Five Totally Different Books

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie–1948…Nori was 8 years old when her mother left her at the imposing estate of her grandparents in Kyoto, Japan. That was the last time she ever saw her mother. She was an unwanted child…of everyone it seems, kept in the attic, hidden from all because of her dark skin and curly hair. Subject to chemical baths and beatings, she never complained, waiting patiently for the return of her mother.  Her life would have gone on like that, if her half-brother Akira hadn’t appeared, the only one to care about her, the only one to love her. We follow Nori’s tumultuous existence through the 1960’s as she fights to live her own life and begins to understand her worth. This debut novel explores a biracial girl in a “uni-racial” country and the power of having someone who believes in you.

The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid–Mohsin Hamid likes to look at global themes from a personal perspective in a science fiction format. In his last novel Exit West he examines immigration, but with a twist. There are secret doors that lead to other countries.  In The Last White Man, we explore racial identity. Anders wakes up one morning and discovers he has turned black. He is the same person but looks totally different…however, he is not the first or the last. Oona, his sometime girlfriend, accepts him totally. Her mother…not so much. What happens when everyone turns dark? In an unnamed city and unnamed country (I can’t believe it’s in the US though), we watch as life as we know it takes a turn. Hamid’s writing is often stream of consciousness without regard for sentences. And I love it. The book is 180 pages. It moves quickly and it would be a great book club book. Lots of questions to ponder. If you have already read it, please let’s talk.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger—Virgil is lucky. He survived a deadly accident with only a slight brain trauma and gets a second chance at life. What will he do with his new life? But it isn’t only Virgil who gets a second chance. Greenstone, his small northern Minnesota community that has been slowly dying for 20 years gets another life, at least that’s what this quirky band of locals are striving for. Rune, a kite flying visitor from Sweden discovers that he has a son from Greenstone who had vanished in a plane years before and he comes to town to meet his son’s family. Nadine, the wife of the lost flier and her son the skateboarder have an unspecified relationship with Virgil. There is also Adam Leer, the very strange rich man who lives at the top of the hill. What kind of power does he have over the town? These characters and many, many, more make up the fraying fabric of Greenstone. Part character study, part magic, Enger has crafted a beautiful novel.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus—Elizabeth Zott is a chemist, and that is all she wants to be. But it is 1951 and women chemists are not easily tolerated. Although her work is far superior to her male colleagues, she is constantly rejected, and her work is often co-opted. And then she meets Calvin Evans, Nobel nominated chemist and it is love at first sight at least for Calvin. He sees in her what no one else sees. Their relationship is exactly what both need until his unexpected death and unexpected pregnancy. She is fired from her job. but life hands her another opportunity. She becomes the new television cooking sensation with “Supper at Six” as she not only gives her overwhelmingly women’s audience new recipes but a dollop of empowerment as well. The characters in this debut novel are fascinating, especially her daughter, Mad and her very protective and understanding dog Six Thirty.

The Language of Birds by Anita Barrow–Gracie and Janine, two sisters bearing the suicidal death of their mother grow up in the San Francisco area with their father and his well-meaning girlfriend, Kate. But Gracie, a budding teen is having none of it and her younger sister Janine, autistic, is ensconced in her birds. Gracie refuses to engage with anyone and instead, reads constantly. Her father focuses totally on Janine and assumes that Gracie is fine. It is only in her poetry class in school that she meets Gina, a poet, does she start to open up.  This coming-of-age novel was written by a therapist but strangely enough, there is no therapy in the story. There is only Gracie as she battles her demons and begins to engage with others and think beyond her own needs. Although I knew nothing about this author or her poetry, I enjoyed the complexities of a young girl as she fights her way out of the cage of her own making.

Help! I’m Falling into a Good Book

The Maid by Nita Prose—In an unknown city at a fancy hotel, Molly Gray is the perfect maid. Her rooms are always spotless, and she really enjoys her work. But after her beloved Gran dies, she is rather adrift because Gran was the one person who interpreted her world for her. Molly has trouble understanding what people really mean when they speak to her. And when she walks into a room and finds a customer dead, her life is overturned and the people she trusts are not the people she needs to trust.  Will Molly solve this crime? Or will she be convicted of it?

You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn—Whatever you have expected from a book by Kal Penn, you will be surprised. From the star of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Penn takes us into his life as an Indian American boy from Jersey City where against all odds and advice from family and friends, he ends up in Hollywood fighting racism and prejudice to become an actor. His memoir, in turns funny and very serious follows his ups and downs in his acting career and a definite turn into what he feels is national service as he joins Barack Obama’s election campaign and ultimately his staff for a year.  As an actor, writer and producer, Penn surprises everyone. And this is not the end of his saga.

