Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

I first read Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum more than 20 years ago and was impressed by the creativity and writing talent she displayed in those pages. But I didn't read her following books, in part because she started writing the Jackson Brodie series (Case Histories is the first book in that series) and I avoided all mysteries like the plague for a lot of years. Then I read her masterful Life After Life, which reminded me of what an impressive writer she is. But again, even though I've started dipping my toe into mysteries if I think I won't be pushed too close to nightmare territory (and that territory is fairly large and comprehensive in my life), I still didn't go back to the mysteries because the first one, this one, looked like it had the potential to cross that line. And then a group of friends decided to read it together. And I remembered how wonderful her writing is. And I decided to give it a try. And I liked it.

Opening with three seemingly unrelated case histories separated by many years, these cold cases become the backbone of main character Jackson Brodie's investigations. Jackson served in the army before becoming a police officer and now a private investigator. His own life is complicated, a tragedy in his childhood, a failed marriage, on-going custody issues with his ex-wife over his beloved young daughter, and an investigation business that isn't making any money. In fact, one of his most consistent clients is the elderly, genteel but racist Binky Rain, who is convinced that her cats are being stolen, and a husband convinced that his flight attendant wife is cheating on him despite the fact that Jackson has assured him she's not. Then one by one, the case histories presented in the opening chapters land in Jackson's lap. All of a sudden he's investigating three year old Olivia Land's 1970 disappearance at the behest of two of her surviving sisters, the 1994 unsolved murder of Laura Wyre at the behest of Laura's desperately grieving father Theo, and the unknown whereabouts of her baby niece after her sister Michelle killed her husband by splitting his head open with an ax in 1979 at the behest of Michelle's sister Shirley. Although there is only new evidence in the case of little Olivia's disappearance, evidence that only surfaced recently after the elderly Mr. Land died, Jackson isn't confident that he'll manage to uncover the truth in any of the seemingly unrelated cases. He can't afford not to take the cases though, both monetarily and emotionally. And as he is investigating, there are several attempts on his life, adding yet another mystery to the the layers already present.

This is billed as a literary mystery and it is that. It is unlikely that readers will solve the cases themselves and as this is not strictly a whodunit but rather a case study of human beings, a deep look at the impact of violence on the people left behind, how the uncertainty shapes them, and the lives they carve out for themselves in the aftermath of tragedy, not being given all of the clues is beside the point. Atkinson delves deeply into not only Jackson, but also people most effected by the devastation of the crimes. Chapters are told focused on a close reading of Jackson, Amelia Land, Theo Wyre, and Caroline Weaver, including passages that are almost stream of consciousness, as each of the plot threads twist closer and closer to their resolution, either partial or whole. The novel has a complicated structure weaving together so many disparate plot lines and gathering them into a tight and deliberate single story.

Case Histories is a good introduction to Jackson, showing his past and his present, the way he works, those things that are most important in his life, and who he is. His ponderings on each of the cases reflect his worries and feelings for his daughter. This is a book about loss and family dynamics, the horrors human beings endure and those they inflict on others. It is a novel about the taken, the missing girls and women who disappear, who seldom, if ever, get justice. The case histories that the novels open with do get closure in the end, where they are retold with their heartbreaking, sometimes ugly, truths fully on display. The writing is gorgeous but the structure of the novel may mean it's not for everyone. It is the first in a series, so plot threads from Jackson's life are left unresolved. The victims in the case histories do come across as fairly stereotypical but luckily Atkinson more fully draws the remaining characters and even makes the subjects of those case histories (with the possible exception of Olivia) much more realistic as the novel goes on, bringing them off the flat page of their police files. I don't know if I intend to read more of the Jackson Brodie mysteries, but I enjoyed this one and was pleased to see that Atkinson's skill as a writer was evident here.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Review: St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin

It's a common saying that bad things come in threes. Once two bad things happen, we hold our breath waiting for the third. Sometimes that third comes and we breathe out a sigh of relief because surely the universe is finished with us for now. And other times, things just keep piling on, like for the main character in Annie England Noblin's newest novel, St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets.

The newspaper where Maeve Stephens works as a sportswriter is bankrupt and everyone has lost their jobs. Then she, like the rest of the world, sees a You Tube clip of her baseball player boyfriend passionately kissing another woman before he calls to dump her. On her way out of the office, carrying her things in a box, she is robbed of the last $32.11 she has in her wallet, leaving her only her maxed out credit cards. But the universe isn't done with her because she ends up losing her apartment and having to move home to her parents' house. And then a woman named Alice calls and tells Mae that her birth mother has died, the birth mother that Mae once wanted so desperately to connect with, her only blood family. For reasons only known to her, she decides to drive the four hours from Seattle to Timber Creek, Washington to attend the funeral. And why not? She's 36 years old, unemployed, not in a relationship, and living at home where she has a slightly contentious relationship with her mother. Tiny Timber Creek and the people in it surprise her. She's even more surprised to find that Annabelle, her birth mother, has left Mae her home, her car, a small bank account, and her cranky cat. And she's most surprised of all to find that she decides to stay, at least for a while, sliding into her late mother's life in many ways.

