Friday, July 28, 2017

The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand

Elin is one of my favourite summer authors and this book was one of her best yet, in my view.  Of course, you should not expect high literature, just light summer beach romance reading.  I probably liked this one the best as, unlike her other novels which take place only on Nantucket, this one took place on Martha's Vineyard too.  Given my greater familiarity with the Vineyard, I enjoyed picturing where the events were taking place.

As the name suggests this book is about identical twins Tabitha and Harper.  When the girls were 17 their parents divorced and a game of rock paper scissors determined which daughter would live with which parent.  Tabitha ended up on Nantucket and still lives there with her mother and daughter.  She is running a store showcasing her mother's designs and it is doing terribly.  To make matters worse her 16 year old daughter is getting into terrible trouble at school.

Harper lives on the Vineyard with her ailing father, having an affair with a married man, dating another more suitable man and working a dead end job, having made a mess of a more respectable one.

Tabitha and Harper have not spoken for use when fate intervenes and they decide to temporarily switch islands - and try to solve each others problems.  The story of their love lives, attempts to help each other, their relationship with their parents and Tabitha's daughter, as well as a few humorous cases of mistaken identity make for light, fun summer reading.

The One-Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai

This book was fascinating, though at times a bit hard to follow, largely because the story is told in reverse chronological order (reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book).  This novel starts in 1999 when Doug, an unemployed writer supposedly working on turning his doctoral dissertation into a publishable work, moves with his wife Zee into the coach house on Zee's mother's property.  Years ago the main house was a colony for visiting artists, including Edwin Parfitt, the poet whose life Doug is chronicling.  Zee is a Marxist poet teaching at a local college (outside Chicago) and plotting the demise of an elderly colleague hoping to create a vacancy for Doug.

All kinds of strange characters emerge - Zee's mother Grace and her eccentric second husband Doug who is obsessed with preparing for the end of the world on Y2K; Doug's unemployed son and his crazy wife who are invited to share the coach house with Zee and Doug; and the elderly colleague who Zee tries to frame but in a strange twist befriends.  The house itself which is rumoured to be haunted by Zee's great grandmother, its original inhabitant, also becomes a character.

Doug is anxious to dig into the archives of the artist colony which he believes are housed in the attic of the main house.  Grace stonewalls him so he schemes with a friend to sneak in while the members of the household are otherwise engaged.  Through his scheming and drunken confessions by Grace, he discovers secrets about his mother-in-law that he can't share with his wife.

The next section of the novel jumps back in time to the 1950s when Grace is banished by her wealthy Canadian family to live in the house with her abusive husband as her punishment for marrying him.  In this section we learn more about the secrets which Grace is trying so desperately to hide from Doug.  We also get a glimpse of how Grace was somewhat supportive of the artist colony but was made the "bad guy" by her family in moving there and forcing it to shut down.

The third section of the book takes place in 1929 when the artist colony is still functioning but Grace's father wants it shut down.  He visits with a very young Grace in tow and becomes the victim of a conspiracy to blackmail him into keeping the colony open - evidence of which Doug finds in the first portion of the book - and which now starts to make sense.  We are also introduced to characters who play a role in the first and second parts of the book - given this history we gain a better understanding of their roles in later years.

The "prologue" of the book which is in fact the last section takes us back to Zee's haunting great grandmother and we discover why she may have felt so unsettled in the house as to haunt its attic forevermore.

I know this review sounds confusing, but I don't want to give too much away - there are still some puzzles in my own mind and if I find some time I may try reading the book again - perhaps even from back to front.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I was of course drawn to this book by the title - if I ever write another book I hope to think of something that catches the eye so effectively.  However, the title does not oversell - as soon as I started the book I was captivated by the characters and had trouble putting it down.

Nikki is a modern daughter of Sikh immigrants to London from the Punjab.  She has disappointed her deceased father by dropping out of law school and horrified her widowed mother by moving from home to live over and work in a pub in central London.  When Nikki's older sister sends her to Southall, a suburban Sikh enclave, to post an ad for a husband on the temple bulletin board an advertisement for a creative writing teacher catches her eye.

Kulwinder Kaur is in charge of women's programming at the Sikh temple.  She has managed to negotiate funding for a writing class for women which has led to the posting Nikki finds.  With no other applicants she takes a chance on Nikki as she doesn't want to lose the funding.  What she doesn't tell Nikki is who she has rounded up to take the class - Punjabi widows who do not know how to read and write and do not speak English.  However, they have lots of time on their hands and thus are happy to try out the class.

