Posted in 20th Century, African American, General Fiction

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Ray Colson just wants to get through life in one piece.

When the novel begins, Ray owns a small used goods and furniture store in Harlem, dealing mostly in honest trade. He and his wife are expecting their first child. Her parents, who live on Strivers Row in Harlem (the street name speaks for itself), don’t think much of Ray. They are sure their daughter could have done better for herself.

Ray had a challenging childhood, with a delinquent father, in more ways than one, and a dead mother. When his father disappeared for a couple of months, he went to live with his Aunt Millie, and his cousin, Freddie, and there he stayed. His aunt is a blessing. Freddie is a double edged sword.

Ray has a college education, but what can a black man who just wants to keep his head down do with that in 1950’s Harlem? He uses both the schooling he got on the streets and in the classroom to work sales both above and below board. He has a nose for quality new and used goods to display in his store. Behind the counter, he never deals in anything too shady or traceable. Ray is a smart and cautious man.

His cousin, Freddie, however is not. Freddie is always getting into trouble. When Freddie comes looking to Ray for assistance in handling the various scrapes he gets into, Ray is there for him like a brother. Freddie’s antics escalate until Ray has to use all of his wits to keep himself, his business and his family safe.

Harlem Shuffle is the July 2022 selection for my book club. I might not have picked it up otherwise. While I didn’t like it as much as Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, I’m glad I read it. I learned a few things, which is always a plus!

Although I was born almost two decades later than the main character, there are locations in the novel that are relatable and nostalgic. I remember early used electronics shops like Aronowitz’s and furniture stores much like Ray’s. Descriptions of the era brought back feelings from childhood. But as a white woman who grew up in middle class suburbia, much of the novel was like reading about a foreign land. Despite working both sides of the fence, pun intended, Ray is at heart a deeply honorable man who loves his family and his neighborhood. While I can’t begin to put myself in Ray’s shoes, I gained a deep respect for him. That was a fine accomplishment by the author.

My Rating 4.75 Stars, Grade A-

Posted in General Fiction, Literary Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Publication Info: Published June 2, 2020 by Penguin Audio. I listened to this book through my local library. Other editions available.

Summary: Twins Stella and Desiree were born and raised in a small black community called Mallard, Louisiana. After their father was killed when they were young children, their mother did what she could to keep a roof over their heads. But when the girls were told they had to leave school at sixteen to help their mother clean and take in laundry, they ran away from home.

The people in their hometown of Mallard pride themselves on their light skin. The lighter a person is, the more you are held in esteem. Stella and Desiree are both so light, they could pass for white. That is what Stella decides to to do. Stella walks away from her twin, her family and her past in order to be a white woman and live a white woman’s life. Desiree has a relationship with a dark-skinned man and comes out of it with a very dark skinned daughter, Jude. When she returns to Mallard, this sets her and her daughter apart from the rest of the town.

After Jude leaves home, she briefly sees a woman who looks just like her mother. This sets her on a search that will stir up the past and unsettle several lives.

Comments: The Vanishing Half deftly and stunningly handles the subjects of race, skin color and identity. I was completely drawn into the novel, listening into the wee hours of the morning for several nights. The narration by Shayna Small greatly added to the experience. She did a wonderful job with the voices.

Before reading this book, I realized that there is discrimination among colored peoples for skin tone, not only with Blacks, but other races and cultures, too. But as a white woman, this has always been a vague concept. The Vanishing Half taught me some valuable lessons about skin color and identity. I’d love to see this book on required school reading lists. The Vanishing Half is an astounding work of literature for the twenty-first century.

My Rating: 5+ Stars, A+

Posted in General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction, World War II

Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman

Publication Info: Expected publication date: August 4, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. I read the Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley. Other editions available at publication.

Summary: After nearly four years of Nazi occupation, the people of Paris are emotionally drained and starving. The German soldiers in the city, sensing the end of their rule, are increasingly cruel to the French. Citizens are harassed, rounded up, shot or sent to the camps. The tension is so great that Parisians are turning on each other, making accusations and killing their fellow citizens for reasons based on nothing but rumor. The primary allegation against the victims of the mobs is collaboration.

In 1944, Charlotte Foret and her baby daughter, Vivi, are struggling to survive. They work in a bookshop owned by her friend, Simone. Charlotte’s husband was killed in the war. Charlotte, Vivi, Simone and her young daughter live on the money from the meager book sales and their special ration cards, but food is still in extremely short supply. They they are slowly starving to death.