The book mostly centers on Maeve, who has thus far made a life out of not fitting in and drifting directionlessly. Although she is in her mid-thirties, she is terribly immature and socially awkward. Her childhood was a happy one but she seems unable to give herself permission to be happy in her adult life. She is abrupt, speaks without thinking, and yet cares about the people around her. Her difficulty reconciling her image of a cold, uncaring Annabelle giving her up because she didn't want her with the warm and loving image the townspeople have of her late mother makes her come across as much younger than she is. Surely a woman of her age would understand that nothing is quite so simple and black and white as she had imagined. In addition to Maeve's first person narration, there are occasional short chapters interspersed in the text about Annabelle's life living with her friend Alice's family from just before she gets pregnant all the way through going home to Timber Creek after giving up her baby. The tension in these chapters is far higher than those from Maeve's perspective as the reader slowly starts to see what Annabelle's life was like, the tragedy in her background, the tenuous position she was in living with Alice's family, and why she gave Maeve up. It is hard to understand why Alice wouldn't have shared all of this with Maeve but then there are other secrets that aren't shared either, until they can no longer be hidden, but those are hidden out of caution.

The book has a lot of heavy topics like addiction, grief, adoption, animal abuse, and domestic abuse but keeps a light touch. There's humor (animals sporting pet sweaters), a little romance, a little mystery, and a little danger. There is quite a bit of knitting and a lot less animal content than the title would imply. The end of the book is fast and furious after a much slower paced beginning and middle, and suddenly catapults secondary plots into the forefront before wrapping everything up. The prologue and epilogue form a nice framing device, giving the reader one last glimpse into the Annabelle that Maeve never got to know, and the epilogue eases the reader out of the story gently and happily. Over all the story is a quick, light read but it might have benefited some from a slower, more even pace and a little more depth on the suddenly introduced pieces at the end.

**As this is an uncorrected proof, I am going to hope that the major plot continuity problem (Alice's mother has been dead for a couple of years according to a character early on in the book but then the story has Maeve delivering Ensure to Alice's mother's caregiver for a specific plot-related reason) was caught and fixed before the book actually went to print.

For more information about Annie England Noblin and the book, check our her author website, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or Instagram, look at the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and publisher William Morrow for sending me a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past week are:

Beginning with Cannonballs by Jill McCroskey Coupe
A Sister's Courage by Molly Green
St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

Reviews posted this week:

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Case Histories by Kaye Atkinson
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams
Beginning with Cannonballs by Jill McCroskey Coupe
A Sister's Courage by Molly Green
St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Second Home by Christina Clancy came from St. Martin's Press.

I'm a total sucker for books that deal with summer homes and this one about a family deciding what to do about their Cape Cod home and the secrets and memories contained within it really calls to me.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner came from St. Martin's Press.

I am a huge Jane Austen fan so this novel about the people of Chawton coming together no matter what their life looks like to create the Jane Austen Society is absolutely right up my alley.

Austen Years by Rachel Cohen came from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I cannot wait to read this memoir paired with criticism of Austen's works!

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino came from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This sounds bonkers but the best kind of bonkers. It has a dead grandmother who speaks to her granddaughter through a parakeet and warns her not to marry her fiance but to instead go find her brother. Nuts, right?

Death at High Tide by Hannah Dennison came from Minotaur Books.

There's water on the cover so of course I'm attracted to it! This cozy mystery set off the coast of Cornwall in a hotel run by two sisters looks like a lot of fun.

The Love Scam by MaryJanice Davidson came from St. Martin's Press.

Sometimes you just want a romantic comedy like this one about a guy who wakes up in Venice with his bank account drained and a little girl claiming to be his daughter and the fun-loving woman who has brought the little girl to him.

Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman came from St. Martin's Press.

Alternating between a bookstore in Paris during WWII and 1950s New York in publishing, could this have hit my sweet spot any better?

The Paris Hours by Alex George came from Flatiron Books.

I've read and enjoyed George's A Good American so I am looking forward to this one about four people in Paris between the two world wars a lot.

Artifact by Arlene Heyman came from Bloomsbury Publishing.

About motherhood and biology, this novel about a woman who finds herself as a mother and in the lab sounds really enticing. (Plus, would you look at the wild, lacy things--corals? cells?  I guess I'll find out--on the cover?)

Crossings by Alex Landragin came from St. Martin's Press.

This three part novel that is designed to be read in two different directions reminds me of the unconventional construction of Cloud Atlas and since I loved that one, I am looking forward to this crazy genre bender too.

The Wrong Mr. Darcy by Evelyn Lozada with Holly Lorincz came from St. Martin's Press.

Pride and Prejudice in the basketball world? You're probably wondering how on earth. Me too and that's why I want to read it.

A Saint from Texas by Edmund White came from Bloomsbury Publishing.