We Are Not Like Them, by Jo Piazza and Christine Pride—This is a novel literally ripped from the headlines. Riley and Jen have been friends, more like sisters, since kindergarten. The fact that Riley is Black, and Jen is White never seemed to be a factor in their friendship until a Black, unarmed teenager is killed by two White policemen and one of those policemen is Jen’s husband, Kevin.

Riley is a journalist on a local Philadelphia TV station and this story has become important to her, not only personally but professionally. Jen must grapple not only with her husband, and his job and possible freedom, but his family and the police family as well. Neither woman knows how to respond to each other and the longer they don’t communicate, the more difficult it becomes. They have never really talked with each other about race and among all their other problems, this is the opening they must have to keep their friendship alive.

Because this novel is written by Piazza who is White and Pride, who is Black and each chapter is narrated by Piazza or Pride, it lends a very realistic bent to this novel. Both writers agree that this is a way to open a dialogue about race. If you are looking for a provocative book to open a discussion on race for your book club, this may be a good choice.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz—An English countryside murder, complete with a vicar, a haughty landowner, a bitter maid, and a famous detective. What could be more delicious! But there’s more.  This is a novel about the author of this murder mystery, and when Susan, his editor reads the book, the ending chapters are missing. And the author is dead. Everyone thinks it’s a suicide, but Susan has other ideas. And it’s all tied into the books he wrote…and the missing chapters. Look carefully at the characters in this mystery. They may look more familiar as you read the book.

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell—I told you when I reviewed The Invisible Girl by Jewell that I would be reading more of her books….and true to my word I did. Thanks to my sister who can’t stop reading them!

It started out slowly as Henry, his sister Lucy and their parents used to live a normal life, but as the money ran out, people were invited into their home, and they were no longer in charge…it was the family upstairs who took charge, and they turned everyone in the house into a cult.  And then a new baby was born, but who were her parents? And then what happened to the adults?

Twenty-five years later, Libby, an adopted orphan was contacted that she had inherited the big house in Chelsea. She knew nothing about the strange family that lived there but was determined to find out.  The twists and turns in this page turner never stop as Libby learns about the family she never knew.  

Reading in the Hot Hot Sun

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin is the story of an American family gone awry. When father Ellis Skinner, dies suddenly of a heart attack, his family falls apart. Noni, the mother retreats to her room and leaves her four children, Renee, 11, Caroline, 10, Joe, 8 and Fiona, 4 (she at 102 narrates her family’s history). Renee assumes the role of caretaker and for two years, she and Joe ran the household. After their aunt steps in and their mother reemerges from her depression, life becomes more normal again. But two years is long enough to leave scars on the four Skinner children, scars that go so deep, they don’t show up until much later. Especially for Joe, who was always viewed as the golden boy, handsome and extremely athletic, but never lives up to his potential.  Caroline despite her mother’s cautionary tale, marries her high school sweetheart. Renee never wants children, having had to care for her siblings for two years and becomes a surgeon. Fiona, who in later years becomes a renowned poet, tells their story in a series of poems as we discover how the four children lived their lives and shared their grief. 

If you are a fan of the works of Mel Brooks, you must listen to All About Me: My Remarkable Life in Show Business by Mel Brooks. By the end of the book, you will know the plot of every TV show, movie, play, and award that Brooks has worked on. And he’s worked (written, directed, produced and acted) on many. I thought I knew them all but apparently not. Yes, he goes into a little more detail than I would have liked, (sometimes it’s like listening to your grandfather go on and on) but he has led an amazing life and knows a lot of famous people. He wrote this book in his mid-90s which he calls his “Third Act”.  I now have a yearning to watch some of his old movies which somehow, I’ve missed!

Happy Go-Lucky by David Sedaris—Oh how I love David! His essays and talks range from pathos to bathos (yes just learned the difference) and I love his take on The Pandemic, the lockdown to the ever-present BLM marches in New York. Yes he is getting older…and crankier but his humor is just as sharp, and his stories of his family are just as funny…and sad. I’ve been listening to him talk about his father throughout his books and it is still cringeworthy. But through Sedaris’ eyes as the old man loses his anger, we see the father he might have been.

The Mercies by Kiren Millwood Hargrave—1617, in a small fishing village in Northern Norway, all the men went out to fish one stormy night and never returned. The women were left to fend for themselves. And they did. They learned to fish and to tan hides and basically to learn to live without men. And then Absolom Cornet arrives, on orders of the king, with his young bride to take control. Apparently, the women of the village were fending for themselves a little too well, and not with the church’s permission. He was there to make sure the indigenous Lapp tribe did not overly influence the Christian women. Based on the real witch trials of 1621, this novel includes a fierce friendship, betrayal and the power of the church. It was an unputdownable book.  

