Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Winemaker's Wife by Kristin Harmel

All the sudden there seem to be a lot of books about France during World War II and this is another.  This one is very recent - it even made reference to the spring fire at Notre Dame Cathedral.

I quite enjoyed this book - and while I had figured out some of the surprises at the end, there were just enough plot tricks to make me doubt whether my guesses were going to prove correct.

Like many historical fiction books, this one goes back and forth in time.  In the present day we follow  41 year old Liv.  She is still reeling from her divorce when her 99 year old grandmother shows up on her doorstep in New York and flies her to her home in Paris.  There she promises she wants to reveal long buried family secrets - however, she is too emotional to do so in a systematic way.  Instead she takes Liv to Reims in champagne country, and introduces her to a young lawyer, Julian, who together with her grandmother slowly reveals the past.

The historical scenes all take place in champagne country during World War II.  There, a young somewhat immature woman, Ines, leaves the home of her best friend Edith to marry the owner of a vineyard, Michel.  At the vineyard Michel and Ines are joined by the master winemaker, Theo, and his wife, Celine.  While all of them feel threatened by the German invasion, it is Celine who stands to lose the most as she has a Jewish father.

Ines feels belittled by her husband, Celine and Michel and as a result makes some very stupid, and ultimately dangerous, choices which haunt her.  I don't want to give too much away - but the story involves both French resistance and collaboration, infidelity, jealousy...

As you might expect, the two stories eventually come together quite elegantly.  If you like this kind of book, this one is well written, with multi-dimensional characters, and worth the read.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Mid-Summer Reading List

The library has been very cooperative in making books available for me this summer...

America's Reluctant Prince: the Life of John F. Kennedy Jr. by Steven Gillon
This was a very interesting biography of JFK Jr. that was published on the anniversary of his death in a small plane crash.

The author was very up to the task for two reasons.  First, he is an accomplished historian, with a specialty in modern American history, so he really knows a lot about the eras he's writing about.  Second, he was friends with JFK Jr. for many years - they first met when Gillon was his TA at Brown and continued to see each other regularly over the years, particularly to play squash.  While Gillon readily admits he was in JFK's "outer circle" rather than a very close friend, he still was able to include many personal anecdotes which added to the narrative.

The book covered the entire span of JFK Jr.'s lifetime so there was a lot about his father's presidency and assassination - though from the lens of how it impacted his son.  Neither of the parents came off looking perfect, though they were very humanized.  Jackie, in particular, was often described as very controlling - of her children, the secret service charged with protecting her children, etc.  We also learn of JFK Jr's positive relationship with Aristotle Onassis and how he was negatively impacted by his death as well as the deaths of his father and uncle.

It was also interesting to read about JFK Jr.'s relationship with other famous Kennedy's including his uncles Robert and Teddy as well as their children.  While he was also quite friendly with some of the children of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Jean Kennedy Smith, his closest relationship was with Anthony Radziwill, the son of Jackie's sister.  In his last few months he was very upset by Anthony's decline due to cancer.

While I enjoyed the personal parts of the book, there was a lot of focus on JFK's efforts to build George Magazine, as well as the relationships he had through the magazine.  While I understand the importance of this to telling the story of his life, to me it was less interesting.

Finally, I thought the author's insights into JFK's failing (potentially at least from the author's point of view) marriage and why he was a risk taker were very interesting and may partially explain why he was piloting a plane through the Martha's Vineyard fog when he was not certified to fly with instruments alone.

All in all a really interesting read.

Before we Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
This fiction novel is loosely based on historical events - where the director of a Memphis adoption agency stole poor children from their parents and sold them to wealthy families all over the US.

This book goes back and forth in time, and while you know that the stories will end up tied together, it is not so immediately obvious as to render the book too predictable.

In the past, Rill Foss is the oldest of five children living on a Mississippi shanty boat.  While they are poor, they seem to be happy and for the most part their parents are doing their best.  When their mother goes into labour with twins, and a local midwife is unable to deliver, the parents are forced to go to the hospital.  Rill is left in charge and does her best to keep things together but eventually the children are seized by child welfare authorities.  They are led to believe they will be taken to their parents but are quick to learn the awful truth.

The children are put in an orphanage where they are physically and mentally abused as well as put on display for potential adoptive parents.  Rill works hard to keep her family together and in alternate chapters we learn what she is capable of - and what she is not.

The present day chapters deal with Avery Stafford.  She is a young attorney from a wealthy family, engaged to be married to a long time family friend who is equally wealthy.  She returns to her home in South Carolina to be groomed to take over her ill father's place in Congress.  While there she visits a nursing home and is intrigued by photos which one of the resident has on display - of several women who remind her of her grandmother.  She tries to get information about it from her grandmother - but she is suffering from dementia and only utters some words and names which make no sense.  So Avery does some detective work of her own to figure out what's going on.  And in finding out more about her past, she makes some decisions which also affect her future.