Oh the suggested glamour of this cover! And it's about twin sisters, one to be Parisian nobility and one to be a Catholic nun. Sounds amazing, right?!

Network Effect by Martha Wells came from Tor.

Why do I want to read this? Because Murderbot, of course. (And I'm curious to see this unfold in a novel instead of a novella.)

Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak came from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The idea of "exit guides," like the main character in this novel, someone who provides companionship and eases the end for terminally ill patients is completely intriguing.

Olive the Lionheart by Brad Ricca came from St. Martin's Press.

How could everyone not want to read the true story of an early twentieth century woman who heads to Africa to find her missing fiance and all of the adventures she faces on her search?

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

You know how they say there are two sides to every story? Well, in Lauren Groff's novel, Fates and Furies, this is literally true. Roughly half of the story of this couple and their marriage is told from the third person close perspective of husband Lotto (short for Lancelot) with the other half similarly narrated with a close focus on wife Mathilde. It's a structure that sets the reader up to believe one story and then to pull the rug out from under them to show another story, no less true, or perhaps more appropriately, no less false, than the first. And that intentionally slow revelation of more depth, more layers, than initially suspected, could have been amazing but for the characters and the obviously effortful, overwritten prose here. This came so highly recommended by someone I trust that I bought it in hardcover. But it wasn't all that the premise promised (or that my friend promised either). And now I will trust her recommendations just a little less.

Mathilde and Lotto know each other for the blink of an eye before they get married, a marriage between the handsome, talented man used to being catnip to women and the mysterious, secretive, and intriguing woman whose own talents will go unrecognized. Outsiders consider their marriage a happy and successful one but only the people inside a marriage know the truth of their private lives, what makes them tick, and the compromises they've made to be mostly content with each other. Lotto, who is the subject of the Fates portion of the book is narcissistic and stereotypical. His family is rich and when they cut him off for marrying Mathilde, he promptly becomes the most celebrated and successful playwright of his time, lauded to the moon and back. His portion of the book is a long string of sexual conquests, both from the past and with Mathilde, that do nothing for the story whatsoever.  (And lamentably, their descriptions are snooze-worthy.)  When the novel flips to Mathilde's section, titled Furies, the reader gets a very different view of their long marriage, a view that paints Mathilde as the more mature and intelligent, if self-effacing, half of the duo. This reimagining is not entirely successful.

The idea of a Rashoman style narrative (although with only the two perspectives rather than several) should have been interesting and effective. Instead, the book was overwrought and pretentious. There were authorial interjections (more in Lotto's section than in Mathilde's) that were clearly meant to mimic a Greek chorus but they were instead unnecessary and their information was obvious to any intelligent reader. If readers hadn't already gotten what the interjections shared, there was a lack somewhere, either in the writing or in the audience and as one of that audience, well, I know where my money is. Lotto's portion of the narrative was frequently interrupted by long, numbing excerpts from his plays, rambling reimaginings of Greek myths that break up the flow of the narrative. Ultimately, I just didn't care about Lotto, Mathilde, or the state of the lives or marriage at any point in the book. It was slow, boring, and even the secrets and the much touted twist were, in the end, just meh. This is a very polarizing book and people seem to either love it or hate it so hopefully anyone else choosing to read it will find it far more engaging than I did.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams.

The book is being released by Avon on February 11, 2020.

The book's jacket copy says: What if you almost missed the love of your life?

Nadia gets the 7.30 train every morning without fail. Well, except if she oversleeps or wakes up at her friend Emma's after too much wine.

Daniel really does get the 7.30 train every morning, which is easy because he hasn't been able to sleep properly since his dad died.

One morning, Nadia's eye catches sight of a post in the daily paper:

To the cute girl with the coffee stains on her dress. I'm the guy who's always standing near the doors... Drink sometime?

So begins a not-quite-romance of near-misses, true love, and the power of the written word.

Monday, January 20, 2020

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past week are:

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

A Sister's Courage by Molly Green

Reviews posted this week:

Cloudwish by Fiona Wood
Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict
Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu
Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Case Histories by Kaye Atkinson
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams

Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

This is one of my daughter's favorite books. In fact, it might just be her single favorite book. She gave it to me to read years ago and I set it on my bedside table, reading everything except it. I don't read a lot of YA no matter how cute the premise is. But I decided this year that I wanted to read the few books I have that others have loaned me from time to time and get them back to their rightful owners, starting with this one. And I'm sorry it took me so long to read it. Obviously I am nowhere near the age of the main character but I did my fair share of moving when I was younger, facing a new school, having no friends, and feeling uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place so I could easily relate to this sweet YA romance.