French Braid by Anne Tyler—Known for her character-based novels, Tyler often focuses on families. Her newest book is no exception. We meet Mercy and Robin on their once in a lifetime vacation at Deep Creek. With their two teenaged girls and young son, it should be a memorable occasion. It is but for all the wrong reasons. Everyone wants something different. Mercy simply wants to paint and boy crazy Lily has her first big crush. David does not want to learn to swim, despite his father’s urging and Alice becomes the DeFacto mother. As I began French Braid, it felt almost like connected short stories, exploring one Baltimore family through 40 years of dysfunction and the ties that bind and unbind.

See you all next month and hopefully we’ll have beautiful September weather so we can read our books with the windows open.

Beachy Books

Are you looking for the next Bridget Jones read, something perfect for the beach? Well on the face of it, One Day in December by Josie Silver might fit the bill. Laurie James, a would-be journalist, stuck in a dead-end job, always looking for someone special, is sitting on a double decker bus in London when she spies a young man, deep in a book at the bus stop and she knows this is the one. She stares at him until he looks up and silently pleads with him to get on the bus or she will get off. But it’s crowded and finally when he makes a move to board, it is too late. Laurie spends the next year thinking of who this man might be.

She and her best friend Sarah nickname him “The Bus Boy” and it is not until Sarah introduces her to her new boyfriend, the love of her life, Jack, that Laurie recognizes him. (Surprised?), Does he remember her…will she tell Sarah? That would be too easy. Instead, Jack and Laurie become fast friends, but there is a tension between them that never goes away. Through ten years of changing relationships and even marriage, Jack is there, but is he “there there” or just a good friend? Well, you have to read this charming novel to find out. I read it for a book club and seriously we had one of the best conversations!

What initially attracted me about The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave was that Hannah and her husband Owen and stepdaughter Baily live in a floating house in Sausalito. How cool would that be? But that’s not what the book is about.  This novel is literally a page turner which I finished in a record amount of time! After a big scandal at Owen’s company, Owen disappears leaving a two word note for his wife “Protect her” and a bag full of money for his daughter Bailey. But to protect Bailey, Hannah must figure out why Owen left and finally who he actually is. Along with sulky and understandably freaked out Baily, the two set out on a quest to get to the truth of Owen’s life story, and Bailey’s as well, which takes them to Austin, Texas. And when they do, life will never be the same for either of them.  Read it on a floating house which I’m sure you’ll buy soon.

Are you looking for a book that will satisfy your every literary need? Mystery, romance, tragedy, heartbreak and a good deal of anger is what The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont brings to your bookshelf. I do not have to introduce Agatha Christie to this audience, but maybe some of you don’t know that for 11 days in 1926, Christie disappeared and no one beside Christie herself ever found out what happened during those 11 days.

The Christie Affair is a novel that offers a possible explanation…not probable but possible. She was 36 years old, and her marriage was falling apart. Nan O’Dea (not her real name) was the “other woman” who was having an affair with Archie Christie and was determined to have him. Then one night, Agatha drove off and disappeared while the whole of England searched for her. I will not fill in the whole story, but I can say that Nan was not only very involved in her disappearance but narrated the novel as well (even though there were some parts she could not have possibly known). And it is through her eyes that we fall into this story with a plot you do not expect. It’s as if Christie wrote it herself, complete with clues and parts of Christie’s mysteries thrown in for good measure. I absolutely loved this book and I’m proud to say that my cousin, Peter Steinberg, de Gramont’s literary agent gave her the idea for this book! (But that is not why I loved it!)

Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz—I’m not sure how much to divulge about this page turner of a romantic/science fiction novel. Bee and Nick meet online after a misdirected email. Bee repurposes wedding dresses and is not doing well in the dating department and Nick is a failed writer in a bad marriage. But when they get to know each other through emails, they cannot deny the chemical charge. And after some lengthy emailing, they decide to meet at Euston Station in London. They plot it out down to what they are both wearing, and they both show up…but they cannot find each other. And the question is why? When they finally get back online, they start comparing anomalies. Their worlds seem different on some levels: In Nick’s world Trump is a failure and ecology is a priority. Bee’s world is unfortunately the same as ours. Could it be that they live in parallel universes? Follow these star-crossed lovers as they map out a plan to finally meet. Romance, humor, science fiction…perfect for a movie! I read it in a week.

Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend by Jenny Colgan—Let me first say that the worst part of this very engrossing novel is the title. I was embarrassed to have people around the pool see that I was reading such a pink, frivolous book. I am of course a former librarian and consider myself a literata (yes that’s a word)! But because I’ve read some of her previous books and because a good friend lent it to me, I thought I’d try it out.

