Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Series of Brief Reviews

I've been busy lately (though never too busy to read), so I haven't had a chance to update my blog in a couple of months.  Just to keep things moving, I've decided to post shorter than usual reviews of the books I've read over the this time period.

Midnight Train to Prague by Carol Windley

This is yet another Nazi era saga - again not focused on the Jewish angle which seems to be the case with a lot of the World War II books I've read of late.  This one was fine, but not great.

It tells the story of Natalia, a young woman from Berlin.  When she is travelling by train from Berlin to Prague she finds out the truth about her father which causes a rift with her mother. She also briefly meets a woman named Magdalena, whose family will reappear later in her life and play a notable role.

In the aftermath of the troubling train ride Natalia and her mother end up at a spa in Hungary. There she meets a journalist, Miklos and falls in love and marries him.  She moves to rural Hungary where she lives on a farm with Miklos and his mother.  When war breaks out in Europe she loses touch with Miklos, who she was supposed to meet in Prague, which is now occupied by the Nazis.

When Miklos doesn't show she sets herself up as a fortune teller. While in business in Prague, Natalia meets Anna, Magdalena's daughter. They become friends before Natalia is accused of spying and sent to a concentration camp. Eventually she is reunited with Anna and, together they must make sense of the past and move on to the future.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

This is a novel of multigenerational family drama - I quite enjoyed the cast of quirky characters.  The book begins when the matriarch, Astrid, witnesses an automobile accident which brings back memories of a troubling event from when she was a young mother.  The novel explores how Astrid navigates this, as well as her relationship with her now adult children - Elliot, a married father of wild twin boys who sets impossibly high standards for himself in business, and is harbouring a secret that he fears will anger his mother; Porter, her daughter who has become pregnant by choice and is (not so successfully) trying to keep her own secrets; and Nicky, her youngest who now lives a bohemian life in Brooklyn and, when she has trouble at school, sends his daughter Cecilia to live with her grandmother.

In addition to these characters, the cast also includes Astrid's friend Birdie, who turns out to be more than a friend and Cecilia's transgendered new best friend.

The interactions between the characters, and the gradual revelation of the secrets they have been keeping, makes for an interesting read.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

This new novel by the author of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is equally mindless and fun. The main character is Lucie - the daughter of an America born Chinese mother and a now deceased blue-blooded New York father. When Lucie travels to a wedding in Capri she meets George, the son of a flamboyant Asian mother. Sparks fly immediately, but Lucie works for years to suppress her feelings for George.

Several years later Lucie meets George again and still tries to deny her feelings for him - which involves her having to take a series of deceitful steps...but everything is humorous and, of course, there is a happy ending.

The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer

Okay, yet another Holocaust novel - best to read other things in between all the Holocaust novels or it gets to be too much. But I did enjoy this one - it is another of the type where the chapters alternate between the past and the present.

In the present, Alice, is struggling to keep her marriage and family on track in the face of her son's severe autism and her perception that her husband does not pull his weight when it comes to their son. To add to her stress, her ailing grandmother begs her to travel to Poland though is incapable of explaining to Alice precisely what she wants her to do. Intrigued, and encouraged by her husband, Alice hires an English speaking guide and makes the trip.

In the past, Alina is a young girl living in a small town in Poland near what will become Auschwitz. Alina has always known she will marry her childhood best friend Tomasz. Unfortunately, Tomasz is away at medical school in Warsaw when the Nazis invade and Alina loses touch with him. She does, however, stay in touch with his family, including taking in his young sister.

In the alternating chapters we learn what happens to Alina, Tomasz and their families during the war.  And, at the same time Alice learns how these people in Poland relate to her.

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

This is another novel that really revolves around the characters. Sam is a struggling student in a small university town in upstate New York who is looking to make some money to get through college. She accepts a job as a "mother's helper" for Elisabeth. Elisabeth, her husband and their infant son have moved from Brooklyn back to the town in which he was raised in order to raise their family. Elisabeth, a writer, is struggling with small town life and wastes extraordinary amounts of time following social media posts from her old neighbourhood.

Sam and Elisabeth hit it off immediately and develop a weird sort of friendship/co-dependency. Sam also befriends Elisabeth's elderly father-in-law, who takes up her cause regarding the mistreatment of food services employees at the college. This leads to unexpected and unfortunate results for Sam's relationship with the other employees.