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren
This book was just pure enjoyable fluff.  Olive Torres, who has always considered herself the unlucky twin, is maid of honour at her twin sister's wedding.  Because she is allergic to seafood she does not partake in the seafood buffet which gives everyone at the wedding severe food poisoning.  The only other person who has not eaten the tainted food is her sworn enemy, the groom's older brother, Ethan.

As luck would have it they are forced to take the honeymoon of their siblings which is non-cancellable.  Not terribly surprising things happen when they are forced to spend a week together in Hawaiian paradise - but many of the scenes (such as when the meet both Olive's boss and Ethan's ex) are very humorous.

Not at all great literature but fun if you're in the mood.

Surfside Sisters by Nancy Thayer
I usually try to read one Nantucket based Thayer book every summer and this one didn't disappoint.  Her books are all fairly similar but well written with interesting characters.

This one details the lives of two island based friends - Keely and Isabelle.  While they were inseparable growing up, they did come from different backgrounds.  Keely was an only child of working class parents while Isabelle's father was a very successful lawyer so Isabelle lived a much more adventurous life.  Both girls dreamed of being writers - and Keely also pined after Isabelle's older brother Sebastian.

As the girls grew, jealousies over careers and men interfered with their friendship.  This tells the story of their time together, apart and slowly coming back together.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Bali Kaur Jaswal
While I didn't enjoy this as much as Jaswal's prior novel, Erotic Tales for Punjabi Widows, which was more humorous, I did still enjoy the story.

In this book, the mother of three British born Punjabi girls leaves them a deathbed wish - travel to India together the following summer to make a pilgrimage which she describes for them, and scatter her ashes.

The three girls set out together despite all of their differences - the eldest is a straight laced school principal, the middle daughter is an out of work actress who is plagued by a recent Youtube scandal, and the youngest has just entered into an arranged marriage and is living in Australia with her husband and interfering mother in law.

As the sisters spend time together, they learn each other's secrets which pulls them closer together - surely accomplishing what their mother intended.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

My Summer Reading List (so far...)

Summer of '69 by Elin Hilderbrand
Every summer I try to read Hilderbrand's new release and this year was no exception.  I certainly enjoyed this one, and it was somewhat more complex than some of her books, but I don't think it was the best.  I found some of her efforts to include current events from that summer were a bit forced (e.g. the character based in Martha's Vineyard just happens to work at the hotel where Ted Kennedy stays that fateful summer and meets the woman who eventually dies when his car plunges into the water).

The story revolves around one family who has always spent the summer at their grandmother's home on Nantucket.  This year is different - only 13 year old Jessie and her mother make the trip.  Her older brother has been drafted and is serving in Vietnam, her oldest sister is pregnant with twins and staying in Boston with her husband and the other sister, the family rebel, has decided to summer on Martha's Vineyard instead. Jessie's dad (and step dad of all the other siblings) stays at home to work and only comes out on the odd weekend.

Jessie thinks her time will be boring but she discovers a boy a few years older than her, the son of the family's caretaker, is living in a small house on the property.  She develops a crush on him and spends time with him when not forced to take tennis lessons at her grandmother's club.  She has brushes with anti-semitism and sexual harassment while at the tennis club which are life lessons for her.

Eventually her eldest sister believes her husband is having an affair, gets caught kissing his brother and is kicked out of her home so ends up on the island where she eats and mopes.  This sister's husband conveniently works as a scientist for NASA and is involved in the moon landing so that world event can be woven into the narrative.

The sister in Martha's Vineyard is disillusioned by the Kennedy event and the reactions to her having a black boyfriend so she makes her way to Nantucket too.  And Jessie's dad shows up once convinced his wife is not drinking excessively as she worries about her son.  Only the brother in Vietnam doesn't arrive.

The biggest revelation for Jessie are secrets from her family's past and present which she discovers both through careful observation and her mother's stories.  I won't ruin those for you though I did figure them out faster than Jessie did.

An easy summer read if not great literature.

Here's Looking at You by Mhairi McFarlane
This was a fun romantic comedy.  Anna Alessi is a thirty something history professor whose life is quite satisfactory, except that she is looking for love.  She tries online dating and seems to only attract weirdos.  She is also still traumatized from the bullying she suffered in high school when she was many pounds heavier, still used her original more ethnic name and really didn't fit in.

When a high school reunion is scheduled Anna's friend convinces her she should go to put her high school demons behind her.  While there she encounters the main perpetrator of her high school humiliation, James, who is still as good looking as he always was and has no idea who she is.

Then, coincidentally shortly after James shows up at her workplace to work on a project.  Against her better judgment she slowly becomes his friend - without revealing who she is.  The resulting encounters are both funny and at times sad.  There are also side stories about her relationships with James' friend from high school - a serial womanizer who tries his luck with Anna - and another professor who seems harmless but has some troubling quirks as well.  Moreover James is working through his failed marriage.

Quite entertaining though mindless reading.  Perfect for summer.