Poor little rich girl, Sophie had everything she wanted, except for her mother, who died when Sophie was 11 years old. After that it was just her and her doting father.  But when her father married Gail several years later, it was war and Sophie became the spoiled rich girl with her spoiled rich friends…until the fateful night when her life changed dramatically, and she was told she had to live on her own for six months to develop some responsibility. She finds a flat in the worst part of London with four scrappy, messy, male students and…well I’m sure you can figure out the basic plot, but it is written in a way to make those pages turn. I actually enjoyed it, despite the title.

For the past few years, 741 days to be exact, I’ve been studying Spanish through Duolingo.com along with some of my family. I still can’t join a real conversation with real Spanish speakers, but what I can do is read! My son offered me this “Spanish for Beginners” novel, Hola Lola! by Juan Fernandez. The book follows clueless, 20-year-old William from Newcastle, England. He is living in Madrid and trying to learn Spanish by taking a Spanish course there. He lives in a flat with other students and just tries to get along. He describes himself as awkward, not handsome and a little chubby (his favorite foods are MacDonalds burgers and chocolate chip cookies). We follow William as he navigates through social minefields. In addition, his Spanish is not easily understandable. The novel is written in a way that totally explains the characters and plot with repetition, and vocabulary with questions and answers at the end of each chapter. It’s funny and only about 200 pages. I enjoyed my first ever novel in Spanish! This is the first in a series about William’s adventures. Available from Amazon.com. And I actually read this one on the beach! (en la playa).

Hope you enjoy these novels. I have. Remember to use sunscreen and eat some ice cream every day, just like me.

Look What I Found at the Gaithersburg Book Festival

I was lucky enough to have attended and survived the Gaithersburg Book Festival for although it was held on May 21, it was 95 degrees and you had to be a super book lover to handle that heat.  But it was definitely worth it. Here are some author talks that I attended and if their books are as amazing as their talks, then go out right now and order these books. Ironically for me, they are all Non-Fiction. I must confess that I haven’t read these books yet. These are my impressions as I listened to the authors.

There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America by Amy Argetsinger —Remember when we were young and impressionable, and we couldn’t wait to watch The Miss America Pageant every year? Television and women’s roles were certainly different then. Argetsinger, a Washington Post Style reporter has written a cultural history of American women through the lens of the Miss America Pageant.

And the pageant itself has reflected American life through all its turmoil. The infamous Rule 7, enacted in 1948, stated “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” It was not until 1970 that Cheryl Browne became the first Black woman to participate. Bess Myerson, who in 1945, became the first Jewish Miss America, was asked to change her name to something less Jewish…she refused. And in 2017, misogynistic leaked emails from the all-male CEO and board of the Miss America Organization led to their firing, after which the board was taken over by women. Gretchen Carlson, formerly of Fox News became the next CEO and her first decision was to remove the swimsuit competition, which created some more backlash. This is a fascinating look at an institution that is now just barely surviving and if you read the book, you will understand why. Great idea for a book discussion!

Ann Hood, author of several fiction and non-fiction works, began her career at the age of 21 as a stewardess (not yet called flight attendant) for TWA Airlines. Fly Girl is her story in the air as a witness and participant in the early “Fly Me” years from 1978-1986 about the time that women were finally given the respect that they should have had years before. But this is not a polemic. It is simply a memoir of the best time of her life and the difference between then and now, both for passengers and crew. I attended her and Amy Argetsinger’s presentation as they discussed both their books, comparing life in the air and life on a pedestal. I must tell one of her stories: A very famous writer was a passenger on one of her flights and by that time, Hood had already started writing books. She mentioned this to the author, and he looked at her with a dead pan expression and said, you’re too stupid to write. It was only her flight training that got her through that conversation. We tried to get her to reveal his name, but she never did.

There is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century by Fiona Hill —I’m sure you remember Fiona Hill’s riveting testimony at President Trump’s impeachment trial. But do you know her origins as the coal miner’s daughter from Northern England? As mines were shutting down and no jobs to be had, her father told her that “there is nothing for you here”, the sentence that spurred her to seek higher education and even to get out of England. She studied in Russia and finally the United States at Harvard, where she felt anyone could start anew. And indeed she did, specializing in Eastern Europe. She served under three presidents, Bush, Obama and finally Trump…and you know the rest.  But this is not only a memoir, it’s a cautionary tale of what could happen in America, just as it did in Russia under Putin.

Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could by Adam Schiff—As we have watched the January 6th Hearings, Midnight in Washingon could not be a more pertinent book. Schiff takes us from the former president’s first impeachment trial through the 2020 election and especially the January 6 Capitol riot and his memories of living through that awful day as rioters attempted to break into the chamber. His bitterest comments though, are reserved for the “insurrectionists in suits and ties” who he is sure knew that the election was not rigged but “slowly surrendered to the immorality of the former president.”