Jessie's life has been completely upended in the past few years. Her father has remarried and uprooted her from Chicago, her best friend, and the comfortable, middle class home that holds all of the memories of life with her mother, who died of cancer two years before the story opens. Now she and her dad live in a mansion with her stepmom and stepbrother, who is also a junior in high school but seems about as thrilled to have her there as she is to be there. She attends an elite private school where everyone looks like California stereotypes to her and she doesn't have any idea how to navigate this new place, home or school, especially without friends. What she does have is someone from school emailing her anonymously, calling themselves Somebody Nobody (SN), and offering to help her figure out school and the people in it. Initially wary of the emails, sure they are going to be a cruel joke, Jessie comes to rely on them, exchanging personal information, including the grief she feels about the loss of her mom and that she doesn't feel she can share with her dad anymore now that he's remarried as well as the smaller grief of having to move and forge a new life, another thing she can't or won't share with her dad. She goes about her daily life, tentatively making friends, developing a crush, and getting a job, while still being homesick for Chicago, desperately missing best friend Scarlett, and pushing more and more for Somebody Nobody to reveal their identity.

Buxbaum has done a fantastic job capturing so many different feelings in this novel. She herself lost her mother at an early age so she knows personally the grief that her main character carries. She's also managed to bring out incredibly real feelings that so many teenagers who have moved feel in their new place. Jessie focuses on the ways in which her new home and school are different from what she loved (and didn't love, but she won't acknowledge that) before, unable or unwilling to see the good or even acknowledge things that are similar to Chicago. She stereotypes the kids around her, lumping them all into what she expects from a very wealthy California school, definitely confirming the frequency illusion when she claims the girls are all thin and blond, which she is not. In addition to the grief of losing her mother and the anger and unhappiness of moving, Buxbaum also lets Jessie experience regular teenage girl emotions as well. Jessie's blindness to who SN clearly is, at least clear to many readers despite the three options Jessie comes up with, is a perfect sign of how regular a kid Jessie is, so wrapped up in the other strong feelings that she can't see for sure what the rest of us can. The emails between SN and Jessie are funny, honest, and emotionally open, especially once they start telling each other three things about themselves in the body of the emails, and their subject lines are fantastic. The ending and reveal are completely predictable but hew so closely to what the reader wants that the predictability is welcomed rather than disappointing. This is a novel with heart, one that tackles hard subjects (bullying, reciprocity in relationships, grief and loss) with grace and compassion but still leaves the reader smiling after the last page is turned.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Review: Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu

I have been reading more cozy mysteries lately and am particularly intrigued by those set in less familiar environs or peopled with less common characters. Ovidia Yu's Aunty Lee's Delights, set in Singapore, populated with characters from many different nationalities, and with an older, female, amateur sleuth fits that bill all the way around.

Rosie "Aunty" Lee is a wealthy widow. She keeps busy by running a cafe serving delicious homemade food during the day. On occasion, she will open the cafe for a wine dinner, cooking her "delights" and leaving the wine portion of the evening to be run by her stepson Mark and his wife Selina, called Silly-Nah by Aunty. As the story opens, newly weds discover an unidentified woman's body on the beach on Sentosa Island. Aunty Lee is intrigued by the murder and very curious about the identity of the woman. What she doesn't know, is just how close to home the investigation will hit. At the wine dinner that night, two women are missing: a friend of Selina's who had promised to help out with the evening and a young woman who is a family friend's daughter. Another young woman interrupts the evening looking for Selina's friend and desperately afraid that the unidentified body is that of the woman she's come to Singapore to see, the Lee's family friend's daughter. Aunty is determined to find out the fate of the two missing women and to uncover the secrets her wine dinner guests are clearly hiding. She doesn't obstruct the police but rather assists them when she can, using her own instincts and the connections her Filipino maid Nina has.

The mystery is culinarily rich and the glimpses into Singapore food and culture that Yu offers the reader are enticing. Her Aunty Lee is nosy but smart, a busybody with heart. She is both loyal and astute.  Perhaps because this is the first in a series, there are a lot of characters introduced, most of whom have the potential to be returning characters.  They, the secondary characters, are less fully fleshed out though, perhaps with the exception of Nina, and lean a little to the stereotypical side.  The mystery here is not so much in who the woman is but more in the motivation for killing her (and who the killer is, of course). The plot overall is a bit choppy and the coincidence in the end is a bit much but the book is generally appealing so it's forgivable. What is a bit harder to forgive is the uneven pacing, with the story being drawn out only to find a quick and easy wrap-up with a somewhat muddled denouement in the end. Pleasing enough as a way to spend a couple of hours, this won't set the world on fire but for anyone searching, like I was, for a different culture and different characters this might fit the bill.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Words I Never Wrote by Jane Thynne.

The book is being released by Ballantine Books on January 21, 2020.

The book's jacket copy says: A chance discovery inside a vintage typewriter case reveals the gripping story of two sisters on opposite sides of World War II in this captivating novel for readers of Lilac Girls and The Women in the Castle.

New York, present day: On a whim, Juno Lambert buys a 1931 Underwood typewriter that once belonged to celebrated journalist Cordelia Capel. Within its case she discovers an unfinished novel, igniting a transatlantic journey to fill the gaps in the story of Cordelia and her sister and the secret that lies between them.