A German soldier begins to quietly frequent the bookshop. He says he is a doctor and helps Vivi through an illness. After Simone is taken by the Germans, Charlotte reluctantly accepts the doctor’s small gifts of food and his friendship. It is the only way they can survive. In the definition of the mobs, she is a collaborator.

Many years later, teenage Vivi is searching for her identity. Charlotte, who has buried her past, comes face to face with her guilt for what she did to survive the war in Paris.

Comments: For me, the central theme of Paris Never Leaves You is guilt, both survivor’s guilt and Catholic guilt. I’ve been fortunate enough to never experience the former, but I sure know a lot about the latter. My mother was fiercely Catholic and sent me to Catholic School in the 60’s and 70’s for thirteen years (including Kindergarten).

I fully related to Charlotte’s inability to forgive herself and move on with her life. After the war, she became an emotional wraith, just passing through life without really living it. While physical present and functional, she lived in the past, unable to form attachments beyond her unduly protective relationship with her daughter, Vivi.

I’ve read several other women in WWII novels, but none quite like this one. Where most of them feature a heroine character drawn from real life, Paris Never Leaves You is about ordinary people just trying to survive in an extraordinary time.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, General Fiction, Women’s Fiction and stories about World War II.

My Rating: 4.5 STARS, B+

Posted in Beach Read, General Fiction, Southern Fiction, Women's Fiction

The High Tide Club by Mary Kay Andrews

Publication Info: I listened to the audiobook through my local library. Published May 8, 2018 by MacMillan Audio. Other editions available in bookstores and libraries.

Summary: Ninety-nine year old Josephine Bettendorf Warrick is dying of cancer. She owns a crumbling mansion and most of a barrier island off the Georgia coast. The state is trying to take the island and turn it into a park. With no direct heirs, curmudgeonly Josephine, determined to keep it out of the hands of the state, contacts attorney Brooke Trappnell and tells her that she wants to leave the island to her old friends and their descendants. All but one of her friends is deceased. They used to call themselves The High Tide Club.

Shortly after Josephine hires Brooke and reveals a shocking secret to her and several other people over dinner, she dies, leaving even more stories untold.

Comments: Mary Kay Andrews writes sympathetic and compelling novels that make fantastic beach reads. The High Tide Club is no exception. I love the gentle flow of her writing, but there is plenty of drama to keep me riveted. The High Tide Club’s themes include love, abandonment, betrayal, danger, acceptance and hope. I felt that I really got to know the characters, as their lives unfolded with every page and chapter. I really loved this book and look forward to reading more by the author.

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in General Fiction, Legal Fiction, Legal Mystery, Multi-Cultural Fiction, Murder Mystery, Mystery

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Publication Info: Published April 16th 2019 by Sarah Crichton Books. I listened to the audio edition. Other editions available.

Summary: For several families, hope lies in a blue hyperbaric chamber. The owner of the device, Pak Yoo, brought his wife and teenage daughter from South Korea in search of a better life. He promotes the hyperbaric chamber as a treatment for a variety of conditions ranging from autism to impotence.

When a deliberately set fire kills two of the children, suspicion initially falls on a group of protestors. But the police arrest Elizabeth, the mother of one of the victims. As the novel progresses, it is clear that the case isn’t quite as simple as the prosecution portrays.

Comments: Miracle Creek is an astonishingly complex and insightful novel. The author employs omnicient narration to peer deeply into the lives and motivations of everyone involved with the hyperbaric chamber. While the story line is centered around Elizabeth’s trial, the author skillfully weaves in the various events that lead to the fire. The reader’s sympathies and emotions are pulled in various directions as evidence unfolds.

Because the author is also a Korean immigrant, she is able to write with deep understanding about the experience the Yoo family had in coming to America. I found this part of the story particularly enlightening.

Highly recommended for readers of general fiction, multicultural fiction, legal fiction and mysteries.

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Fiction, Happy Fiction, Light Romance

Wedding at the Lakeside Resort by Susan Schild (Lakeside Resort #4)

Publication Info: Published June 25, 2020 by Longleaf Pine Press. I read the Kindle edition through Kindle Unlimited. Other editions available.

Summary: A year and a half after inheriting lakeside resort property from her father, Jenny Beckett is starting to breathe more easily. Her advertising and posted social media reviews are bringing in some steady guests and income.

