Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

A Long, Unseen Existence   Leave a comment

50623864

In a small French village in 1714, on the brink of being forced into marriage, Addie LaRue makes a pact with the devil: to live her life without limits with the caveat that she determines when she’ll finally relinquish her soul. The result is a story spanning centuries, with historic events referred to only in passing.

Instead, V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue highlights Addie’s evolution from a young woman alone who must fend for herself to her realization that no one remembers her from day to day, often hour to hour. Thus, she steals not only to survive, but to thrive – even if she isn’t particularly happy. She never ages, yet she’s lived 400 hundred.

Luc, aka Lucifer, checks in with Addie from time to time to see if she’s ready to finally surrender to him. She dreads these meetings; yet at times they’re also what save her (long) life since he’s the one who transports her from place to another.

Fast forward to New York City 2014 when she meets Henry, a bookseller, who remembers Addie the next day, the day after and many days to come. Thus begins a relationship that endures beyond the one-night stands she’d previously experienced.

Yet, there’s a twist. Henry’s story begins in 2013. (I’ll leave it at that rather than include any spoilers.)

Surprisingly, the narrative isn’t far- fetched. Rather, it’s an engaging love story, a story of regrets, loss and an acknowledgement of what it means to be alive.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

Tom Doherty Associates Books, 2020

444 pages

Four and a-half Bookmarks

Unlearned Lessons from the Past   Leave a comment

Although I’ve only read a few of Kristen Hannah novels, it’s clear she does her homework. This is true whether the novel’s setting is France during World War II, Leningrad or the Pacific Northwest; her writing evokes a strong sense of time and place.  The Four Winds, set in the 1930s Dust Bowl era, is no exception. Hannah’s work also features strong, independent women; here Elsa Wolcott follows the pattern.

At 25 Elsa is considered past her prime as a marriage candidate. When she meets Rafe Martinelli, seven years her junior, her life changes.  With no intention of a marrying Elsa, Rafe has no choice when she becomes pregnant.

By the 1930s, Elsa has settled in on the Martinelli farm, which in Northern Texas  does not escape the devastation of the drought and dust storms that wreaked havoc across the Great Plains. Rafe abandons Elsa, their two children and his parents. Eventually, Elsa makes the trek to California, where word has it life is better.

Hannah’s vivid descriptions of the poverty, prejudice and injustices faced by the flood of migrants could easily, and unfortunately, be applied today. Elsa and her children aren’t immune to the incivilities, but the family’s relationships grow stronger in its struggle to find a better life.

The weakest element of the narrative is the insertion of efforts by union organizer Jack Valen. He comes across as the hero the family, and all farm workers, need. Yet, in some ways this negates Elsa’s intelligence and inner strength.

The Four Winds

Four Bookmarks

St. Martin’s Press, 2021

454 pages

Getting Past Racism   Leave a comment

Book Review: 'The Sum of Us,' by Heather McGhee - The New York Times

Heather McGhee is an economist and social policy advocate. As former president of Demos, a think tank, she helped draft legislation, was a regular on news programs, has a law degree and chairs the board of Color of Change, an online racial justice organization. To say she was the right person to write The Sum of Us is an understatement.

McGhee’s premise is racism doesn’t only impact people of color, but also affects (financially and emotionally) whites. She traveled across the country interviewing people who have lost their homes, opportunities for better jobs, health care and been denied better education. Not everyone she interviewed was Black.

The issues are rooted in politics, greed and perception. She writes of a once-booming mill town in Maine, where Somali and other African nation immigrants now live. Local politicians claim their arrival accounts for lost jobs; yet, this occurred long before. Rather, they contribute to the economy and culture of the community. Through their experiences, McGhee tells of individuals of different races reaching out to one another and benefitting from the effort.

The chapters address a range of topics: Racism Drained the Pool; The Same Sky and The Solidarity Dividend, among others. The latter is an example of one of the many beauties of this work; McGhee not only identifies the issues; she offers solutions. If only people were willing to apply them. Her strong belief is based on people working together rather than at odds. Of course, she acknowledges this can’t/won’t happen overnight.

The Sum of Us: What Racism costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

One World, 2021

415 pages (includes Notes and Index)

Bound by Generations   Leave a comment

53138197

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia is a novel I wanted to fall in love with. Unfortunately, despite it having so many elements I’m drawn to, that didn’t happen.

With the exception of a Mexican immigrant and her young daughter, Garcia’s debut work focuses on the women in a Cuban family, several generations removed. Immigration, abuse, mother/daughter relationships, addiction, miscommunication and loss are brought together through glimpses into each woman’s life. The result is a disjointed narrative.

