Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Autumn Reading List

While I've been too busy to post lately, it hasn't stopped me from reading.  So here's some brief reviews of the books I've read over the past few weeks.

The Summer Guests by Mary Alice Monroe
This was recommended as a good beach read, but I didn't enjoy it as much as some of the other escape reading that I do.  The premise was that when a hurricane hit southern Florida and South Carolina several guests made their way to a horse farm in North Carolina.  That was the start of the problem for me - there was way too much discussion of horses and riding and horse competitions...I suppose if you're interested in horses or even better riding competitions you would get more out of that part than I did.

Besides the horse racing there were the expected relationship stories.  We learned about the owners of the horse farm, Grace and Charles.  Charles was a famous rider until he was injured and is now afraid to get on a horse.  His wife Grace is equally nervous about him riding again which leads to some tension.  Their daughter Moira shows up with a truck full of rescue dogs.  Grace's friend Gerda who is a horse breeder shows up with her daughter Elise who is also friends with Moira.  There is a lot of tension between mother and daughter as Gerda is pushing Elise to follow the Olympic dream she was forced to give up when injured.  The weirdest part of the book is when Gerda meets a horse that she believes is the reincarnation of the horse she had to put down following that injury.  A famous equestrian shows up as the boyfriend of one of Grace's friends, Hannah.  But he dumps her for someone else at the house.  Finally Cara who has an island home on the outer banks eventually shows up after trying to protect her house from the storm.

Most of the visitors don't know each other before they arrive - they only have the hosts in common.  So relationships develop - both new ones and existing ones.  They are interesting enough but for me did not make up for all the horse talk.  I wouldn't recommend this unless you're into horse.

Searching fo Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Although a bit of a mystery, which is not a genre I usually gravitate towards, the interesting family dynamic made this book worth it to me.

It starts with Sylvie, the beautiful and successful elder daughter of the Lee family, flying from the US to the Netherlands for one last visit with her dying grandmother.  Then she disappears.  Her younger sister Amy is devastated and wants to look for her, but has to first find out more of the time before she was born.  She is too young to remember how her immigrant parents were too poor to care for Sylvie and sent her to be raised by her grandmother in the Netherlands.  Her grandmother was living with other relatives at the time and while Sylvie is doted on by the husband, the wife treats her quite inconsistently.

Then in alternating chapters we learn of Sylvie's return to the Netherlands - the rekindling of relationships with her grandmother and the son of the people she grew up with (and with whom she was friends at the time) - and Amy's trip to stay with these same people to try to solve the story behind her sister's disappearance.

The truth was not immediately obvious which made me want to keep reading.  In addition the characters were nuanced and sympathetic (even the woman who treated Sylvie poorly had a sympathetic story).  This also shed light on the difficult choices immigrants need to make in order to provide the lives they want for their children.

I definitely recommend this book.

From Scratch: a Memoir of Love, Sicily and Finding Home by Tembi Locke
This was a fantastic memoir.  Tembi was an exchange student in Florence when she ran into Saro and it was love at first sight.  Saro was a chef from Sicily several years older than Tembi and his family disapproved of his relationship with a younger, Black, American actress - to the extent that his parents refuse to attend their wedding (though an aunt and uncle defy his father and represent the family).

Tembi and Saro relocate to Los Angeles where they both have successful careers, make many friends and adopt a baby girl.  Saro is also welcomed into Tembi's large and boisterous family.

Unfortunately when their daughter is only 6 or 7 Saro is diagnosed with terminal cancer and most of the book is written through the lens of Tembi's extraordinary grief during his illness and following his death.  The small bit of good that comes out of his diagnosis is that Saro's parents and sister finally travel to LA to visit.  There they are overwhelmed with the love he shares with Tembi's family and their anger starts to crumble.

The summer following Saro's death, Tembi and her daughter travel to Sicily to stay with his now widowed mother and to spread his ashes on the island in accordance with Saro's wishes.  Day by day and eventually summer by summer Tembi bonds with her mother-in-law, at the start over their shared loss, but eventually the bond becomes broader.

While Tembi's story is sad, it also shows her strength and resilience as well as her ability to forgive.  While the human story is enough, the descriptions of Sicily - its physical beauty and its people - are also enthralling.

The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning
This is in some ways a typical Holocaust novel, but it does have a twist.  The narrative switches back in forth in time - from the World War II era to the present day.  In the present day, Alexandra is shocked to hear her grandmother beg her grandfather's forgiveness while he's on his deathbed in her Australian home.  For her perspective they've always had a perfect marriage.  Since her job in London is offering her a temporary post in Shanghai (and she has just broken up with her boyfriend there) she decides to accept the opportunity so she can delve into her grandparents' past.  All she knows is they spent some time during the War in Shanghai and later adopted a Chinese baby (her now deceased mother).

With Alexandra we learn that Remy and her parents fled to Shanghai from Austria after one of her brothers was shot on Kristallnacht and the other was taken into custody.  There her mother falls into a severe depression and her father, a doctor, works tirelessly with the city's poor population which is struggling under the Japanese occupation.  They befriend the Chinese family who live across the hall from them.  The father practices traditional Chinese medicine and is able to help Remy's mother.  Remy becomes best friends with the daughter and idolizes the older son.  Remy also befriends a girl on the boat from Austria who becomes orphaned when her mother dies in childbirth on the ship.  The family would like to take her in but she is forced to live in rather squalid conditions under the guardianship of her disinterested uncle.  We do know fairly early on that this girl ends up in Australia - still friends with Remy.

