Girl Power

I read these three books over the past month or so. There is a common thread of female strength, accomplishing self-love, and introspection in all of them. Meanwhile, they are all very different in their plot lines! They are here in one post considering so much time has passed since reading the first title and it makes the most sense for me to keep them together.

Luster by Raven Leilani is a book I saw on a list of top new reads. Unfortunately, my memory is a bit foggy on this one since it is my earliest read of this set.

Edie is a black woman in her early twenties who is trying to figure it all out. She ends up involved with a married, white man (not the first time), but this experience is much different. After being discovered in the man’s home, she slowly becomes part of his household. She loses her job and her apartment and is scooped up by his wife. She moves in to their home while he is away on business, and begins building relationships with his wife and adopted daughter. Throughout this very odd experience, Edie is trying to reconcile who she is and what she wants to do with her life. Her mother’s artistic talents are in her, but she struggles to let them take over.

There are so many other nuances to this book. It’s definitely a unique voice and plot about people and their eccentricities.

Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing by Allison Winn Scotch is Cleo’s story of righting wrongs. She is considering a run for governor (I think??? I finished it several weeks ago). Cleo is an extremely driven woman, with a strong work ethic while also raising her teenage son as a single mom.

A former high school friend decides to make a public admonition against her in an attempt to tarnish her campaign. Cleo and her good friend/adviser decide she should publicly address the accusation to make a point of showing her humanity to gain votes. They travel back to her hometown in Oregon so that she can apologize to her former friend and set the record straight. Doing so does not result in forgiveness, but it does bring Cleo back to her roots. She realizes how much she has in common with her dad, including keeping a lengthy list of regrets. She begins tackling many of these regrets, while acknowledging her own truths and those that affect her son.

Similar to Luster, this book becomes a journey of self-discovery while also affirming her role as a political figure.

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner is my most recent read, so it is freshest in my mind. Daphne is a plus-size social media influencer. She built her following and her brand after a potentially humiliating experience went viral. The terrible experience was the breaking point of her friendship with the very beautiful and wealthy Drue Lathrop. Drue was supposed to be her friend, but she was far from kind.

Everything is going along well for Daphne, until Drue suddenly seeks her out.

Drue is planning a very public, expensive wedding at the Cape. She asks for Daphne’s forgiveness and for her to be one of her bridesmaids. Daphne goes along with it, knowing that it will help her with the new fashion deal she is publicizing. Their friendship seems to be rekindling as the wedding draws closer. The weekend has the potential to be amazing, until Daphne finds Drue dead the morning of her wedding day.

Daphne works with her close friend Darshi and her new friend Nick to uncover the murderer. This is important considering she appears to be a possible suspect. Their sleuthing uncovers unexpected information, while also reminding Daphne that perfection is often an illusion.

This is a book that perfectly fits the beach read category.

Witchy Women

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman is a prequel to Practical Magic (and it is another advanced reader copy I received).

Maria was left in a field for Hannah Owens to find. Hannah is a practitioner of the “Nameless Art” and she begins to pass along her knowledge to Maria. Maria is a fast learner and a natural witch which she discovers is inherited from her mother Rebecca. Rebecca visits one day both to check in on Maria, and more so, to get Hannah’s help breaking a powerful love spell that she now regrets.

Rebecca’s visit sparks a terrible chain of events in which Hannah perishes. Maria seeks out her mother, but she seems to only have eyes for her one true love. Maria is sent off as an indentured servant. She continues to hone her craft during this time on the island of Curacao. It is here where Maria falls in “love” and becomes pregnant by the uppity John Hathorne from Salem.

Several years pass until Maria is freed and decides to take her five-year-old daughter Faith to find her father. Along the journey, Maria cures the ship captain’s son, Samuel, and they develop a relationship. However, Maria is determined to ignore fate’s warnings and continue her search for John. There is so much more, including Maria’s ill-fated reunion with John, her near hanging during the witch trials, her off-and-on relationship with Samuel, and losing Faith (in more ways than one).

I need to look back because I think I already read Practical Magic, and I don’t remember enjoying it as much as this book. This story was a solid page turner, and will certainly appeal to those who enjoy tales of witchcraft. I also enjoyed all the natural remedies which are carefully scripted throughout the story. Aside from witchcraft, this is also a story about understanding true love.

Next up: my goal is to finish the remaining Intermediate Nutmeg nominees before the school year kicks off! Adult novels will be on hold until then.

Humanity

A box full of reading!

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman is a unique tale of a bank robbery gone amok, and so much more.  It is an advanced reader’s copy that I recently received in the mail. I chose this book from the box first because I remember enjoying A Man Called Ove (another title by this author).

