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 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 20th Century, Family Saga, Historical Fiction

The Ice Palace Waltz by Barbara L. Baer

Publication Info: Published February 2, 2020 by Open Books. I read the Kindle edition courtesy of the publisher.

Summary: In the late 1800’s, two German Jewish immigrants marry and settle in Leadville, Colorado. Their life wasn’t easy in the rough mining town. As their children grew, some stayed in Leadville, while others moved to find the comforts of big city life in Denver. A few didn’t survive, leaving their families emotionally scarred and in near poverty, while others lived in comfort.

Immigrants continued to arrive, intermarrying with the previous settlers. Some of them blossomed, while others had debilitating health problems due to the high altitude. Some chose to move further away, to seek — and claim — their fortunes in cities like Chicago and New York.

Comments: The Ice Palace Waltz takes its name from a folly built in Leadville in 1895. When the town’s fortunes started to die along with the silver boom, Leadville tried to turn itself into a tourist destination by building an enormous replica of a Norman castle out of wood framing and ice. The palace included a ballroom, skating rink, a restaurant, a carousel and other marvels. Tourists did flock to see it, but it melted within three months after an unusually warm winter. The feat was never attempted again.

The Ice Palace Waltz describes the Jewish American experience of a couple extended families from the late 19th century until the beginning of the Second World War. It is richly detailed with historical facts, like the stock market crash of 1929, and real people, such as the Guggenheims. In the author’s acknowledgments, she mentions that the story is strongly drawn from her own family’s experiences. As I read the novel, I could tell the author was fully invested in the story. This final note gave me more insight into her motivation for writing this family saga.

Recommended for readers of Historical Fiction and Family Sagas, especially those interested in the history of Colorado or the early 20th century.

My Rating: 4 STARS

Posted in 20th Century, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Southern Fiction

Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Publication Info: Expected publication date: January 14, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. Pre-Pub Kindle edition courtesy of NetGalley. Other editions will be available at publication.

Summary: A year ago, Morgan Christopher never expected she’d be sitting in a jail cell, charged with a DUI when she wasn’t the driver. Her boyfriend ran off, leaving her to face the consequences. Now, her dream of a career in art shattered, she lives day to day in fear for her life.

Her nightmare gets an unexpected reprieve when she is visited by Lisa Williams, the daughter of the recently deceased artist, Jesse Jameson Williams. Before his death, Jesse had been known for his charitable support of young artists. He left a stipulation in his will that Morgan should restore a mural, and that it be done within a very short time period. Lisa was required to execute the will according to her father’s instructions or risk losing her full inheritance.

The mural was painted by an unknown artist named Anna Dale, who won a contest sponsored by the WPA in the 1940’s. Her mural, a depiction of life in a small southern town, was to have been hung in the Edenton, North Carolina Post office. It was never installed, but was found in very poor condition among Jesse’s belongings. As Morgan begins the restoration process, she discovers some very peculiar and disturbing objects in the painting and is determined to learn more about Anna Dale. The answers to her questions will shake up more than one family.

Comments: This book greatly exceeded my expectations. There are trends in publishing and one of the current ones is books with a version of Lies, Lying or Liar in the title. These are meant to grab attention, sometimes like a cheap trick. Big Lies in a Small Town is far, far better than its title.

The book takes place in two time periods — the 1940’s and present day. The author drew me into both with nary a misstep. The process of creating the original mural and its restoration are described with enough detail to feel realistic. The characters, both major and minor, are complex and compelling.

This is the first book I’ve read by Diane Chamberlain. I’m so sorry I’ve overlooked her previous novels. I’ll have to remedy that soon!

Highly recommended for readers of General Fiction, Historical Fiction (especially the 1940’s), Southern Fiction, Mysteries and those with an interest in art.

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in 20th Century, Historical Fiction

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Publication Info: Published Oct 8, 2019 by Pamela Dorman Books. Hardcover edition courtesy of my local library. Other editions available.