Europe, 1936: Cordelia’s socialite sister Irene marries a German industrialist who whisks her away to Berlin. Cordelia, feistier and more intellectual than Irene, gets a job at a newspaper in Paris, pursuing the journalism career she cherishes. As politics begin to boil in Europe, the sisters exchange letters and Cordelia discovers that Irene’s husband is a Nazi sympathizer. With increasing desperation, Cordelia writes to her beloved sister, but as life in Nazi Germany darkens, Irene no longer dares admit what her existence is truly like. Knowing that their letters cannot tell the whole story, Cordelia decides to fill in the blanks by sitting down with her Underwood and writing the truth.

When Juno reads the unfinished novel, she resolves to uncover the secret that continued to divide the sisters amid the turmoil of love, espionage, and war. In this vivid portrait of Nazi Berlin, from its high society to its devastating fall, Jane Thynne examines the truths we sometimes dare not tell ourselves.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict

If someone is rich, especially rich beyond all imagining, those of us who live on a budget often have many ideas about how they should spend their money. We condemn them for what we view as frivolous or extravagant spending, especially if it is noteworthy enough to be reported on publicly, and often pair that condemnation with a belief that that money could have been better spent on charity. Underlying that assumption is a value judgement that the wealthy person may or may not have earned. Some wealthy people give a lot to the charities of their choice. Some give little to nothing. Some give right from the moment they earn their first penny, while others amass a fortune before they start to give. Andrew Carnegie was one of the latter type. Known for his intelligence and sometimes ruthless business practices, he was fabulously wealthy before he started using his fortune philanthropically and no one knows what inspired his sudden generosity. In Marie Benedict's historical fiction novel Carnegie's Maid, Benedict has imagined the catalyst for this beneficence on Carnegie's part to be his love for the invented person of Irish immigrant and lady's maid Clara Kelley.

Clara Kelley was sent to the US by her family in search of a job that would allow her to send money home to them, money that might help them save the family farm. She lands in Philadelphia and hopes to make her way to Pittsburgh, where she has family and will look for a job, when she impossibly hears a driver calling her name. He's actually calling for another Clara Kelley, who our Clara Kelley realizes quickly must have died on the boat over and so, without thinking, she assumes the dead woman's identity, lucking into a ride to Pittsburgh and a job as a lady's maid to Andrew Carnegie's mother, a job the farmer's daughter could never have hoped for in the regular scheme of things. As a lady's maid, she is immersed in the opulent house and furnishings, living amidst wealth unimagined. But when she visits her own family near the factories, she sees an entirely different side of the city, the struggle for survival, the grinding poverty unnoticed and unacknowledged by those in the upper echelons of society, the echelons the immigrant Carnegies are so interested in joining. She is bothered by the obvious disparity and the myriad social injustices but she cannot say anything, dependent as her family back in Ireland is on the money she sends home so she keeps her head down, learning her role as lady's maid, keeping track of Carnegie's vast holdings in an effort to understand how he gained his wealth, and using the library in the house to continue the education her quick brain demands. As she encounters Andrew Carnegie more and more often, he cannot miss her intelligence and a proper romance blooms. Will Clara allow her feelings for Carnegie to jeopardize her position and the support her family needs? Or will her loyalty to her family and the impossibility of the class differences win out?

The novel opens with Carnegie drafting a document detailing his goals for using his wealth for the benefit of others rather than for himself as a way to honor the love and beliefs of his Clara before moving back in time to the story of Clara arriving in the US and going to work for the Carnegies. The entire plot here is predicated on something incredibly improbable: not only was there a dead woman with the heroine's same name who was headed to the same city Clara needs to go to but despite Clara's upbringing on a small farm with a mother who was once a lowly scullery maid, she's convincing enough to pretend to be a competent lady's maid until she learns how to actually perform her duties, so the story takes a pretty big suspension of disbelief from the reader right from the get go. Clara also has a pretty immediate and unlikely understanding of certain legal business matters that she shouldn't have, no matter how smart she is. In spite of these coincidences and anomalies, it is interesting to see this lady's maid from the bottom of society spar with Andrew Carnegie, titan of industry, and their conversations serve to draw a fuller picture of his contradictory character. The strong emphasis on libraries and the advantage of having access to books for learning, the way Carnegie himself rose above his working class origins, was definitely interesting. There weren't many characters in the novel, and certainly few that were more than simply mentioned briefly, allowing the focus beyond Clara to be on Andrew Carnegie and his social climbing mother but also likely being historically accurate since lady's maids inhabited a lonely rung in the household structure. Carnegie was an intriguing character here; surprisingly Clara was less so, perhaps because she was rather less believable. Over all, this novel of ideas, a guess at the origin of Carnegie's philanthropy, was a fast, easy, and generally enjoyable read.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Review: Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

Are you the kind of person who wishes on a falling star or when you blow on a dandelion gone to seed or as you blow out birthday candles? If you are, would you be shocked to have your wish come true? Would you believe it's a result of the magic of the wish or something more pragmatic? In Fiona Wood's charming YA novel, Cloudwish, the main character's wish comes true. Not only is this a novel of a little bit of "be careful what you wish for" and a touch of magic, but it's also a novel about life as a second generation Vietnamese-Australian, love, and coming to see, know, and value yourself.