We learn a bit about the bank robber’s background to understand what drove him/her to resort to robbery.  When the robbery gets botched, he/she inadvertently ends up running into an apartment’s open house event, which turns the robbery into a hostage situation.

Officers Jack and his dad Jim are on the case.  Jack is working hard to prove himself, but it seems that every witness is intent on giving him the run around. 

We discover more about the officers, while each person/couple viewing the apartment has their own tale to share too (some more riveting than others). I was most interested in Zara, an extremely wealthy banker who attends these open houses to see what the other half live like.  In actuality, she is haunted by a man who jumped to his death from a local bridge years ago. Unfortunately, we never get to read the note that she carries around in her purse.  The same man on the bridge has impacted police officer Jack and hostage Estelle.  Life connects us in unknown ways.

The characters’ interactions are both comical and poignant.  Oddly, I had a sense of the movies “Clue” and “The Breakfast Club,” in that strangers are brought together with a farcical element. Yet, among the comedy and idiocy is a serious note: a message of second chances, humanity and grace. 

Intelligence

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is the epitome of a suspense novel. It may not be ideal reading for conspiracy theorists at this time, as it involves a biological warfare scheme that Scott Murdoch (code name Pilgrim among other aliases) must unravel. 

Scott’s career in a secret investigative agency is revealed through various flashbacks, but the plot deals with events occurring after his early retirement.  First is the horrific murder of an unidentifiable body in NYC and second (mainly) is the threat from a solitary terrorist dubbed the Saracen whose mission is to unleash certain death to U.S. citizens. 

Scott’s intelligence and support from those he trusts (computer whiz Battleboi and officer Ben Bradley to name a couple) help him along through this page turner. Scott’s foremost mission it to find the elusive Saracen and figure out his plan (thereby saving millions).

Along the way, we discover the Saracen’s background and the events leading him to his sinister plot of destruction. Everything comes together in a masterful way.

This book kept me reading past my bedtime on more than one night. 

Riding North

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins kept popping up in my recommended books list, and I finally decided to dig in!  I’m happy that I did as this is a book I won’t soon forget.

Lydia owns a book store and becomes close friends with her customer Javier, before discovering that he is head of a fierce cartel responsible for multiple murders in their area.  After Lydia’s reporter husband writes a feature article about Javier, everything goes horrifically wrong. 

Lydia and her son Luca are the only survivors when their entire family is gunned down during a party. Now they are desperately trying to outrun the cartel and certain death.  We join them throughout their journey as they jump La Bestia, riding trains to take them from their starting point in Acapulco to their destination: the U.S.  They meet two sisters during their travels, Soledad and Rebeca,  who are also escaping terrible violence.  They join forces through the many obstacles before them.  

Their journey is full of indescribable sadness, danger and horror, but there is also friendship and unexpected kindness.  Every decision is potentially life or death and every person’s strength and determination keeps them moving toward a new start.  This is an amazing read for both plot and its writing!

 

A Different Path

This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel is an eye-opening (realistic fiction) look into the world of a transgender child. Claude is the fifth boy in his family, and he realizes before kindergarten that he is much more comfortable in girls’ clothing. 

His parents, Doctor Rosie and writer Penn, come to embrace his inclination. Once they agree to let him wear girl accessories, they run into static at the school and with “friends.” After Rosie has an ER patient, killed for being transgender, she decides the family needs a fresh start somewhere more open.

They move and allow Claude the chance to be Poppy. In doing so, they decide it’s not necessary to let everyone know that Poppy is originally Claude.  All is well until the secret comes out. Poppy withdraws and his mother decides to bring him to Thailand with her while she works in clinic there.   This is an eye-opening experience for both of them; the change of lifestyle provides some clarity as to their next steps.

Throughout the book,  we also get to know the rest of the family’s struggles and eccentricities.  There are nuances to the story that I appreciated, such as Penn’s ongoing storytelling to mimic reality.  Parenting as a team is an important component as well.

Prior to reading this book, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around a child of such a young age going through these feelings and incidents. I left the story feeling more open-minded and so sympathetic to Claude/Poppy’s character and to the parents. Choosing a complicated path littered with disdain/ignorance as the only way to feel authentic and happy is an incredible journey for anyone, let alone a child.  This story attacks this choice in a thought-provoking way.

Pick One

The Wives by Tarryn Fisher hooked me from the start with all of its many problematic possibilities. The narrator, Thursday, excitedly awaits her husband’s arrival. This is her only night of the week with him, so she strives to make it special.  He spends the other nights of the week with two other women. The first is his ex-wife Regina, a highly successful lawyer, and the other his third pregnant, wife Hannah. 