Loss is the most dominant thread, beginning with Maria Isabel in a cigar-rolling company in rural Cuba in 1866. As the only female roller, hers was the most compelling story. To keep the workers engage, a man read either from a novel or newspaper until war made it impossible to continue.

The next chapter is a leap to Miami 2014, where Jeanette, Maria Isabel’s great-great granddaughter is a grown woman and substance abuser. She’s a much less engaging character; yes she makes poor choices, but more is needed than illustrations of her bad decisions. Although she briefly helps the young daughter of the Mexican neighbor who’s apprehended by ICE, there’s little else appealing about her.

The characters need to be fully developed. It’s as if they’re faded photos without any nuance.  While this is a work of fiction, the experiences the women endure are important because, unfortunately, they’re not unique.  The impact would be greater if, instead of multiple situations, more details were limited to only a few.

Of Women and Salt

Two-and-a-half bookmarks

Flatiron Books, 2021

207 pages

Art in History   2 comments

49086129

The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli has four narrators: two from the Renaissance and two associated with World War II. The result is a gripping story about the importance of art and its redemptive qualities — both as masterpieces are created and later rescued.

Edith is a German art restorer for a museum in Munich at the outbreak of the war. She’s ordered to catalog the artwork confiscated in Poland by the Nazis. Most of the pieces are destined for a museum Hitler plans to build, but high ranking officers keep some for their own private collections. This includes a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The painting is the link to the Renaissance. Cecilia Gallerani recounts her life as the mistress of the lord of Milan in the late 1400s; DaVinci, the other narrator in this time period, is commissioned to paint her portrait.

In 1944-45, the war is nearing its end and there’s work to be done. Dominic, an Army GI, is part of a squad charged with guarding a small group of the Monuments Men, the allied troops trying to locate the hidden, stolen art.

The connections among the four narrators works well. Each chapter/speaker is clearly identified, not only by name and year, but by distinctions in voice, descriptions of the era.

Morelli addresses several issues, including Edith’s sense of guilt, Dominic’s discovery of purpose, Cecilia’s realization she will never be the lady of the manor, and DaVinci’s efforts to establish himself not only as a painter, but an inventor.

The Night Portrait

Four Bookmarks

William Morrow, 2020

455 pages

Mother and Son   Leave a comment

52741293. sy475

Shuggie Bain, the title character of Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, is heartbreaking. But, don’t avoid it. The characters, notably Shuggie and his mother Agnes, are vividly portrayed with hopes and flaws.

The story is bookended by 1992 when Shuggie is a young man. By contrast, most of the narrative occurs in the 1980s.  The seamy parts of Glasgow are brought to life, complete with Scottish dialect, out-of-work miners, alcoholics and low-rent housing. The setting is as much a character as Shuggie and others.

Agnes is an alcoholic whose efforts at sobriety are rare. She left her first husband for Shuggie’s father, who in turn, leaves her. Her two older children find ways to escape the toxic home life, so Shuggie remains to care for his mother while dealing with her neglect. He’s optimistic she’ll change and be a proper parent. He also believes if this happens, he’ll become a normal boy.

Shuggie is effeminate, so he’s bullied, but never understands the insults nor reasons he’s taunted. In this regard, Douglas has crafted a beautiful character whose innocence is his downfall. When coupled with his devotion to Agnes as her caregiver, he’s not left with much of a childhood.

Because of her beauty, Agnes believes she deserves more in life but does nothing to attain it. Although it’s evident to everyone around her, she refuses to acknowledge her alcoholism. She’s also certain the right man will come along to save her. In fact, he’s been at her side all his life.

Shuggie Bain

Four Bookmarks

Grove Press, 2020

430 pages

Testing Maternal Instincts   3 comments

52476830. sy475

As disturbing as The Push is by Ashley Audrain, it’s nearly impossible to put down. It’s not exactly like watching a disaster unfold before your eyes, but it’s close.

Blythe Connor’s mother was not an exemplary maternal role model; although they never met, neither was Blythe’s grandmother. Audrain offers some background about these women, which helps explains the younger woman’s anxiety about becoming a mother herself. The pressure is magnified by her husband, Fox, who’s certain she’ll be a Mother of the Year candidate.

After their daughter, Violet, is born, Fox is the parent of choice;  Mother and daughter never bond. Initially, Blythe is certain it’s her fault; however, as Violet gets older, Blythe becomes convinced she’s not entirely to blame. Something isn’t right with Violet, and Fox refuses to acknowledge it.