Van Uoc is a scholarship student at a prestigious IB school. She is smart and talented but she is also incredibly aware of the difference between herself and the other, wealthy students at the school. Van Uoc is the child of Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in Australia as "boat people." They don't have a lot of money and live in government housing. She has to try to straddle life between being a regular Australian kid and being different because of her family's immigration history. She is her parents' main translator even though her Vietnamese is pretty poor and she tutors other kids in her situation after school on Fridays. She wants to be an artist rather than the doctor her parents want her to be. And problematically, she has a major crush on Billy Gardiner, the school golden boy. Billy can be arrogant and unthinking, a bit of a jerk really, but he is also sometimes sweet, he's incredibly good looking, and the captain of the rowing team. One day in English class, a visiting writer passes around a box of items as writing prompts. Van Uoc is left with the dregs of the box but eventually finds a small vial with a piece of paper in it. The paper tells her to make a wish. So she does, wishing that Billy will notice her. And he does. So is it a magic wish or is it Van Uoc? And really, does she even want the notoriety and angst that being with Billy is guaranteed to bring into her life, especially as a person who has tried to remain as unobtrusive as possible up until now?

Wood does a good job balancing Van Uoc's life at school and her life at home, showing the dichotomy she lives all the time and the way that it can isolate her from both communities to which she belongs. There is so much going on under the surface of the story here. The reader learns about the reality of immigration alongside Van Uoc since she's been mostly protected from her parents' story. She doesn't quite understood her mother's PTSD until her mother finally tells her the truth about the horror of their immigration story. Early in the book, in keeping with the idea of the creative writing class, Van Uoc writes some essays that tell the unvarnished truth of her experience and life but then selecting all and deleting them. It is an effective way to show the truth of her feelings since her actions don't always do so but Wood does stop peppering these essays in the text as the novel goes on. Van Uoc as a character is quite sympathetic and while she sometimes comes across as the perfect girl/daughter, she's still lovely to spend time with. The novel as a whole comes across as honest and hopeful while still presenting things as they really are.  More than just a love story, this is a novel of identity.  It doesn't shy away from class differences, the reality (and causes) of immigration, and of the expectations placed on second generation kids. Wood has written a novel that will make her YA audience relate and think both.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past couple of week are:

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum
Case Histories by Kaye Atkinson

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Reviews posted this week:

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Cloudwish by Fiona Wood
Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict
Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum
Case Histories by Kaye Atkinson

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey came from a friend.

What happens when a Bright Young Thing falls in love with someone entirely unsuitable but goes on to choose a safe life? This novel is that story and I can't wait!

Meet Me on Love Lane by Nina Bocci came from a friend.

I am enough of a romantic to thoroughly enjoy a love story that takes place in a small town where the heroine has to decide between two men so this one should be ideal.

The Words Between Us by Erin Bartels came from a friend.

Can you even call yourself a book person if you can resist the siren call of a cover like this? Set in a used bookstore? And the main character starts receiving books in the mail that she shared with a boy long ago? I think not!

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory came from a friend.

Christmas, the royals, and a love story involving the secretary to the queen. Delicious!

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Review: The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

If you found an envelope addressed to you that you were only supposed to open and read if the writer was dead but that person was still alive, what would you do? Would you stop to think just how much the contents could change your life, could upend everything you thought you knew? What if the contents had the potential to change things for other people too, upending their lives as well? Would you open it or leave it? Give in to the temptation or resist? Would you open Pandora's box? Liane Moriarty's novel, The Husband's Secret, revolves around this very situation, keeping the reader reading to the very end, even though the secret itself isn't hard to figure out.

Cecilia is rooting around in the attic one day when she comes across a letter from her husband, one that was addressed to her to be opened only in the event of his death. He is only on a business trip, not dead, so now Cecilia, a typical suburban mom with a pretty enviable life, has to decide whether she's going to open the letter or not. Meanwhile, Tess has started a successful advertising business with her husband and her cousin only to now be confronted by Will and Felicity telling her that they are in love. She takes her young son Liam and moves back home to take care of her mother. Rachel Crowley is devastated when her son and daughter-in-law tell her they're moving from their Sydney suburb across the world to New York. She won't be able to see her grandson daily anymore and she doesn't know how she'll bear it. And Rachel has already borne an appalling amount of heartbreak after her daughter Janie was murdered on her 16th birthday. The lives of all three of these women will come together in the aftermath of the discovery of the letter, uncovering dark secrets and straining relationships almost beyond endurance.

