslavement, her life with the famous Achilles and his friend Patroclus, and the choices she was forced to make to survive. Pat Barker is famous for her Regeneration trilogy on WWI with it's strong anti-war message; this book continues these themes, and develops further the consequences of war on the women and children of the occupied country. Highly highly recommend!

Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear
The first book by debut British author Caz Frear was chosen by Book of the Month and it is well-deserving of the honor. First in a series about a female British copper,  Detective Cat Kinsella is a complex, intriguing, and authentic character. We meet her at a murder scene of young woman who happens to live close to Cat's father's pub. As the mystery pulls in a disappearance of a young woman Cat's family had known long ago in Ireland, the dark side of the family is exposed. Her father's connection to the underworld, her sister's friendship with the missing girl, and Cat's own knowledge of events on the fateful day years ago all lead to more questions than answers as Cat and her partner try to solve the mystery of the present-day murder. It took me until the bitter end to figure out 'whodunnit' in the most satisfying manner. Well done to a first time author!

Monday, October 15, 2018

October 2.0

The Library Book by Susan Orlean
My grandmother was a university librarian, my first babysitter was the county library, and my first crush was Mrs. Pyle, my school librarian who wore purple earrings and chose me to stamp the date cards. So yes, I am a lover of libraries and everything about them; so is Susan Orlean. This New Yorker writer has a few bestsellers (think Orchid Thief) and her latest is sure to please many bibliophiles. Revolving around the story of the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central library, this is a love letter to all things "library" - the history, the buildings, the administrators, and the frontline people who devote their lives to books, as well as some investigative journalism over 'whodunnit.' I cannot tell you how many lines I highlighted or how many times I gasped aloud at the fascinating trivia on either Los Angeles or the library itself. I found this book completely engrossing, utterly fascinating, and extraordinarily well-researched. Highly recommend to anyone who has a love affair with books.

A Well-Behaved Woman  by Therese Anne Fowler
I have been chomping at the bit to start this novel, as I loved Fowler's first book Z about Zelda Fitzgerald, and having read a non-fiction book on the Vanderbilts last year, I was curious as to a historical-fiction look at their lives. Alva Vanderbilt, wife to the patriarch's second grandson, is used to build the story. Alva comes from an old Southern family, must marry wealthy to support her sisters, and ultimately shows the deep and desperate climb up the social ladder of New York, to ensure that the family sits atop with the Astors. Ultimately, I was rather disappointed in this book. For the first two-thirds, it is a looooong litany of the social climbing, the back-stabbing, the petty insults, the family feuding over money with little deep character development. Alva is not admirable, nor is she detestable; she is just 'meh' for me. I wanted to better understand her ultimate transformation - what drove her to give up her drive for social status? With a weak plot line, I quite frankly found it rather boring. Six pages on the description of the costumes and conversation at her famous ball was overkill. The last third of the book was more interesting as we see Alva breaking free of society's rules, becoming involved in the suffragette's movement. After reading the notes at the end concerning Alva's latter years, I wish the story had included more of that as it would have been a more compelling read for me. Thanks to Net Galley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
The first in a trilogy, this Viking saga is pretty awesome. Granted, I grew up being read The Tales of Asgard by a mother with Norwegian ancestry, but it does not matter your background as long as you like heroic wartimes, some blood and gore, and some battled-tested characters. Brother and sister, Ragnvald and Svanhild, (yes, names are brutally difficult and hard to keep track of at first) are in a bad situation in 9th century Norway: grandpa was a stud but dad was an idiot, mom remarried dishonorable man, arguments ensue and both siblings must find their own way in the world. For the record, really not easy if you're a woman. Svanhild must form an alliance with Solvi, a complicated occasionally unlikable but disarmingly charming hero (or is he an anti-hero?). Ragnvald, in his search for glory, has to figure out which king to swear allegiance to and who is ultimately going to prevail in their quest to bring Norway under one rule. If you like GOT, or the stories of Thor and other swashbuckling heroes, and if you like a girl who has to use whatever skills she has in the time period in which she lives to survive, you'll like this book.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Yes, it took me far to long to finally pick up this book after all the rave reviews for the last two years. Question is...are the reviews correct? Is it amazing? Here's my two cents. First, the narrator and main character, Count Alexander Rostov is quite lovely. After returning to Russia in 1922, he is tried, convicted, and put under 'house' arrest at the Metropol hotel in Moscow. The Count is witty, intelligent, introspective, curious, and kind. He creates for himself, in this new life within four walls, a microcosm of society that is fascinating to watch unfold. His friendships with a famous actress, a young girl, the head chef, a Politburo member all contribute to a shockingly full life lived within the confines of a hotel. And when another little girl enters Rostov's world, his heart grows even more full. While I thoroughly enjoyed 2/3rds of this book, I will say it got a bit long and verbose for me. Plot-thin at times, it is definitely a character-driven novel and luckily, the Count is as delightful a main character as you can find. It would definitely be a intriguing, if long, book club choice.

House of Gold by Natasha Solomons
Based loosely on the famous Rothschild family, showing their power and ties with all the European countries and royal families, it is now the Goldsteins as the family members get pulled into WWI with their Austrian and British families on opposite side of a conflict that neither support. On one hand, I was pulled into the characters of Otto and Greta, the Austrian siblings, and Albert, the son and heir of the British banking side. The slow love story of Greta and Albert is compelling, and Otto's wartime friendship with a Jewish orphan is powerful. Yet the story moves too slowly for me, as the war slowly begins; I found the second half more powerful once the war finally begins. Admittedly, I am also not a lover of gardening so the pages and pages of garden description and yard work is a bit too much for me. This book was full of interesting historical detail, focused on an extremely privileged family at a traumatic moment in 19th century history, yet also drew in at times how this war impacted people of poverty.  Overall, I enjoyed the book but do wish it had been a bit shorter. Thanks to Net Galley for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.