Summary: Alice Wright leaps at the opportunity to escaped her stilted life in England by marrying a handsome American. Handsome, wealthy Bennett Van Cleve wooed her with kisses and promises, leading Alice to dream of a glittering life of restaurants, theaters and New York. But Bennett brought his wife to Baileyville, Kentucky, a mining town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains.

Alice, initially disappointed, determines to make the most of her situation, but her hard hearted, domineering father-in-law and her completely sexless marriage with Bennett throws her into despair. Surrounded by useless trinkets and the enshrined memories of her deceased mother-in-law, Alice has no control over her home or her life.

At a town meeting Alice hears about the WPA sponsored Packhorse Library, promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt. Despite the disapproval of her father-in-law and husband, Alice volunteers to deliver library books to the people in remote areas near Baileyville. Headed by a strong-willed, independent woman named Marjory, the library becomes more than a job for Alice. By forging bonds with Marjory and the other women working at the library, Alice finds the inner strength to change her life — and the lives of the people she meets.

Comments: I’ve read a lot of excellent books this year, but none that have felt so deeply personal. The Giver of Stars is based on the true story of the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky, a real WPA project that began in the mid 1930’s. Shortly after the project ended, bookmobiles sprang up to deliver books to people in remote areas. The project not only promoted literacy, it gave remote people contact with new ideas and other people. The job also changed the lives of the librarians.

I can make that final, bold statement because I am proud to have held a more modern job pioneered historically by the Packhorse Librarians. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, I spent twelve years as part of a small team of library staff that delivered books to the home bound. Driving a van hundreds of miles each week, we delivered books to families in tenement apartments and rural shacks. Our patrons included those who were bedridden in fine homes overlooking the Chesapeake Bay and those for whom our monthly visit was the only bright spot in their lives.

At the time I was doing this job assignment, my personal life was a mess with an abusive, drug addicted (first) husband and two young children. There were days I could barely keep my head on straight. Yet, seeing these people, giving them a few minutes of human contact while delivering books, magazines and audio materials, had the most amazing effect – it lifted my spirits as well, giving me hope and strength.

The recipients of the books and the librarians in The Giver of Stars felt so real to me because I lived that life, fifty years later.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, novels about rural America, as well as any book lover or librarian — especially those whose jobs included Community Outreach.

My Rating: 5 STARS +

Posted in 20th Century, Family Saga, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

Bethlehem by Karen Kelly

Publication Info: Expected publication date: July 9th 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of NetGalley

Bethlehem

Summary: Joanna Collier recently moved into her husband’s family home in Pennsylvania with her two young children, Charlie and Daisy. Frank Collier moved them there to help his aging mother after his father died. With her husband working and traveling most of the time, Joanna is feeling at loose ends, not quite sure of her place in the Collier family’s overly-large house or her relationship with her aloof mother-in-law, Susanna.

On a walk with her children, Joanna meets Doe, one of the caretakers of the local cemetery. Doe is a charming, if someone fey woman, who gives Joanna a much warmer welcome than she feels at home. Doe’s grandson, Daniel, is also on the premises. Joanna is drawn to the laconic, gentle man, who listens to her far more than her husband does.

Loneliness drives Joanna to make a serious mistake that could potentially destroy her marriage. But she finds an unexpected ally in her mother-in-law, who has secrets of her own.

Comments: This novel takes place in two time periods, the 20’s and 60’s. Joanna’s is the more current story, but the more compelling, complex tale is the older one–that of two families whose lives are entwined for generations. I found the novel interesting and enjoyable, but not riveting. I did like the setting, having grown up on the east coast and experiencing the boom and bust of the steel industry.

Recommended for readers of General Fiction and those who enjoy family sagas.