One Day in December by Josie Silver
This is yet another one of my summer romance genre reads.  Laurie is on a bus one day in December when she makes eye contact with a man at a bus stop and instantly falls in love.  She tries unsuccessfully to find him, and when she has all but given up he appears at her doorstep.  As the boyfriend of her best friend and roommate, Sarah.  Laurie never admits to Sarah that Jack (the boyfriend) is also the man from the bus as Sarah is very serious about him.

The book covers the next ten years of their lives - Sarah and Jack stay together, Laurie marries someone else, never sure if Jack remembers who she really is, and Laurie and Jack have repeated awkward encounters.

It's not a very believable story, but it is entertaining.

99 Percent Mineby Sally Thorne
Darcy Barrett has only really loved one man, Tom Valeska, who was a childhood neighbour and her twin brother Jamie's best friend.  Because of the relationship with her brother, Darcy has never acted on her feelings for Tom and has spent many years travelling from place to place and avoiding any sort of commitment.

When Darcy's grandmother dies and leaves her old cottage to the twins, they agree it must be renovated and sold - and Tom is the only man for the job.  Since Jamie is employed and Darcy is not she stays in the cottage to oversee the renovations and of course sparks fly with Tom.  Tom also tries to lead Darcy back to her true path as a photographer.

The relationship and the narrative are fairly predictable, but still interesting.  I didn't like it as much as The Hating Game (review below).

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
Lucy and Joshua are both assistants at a publishing firm and are forced to work in the same office, but unfortunately they hate each other - or so they think.  They also seem to be polar opposites - Joshua is uptight, organized and meticulous, but maintains his distance from other employees (he even wears his shirts in a regular rotation).  Lucy is quirky, sparkly, popular with her colleagues and very agreeable to their demands.

At a work event Lucy becomes very sick and Joshua is forced to take her home and nurses her back to health - even inviting his doctor brother to make a house call.  There she overhears the pressure on Joshua to attend his brother's wedding which he clearly does not want to do.  So she agrees to go as his date.  There the truth of their feelings for each other finally emerges and the book ends as one might expect.

The Summer of Sunshine and Margot by Susan Mallery
Sunshine and Margot are fraternal twins who come from a long line of women who are unlucky in love.  Margot is an etiquette coach who is hired to coach an aging movie star, Bianca, who has a history of over the top behaviour, on proper manners for the wife of a diplomat as she is engaged to marry one.  For reasons that are not really obvious, though are convenient, she must move into Bianca's house to do the training.  There she spends more and more time with Bianca's academic, serious, and intensely private son - with predictable results.

Sunshine has never really found her calling and is working as a live in nanny for a widower and his 8 year old son while she goes to college at the relatively advanced age of 30.  Again the development of her relationship with her employer is not surprising.

I liked the characters in this book and it was an easy fun read but something you can definitely miss unless you're in the mood for fluff.

My Ex-Best Friend's Wedding by Wendy Wax
The easy reading books have been coming from the library fast and furiously this summer and this is another one of them - although the focus on this book is more on familial relationships and platonic friendship than romance.

Kendra was a teenage mother who moved to the Outer Banks with her newborn after she left her fiancĂ© at the alter and her father wanted to take the baby away and give her up for adoption.  There Kendra raised her daughter, posing as a widow.  Fast forward many years and her daughter, Lauren, is a successful author who is engaged to be married.  She returns to town from New York to scout out potential wedding venues and to see "the dress" - a family wedding dress that has passed to various members for their weddings.

Lauren is somewhat reluctant to return as she must contend with Bree, her former best friend.  The two had a falling out when Bree refused to go to New York after college, as she had promised, and instead stayed home and married Lauren's ex-boyfriend.  Bree is angry as she feels the book that made Lauren's career is based on an idea that the two had developed together.

Laughter and tears ensue when the two former best friends are reunited, Bree's marriage is suffering as is Lauren's career and Lauren's supposedly dead father shows up on her doorstep.

An entertaining read - I enjoyed the characters and it was nice to see romance on the back burner for a change.

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess
This was a short and fairly interesting book.  It primarily takes place in the summer of 1987 when Eve Rosen, an aspiring writer, quits her job as a low level assistant at a publishing company.  Instead she joins her family in their Cape Cod home.  There she has always mingled with her parents' professional friends but this year she somehow scores an invitation to a party at the home of two local authors where she mingles with more artsy folk.

She has a brief dalliance with their son but is then hired to work for the father.  Star struck by working for this somewhat has been writer a personal relationship develops between them.  But at an annual end of summer book party, where everyone dresses as the character from a book, Eve discovers that her secrets are not the biggest ones plaguing this family.

All of the characters in this book are quite interesting - especially Eve, her employer and his wife, and another author who is about to make it big based on a book with a somewhat questionable origin.  Eve has to figure out how to deal with all of the secrets and what it will take to make her really fit in with this artistic crowd by writing a book of her own.