Sam and Elisabeth also clash over Sam's much older boyfriend, Clive, who Elisabeth feels is untrustworthy.

The novel is an interesting exploration of the relationship between two women in vastly different circumstances and whether, ultimately, a relationship of this nature is healthy for either of them, and can survive.

The Marriage Game by Sara Desai

This is a light, easy to read and entertaining rom-com. Layla is the daughter of first generation immigrants from India. Her parents run a Michelin starred restaurant in San Francisco and, when Layla moves back to San Fran to start her own business, her parents allow her to use an office over the restaurant. However, they forget that they have also leased out this space to Sam, who refuses to break the lease. Sam is also the son of immigrants from India.

Layla's parents are very traditional and, unbeknownst to her, her father signs her up on a dating site which is meant to lead to arranged marriages. Though Sam also comes from a traditional family, his sister suffered abuse in an arranged marriage so he is very against them. As such he decides to accompany Layla on all of her dates to screen the men. Naturally this leads to some entertaining scenes - and sparks between Layla and Sam (this is a rom com after all).

While the end is predictable, the twists and turns along the way are fun.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

This book is the opposite of light and fun, but it was a worthwhile read (though troubling - I would not recommend it if you are easily disturbed by descriptions of abusive relationships). This book is intended to be a bit of a modern-day Lolita, a book which figures in the narrative.

In the year 2000, 15 year old Vanessa becomes embroiled in an affair with her 42 year old English teacher, Jacob Strane. In 2017, in an era of allegations against powerful men, another former student accuses Strane of abuse. This student reaches out to Vanessa for support and she is terribly torn between sharing her story and defending her relationship. She still struggles with admitting the relationship was abusive, though it has ruined every subsequent relationship she has engaged in, and led her to years of therapy.

The chapters alternate between Vanessa's past and her future so the reader can see for itself the power Strane wields over Vanessa and how she struggles to come to terms with her past. I think this is a really important book for so tastefully exploring such a controversial topic, but it really is difficult to read.

The Paper Girl of Paris by Jordyn Taylor

Here we go again with another modern woman digging into her family's wartime past. In this case 16 year old Alice has inherited an apartment in Paris from her grandmother. Neither she nor her father even knew her grandmother had an apartment in Paris and, when they enter it, it is extremely opulent but suggests that it was abandoned in a hurry.

More importantly, Alice discovers pictures and letters which suggest her grandmother had a sister that no one knew about. So she sets out to figure out what happened - with the help of a cute Parisian boy, Paul, who she meets at a cafe.

In alternating chapters we go back into the past to see what led to the rift between Alice's grandmother and her sister, and how her grandmother ended up in the US.

This book is an easy and interesting enough read - could even be considered a YA novel.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

This is a kind of interesting novel about Albert Einstein's first wife, Mitza. Mitza was a successful physicist in her own right whose legacy was completely overshadowed by her husband's success.

Mitza came from a small town in Eastern Europe to study physics at a Zurich University. She was the only woman in a group of six students who included Einstein. Over time Einstein's friendship turns into something more and the pair marries.

The book definitely does not portray Einstein in a positive light. He is moody and rude, and he steals Mitza's ideas and sells them as his own. I don't know how much of that is rooted in reality, but if it's true he really was not a nice person.

In addition to the relationship, this is an interesting portrayal of the difficulties faced by talented women (not only Mitza, but her roommates) in an entirely male dominated society. These women were well ahead of their time, and definitely struggled with being forced into more traditional roles.

Not a great book, but certainly a solid one and worth the read if the subject matter interests you.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

This is another Sullivan novel which centres around the danger of keeping secrets - in this case for generations. The novel opens with Nora being awakened by a call telling her that her eldest son Patrick has died in a car crash, most likely caused by his own drunk driving. This leads to a phone call by Nora to her estranged sister, Theresa, who is a cloistered nun.

In 1957 Nora and Theresa immigrated to Boston from Ireland so that Nora could marry her long-time beau, who had previously immigrated there. In alternating chapters we learn of Nora and Theresa's immigrant experience - especially their lives in a boarding house run by Nora's fiancé's extended family - and Nora's now adult children.