Posted in 20th Century, Asian, Cultural, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction, World War II

Daughter of Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Publication Info: Published February 19th 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. E-book edition provided by NetGalley. Other editions available.Daughter of Molokai

Summary: In the Kapi’olani Home for Girls on O’ahu, three-year-old Ruth is a lively handful. Ruth loves animals and wants a pet of her own. But as loving as the nuns in the Catholic orphanage are, they must maintain the strict rules and can’t allow Ruth to be an exception.

But Ruth is already an exception in the Hawaiian orphanage. While all the other girls are also children of lepers, they are of pure Hawaiian heritage.  Ruth is different. She is hapa, someone of mixed heritage. Ruth is half Japanese, born to her parents who met in the leper colony on Moloka’i. When potential adoptive parents meet her, they turn away, not wanting to take on a child who not only carries the stigma of leprosy but is also hapa.

Finally, a Japanese couple adopts Ruth. She becomes Ruth Dai Watanabe and lives with her two brothers and new parents in Chinatown. She learns to speak Japanese and is taught their customs. Ruth thrives in the love of her adoptive family, but she is still hapa.

The novel follows Ruth as her family moves to California. There she grows up and has a family of her own. But after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Ruth and all the other people of Japanese descent on the west coast are rounded up in concentration camps or sent back to Japan. After the camps are closed, Ruth and her family return to California to try to put their lives back together. It is after going through all this that Ruth gets a surprise and finally learns to accept her heritage.

Comments: I absolutely loved the first Moloka’i book and wasn’t disappointed by this sequel, Daughter of Moloka’i. While the first takes place almost exclusively on the island, this one reflects the changes in the treatment of lepers, both socially and medically, and moves to the greater world. A large portion of the book takes place in the Japanese internment camps and from the resources listed in the back of the book, I know the descriptions and details were well researched. In writing about Ruth’s mixed heritage and the atrocity of rounding up the Japanese Americans (and not rounding up the German Americans, for example), the author makes some profound observations of what it’s like to be non-white in America. What happened to the Japanese is not “in the past”. It happened and continues to happen to Native Americans, Blacks and currently to Hispanics and others. Fear and ignorance are powerful forces that destroy people’s lives.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, General Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction and Literary Fiction.

Posted in 20th Century, Asian, China, Cultural, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction

Will of a Tiger by Iris Yang

Publication Info: Published January 28, 2019 by Open Books. Paperback or Kindle editions available.

Summary:  Birch Bai, a Chinese Air Force Pilot and Danny Hardy, an American Flying Tiger, are engaged in a fierce air battle with the Japanese when their plane is shot down. Both men are captured and sent to a POW camp.  At the camp, they and their fellow prisoners continue to suffer at the hands of their cruel, tormenting captors. The war is coming to an end; the Americans have just dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. But this just spurs one Japanese officer, a man they call the Jackal, to further atrocities. The men in the camp are just starting to bond with each other when the Jackal culls the group, telling him they must choose which seven of the fourteen will die. Will of a Tiger

Danny and Birch argue over which of them will make the sacrifice. In an act of supreme sacrifice and courage, Danny ensures it is Birch who will survive.

After the war, Birch must not only wrestle with the result of his physical injuries but the emotional pain of losing his best friend. He feels he is to blame for Danny’s death. As he recovers and gains strength, he faces new enemies as his country splits in two over Communism.

Comments: Iris Yang poured her heart into Will of a Tiger and breathed life into the characters. As a result, I got so caught up in their lives that I cried toward the end of the book–something I don’t do often with a novel. I have read other accounts of how China was torn apart during the Communist takeover, but none from this point of view. National heroes turned into enemies overnight because of politics. Reading this outstanding spotlight on one man’s life also gave me new insights into China today. With her second novel, the author has once again raised my awareness and knowledge. As I wrote in my review of  Wings of a Flying Tiger, “It is good to never forget what human beings can do to each other….”

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, General Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction, Asian Fiction and anyone with a heart.

I wish to thank the Open Books Book Reviewer Program for the opportunity to read this book. They publish some absolutely wonderful novels and non-fiction.