The Family Roe: An American Story by Joshua Prager As one does at book festivals, when there are famous writers that are going to speak at a certain time, it’s important to arrive and get a seat at the previous writer’s talk. This often leads to discovering a new author (new to me anyway) and I certainly did. The Family Roe could not have arrived at a more propitious time, now that Roe V. Wade has become history. The story behind Jane Roe is as complicated as Norma McCorvey herself (the real Jane Roe). She gave birth to three children, from three different men, two of whom she gave up for adoption. Her first was raised by her mother. Norma often changed her story, changed her mind and finally switched her position to an anti-abortion stance.

Prager tried to approach this very controversial topic in as neutral and human tone as possible. He felt it was politicized enough.  He discovered “Baby Roe” who was adopted but did not find out about her birth mother until she was 18. And Prager was instrumental in getting all of Norma’s children together. This is a fascinating look at a moment in history that has changed our lives.

And one more book to introduce…As I stopped by the Maryland Writers Association booth, I was asked “Are you a writer?” Well, sort of was my answer. I do publish a blog about books. One of the women in the booth was very excited. She handed me a copy of her book 50 Things to Know About Birds in Washington DC by Dana Burton and asked if I could review it on my blog. Well, now I guess I’ve become an influencer! So here goes…

If you are a bird lover or even if you are not, this slim, handy 70-page book may get you started. It’s not slick or fancy or even in color, but it lists many places in DC where you are sure to find birds including Roach’s Run Waterfowl Sanctuary, Dunbarton Oaks, Hains Point, Rock Creek Park and many more. And she knows lots of interesting facts about birds in this area. She even included a paragraph on  Presidential Pets with Calvin Coolidge at the top of the list. So if you are interested in birds, or Washington DC trivia, this might be the book for you. It could have been checked for spelling errors a little more thoroughly though. Look for 50 Things to Know About Birds in Washington DC by Dana Burton, available on Amazon.com.

The Gaithersburg Book Festival, begun in 2010 has become a place for authors and readers to meet and discuss books. It’s a free all-day event with free parking…but be sure to arrive early! And it’s right here in Gaithersburg! Make sure you attend next year and hopefully it won’t be so hot.

See you next month and happy reading!

Sliding Into Summer and You Need Books to Get There

As I was searching through my list of favorite books, I found Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable by Mark Dunn.  In a small fictitious town on an island off the coast of South Carolina, the birthplace of Nevin Nollop, supposed author of the typing phrase “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”, there is a memorial to Nollop containing this phrase. Well one day, a letter falls off and the town council decides to eliminate that letter from all speech. And then as more letters fall off, they are eliminated from this book as well…which makes it a very interesting read…probably not a good book to listen to though.

The novel itself is about freedom of expression as Ella (our heroine) along with her likeminded friends, fight to be able to regain the letters before they are all gone for good. It is hilarious and sobering at the same time. And although this book was written in 2001, it is still just as relevant now.

Louise Penny’s new novel, State of Terror is unlike any of the others in her mystery series. It’s possible because Hilary Clinton was her coauthor and Clinton writes about what she knows: a woman Secretary of State involved in a political crisis like no other. And all the usual suspects are involved: Iran, Pakistan, Russia, The Taliban, the former president…or all of them could be the villains.

Bombs go off in two cities in Europe and her job is to figure out who, why and when are they going to be set off next.  Probably in the US and possibly in the White House. But “when” is the key question.  And does she leave these questions to her underlings…absolutely not, because she does not trust anybody in the White House, nor should she. Everyone is a suspect, and it is not until the last few pages that we find out who the mole is. Backed by her counselor, her daughter, her son and a young woman with secrets of her own, they proceed down every blind alley. The answer may lie in an unlikely place…Three Pines, Quebec!

Would I recommend this political thriller? Sure, why not…I’m in it for the thrill, the characters and the fact that a woman Secretary of State is the heroine along with the other women in her life. I’m suspending disbelief on all other counts.

One of my favorite books by Alice Hoffman is Practical Magic published in 1995 (and of course the movie in 1998) about sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens, and Sally’s daughters, Kylie and Antonia who all live with their two aunts Franny and Jet. They are part of a family of witches trying to cope with life in modern day Salem, Massachusetts. When Gillian’s boyfriend proves to be a very, very bad person, Sally rescues her and the two must decide what to do with him…they don’t make the wisest choice. And then they need to be rescued themselves.

Many readers want to know the back story of the Owens family. Maria Owens, the matriarch of the Owens family, was tried for witchcraft in the 1600s. In Magic Lessons we meet Maria, who never meant to fall in love, indeed, she even cast a spell to prevent herself from it. But she met and had a baby with the wrong man, John Hathorne who later becomes one of the leading judges in the Salem witch trials. Her life and that of her daughter Faith, provide the framework for future generations of Owens women. Hoffman’s writing is a combination of love and witchcraft, with lots of practical witchy kind of tips and real history, especially about women and the suffering that they endured. I loved it and if you love it there are several more novels in the Owens family saga.