Blythe and Fox’s marriage falls apart, something revealed early in the novel.  Audrain uses a direct address approach to Fox for Blythe to explain her side of the story. She recounts falling in love with him in college, the early days of their marriage, and Violet’s birth which marks the beginning of problems.  She tries to rationalize the issues with Violet are only in her imagination. When the couple has a second child, Blythe is surprised by her deep feelings for him.

Audrain has crafted a profound, often dark, family portrait. Blythe is a sympathetic character, but the haunting question is whether or not she’s a reliable narrator. The result is compelling.

The Push

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Pamela Dorman Books, 2021

307 pages

Family Ties That Bind and Blind   Leave a comment

THE LAST ROMANTICS

The Last Romantics begins in 2079 when Fiona Skinner, a poet and climate awareness advocate, has finished giving a talk and opens the floor for questions. At 102, Fiona is taken aback when asked about the inspiration for one of her best-known poems. Her memory takes readers to 1981, the year her father died.

Fiona is the youngest of the four Skinner siblings: Renee, Joe and Caroline. Joe, the boy wonder, is idolized by the entire family.

Their father dies when Fiona is 4. His death affects each family member differently, but all recall their mother being emotionally absent. Fiona is too young to remember much about her father.  The siblings are close, protective and blind to each other’s faults, especially Joe’s until they can no longer be ignored.

Tara Conklin has created an epic in the sense the story spans nearly a century. The siblings relationships with each other, their mother, friends and love interests (some fleeting, others less so) are a combination of airing dirty laundry as much as highlights in a family holiday newsletter, but is more enjoyable to read.

The gripping narrative moves from childhood’s halcyon days to the heartbreak of unrealized dreams. Even at its most depressing moments (and, spoiler alert, there are several) the Skinner kids are ones you wish you knew. As with most families, their lives are full of joy and tragedy, humor and tears. Fiona’s account of her youth, like most memories is cloudy at times, but beautifully vivid at others.

The Last Romantics

Four+ Bookmarks

William Morrow, 2019

352 pages

Cast as Stereotypes   2 comments

Clever, timely and important are what come to mind after reading Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu.

Written as a script for a fictional television show, along with some background about the characters/actors, the novel follows Willie Wu in his quest for the prime part of Kung Fu Guy in the police show “Black and White.” He, and his Chinatown neighbors, family and friends have been relegated to roles such as Generic Asian Man, Young Asian Man, Delivery Guy, Pretty Oriental Flower and Old Asian Woman, among other stereotypes.

The setting is mostly the Golden Palace, where the show is in constant production. Willie lives in an SRO, as do the other Asian cast members, viewed as interchangeable, above the restaurant/set. His parents live one floor below him in the unit where he grew up. They, too, have had various roles throughout the years.

Yu establishes the scene, the characters involved and provides production notes. Even his acknowledgements adhere to the theme. It doesn’t take long to realize the name of the television show is another example of racism with the main characters reflecting a hierarchy based on the “Black and White” title.

The script-like approach takes some getting used, but ultimately works well. The Wu family’s past isn’t part of the TV show, but is a major element of the narrative. Although the theme is serious, Yu injects humor and romance as Willie faces the dilemma faced by many regardless of race: attaining a dream but at what sacrifice?

Interior Chinatown

Four Bookmarks

Pantheon Books, 2020

270 pages

Checking Out Life’s Choices   Leave a comment

52578297

The Midnight Library is a point between life and death rather than a repository for books. The premise of Matt Haig’s novel is based on life choices with all of its regrets and often overlooked joys. Some decisions are major and others less so, but all have an impact. This is not a duh discovery, though. Instead, Haig offers, through Nora Seed, the opportunity to experience parts of her unchosen lives until she finds the one she’s actually meant to live.

Depressed, alone and uninspired, Nora decides she’s better off dead.  Immediately following her suicide attempt, she finds herself at the Midnight Library which her high school librarian oversees. There are no other patrons and all of the shelves contain books about the different paths Nora might have taken based on her actual family, interests and relationships.

Thinking about the literal road not taken (yes, Frost’s poem is referenced) is engaging. There’s an element of mystery as Nora opens one book after another while trying to the find the right life. Although she considers many, time is running out. Nora needs to make a decision before her death becomes a point of no return.

Nora’s successes and pitfalls involve the usual: love, friends, family and career choices. With each book she opens, Nora learns more about herself and the world around her. There’s a sense of Ebenezer Scrooge’s experience here. Nora gets a wake-up call regarding her life, which, as it turns out, isn’t such a bad thing for anyone

 The Midnight Library

Four Bookmarks     

Viking, 2020

288 pages