John, an overachieving political hack, feels responsible for Patrick's death as the car accident followed his revealing troubling information to Patrick about something that happened in his past. Bridget is resentful because her mother does not want to recognize her long term girlfriend. And the youngest, Brian is still living with his mother due to a failed career as a professional baseball player. As the children gather for the funeral, and learn for the first time in their memories, about their aunt the nun, more and more secrets unravel and Nora is forced to face them.

The book is well written and the characters are both likeable and relatable. Though for the reader it is not that hard to figure out what the secrets are, I recommend this book as in the end it's how the people deal with the secrets that really matters.

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

I liked the other novels I read by Sullivan, so decided to pick up this one too. As is her usual style, it is the characters rather than the plot that drives the book. In this case we meet four roommates at an elite girls' college which is intended to be a parody of Smith. Sally, Bree, April and Celia come from very different backgrounds and are forced together by circumstance. But somehow they make it work and their friendship carries beyond their four years at school, though imperfectly. The girls are now women and they are getting together for one of their weddings.

A bit of a subplot develops in the later chapters when April, the radical in the group, starts working for her idol who is a militant feminist. April gets involved in the fight against human trafficking with suspenseful results. This is a little atypical of Sullivan's work which tends to be less action driven.

I did enjoy this book as a study in how people from vastly different backgrounds and lifestyles can somehow, and with some work, mesh when they're thrown together.

Before I Let You Go by Kelly Rimmer

Lexie and Annie are sisters who were very close as children, but their lives were turned upside down when their father died and their mother dragged them to her childhood home which was essentially a religious cult. Things got even worse when she married Robert, the leader of the cult. Lexie was motivated to study hard in order to escape and has become a successful doctor, engaged to another doctor. Annie, unfortunately, turned to drugs.

Lexie had cut Annie out of her life due to the troubles caused by her addiction when she gets a call from Annie who desperately needs help. She is pregnant and in trouble. So Lexie and her fiancé race to her squalid trailer and discover she is in grave danger due to her elevated blood pressure. So they get her elite help, but she is also forced into inpatient rehab once the baby is born.

Lexie must figure out how to help her sister, and the baby, without being so sucked into the drama that her relationship and her job suffer. Interspersed with the narrative are diary entries written by Annie while she's in rehab. In these entries we learn what happened to her after Lexie left their childhood home, and what pushed her toward her addiction.

A powerful, and at times painful, story of two sisters and the devastating impact of childhood trauma.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

This is a really interesting book coming out of Nigeria. Adunni is a 14 year old girl living in a tiny village who is forced by her father into an arranged marriage with a much older man who already has two wives. Adunni's mother, who is now deceased,  had always encouraged her to get her education as having a "louding" voice was the only way to succeed. But Adunni's father is desperate for the money that selling her will bring.

Adunni is mistreated by her husband and his first wife but taken under the wing of his kindly second wife. So when tragedy strikes the second wife, Adunni escapes to Lagos where she is essentially enslaved by a wealthy couple. But none of this destroys Adunni's spirit - with the help of a kindly cook and a neighbour Adunni betters her English and applies for secondary education.

In addition to the interesting story this novel offers insight into the subjugation of women and the poor in Nigeria as well as the great gulf between the rich and the poor. Although, by reference to Adunni's boss we see how even wealthy women are not immune to discrimination. Finally, the language of the book is great - it is all written in Adunni's personal style of English and has a musical ring to it. We also see the subtle changes in the language as Adunni's education advances.

The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham

This book deals with a piece of Canadian history which I knew nothing about so it was certainly educational in addition to interesting.

At 97 years old Winnifred knows she doesn't have much time left. She has already lost her husband and her daughter and many of her other friends. So when her great grandson asks questions about her family tree she decides it is at last time to share the secrets of her past with him and her granddaughter.

She tells them things she has kept secret for decades despite this breaking a promise she made to her best friend when they were just teenagers.

Winnifred was brought to Canada from England as a child - she and her group of friends had been street children as their families could not afford to keep them. They went from the streets to orphanages and were then sent to Canada to work on farms. Some of the children were treated like family members, but most were maltreated - overworked and underfed, often beaten or sexually assaulted.