Hoffman fills in some history that will help you understand the modern-day Owens family and that is where The Rules of Magic comes in. Franny, Jet and Vincent, three siblings growing up in the 1960s, all understand that they are different, but they don’t know why until they visit their Aunt Isabelle who guides them through their family history. They all learn the pitfalls of falling in love.

And now the last in the series, The Book of Magic. Some twenty years after Practical Magic we revisit the Owens family.   Although the curse that has been in the family for generations remains, everyone in the family has fallen in love and the men have all paid the price. The latest is Kylie’s boyfriend who is run over by a car, and lays in a coma and it is then that Kylie decides to end the curse no matter the consequences. And the consequences are steep. Carrying “The Book of Ravens” which will give her instructions on ending curses, she flies to London and runs into the wrong man and the wrong kind of magic. The entire family follows her, except Antonia who is very pregnant. What happens there and for Antonia as well, changes everything for the family. They all learn the sacrifices they must make to break the curse.  If you are an Alice Hoffman fan, a magic fan, or especially a fan of love, you must read The Book of Magic. It is a series well worth following.

But I must quote the beginning line: “Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end, but all the best stories begin in a library.” And that tells you how Hoffman feels about books and libraries! At the end there is a list of all the books mentioned in this novel.

Well that’s it for now my friends and as always, let me know what you think…to a degree of course.

Stay safe, remain vigilant and keep reading.

Let’s Read More Books…on your porch, in your garden…or if you’re in Minnesota…under a blanket

What I love most about Joshilyn Jackson’s books is that they are never about what they appear to be.  It is always more complicated, more nuanced, and she writes in such a way that it is welcoming to the reader, whether she (yes probably her readers are women) is expecting Chick Lit or a psychological page turner. They often get both. In Someone Else’s Love Story, Shandi and her brilliant 3-year son Natty are preparing for a change in their lives and on the way to Atlanta, they stop at a convenience store and become involved in a stick-up. It is there they meet William, a very damaged scientist who becomes their savior and when she falls in love with him, their life gets even more complicated. This novel is so much more so keep reading through the plot twists.

And then, read Almost Sisters, my introduction to Jackson, about a pregnant woman who returns to her family in Alabama to care for her aging grandmother and discovers a secret that upends all her perceptions about her family. It’s not only about family, but race and southern small-town culture, and in addition of course, love.

Lisa See is known for her many novels based on the strong bonds of women, primarily Chinese women. This novel, The Island of Sea Women, however, is set on Jeju Island off the coast of Korea. Against the historically accurate portrait of an all-female diving collective, Lisa See highlights the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja, best friends since they were young divers in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. This is a tricky situation for them because Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, hated by most islanders. Young-sook’s mother is the head of the all-female diving collective, who invites Mi-ja to be part of the “baby divers”, young girls learning how to dive.

The novel follows their friendship throughout their young lives, as they travel to foreign lands diving for their collective and planning their future together. Their lives take different turns as Young-sook marries a young progressive teacher and Mi-ja marries a rich, strong, often violent, businessman allied with the Japanese government. The sad and violent history of Korea from the Japanese occupation, throughout WW2 and the Korean War colors their lives and drives them apart. And one terrible day, their friendship is ripped apart and there is no turning back. Each woman must find her own way separately. As Young-sook learns to deal with tragedy and heartbreak, can she learn to forgive Mi-ja for what she feels is an unforgivable act?

Much of this novel is based on fact. The all-female diving collective, known as the Haenyeo, has been active since the 17th century and has created a semi-matriarchal society where women dive, and men take care of the family. If you are interested in the history of Korea, this novel is actually a good source of information. And please read other novels by Lisa See.  Another fascinating novel about the effect of the Japanese on Koreans is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is at the face of it, a novel about African American identical twin girls, one of whom passes for white and disappears from the family. But it is much more than that. It is about identity, knowing who you are and who you want to be and what you will give up to achieve it.

The girls were brought up in Mallard, LA where, although it is populated by African Americans, everyone is light skinned. When the 16-year-old girls escape to the wider world, Stella passes for white and disappears from her family while Deseree marries a dark-skinned man and gives birth to a girl who looks like her father. She returns to Mallard after several years, with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude.

The novel switches to Stella’s life with her unknowing white husband and daughter in California and then to Jude’s life when she moves to Los Angeles. And finally, to the intersection of their lives. This is a fascinating novel, written with such care and lack of judgment on all the characters’ life choices. Watch for it on HBO as a series.

One of the privileges of writing a blog is that my friends suggest their favorite books…books that literally live on their bookshelves. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is one of them.  Part odyssey, part adventure, a little love story thrown in, a classic western plot with an inspirational theme. What a lovely book. And what a fascinating family. My favorite character though, has to be Swede, with an imagination and literary talent that is as wide as the west itself.

