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 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 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 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

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, General Fiction, Humor

The Big Finish by Brooke Fossey

Publication Info: Published April 14, 2020 by Berkley. I read the Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of of the Berkley, Penguin Random House and NetGalley. Other editions now avaialble.

Summary: A troubled young woman climbs through the bedroom window of an assisted living home and changes everyone’s lives, including her own.

The bedroom is shared by two elderly men, Carl Upton and Duffy Sinclair. The young woman, Josie, is Carl’s granddaughter, whom he’s never met. In fact, he barely met his daughter, having run off after signing the baby’s birth certificate. The baby’s mother was his mistress and his wife never knew about the affair.

Josie’s arrival comes as a complete shock to Carl, but also to Duffy. Carl is his best friend and they shared everything about their lives…or at least he thought they did. As for Josie, her life is in tatters after the death of her mother. She is also an alcoholic. Duffy recognizes himself in the young woman and is drawn to her, despite his better judgement.

The assisted living home is run by woman whose bottom line is rules and money, not people. Everyone lives in fear of getting tossed out if they speak up or if their health fails. Duffy and Carl decide to let Josie stay there for a week, against all house rules. They try to keep Josie a secret, but Josie doesn’t cooperate and soon all of the residents are pitching in to help her.

Comments: The Big Finish was delightful. It felt joyous and full of life, despite the ever-present specter of illness and death that is part of assisted living. I particularly liked the voice of Duffy, who told most of the tale from his perspective. In my opinion, his wry humor and witty observations elevated this novel. All of the characters seemed true-to-life. I spent quite a bit of time visiting my mother-in-law in a combination nursing home/rehab center that felt much like this place, with its activities and schedules, so I could really picture it.

My Rating: 4 STARS

Posted in Asian, Best Sellers, Contemporary Fiction, Cultural, Fiction

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Publication Info: Published September 12, 2017 by Penguin Press. I read the Book of the Month Club hardcover edition. Other editions available.

Summary: Elena Richardson’s guiding life principle is that everything will be just fine if you live by the rules. She grew up in Shaker Heights, a well-ordered town, went away to college briefly, and came right back with a new husband in tow. Of Elena’s four children, three of them more or less adhered to her guidelines for life, but the youngest, Izzy, rebelled from birth.

The Richardsons live in a large house in the most prosperous part of town, but they also own a rental duplex. Elena likes to make herself feel like she’s doing a good deed by renting it to people who seem like they need a boost in life. The bottom floor is occupied by a quiet school bus driver. The top floor is rented to an artist/photographer named Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl. Elena thought they seemed like nice quiet people, but Elena would come to regret her choice of upstairs occupants.

Mia and Pearl lived an itinerant lifestyle until moving to Shaker Heights. Mia wandered the country, looking for artistic inspiration (as well as running from a deep secret in her past), dragging her daughter along with her. In Shaker Hights, Mia feels that her secret is far enough in the past to allow Pearl to make friends and live a semi-normal life.

But when Elena, who is a reporter for the local paper, gets on her high horse about events that are none of her business, it sets off a chain of events that change several families’ lives forever.

Comments: I’m not sure why I didn’t pick this book up when it first came out, but I’m very glad I finally did. Two things prompted me to take a closer look at Little Fires Everywhere. The first is that it is now a TV show on Hulu and I wanted to read the book before seeing the show. The second is that I had a free credit to use on my Book of the Month club subscription and this title was one of the options.

I have to say that the book exceeded my expectations. I was impressed with the depth and insight into the realistic characters. The issues of cultural identity were dealt with deftly, teaching me something about my own thinking in the process.

Highly recommended for readers of General Fiction and Multi-Cultural 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 +