Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The House of Whispers by Laura Purcell

Laura Purcell's previous novel The Poison Thread was my top read of 2019, so I had high hopes for this next novel. And while it was good, and full of what I've come to think of as Purcell's trademark style, it fell a little short of my expectations. Gothic? Check. Creepy? Check. But a bit thin on the plot, and it left me a little confused. 

Told in two storylines, the novel centers around Hester Why, who has traveled to the Cornish coast to take on nursing duties for Louise Pinecroft, the sickly head of the quintessential gothic Cornish home called Morvoren House. Hester is about as unreliable a narrator as you can get: an unquenchable thirst for gin, a sipper of stolen laudanum, and a women so wracked with insecurity and jealousy that she's done some pretty bad things in her previous employment. She's a mess, and someone who just keeps digging the hole she's in, letting it get deeper and deeper. 

Once at Morvoren House, Hester realizes everyone there is a bit odd. Creeda is convinced fairies are all around; she takes care of Rosewyn, who is an adult woman dressed as a child, and kept pretty much under lockdown in the home. Louise Pinecroft sits in a freezing room day and night, staring at a wall of bone china. Yes, it's a home jam packed with a lot of odd. All this talk of fairies gets Hester flustered, and disbelieving, of course. But it gets harder and harder to believe anything Hester sees, says or does as she increases her doses of laudanum and gin just to get through the hours of the day. 

Meanwhile, we also travel back 40 years, to when Louise and her father, a former esteemed doctor, set up an experiment in the caves below the house: consumptive men are housed in the caves with the belief that the cool ocean air will help cure them. Instead, a whole lot of weird is happening, and Louise is torn between believing in her father's cause, and believing that the men in the cave are under threat from something unseen but definitely felt. 

Both plots come together towards the end, with not much of a surprise at all. I did really enjoy the end-specifically the last page or so. I loved how it ended suddenly and quite abruptly. But otherwise, I wish I had a few more answers to some of the bits of plot that were a bit foggy. 

If you want gothic mixed with Cornish folktales, this is for you. If you're looking for a novel about happy fairies aka Tinkerbell, look elsewhere. These otherworldly creatures are not nice. Nope. Not at all. 

I'll keep reading Laura Purcell's novels, because she weaves an interesting story, full of dysfunctional people who always leave you wondering if what they're saying is actually true. However, this one just missed the mark for me. 

Rating: 3/6 for an interesting idea for a novel about the dark side of Cornish folktales that fell a bit short for me. Full of cold winds, creepy characters, and bone china that will make you shudder, this tale is for those who enjoy their gothic with the lights on and some salt laid on the doorstep to keep them safe from what wants to come in.

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

I'll confess I've wanted to visit Key West for many years, and I've yet to get there. When I saw this novel set in Key West in the 1930's, I had to pick it up. Add to the plot a devastating hurricane over Labor Day Weekend, 1935, and I grabbed a copy to read on my last few days of a short staycation. 

The plot revolves around three women who are in Key West and the surrounding area over the Labor Day Weekend. It's 1935, and the southern most tip of Florida is a pretty rough place--not the tourist destination it is today. The Florida East Coast Railway had finally been built to bring passengers all the way to Key West. World War One vets were living in pretty miserable camps while they worked on building and extending the railroad. No one wanted to deal with vets returning from the Great War that had left them damaged with PTSD; it was easy to ship them down to Florida and forget about them. Wow. Do we never learn from past mistakes?! 

Anyhow. Three women: Helen, Elizabeth, and Mirta are all in the Keys this fateful weekend. Helen lives there; she's 9 months pregnant, living with an abusive husband, and working as a waitress in the only cafe around. Elizabeth has fled New York City and come to Florida looking for her brother, who may be at one of the veteran camps. She's got a secret or two. And Mirta has arrived from Cuba with her new husband, handsome Anthony. Mirta married Anthony so her family would be safe in Cuba from the changing leadership. They are on their honeymoon before traveling to Anthony's home in New York City. 

The paths of all three women criss-cross over the fateful few days they are trapped in Key West as the hurricane comes barreling down. The weather officials claim it will miss them; the locals, who know better, are getting nervous seeing the ominous signs that the terrible storm is advancing. Who will survive? Will each woman find the answers they are seeking? 