North Dakota, 1951, the Land family, father, Jeremiah, 11-year-old asthmatic son Reuben, 17 year old Davy and 7 year old daughter, Swede find themselves in a terrible predicament when Davy shoots and kills two teens that have been harassing the family and break into their home. Davy is tried for murder and before he is convicted (and he certainly would have been) he escapes to parts unknown. Jeremiah resorts to prayer and decides to take the family and head west where Davy could possibly be headed. Reuben narrates the novel, and we see the odyssey through his eyes. As an 11-year-old he does not always make correct decisions. Do they find Davy, is there divine intervention, does Davy return to prison, there’s only one way to find out, and it is worth the read.  This would be a great book club choice.

That’s all for now. Keep reading and tell me about your favorite reads! Happy Spring!

But Wait, There’s More

So you thought those books were all I’ve read…here’s more!

I listened to Katie Couric’s memoir, Going There and am so happy that she is narrating her book. Listening to her trademark voice is like listening to an old friend, because Katie is what she appears to be…America’s sweetheart, the girl next door and someone you can trust. She is honest to a fault, about herself and about her colleagues. She was a close friend of Matt Lauer and could never reconcile the man she knew with his dark side. She now has no relationship with him.  Generally, it was very interesting to listen to her views on women in broadcasting, her life before and after her husband’s death and they ways she constantly had to reinvent herself. I found this memoir fascinating.

For those of you who have read and loved A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, I know you’ve been looking forward to The Lincoln Highway. Although the setting and plot could not have been more different, the Lincoln Highway characters, Everett, Billy, Wooly and Duchess each in their own way have the same morality as Count Rostove (from A Gentleman in Moscow). Everett and his younger brother, Billy, are planning to drive to California from their farm in Nebraska to find their lost mother and that would have been a story in itself. Instead, they end up travelling to New York to retrieve their stolen (or borrowed) car, taken by Everett’s former jail mate, Dutchess. Much as the drive itself, the plot is not straightforward. We find the characters at the heart of the novel and fall in and out of love with them. Do Everett and Billy ever reach California? Does Dutchess find the money? You must read it! It’s a journey for us all.

Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout—Continuing her “Lucy Barton” series features a writer who grew up in a small town to a very poor family. William is her ex-husband and Strout’s exploration of their relationship is never black and white. Yes they were divorced and yes Lucy has remarried to “the love of her life”, and is now a widow, but there are parts of their relationship with William that she loves, that she hates, that she needs to keep, that she needs to release. And his mother is a big part of their connection as well. When he asks her to accompany him to sort out a family secret, she accepts and the two explore another part of William’s life, bringing them closer together yet farther apart. This is not a page turner; it is a relationship journey.

In the past when I have brought up Stephen King, I get the “look”. Years ago when I breakfasted with a prominent author and he asked me what author I’m reading, I brought up King. I said he doesn’t get the respect that he deserves. His answer was that he gets as much respect as he deserves. A great comeback but I disagree. Stephen King can tell a story. It doesn’t have to be horror or Science Fiction or even scary, although it often is. Billy Summers is none of those. Billy is an aging hit man who only kills bad people. He has decided to accept one last job…a too good to be true “hit” with enough money for him to retire. And he is correct…it is too good to be true. Nothing works like he thought it would, even when he saves a young woman after she is dumped outside his door. Their journey together is part friendship, love and ultimately, revenge. Every character in this novel is as memorable as is the plot. I have never been disappointed in a Stephen King novel.

If you are a fan of Elizabeth Taylor and/or Marilyn Monroe, then The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reed may be the ultimate beach read for you. Evelyn Hugo, the aging celebrity has a story to tell, and she only wants to tell it to Monique Grant, a young magazine writer. No one is more surprised than Monique but is assured that she will be more than compensated and will learn why she was chosen, when the time is right. What she learns is about the real Hollywood behind the glitz and how Evelyn, the poor girl from Hell’s Kitchen became the most successful star of four decades…and the secret she kept for all that time. Although the plot certainly turned the pages, Evelyn was not the perfect heroine, nor was she meant to be. But if Hollywood interests you…go for it.  

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab–Addie LaRue, born in a village in France, was 23 years old in 1714 and was determined to live a free life. But her parents were more determined to marry her to a widower. She prayed to the dark gods at night (she was never supposed to do that) and finally one, who she would later name Luke, answered her. But nothing comes without a price: she could live forever, but no one would remember who she was, not even her family or closest friends. For the next 300 years she lived a very independent life. But since she could never have a job or any way of writing or even saying her name, she became adept at living in the shadows.  Luke would appear occasionally, offering her a quiet death, but she always refused. Her life was not necessarily moral, but she managed just fine, finding her way to NYC in the 20th century. It was 2014 when she met Henry, the first person in 300 years to remember her. And there begins the next part of her life.  Part fantasy, part romance, this novel would make a great movie with Addie, Henry and the ever, mysterious Luke in a never-ending triangle.  Yes, it is long, perhaps a little more editing might have been prudent, but it’s worth the read. 

What is Lisa Reading?

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi—If you like young adult drama sprinkled with the hardships of growing up Muslim in post 911 New York City, then you may find this novel an interesting read. Shadi is 16. Her name means joy but she is anything but. Her brother is dead, her mother is falling apart, her father is dying, her best friend has deserted her and she seems to be in love…with the wrong boy.  Politically Mafi paints a stark picture of a family trying to struggle through the prejudices of life in 2002 and 2003 and the fact that Shadi wears a hijab makes it worse.  But this is not a story of a girl trapped in a religious life. She actually likes her life, when she isn’t bemoaning all her problems. I have a lot of questions about this book and I’m not sure of the ending, but it is an interesting take on being Muslim from a young girl’s perspective.

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The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Adams. If you are looking for an uplifting read or just something to make your life a little calmer, then listening to these two men discussing happiness will certainly help you get through your day. It’s not that I haven’t heard all of this before but learning about their lives and the connection between them, was fascinating and inspiring. I urge you to listen rather than read!

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz—When is a plot of the story your own and when is it stolen. There is a fine line. In this part literary novel and part thriller and very much plot twister, Jake Bonner is an author, 3 books under his belt and no prospects for the future. At a writer’s program, he meets Evan Parker, a young man with a “sure thing” for a novel. When he tells Jake the plot, Jake unhappily waits for this amazing novel to be published, but it never is. He does some research and finds out that Parker has died. With such a great plot just hanging there, Jake takes it and writes the best seller that he felt he always had in him. His life becomes what he had envisioned, until he receives an email from someone who seems to know this was not his own plot and threatens to expose him. Jake is determined to find and expose the emailer. From then on the plot twists and turns and twists again.

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Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty—67-year-old Joy Delaney, wife, and mother of 4 grown children is missing. After what appeared to be a serious argument with her husband and some incriminating evidence found, police are called in and the family is interrogated. But what are they holding back? We learn the history of this very interesting family whose lives seem to revolve around tennis. Yes, it is a mystery, but it is also the story of a family, both functional and dysfunctional, of sibling rivalry and of a very strange young woman who somehow insinuates herself into their lives. Who is responsible for Joy’s disappearance? Pay attention because everything you read in this 480-page book is a clue. It may seem long, but it is worth it. Stick with it.

Have you ever read any novels by Elizabeth Berg? One of my resolutions after I retired was to read authors that I have never read before and because I’ve heard such good things about this author, I read 2/3 of a trilogy, backward and I must say I loved it. The trilogy takes place in Mason Missouri, a small town where everyone knows everyone else, both for the good and bad. Each of these novels can be read on their own, but reading all together enriches them. In The Confession Club, the 3rd part of the trilogy several women of different ages get together monthly and instead of talking about books, they confess something that’s been on their minds, whether it’s embarrassing, humiliating or just annoying. Iris is a middle-aged divorcee who meets a homeless man and takes him into her life. Will her friends approve? Will he stick around long enough for them to build a life together?  And Maddy, who returns to Mason after moving to NY, tries to find the answer to her problems with her husband…or is the problem with her husband or with herself? Whatever the confession, these women will figure it out, and all the readers will want to move to Mason and become a part of this caring and loving community. I loved it.

The 2nd part of the Mason trilogy is Night of Miracles which focuses on Lucille, an elderly curmudgeon who teaches baking but decides to hire an assistant which turns out to be Iris, newly arrived in Mason and trying to flee her unhappy marriage. Lucille’s next-door neighbors are a family that needs help and Lucille becomes involved in their lives. It is a bittersweet story that affirms the meaning of friendship. If you are looking for life-affirming inspirational reading without any religious connotations, then Elizabeth Berg is for you.

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I’ve recently discovered William Kent Krueger, a Minnesota based author who often writes historical fiction. This Tender Land is an odyssey which takes place during the Great Depression. Odie and brother Albert, along with their best friend Moses and little Emmy, break free of a Dickensian run Indian school to find their relative in St. Louis by way of the Mississippi River. To say their travels are fraught with peril is an understatement. They are kidnapped and escape, they join a faith healing troupe, and they are continually hunted by the evil Mrs. Brickman, superintendent of the Indian school. Moses, the only real Indian in this crew discovers his roots, Odie falls in love, Albert is bitten by a poisonous snake, and Ellie becomes a soothsayer. This is a fascinating journey, a combination of Tom Sawyer, the Odyssey and The Grapes of Wrath.