The chapters go on to reveal the truth about Remy's youth and Alexandra's parents and grandparents. The book also contains very vivid descriptions of Shanghai during the Japanese occupation and in the present.  I quite enjoyed this one.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
This is the first book I can recall reading that takes place in civil war torn Syria.  Nuri is a beekeeper and his wife, Afra, is an artist.  They live a very comfortable life with their son and extended families in Aleppo.  But when civil war strikes the unthinkable happens - they lose their son.  The shock blinds Afra, but despite the difficulty of her travelling Nuri insists they flee their war torn homeland to join his cousin in the UK.

Nuri and Afra embark on a dangerous journey through Turkey, by boat to Greece and then by land through France and eventually the UK.  They end up in a rooming house for immigrants in London while they go through the refugee claims process.  There we see the difficult time refugees from many countries have in establishing themselves anew.

The story is interesting - and the insights into Nuri's psyche are fascinating - some of the turns took me by surprise but were very believable.  Some of the other characters in the rooming house add colour to the narrative.

All in all I enjoyed this book too.

The Empress of Idaho by Todd Babiak
This is a fascinating novel that deals with an issue rarely touched upon in literature - the sexual exploitation of a teenaged boy by his much older female neighbour.

Adam lives with his mother in the poor part of town.  His father left when he was a child and his older brother has left to play college football.  Adam is 14 and about to become a starter on his high school's football team even though he's only a sophomore.  He's also doing well in school, works a part time job at a gas station with his good friend Simon and is dating Phoebe, a girl from a wealthy established family.  Everyone believes he has what it takes to go even further than his brother.

Adam's life is upended when his next door neighbour brings home a new wife, Beatrice.  Beatrice becomes overly interested in Adam and finds ways to be alone with him and essentially sexually assault him.  Adam is a teenaged boy - he's torn between his physical interest in Beatrice and the need to lie to everyone in his life.  To make matters worse Beatrice sucks Adam's mother into a shady real estate deal - encouraging her to quit her steady job in order to get rich quick.

Over the course of the summer Beatrice's past starts to catch up with her and Adam, his mother, Beatrice's husband and others get caught in the complicated web.

The main story is interesting though disturbing.  There are also side stories of note - in particular that of Simon who comes from a very wealthy but conservative African family.  He is one of the few people of colour in the town and is "accused" of being gay causing his parents to kick him out of their home.  The support Adam musters for Simon, despite being in such a troubled state of his own, shows a really nice aspect of teenaged friendship.

This is a great book but not one for those easily disturbed by stories of sexual exploitation.

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake
This is an interesting story about a very privileged New York based banking family.  It is also a multi generational story which switches back and forth from about 1935 to the present day (when the newest generation doesn't have quite the resources of their forebears).

In 1935 Kitty and Ogden Milton seem to have it all - money, looks, perfect children and enviable love for each other.  But tragedy befalls them one day - and it hits Kitty particularly hard.  In an effort to make her feel better Ogden buys her an island in Maine.  That island comes to define multiple generations of the family.  In fact, in present day the story revolves around one granddaughter, who is desperately trying to prevent her cousins from selling the island since they can no longer afford to keep it.

Much of the drama is revealed as this granddaughter, a historian, tries to figure out some of her family's secrets (some of which are revealed in the guest book).  We learn of Ogden's possible business dealings with the Nazis, his hiring of a Jewish man, Len, who earns the respect of Ogden and one of his daughters but the scorn of everyone else.  There is also a story about a decision Kitty makes during the war which haunts her throughout her lifetime.  And there is a mysterious visit to the island by Len's friend, Reg, who is always the only black man in the room and is again at the island.  All of these people end up playing an important part in the Milton family history.

I don't want to give too much of the story away as part of the fun is how it all weaves together very nicely.  The book is well written, though perhaps a tad longer than it needs to be, and the story is interesting.  The characters are also well rounded and relatable.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
This book is at times laugh out loud funny and at times rather sad, but it is really just a very realistic and detailed character study.  Queenie is a Jamaican British 25 year old living in London and trying to figure out her life.  She has just broken up with her long term white boyfriend (they are actually on a break) and she makes some seriously bad decisions about men who she uses to fill the void.

Her job at a national newspaper is also in jeopardy as she spends too much time trying to sort out her personal life and makes yet another bad relationship decision there.  Really her biggest problem is trusting the wrong people.

With time and the support of her family and friends we are left with the feeling that Queenie's self esteem will improve and she will learn how to rely on herself rather than men to measure her worth in the world.

I enjoyed the story and the added benefit of the reinforcement of the power of female friendships.

Queen Bee by Dorothea Benton Frank
I saw this recommended somewhere, but all I will say about it is that it was so boring I gave up when I was about 1/4 of the way through.  Maybe I was missing something that others saw, but I wasn't willing to give it any more time to figure that out.

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood
I really enjoyed this book - it sort of reminded me of Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine or The Kiss Quotient where the heroine fell somewhere on the autism spectrum and you got to see life and relationships through her eyes.  In this book Susan lives a very orderly life and emotions don't fit into the equation.  She has even been involved with a man for years where theirs is more of a business relationship - they go on dates, they have sex, but they have no emotions or long term goals.

Unfortunately careful planning is not always enough.  First, Susan finds herself pregnant.  Then her mother dies and leaves her unemployed brother with a life estate in her house that Susan had hoped to sell to be able to afford a bigger flat for when the baby is born.

So Susan must figure out how to fight the will - and along the way she needs help from her upstairs neighbour who becomes a friend and, even less likely, her brother's best friend.  She also has to work out an arrangement with her baby's father that satisfies two parties who never wanted an emotional entanglement.  And finally she learns some long buried secrets about her past.  All of this is handled with surprising grace and humour by a person who is much more comfortable with well established routines.

This was an easy and enjoyable read.

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