However, her fiance, Luke, is still stuck digging his former business partner out of messes. When Zander calls with another crisis, Luke feels obligated to go on a business rescue trip. With a new house to build and a wedding that’s only five months away, Jenny is overwhelmed by the details and getting pre-wedding jitters. Even though Luke is a wonderful man, Jenny wonders if he can really be there for her.

Comments: I absolutely adore this charming series set in North Carolina. The over-forty-something characters deal with life’s challenges with maturity and grace. By book number four, the Lakeside Resort feels so real to me that I imagine what it would be like to stay there for a few days with my husband! Since we’re fairly homebound during COVID-19, it was wonderful to have an imaginary getaway.

I really get a kick out of the author’s music references in the novel. She and I must have the same taste.

I hope Susan Schild is hard at work on Lakeside Resort #5. I need to get more details on Jenny and Luke’s quirky campground honeymoon trip! When my husband and I got married, we Bed & Breakfast hopped through several southern cities and found a few quirky places ourselves, including the World’s Largest Frying Pan in Rose Hill, NC. Maybe Luke and Jenny will see that, too!

Highly recommended for readers of light fiction, light romance and happy stories!

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in 20th Century, Best Sellers, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Southern Fiction

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Publishing Info: Published June 6, 2017. I listened to the audio edition by Random House Audio through my Audible.com subscription. Other editions available. Check with your favorite bookseller.

Summary: in 1939, five children live with their loving parents on a Mississippi river boat. Their mother goes into labor with twins. Unlike the other easy births, Queenie’s life is in danger. Her husband takes her to the hospital, where they are told their twins were born dead.

Meanwhile, a local boy helps look after the five other children, the oldest of whom is twelve year old Rill Foss. But he is helpless when the children are stolen and taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. The children are now under the ruthless care of Georgia Tann. Georgia’s intent is to sell poor children to wealthy people at a great profit for herself. The children are fed minimum rations. They are punished by being tied up in small dark spaces. Pedophiles work at the orphanage. The only time a child is “spiffed up” is when a potential parent comes to visit. Georgia lies about their parentage and splits up families without blinking.

Growing up on the Mississippi river, Rill knows a thing or two about surviving. As the oldest, she feels responsible for her brother and sisters. But she is helpless when one of her sisters vanishes after being punished and two others are adopted away from her.

Meanwhile, Avery Stafford, a wealthy, privileged attorney, is trying to solve a family mystery. She comes across a photo of four women who all look very much alike — one of whom is her grandmother. As she digs deeper into this mystery, it changes the focus and foundation of her life and identity.

Comments: I’m very glad I finally got around to reading this book, which was on the best seller list for about two years. I’d never heard of Georgia Tann. When I looked her up after reading the novel, I realized that the author didn’t exaggerate anything in Before We Were Yours. In fact, she probably downplayed some of the horrors that the real children faced at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

I loved the characters of Rill Foss and Avery Stafford. Their voices, as narrated by Emily Rankin and Catherine Tabor rang true. I enjoy listening to some genres, because it forces me to slow down my reading speed and really get into the story. This was definitely a book that benefited from really getting into the characters and rich atmosphere.

Very highly recommended for readers of General Fiction, Historical Fiction and stories about adoption.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Beach Read, Happy Fiction, Happy Fiction, Light Romance, Women's Fiction

Summer at the Lakeside Resort by Susan Schild (Lakeside Resort #2)

Publication Info: Published May 15, 2019 by Longleaf Pine Press. I read the Kindle edition through Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.

Summary: After her initial burst of guests and and enthusiasm, Jenny is worried about making a success of the Lakeside Resort. Her background was teaching, not property management or marketing. She is going to need some clever ideas and more than a small amount of cash to ensure a steady stream of lodgers.

Luckily, Jenny has some great friends with a variety of skills. One of her friends is a super bargain hunter, which helps stretch Jenny’s thin budget. A few more friends help her build a laundry facility, complete with flower boxes so it matches the cottages. One of her frequent residents hosts a writer’s workshop and another suggests a yoga retreat.

As the ideas flow and the guests respond, Jenny starts to relax a little — except for one major problem. Her boyfriend, Luke, flies off on an extended business trip to Australia, leaving her to deal with some major headaches — like getting a large, expensive boat back to the resort when she doesn’t know a thing about boating. Jenny also worries about her relationship with Luke, as the months drag by and he seems increasingly distant. But with the support of her friends and family, Jenny knows that no matter what happens with Luke, she won’t be alone.