The mystery of Cecilia's husband's secret is not terribly difficult to figure out but it is only the initial driver of the plot, not the climax. As the three story lines come closer and closer, the sense that something is going to happen ratchets up appreciably. Each of the three main characters have distinct voices and different challenges although each of them is grappling with the messiness of life and relationship. The novel is dramatic and mostly enjoyable although I did find it frustrating at times. As the women's lives move forward, all of the extensive foreshadowing pays off. The characters here feel very real although their lives can border on soap operatic and their resolutions are quick and tidy. The epilogue, a sort of what if, the knowledge that could have saved so much heartbreak, makes a bit of a mockery of these situations that Moriarty has so carefully drawn and could have been left off. Rife with issues of guilt and morality this is not light exactly, but it is a curl up by the fire for a couple of hours or pop it in a beach bag kind of book.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Review: All Grown Up by Jamie Attenberg

What does it mean to be a grown up? Is it having a job and your own apartment? Is it being in a stable relationship? Is it getting married and having kids? Or is is something less tangible like having a plan, liking yourself, being emotionally content? Do you get to measure it yourself or must you rely on others' judgment that you are, in fact, all grown up? As my children reach legal adulthood and venture out in the world, these are questions I ask more and more. Jami Attenberg's short novel, All Grown Up, also asks and attempts to answer just these questions.

Andrea is turning 40. That's certainly old enough to be considered "all grown up," but is she? She has a decent job that she hates, still mourning the loss of her dream of an art career. Her romantic relationships are awful, often one-offs, casual, and disengaged. She's emotionally unavailable to friends and family. She drinks too much, dabbles with drugs, is pretty insufferable and self-centered, and is definitely still trying to figure out who she is and what she wants from life. All she knows is that she doesn't want the life others have settled into and so she can be dismissive of other's choices and their definitions of being an adult. Andrea lives in an apartment with a good view, at least until another building goes up and blocks the view entirely, leaving her trapped in a formerly good apartment, much as she's trapped in a disappointing life.

This is a novel in vignettes, a character study of Andrea. It is non-chronological, jumping around from her teen years to the present to build a picture of why Andrea is the way that she is. What she is is deeply dysfunctional and only starting to figure things out at the end of the novel as she holds the tiny, cold hand of her terminally ill niece. There isn't much of a plot and the story is tenuously held together, perhaps because of the narrative structure. And while this is billed as a book about a woman who is single and childless by choice, it comes off rather as if these things happened to her out of apathy rather than active decision making on her part. In the end, maybe being a grown up is changing the things about life that make you unhappy, making choices that will lead you toward the existence you've been moaning about not having, and being emotionally forgiving and available to your loved one, friends, and family.  Has Andrea learned this?  Hard to say.  Long before the end of the novel and any potential, hinted at change, I was tired of Andrea and her one note life. It would have been better if I had been able to feel sorry for her. Instead, I just didn't care about her at all. This book seems to be pretty polarizing though so perhaps you'll be one of the people who loves it.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Marriage on Madison Avenue by Lauren Layne.

The book is being released by Gallery Books on January 28, 2020.

The book's jacket copy says: Can guys and girls ever be just friends? According to Audrey Tate and Clarke West, absolutely. After all, they’ve been best friends since childhood without a single romantic entanglement. Clarke is the charming playboy Audrey can always count on, and he knows that the ever-loyal Audrey will never not play along with his strategy for dodging his matchmaking mother—announcing he’s already engaged…to Audrey.

But what starts out as a playful game between two best friends turns into something infinitely more complicated, as just-for-show kisses begin to stir up forbidden feelings. As the faux wedding date looms closer, Audrey and Clarke realize that they can never go back to the way things were, but deep down, do they really want to?

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Review: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston

It seemed rather appropriate to start the twenty twenties with a book set in the nineteen twenties. Caroline Preston's visual delight of a novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, follows one young woman from her genteely poor, rural life to college at Vassar, on to New York and Paris, and finally back to her hometown through this captivating decade.

Presented as a scrapbook, the story of Frankie's young adulthood is laid out in these full color pages. Her doctor father dies young, leaving her mother to try and support Frankie and her younger brothers herself. Frankie is quite smart and is admitted to Vassar college on scholarship but without the additionally needed money to go, she determines to stay home and get a job. Caring for a wealthy old woman, she meets and falls for the woman's nephew, who turns out to be married. With her mother's intervention in this highly inappropriate situation, the old woman gives Frankie the $500 needed to go to college, to learn to write, and to start her adult life. The collected ephemera scattered through the pages tell of college life, expectations for women, attitudes towards other religions and races, and so much more during the Roaring Twenties as Frankie grows up and begins to live her life as a writer and chronicler of her time. She is very much a modern girl.

Because it is a scrapbook, the story is mostly visual with text being sparse and simple.  The reader's understanding of the characterization of Frankie, her beliefs and her intentions, come through her comments about other people with whom she crosses paths and the things she chooses to immortalize in her scrapbook. The story is probably more complete and detailed than an actual scrapbook would be, needing to keep a plot threading through all of the pieces, but even so, the story itself is a bit thin. The reader does get to see Frankie's brushes with famous people and places, her triumphs and her heartbreaks, decisions good and bad, and general life in an intriguing age. The ending is a bit abrupt although it definitely is the end of one chapter of Frankie's life so perhaps ideal as a place to finish a real scrapbook. Overall the idea is whimsical and the execution is well done. It's a cute if slightly insubstantial story.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Review: The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

The American Dream. Anyone can come to America and through hard work, innovation, and perseverance, make a fortune. But what isn't often said is also true: anyone can lose that fortune too. In Jade Chang's novel The Wangs vs. the World, she creates a family who has lived the first part of the American Dream and are now faced with the far less appealing, generally unstated second part, the loss of everything.

Charles Wang moved to the US from Taiwan and created a cosmetics empire, earning fabulous riches in the process. He lives with his second wife, Barbra, and their housekeeper, Ama, in a palatial home in Los Angeles. Adult daughter Saina was a darling of the art world before her last show flopped and her fiance humiliated her, whereupon she used her trust fund and her earnings to buy herself a farmhouse in upstate New York. Son Andrew is in college, although to his father's chagrin, he dreams of being a comedian. Youngest daughter Grace, still in high school at an expensive boarding school, is a fashion blogger. As the novel opens though, Charles has lost his fortune. He leveraged everything he had against all expert advice, partly because of the recession and partly because of a poor business decision, so he's lost it all, home, cars, money, possessions, children's trust funds, everything. Packing his wife and housekeeper into the secondhand car he gave Ama years ago and the only one not repossessed, they head out from LA to pick up Andrew and Grace (paying for their schools is out of the question now) and drop Ama off at her daughter's house on their way across the country to Saina, who still has a home and money they can live off of. Along the way, outrageous misadventures ensue and Charles' past is explained even as his future plan, to return to a China he's never seen and reclaim his stolen ancestral lands to make a new start comes into focus.

This is both an extended road trip novel and a dysfunctional rich people novel with a dash of the immigrant experience thrown in. The complications each of the Wangs face and their reaction to their new reality could be heartbreaking or entertaining depending on how the reader feels about the characters. Unfortunately, the characters aren't terribly likable, coming off as selfish and entitled. In fact, Charles is a bit underhanded and proud while Barbra is focused and angry. The siblings aren't much better but their interactions with each other and their reading of their new, unwanted situations, are a bright spot in the novel. This is billed as a deeply funny novel and there are in fact ridiculous situations but the humor just didn't land. The cross country journey, where each Wang is forced to discover who they are, is interrupted by chapters about Saina and the life she's made away from the rest of the family, mistakes, heartaches, and all.  Despite the long road trip, this is not a book centered on plot.  It is instead a book about relationship.  The narration here is third person limited with each character being the focus of their own chapters, giving the reader insight into the effects of this financial reversal on all of the Wangs, no matter what they might say to each other, and giving a fully rounded picture of the family as a whole and as individuals. Ultimately well written, I didn't find the promised humor and it lacked something until the final chapters. In the end though, it found at least a bit of heart.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past couple of week are:

All Manner of Things by Susie Finkbeiner
Miss Tonks Turns to Crime by M.C. Beaton
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman
The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston
Cloudwish by Fiona Wood
Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict
Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Reviews posted this week:

nothing

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston
Cloudwish by Fiona Wood
Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict
Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrival:

A Sister's Courage by Molly Green came from TLC Book Tours and Avon for a blog tour.

Women may not have been in combat in WWII but the stories of the ways in which they did serve are generally fascinating and this one about a woman who becomes a pilot and ferries fighter planes to the men fighting at the front and what she does when the man she loves is reported missing looks captivating.

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon.

The book is being released by Simon and Schuster on January 28, 2020.

The book's jacket copy says: From award-winning author Paul Yoon comes a beautiful, aching novel about three kids orphaned in 1960s Laos—and how their destinies are entwined across decades, anointed by Hernan Diaz as “one of those rare novels that stays with us to become a standard with which we measure other books.”

Alisak, Prany, and Noi—three orphans united by devastating loss—must do what is necessary to survive the perilous landscape of 1960s Laos. When they take shelter in a bombed out field hospital, they meet Vang, a doctor dedicated to helping the wounded at all costs. Soon the teens are serving as motorcycle couriers, delicately navigating their bikes across the fields filled with unexploded bombs, beneath the indiscriminate barrage from the sky.

In a world where the landscape and the roads have turned into an ocean of bombs, we follow their grueling days of rescuing civilians and searching for medical supplies, until Vang secures their evacuation on the last helicopters leaving the country. It’s a move with irrevocable consequences—and sets them on disparate and treacherous paths across the world.

Spanning decades and magically weaving together storylines laced with beauty and cruelty, Paul Yoon crafts a gorgeous story that is a breathtaking historical feat and a fierce study of the powers of hope, perseverance, and grace.

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