Despite her initial frustrations (and because she doesn't want to admit to her mother she has quit something else) she sticks with the class.  But the women aren't really interested in literacy - they want to tell stories.  So they begin to tell stories which Nikki and one of the literate widows transcribe - and all of the stories are explicit erotica.  Much to her surprise, there is much more to these widows than their highly sheltered and regimented lives would suggest and she befriends and empowers them.

There are many side stories which keep the action interesting.  First, Nikki meets Jason who seems to be a perfect Punjabi match for her, but harbours secrets which she must work around.  Then, Kulwinder's daughter has died in mysterious circumstances which all the characters gossip about and eventually try to sort through.  Next is Nikki's sister's search for the perfect mate as well as the truth behind Nikki's father's final hours.

All in all this book was a great and different read.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

I found this book really gripping - and found out at the end in the Author's Note that several of the characters were based on real people which made the story all the more interesting.

In 1947 Charlie St. Clair is an unmarried 19 year old American girl en route to Switzerland with her mother to receive an illegal abortion.  Her upper class parents have convinced her she is a whore who must take care of the "Little Problem".  But Charlie has other ideas.  Reeling from the suicide of her brother after his wartime experiences she is desperate to find her French cousin, Rose, who was her best friend in childhood but who nobody has heard from since 1943.

Charlie breaks away from her mother in Southampton and finds herself on the doorstep of Eve Gardiner who is the last government employee who wrote a report about the search for Rose when she was reported missing.  Eve is an angry old drunk with misshapen hands who greets Charlie with a loaded gun.  After Charlie pleads her case she allows her to stay on her sofa provided she is gone by the morning.  Charlie falls asleep and is awakened by Finn, a Scottish ex-con, ex-soldier who is now working as Eve's "hands" since she cannot do a lot with her own.  Finn convinces Charlie to stay with promises Eve will not even remember her threats from the prior night.  She does, and shares her story with Finn too.

Eventually the unlikely trio set out to France to find Rose.  In alternating chapters we go back to the first world war where we discover that Eve was in fact a British spy posted in France - part of the Alice Network.  The Alice Network was named for its leader who was code named Alice (but went by Lili) and became one of Eve's best friends.  While Eve is entirely fictional, Alice and the Alice Network actually existed in World War I, becoming one of the most successful spy networks of that war.

Through these alternating chapters we hear of Eve's horrific story and how she went from being a spy to an angry drunk.  We also learn why she has an ulterior motive in joining Charlie's search for Rose - she has her own search to conduct in order to deal with some demons from her past.  Finn also struggles with PTSD from his wartime experiences.  As such, the trio bond and become close despite their immense differences.

In the end we learn with Charlie what has happened to Rose and we hear the end of Eve's wartime story.  Though all the characters are damaged, they are likeable and therefore I found their version of a happy ending quite satisfying.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Our Little Racket by Angelica Baker

I didn't love this book at first, but by the end I really wanted to find out what happened.  Bob D'Amico was a self made man, the CEO of an investment bank, living in luxury with his wife, daughter and twin sons in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Bob's life begins to unravel when his bank is forced into bankruptcy and he is accused of illegal acts which contributed to the company's downfall.

The interesting twist in this book is that the story is told entirely from the perspective of five women who were impacted by Bob's behaviour:  his wife, Isabel; his daughter, Madison; Isabel's friend Mina; Madison's friend, Amanda and the family nanny, Lily.

Isabel came from an established, moneyed WASP family.  Her parents, now dead, never really approved of her marriage or her husband's showy life.  Isabel vacillates between support for Bob and disgust at his behaviour.  She is shunned by her former "friends" and spends countless hours with her father's advisors trying to figure out how he'd have extricated himself from a similar mess.

Madison spends the most time with Bob following his downfall as she tries hard to understand his job so she can defend him.  She is also shunned by some former friends and adopted by new ones who seem to want to use her to obtain information about her father.  Her relationship with Amanda is particularly strained as Amanda's father is a financial columnist who has never liked Bob and now spends his time writing scathing articles about him.  Madison's life is further complicated by the demands of being a typical teenager, albeit in atypical circumstances, and having her first boyfriend.

Lily has been with the family for years in a job which was supposed to be just a stepping stone to something better.  She feels fiercely loyal to the children and is highly critical of how both parents are taking care of their needs in a time of crisis.  She is also under pressure from her boyfriend, who is an aspiring journalist, to use her inside position to tell "the story".

The action all comes to head at a fundraiser about a year after the bank's initial downfall when the family makes its first foray back into Greenwich society.  It is an interesting, though not entirely unpredictable, result when all of the parties come together in one place and Bob is confronted by former employees and friends.

The very last chapter was an epilogue that jumped ahead several years.  It was an interesting synopsis of where everyone ended up and I would have liked a little more detail.