Comments: Bright and cheery, Summer at the Lakeside Resort is the perfect getaway. I’d love to vacation there! It reminded me of some summer vacations with my parents. For a couple of years, my parents booked a tiny one-bedroom pine cabin near the beach. It was one of several on a dirt road. As an only child at the time, vacations could get a bit lonely, but these cottages always had other families. The feeling of temporary community made those vacations particularly happy and memorable.

The novel’s setting isn’t the only thing that made me feel relaxed and comfortable. The characters are older, very down-to-earth and relatable. The dogs are also amusing, but that miniature horse is absolutely adorable!

With continuing social isolation during Covid-19, I’m looking for books that take me to other places. Susan Schild’s novel was a perfect armchair getaway to a very happy, sunny place.

Recommended for readers of Light Romance and Happy Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in General Fiction, Supernatural

Suck It Up, Buttercup by Kristen Painter (First Fangs Club #2)

Publication Info: Published April 28, 2020 by Sugar Skull Books. I read the Kindle edition, which I purchased. This book is also available in paperback.

Summary: Now that she’s the vampire governor of New Jersey, Belladonna Barrone is moving into her new penthouse. Donna got the job only twenty-four hours ago, after the previous governor — and Donna’s sire — was thrown out of the job by the ruling vampire council. In her previous life as the wife of a Mafia Don, Donna lived in some luxury, but her new penthouse is absolutely amazing. It has a sweeping view of Manhattan and comes with a great staff of people who are there just to help her get used to her new life and job.

Donna is also a very recently turned vampire. She hasn’t even had time to tell her adult children about her new situation. While Donna loves looking slim and trim without having to work at it, getting used to only working at night does have its challenges.

She also finds herself in the middle of vampire politics. Being governor is a political job, after all. Donna’s first challenge is to deal with the vampire Governor of New York, who assumes he can control her like he did her predecessor. Just when she manages to put him in his place, someone very unexpected and dangerous pops back up from her past.

Comments: I first discovered Kristen Painter’s light-hearted supernatural novels through Audible Escape. I became an instant fan. The first book in the First Fangs Club series was free through Kindle Unlimited. When Suck It Up Buttercup came out, I just had to buy it!

I love the characters in this series and the author makes being a vampire sound positively dreamy and completely normal. I get completely pulled into the world she creates. I hate having to wait for the next installment, but I guess I’ll have to. In the meantime, I can read more of her other books!

Recommended for readers of light fiction and stories with supernatural characters.

My Rating: 4.5 STARS

Posted in Family Stories, Family Stories, General Fiction, Humor, Literary Fiction

Mr. Wizard by Jeff Wallach

Publication Info: Published April 2020, by Open Books. I read the pre-pub Kindle edition, courtesy of the Publisher. Also available in paperback.

Summary: Two brothers, now both financially successful adults, grew up thinking that their father died in Vietnam. But Mom was always cagey on the subject of their paternity. After her death, the two brothers take DNA tests. Phillip learns that his father was Irish; Spencer’s father was southern European.

The two brothers, who were raised thinking they were fully Jewish, react very differently to this unexpected news. Phillip goes into a tailspin, determined to find his Catholic birth father in Ireland. Spencer’s response, as is his answer to just about everything in life, is to throw his rapid-fire humor at the situation.

As the brothers explore themselves, their relationship to each other and their extended and various kin, they realize that family isn’t just who you’re related to.

Comments: I loved and appreciated Mr. Wizard on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin. The writing is deeply insightful, intelligent and witty. I laughed out loud in several places. I’m not typically a “laugh out loud while reading” kind of person, but I’m a sucker for smartly written humor.

While there is not a drop of Irish in me that I know of (although Dad tried to convince me that we had a Polish/Irish ancestor named O’Helska), I was raised Catholic. Very Catholic — at least on Mom’s side. Dad’s side was a bit more dubious. My sister took one of those DNA tests and confirmed what Dad had been dropping hints about for years — that we were part Ashkenazi Jewish. One Christmas, Dad slipped dreidels into my kids’ Christmas stockings. Mom had an absolute fit, screaming that she never wanted a mixed marriage. So yeah, I could totally relate to this book!

So far, I have two books firmly only top ten list for 2020 and Mr. Wizard sits jauntily perched at the top of that list.

Very highly recommended for readers who like stories about family, General Fiction, Literary Fiction and Humorous Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS