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 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

Posted in Literary Fiction

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Publication Info: Expected publication date April 7, 2020 by Harper. I read the pre-pub Kindle edition courtesy of Netgalley. Other editions will be available at time of publication.

Summary: Fourteen year old Gloria Ramírez wakes up bruised and battered on the ground in the middle of nowhere, west Texas. Her mind and body feel as torn and lost as her scattered bits of clothing. Near the truck she climbed into the night before, her rapist lies sleeping in a drunken stupor. She slowly gets to her feet and trudges through the oil patch toward a distant farmhouse, hoping to find help before the man wakes up.

The farmhouse, part of a failing cattle ranch, is currently occupied by a very pregnant Mary Rose and her school-aged daughter, Aimee Jo. Her husband is out trying to keep the cows alive on their hardscrabble plot of land. The only thing that keeps them from completely failing is their oil leases. But the oil is also a curse as it poisons the ground and the air, making it even harder to survive.

Finding battered Gloria on her front step is the last straw for Mary Rose. She is angered and frightened, fearing for her own safety out on the plains. She knows she must eventually testify in court: she alone stands between Gloria and justice. The gossips and the good old boy establishment blame the young Hispanic girl for her own rape. Mary Rose gathers her strength and moves into town with Aimee. There, we meet the remainder of the novel’s characters, all people struggling with the challenges of daily living.

Comments: Valentine is an remarkable debut novel. The meticulous word crafting, combined with clarity, detail and empathy, breathe life into the characters and the settings. I could feel the hot, dry sun on my skin and smell the sulfurous air, while my heart ached for Gloria. The secondary characters also come to life with distinct personalities, an incredible feat for a new novelist.

Valentine gives the reader an unsparing view into the lives of those who live on the borders and margins. Elizabeth Wetmore writes with deep compassion for her characters and unflinching honesty about their circumstances.

Very highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS +

Posted in Best Sellers, Contemporary Fiction, General Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mid-Atlantic, USA, Murder Mystery, Realistic Fiction

Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Publication Info: Published January 27 by Riverhead Books. I read the hardback edition through my Book of the Month membership. Other editions available.

Summary: Two sisters, Mickey and Kacey, live in a distressed neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were raised by their over-extended and emotionally distant grandmother after their mother died from drugs and their father vanished. As young children, the siblings were very close, sharing a single bed and whispered secrets. But as they grew up, they grew apart and those secrets turned into silences that came between them.

Mickey rose out of the depths of her childhood experiences to become a cop and a single mother. She worked in her neighborhood and knew its dark corners all too well. Kensington was the place to go if you wanted opioids and heroin. Kacey turned to drugs and the streets, working as a prostitute to feed her habit. Mickey knew where Kacey’s corner was and kept an eye on her, although they didn’t speak to each other.

After discovering the body of a woman, Kacey realized the deceased wasn’t just another overdose. The woman had been strangled. She tried to get more information from her department head, but kept getting the brush off. She began to worry about her sister, as she hadn’t seen her in over a month. When more women turned up murdered, Kacey risked her career to find her sister and discover the identity of the murderer.

Comments: I know it’s only February, but Long Bright River is already on my top 10 list of most memorable books for 2020. This vivid, poignant novel of how drugs impact one family affected me deeply. The author created realistic and complex characters.

I have a family member who was hooked on opioids and heroin, so have first hand experience with the tragedy that ravages through communities and families throughout the country. From this painful knowledge, I can attest to the realistic depiction of addiction in Liz Moore’s novel.

Very highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, General Fiction and those who like novels with deep, authentic characters. The novel also has elements of a murder mystery, but while that drives the plot, the novel transcends that genre.

My Rating: 5 STARS +

Posted in Literary Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

Publication Info: Published February 11, 2020 by Bellevue Literary Press. I read the Kindle Pre-Pub edition courtesy of NetGalley. Other editions now available.

Summary: A man and his daughter live alone at the edge of a forest. The man’s wife died a few months after the girl was born. As the girl grows, her father teaches her the skills she needs to survive in the wilderness. She learns to hunt animals for food, using the skins for clothing and bones for tools and weapons.

On the solstice each year the girl’s birthday, her father takes her on a pilgrimage hike up the nearby mountain to visit the woman’s grave. He gives her small birthday gifts. Usually it is something her mother once owned, sometimes it is something he made for her. When the girl was small, he carried her on his back. Now, at twelve years old, she is strong enough to climb the mountain with him.

The year she turns twelve, the man also decides that it is time to head to the ocean in search of salt. They prepare for a long journey, packing essentials. The man decides to leave his bow at home, telling the girl that she is a good enough huntress now to supply them with meat. This becomes a fateful decision when the man meets an unexpected danger.

Alone, the girl must learn to draw on her training, inner strength and resources to survive. A bear becomes her companion. He guides and instructs her on what she needs to do to survive the long, cold winter away from home.

Comments: The Bear is a remarkable post-apocalyptic fable. I don’t remember ever reading anything quite like it. The detailed descriptions of nature and it’s bounty are breathtaking. Despite the ending of humanity, it is a book full of hope.

Highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction and Post-Apocalyptic fiction.

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Best Sellers, Cultural, Jamaica, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

These Ghosts are Family by Maisy Card

Publication Info: Expected publication date March 3, 2020 by Simon & Schuster. I read the Kindle edition, courtesy of NetGalley. Other editions will be available at time of publication.

Summary: When the novel opens, we meet Stanford Solomon, a man living in Jamaica near the end of his life. Stanford’s guilt over something he did in his past is catching up with him. With his wife recently deceased, Stanford decides to confess a huge secret to his partially estranged family: he is not Stanford Solomon. Long ago, he seized an opportunity to change his life by abandoning his real identity, his much hated job, and his first family, when the real Stanford Solomon was killed.

As the stories of Solomon and his family unfold, we learn that he’s not the only one with secrets. This is a family of flawed people, who are just trying to survive. One daughter is a heroin addict and the other works in New York as home health care worker, struggling to raise two kids alone. His first wife had an affair and an abortion.

Meanwhile, another woman is about to get a shock. After signing up for a DNA website, Debbie’s father gives her his her great-great-great-great grandfather’s journal. Harold Fowler owned a plantation in Jamaica in the 1800’s. Her ancestors once owned the ancestors of of people she’s never met — Stanford Solomon (aka Able Paisley) and his family. She also realizes that they are distant cousins. She finds the emotionally detached and violent information in Harold’s journal to be very disturbing. She can’t get the images out of her head.

In a non-linear style, the author continues to reveal more about the history of both families, drawing the reader deeper into the Jamaican culture and the ongoing effects of slavery.

Comments: This was not an fast and easy book to read. Aside from the dialect (which I would have loved to hear in an audio format), the book jumps between various voices and timelines. I had to slow down my usual reading speed, or risk missing things.

These Ghosts are Family shook me out of my white, urban comfort zone and gave me a emotionally complex glimpse into Jamaican history and culture.

Recommended for book clubs and discussion groups, readers of Literary Fiction and those interested in Jamaican history, culture and slavery.

My Rating: 4 STARS

Posted in Arabic, French, Literary Fiction

The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre

Publication Info: Published September 3, 2019 by Black, Inc. First published March 9, 2017 by Anne-Marie Métailié. I purchased and read the Kindle edition. Other editions available.

Summary: The Widow Patience Portefeaux is a middle aged French woman plodding along on the treadmill of life. She works as a poorly paid Arabic translator — first for the courts and then for the police. She struggles to pay for her mother’s Alzheimer care facility while keeping a shabby roof over her own head. Having grown up in a dysfunctional family on the fringes of society, Patience has great survival and coping skills, but much needed cash is in short supply.

Patience spends her days listening to, and then translating, transcripts of conversations between drug dealers, most of whom are complete idiots. They rant, rave and threaten each other, more interested in machismo than intelligent planning. When a more level-headed and business-minded family group of drug dealers crosses Patience’s desk, she starts to pay closer attention.

She discovers that she has an unexpected personal connection to one member of the family. This sets off ideas in her head that lead to her solving her cash-flow problem by becoming the Godmother of the local drug crime district.

Comments: This tightly written, darkly humorous and very clever novel crossed my path because it is this month’s book club selection for a discussion group I am joining. My description doesn’t begin to do justice to the wry observations and wit sprinkled throughout The Godmother. Stephanie Smee obviously did a fantastic job of translating from the original French.

Very highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Best Sellers, Family Saga, General Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Publication Info: Published Sept 24, 2019 by Harper. Hardback edition courtesy of my local library. Other editions available.

Summary: Two siblings, Maeve and Danny live with their father in a monstrosity of a house in a town outside of Philadelphia. The time is shortly after the end of the Second World War. Their mother disappeared when Danny was a toddler. Maeve remembers her, but Danny doesn’t.

Their father, Cyril Conroy, is a lost soul. He takes care of his children’s physical needs via his household help, the cook and housekeeper. While they are both kind and attentive, it is no substitute for a parent. Maeve grows up too quickly, taking on the parenting role for her younger brother.

Into this house of gaudily expressed wealth and brooding portraits of past owners, walks a woman who is what Cyril’s wife wasn’t— appreciative of him and his albatross of a house. Over time she worms her way into their lives as his new wife, dragging her two daughters with her. Cyril’s son and daughter are slowly pushed out of the house until suddenly, the door is slammed against them after their father’s unexpected demise.