Through Winnifred's narrative we learn about her childhood on the streets and in the orphanage, her crossing of the Atlantic, her work on a farm and later her marriage and motherhood. We also see the strong bonds she shared with the children she met on the streets as a child and how those carried through her life. Finally, we see the consequences she suffered as a result of the secrets she kept - even though she had the best intentions in keeping them. Finally, we see how what was intended to be a program for the benefit of children actually created great harm in many cases.

The Switch by Beth O'Leary

A fun and easy to read comedy about a grandmother and granddaughter who, when stuck in a rut, exchange lives and figure out how they want to live their lives.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This was a really well-written book about twin sisters who were born in a small town in the southern US. They, like most of the other residents of the town, are light skinned and look down on darker skinned people. At age 16 the girls run away to the big city. They live together for a while, but eventually one passes for white to get a job and marry a white man who knows nothing of her past.

Ten years later this twin is living in Southern California with her husband and daughter while the other one has returned to her home town with a very dark daughter (after escaping an unhappy marriage). She lives with her mother who is slowly succumbing to dementia.

The narrative carries on for many years as the twins and their daughters move to different cities. Secrets are also revealed in unexpected ways and we see the consequences of trying to hide your past.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

I quite enjoyed this book which is set in Jaipur and Simla, India. In the 1950s, as a 17 year old Lakshmi escapes an abusive marriage and eventually makes her way to Jaipur where she establishes herself as a henna artist for the wealthy women living in the city. Several years later her ex-husband shows up with a younger sister she never knew she had.

Lakshmi has ambitions, including building a home of her own. To supplement her henna business she is known for her natural potions which prevent or abort unwanted pregnancies. She carefully guards this secret side business from the women she works for, but is in fact often providing these services to their husbands (for their mistresses).

Lakshmi takes her sister under her wing and, with the help of her wealthy connections, gets her into school. But, her sister brings shame upon her by getting pregnant and refusing to abort so they take advantage of an opportunity in Simla. There she is able to capitalize on her naturopathic skills and her sister is able to return to school.

I really enjoyed this story about an independent woman succeeding on her own against all odds. There was also a lot of interesting side information about life in post-colonial England.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

As a preliminary aside, it was a happy surprise to discover this book by a former colleague of mine who left law to follow different passions which eventually resulted in this interesting novel.

Just after World War II, an eclectic group of residents in the small village of Chawton band together in an effort to create a Jane Austen museum in a building where she was reputed to have written. The unlikely group are all Austen fans who are very dedicated to preserving her legacy - there is a labourer, a school teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, the suspected heir to the property which they wish to save and a visiting Hollywood movie star (as well as, eventually, an employee of a London auction house who she brings with her).

The story revolves around the political and familial struggles which ensue in their efforts to develop the museum as well as the romances between the various group members.

I definitely enjoyed this novel - it was particularly well written and researched.

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary

Another rom-com, but this one has a different premise. Tiffy has broken up with her long time abusive boyfriend and is desperate to find affordable housing in London. So she answers an ad for a flatmate - but this is not your typical arrangement. It is a one bedroom, one bed place, but the current occupant, Leon, only works at night and lives with his girlfriend on the weekends so they are never intending to meet.

Their relationship develops through the exchange of notes left in the apartment. So they really become friends before they have actually met. When they meet in person the inevitable sparks fly.

There are interesting side stories about Tiffy's relationship with her abusive ex, Tiffy's job in book marketing and Leon's imprisoned brother.

A thoroughly fun read.

Loathe at First Sight

This is another rom-com but it has a more serious angle too. Melody is a public relations graduate who lands a job as a video game producer. Unfortunately the company she works for is run by an insufferable misogynistic CEO and staffed with almost entirely similarly sexist "bros".

When Tiffy jokingly suggests a new video game to target women - which is based on strippers trying to survive the apocalypse - she is tasked with bringing it to production. But she meets resistance at work from co-workers who are jealous of her and/or think she is in over her head. Even worse, when details of the game are leaked online she is targeted by violent haters who bombard her with online threats and insults to her gender, race and even intelligence.

Her main support comes from an unlikely place - her intern who also happens to be the CEO's nephew. And, of course, she has to fight her attraction to her employee. There are numerous other interesting characters - Melody's friends Jane and Candace, her Korean parents who only want to see her married, her nemesis at work, Asher, and her supportive co-worker and mentor, Kat.

The ending is not surprising but the twists and turns along the way are interesting.