Thursday is fine with this arrangement, or so she thought. She starts becoming obsessed with knowing and meeting both other women. During her investigation, she starts to fear her husband and worries that he may be harming his newest wife.  Thursday may not be seeing everything clearly though.

While the beginning of the story hooked me, events started to jump all over.  It felt chaotic.  This may have been the desired effect, but it didn’t work for me.  Overall, a decent read, but with the potential to be so much more. 

A Safe Place

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. took some time for me to finish. This isn’t my typical read, but I selected it after seeing the title listed on a friend’s post of current reads. I stuck with the book, even though I got bogged down a bit with my reading. 

This book delves into the lives of the extremely wealthy Clark family with special attention to daughter Huguette Clark.  It starts with a “tour” of her three mansions, all sitting empty,  as she lived her final years in a NY hospital room.  The homes are described in great detail.  

 Readers are then taken back in time to discover how Huguette’s father accumulated his wealth (and her life leading up to hospitalization).  Their wealth is unlike anything I can even imagine, gained by shrewd risk taking in the upcoming industries of Clark’s time, copper and railroad to name a couple. Huguette grows up with great affluence, living in France, Butte (I think?) and New York.  She eventually owns mansions in California, Connecticut and three huge apartments in a prime New York building spot overlooking Central Park.  

Huguette has a unique personality, collecting and pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into dolls, doll houses, art and music. Not to mention the millions she gives to charity and to those people in her inner circle. Her primary nurse was gifted millions of dollars while taking care of Huguette in her final ten-twenty years or so of life (I forget the exact number). Huguette lived a long (over 100 years) and mostly secluded life with extended family erupting after her death  to fight for an inheritance. 

A standout moment for me is toward the very end of the book. The author recounts a memory of Huguette reciting a French poem about a cricket and butterfly. A cricket enviously watches as a beautiful butterfly flits about. Children chase after the butterfly until eventually catching it and tearing it apart in their desperate need to have it. The cricket decides it is happier in its safe, hidden world. I think this is the perfect lens to appreciate Huguette and her choices.  

People who enjoy true family histories and reading about the lifestyles of the extremely wealthy will enjoy this book.

After the Crash

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano – it may sound odd, but this is a book I tried to savor.  I became immersed in the characters and Edward’s story and wanted to make it last. 

Edward is the sole survivor of a plane crash. He was with his brother and parents flying from New York to their new home in California when the plane went down. 

After the crash, Edward goes back to live with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. Edward is numb. Seen as a miracle and an oddity by all, he survives each day in a trance. He is able to find comfort from his neighbor Shay, a girl his age who tells it like it is. Her frank, open company seems to be Edward’s only comfort. 

Years pass before they discover locked duffel bags in his uncle’s garage. These bags hold hundreds of letters written through the years to Edward from family or friends of the plane’s deceased.  All have special messages or requests for Edward on behalf of their lost loved ones. These letters have a profound effect on Edward. They begin to fully awaken him (while ironically allowing him his first real sleep in years). 

Throughout Edward’s story after the crash, readers are given glimpses from during the flight. We gain knowledge of some of the other lives that are lost.  Each character has his/her own unique addition to the story.  These people are rediscovered in the letters.  

The characters and events are interesting and satisfying. It’s hard to even begin to imagine how life could possibly go on after such a traumatic event.  Healing takes time. And breakthroughs can occur in unexpected ways.  

 

Horror and Hope

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is a book that I will never forget. 

Lale volunteers himself to go to a working camp as a representative for his family, but he ends up at the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camps.  By a strange twist of fate (and there are many), he is chosen to assist the tattooist until eventually becoming the full-time tattooist.  He must tattoo the number on every person entering the concentration camp.  This is a job he does in order to survive.   It is how he first sees the woman, Gita,  who becomes his true love and his reason for pushing on.

Lale and Gita’s relationship might be the truest love story I’ve ever read.  They fall in love amidst the death and horror around them, and their love for each other gets them through terrible years in the camp.  Together, they survive the atrocities that they witness.  

Lale has a powerful personality and charm; I grew to care and admire him greatly throughout the book.  He has intuition of when to be assertive or quiet, when to take risks or not, and a genuine care/interest in helping people that gets him out of near-death situations (more than once).   

Lale and Gita endure three years as prisoners before finally gaining their respective freedom.  It takes some time, but Lale is able to reunite with Gita so that they may live their promise with one another.

I wish my words could properly capture my response to this book.  It’s a story of the concentration camps during WWII, a love story, a survival story, a story of terrible loss, horror and hope.  It’s everything.