Adrift, they cling to each other in ways that are necessary for their survival, as they are now nearly penniless. As they struggle to overcome their drastic change of circumstances, they learn lessons about what it means to love and forgive.

Comments: The Dutch House is engrossing and accessible Literary Fiction. The writing seems effortless — and yet I know it had to be anything but — and draws the reader in as thoroughly as a nail-biting thriller.

As I read this book, something kept feeling familiar. I initially put it down to my childhood tours and fantasies of the mansions in Newport, RI. It wasn’t until I started writing this review that I realized what made this book seem so personal. My own mother was raised in much the same way as the children in this book. While their house was on a much smaller scale and lacked the gaudy touches, she was raised by a housekeeper while her parents were busy being self-indulgent. Her older sister provided some of the love she craved. My mother’s childhood scarred her for the rest of her life, ultimately damaging her relationship with me.

So, while The Dutch House may be a work of fiction, it is not fantasy by any means. It is an intimate portrait of a dysfunctional family — that was to me — all too real.

Highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, Family Sagas/Stories, Best Sellers and General Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS.

Posted in General Fiction, Literary Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction, Women's Fiction

The Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Publication Info: Published May 14, 2019 by Knopf. Hardback edition courtesy of my local library. Other editions available.

Summary: On a summer day in northern Russia, two young sisters vanish without a trace. One witness remembers seeing the girls with a white man and a dark car, but no one, including the police, has any solid evidence that the girls were kidnapped. The local investigators are taking the case very seriously but have few leads.

Several years previously another girl vanished, but the police didn’t investigate her disappearance as vigorously. After all, she was older, had a bit of a reputation and she was a native.

After the sisters disappear, the townspeople are on edge. The uneasy truce that exists between the natives and whites flares up as people look at each other with suspicion. Old-timers mourn the changes to Russia that brought strangers to the area. Mothers keep a closer watch on their children and don’t allow them to roam freely. People scurry to be home before dark–even though the girls vanished in broad daylight. It is a natural reaction to hide and become isolated after trauma. But it is only when people start to come back together and ask each other questions that the truth emerges.

Comments: While a mystery is at the core of The Disappearing Earth, the novel is about much more than that. It is the story of a changing community and vanishing cultures. Isolated from the world until 1990, the people of Kamchatka are still adjusting to intrusions from the outside world. In the novel, the big black car is more than the vehicle that snatches two unwary girls; it is a symbol of change and uncertainty.

It took me longer than I expected to get through this book. I found it emotionally draining, so I had to occasionally step away. Through vivid imagery, the novel focuses primarily on the ordinary lives of the women in the town. Their hopes and dreams are exposed and dashed. Fear and uncertainty drives them to make the safe choices in their lives. I found myself reflecting on the choices I make in my own life—and why I make them.

Recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, General Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction and Women’s Fiction

My Rating 4.5 STARS

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, World War I

The Courage of Others by James Hitt

Publication Info: Published January 1, 2016 by Open Books. Kindle edition courtesy of the publisher.

Summary: Like many women during times of war, Esther Langston did her best to keep their home and small shop running while her husband Marsh was off fighting. But as she and her nephew, Davey Stoneman, awaited Marsh’s return with a combination of eagerness and trepidation, she worried. She worried about the condition of the store, but mostly her husband. His letters gave little indication of his health other than she knew he had been injured in the Great War.

When Marsh disembarks from the train, they barely recognize him. Thin and frail, his face covered with gray spots and his lungs in ruins, Marsh has come home to die. But Esther is determined not to let that happen. She quickly sends for Sister Rose, a black woman known for her healing potions, and pays her a small wage to sit with Marsh while she tends the store. Over time, Sister Rose’s ministrations take effect and Marsh begins to heal.

Rose has a grandson named Daniel who is close to Davey’s age. But because Davey is white and Daniel is black, friendship between the two boys is not only unlikely but forbidden. This is small town Texas in 1919 and blacks are expected to be subservient and uneducated. But Daniel is an intelligent young man and the school teacher illegally lends him books to read. It is because of this love of reading that the two boys initially strike up an uneasy friendship.

As Davey becomes more involved with Daniel, his grandmother and the black community, he secretly helps them convert an old building to a school. But when the narrow-minded townspeople get wind of this, tragedy strikes that alters several lives forever.

Comments: The Courage of Others takes place one hundred years ago, yet ignorance and bigotry are still unrestrained and frequently encouraged across the United States. It is terrible that as a nation we have not only made so little progress toward inclusion and humanitarianism, we’ve lately gone backwards.

The concise, direct writing style gets the message across without being preachy. The the tone and setting reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird, but was completely original. This book is appropriate for adults as well as middle grades and up, if it doesn’t get stuck on some banned book list for daring to speak the truth.

Highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction and Historical Fiction.

My rating: 5 STARS