The plot moved along fairly quickly. I didn't have trouble following each woman's story; chapters have each woman's name, so you know which one you're following. Each story is compelling; I found Helen's tale of matrimonial abuse and her desire to escape the most interesting. The hurricane left death and destruction that was horrible. I looked at a few stories on the actual hurricane of 1935 and yes, it was as bad as it is portrayed in the novel. While the hurricane literally wiped clean the islands that make up the Keys, it also wiped clean the lives of these three women, and created new chances for each. I don't want to give much away, so I'll stop there. There aren't any huge surprises, but the puzzle pieces all fit together in an interesting way, and each woman is connected to each other by more than geography. 

There are book club discussion questions in the back of the book for those who want to read and discuss. I would definitely like to read Chanel Cleeton's two other books: 

I'm always intrigued by books set in the 1920's and 1930's--in between the two world wars. 

Definitely a book I'd recommend if you're traveling to Florida (maybe in 2021?). I didn't see any non-fiction books about the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 but I'd love to know more about it beyond newspaper articles revisiting the event. 

Rating: 4/6 for a historical novel about three women at definitive crossroads in their lives; a deadly hurricane that forces them each to make choices, and the ever present and unresolved issue of returning veterans and failure of our government to honor and protect them as they return home. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

I'm not usually one to immediately jump on the bandwagon and read a celebrity book club selection right out of the gate. However, when I saw this memoir was picked for Reese Witherspoon's book club, I thought I'd read an excerpt. I was hooked from those few paragraphs, and immediately bought the ebook for my Nook. I knew, based on bestseller lists, and my library's holdings, that any book I wanted to read regarding racial issues would be hard to come by because of demand. 

I'm still processing all that Austin had to say. I'm still thinking about all the things I say, do, and think that have a basis in racist thinking that goes so deep I'm not even aware of it. That is comes from simply being born and growing up white in middle-class Midwest America in the 1970's and 1980's. And that, I believe, is what white people struggle with-those people who want change, that is. I struggle to comprehend the enormity of the road we have ahead of us, and the road that has lead us here, today. 

Austin says many things that hit home. The struggle of just going to work every day as the only black person on a staff that promotes diversity but does anything but. That she has to keep a file on her computer of all the good emails she gets, to have her armor ready when she's called out for her "attitude" that makes others uncomfortable--when it's the others who should be called out. The worry about bringing her son into the world, and how she and her husband will explain the world to him while also bringing him up with joy and love for who he is. 

This was a powerful book to read, and I would definitely ask others to read it, as well. I am thinking, taking it all in, and yes, struggling a bit with some hard truths. And that's okay. I should be looking within and asking myself some hard questions.

While the whole memoir was an important and impactful read, I will always think of the last few pages, when Austin discusses hope. Knowing that you're in the middle of a long road, where you can't see the end. You have to keep the hope up, you have to keep fighting, even knowing you may not see the changes happen in your lifetime. You keep the fight moving for those who come after. 

This book is available in hardcover, paperback, audio, and ebook. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner

I'll confess that I had no plans to read this book until I listened to a podcast where Jennifer Weiner was interviewed about this novel and why she wrote it. Then it was "sign me up!" I am surprised at how quickly I read it. A day off, a late night, and waiting for an A/C repairman had me reading it--and quite frankly it hit all the right spots for my reading appetite. 

Daphne is an influencer-someone who uses Instagram to promote products and a lifestyle. Her niche as an influencer comes from her large size--and instead of hiding it, celebrating it in everything she does. This hasn't come easy, as Daphne has suffered from low self-esteem for years because of her size. 

Six years after ditching her "best friend" Drue Cavanaugh, Drue finds Daphne and asks her to be in her upcoming wedding on Cape Cod. Daphne hasn't seen Drue since the night Drue set her up as a pity date and Daphne found out. Their relationship is super complicated for Daphne-she's well aware Drue is not a nice person. Not at all. She uses people, drops them, makes fun of them, and manipulates everyone around her. She's done that to Daphne since 6th grade. Yet Daphne just can't get over how good she feels when Drue is behaving and treating her like she's the most important person in the world. It's a really messed up relationship! 

Daphne decides to accept Drue's plea--mostly because Drue says she's changed for the better, and has no friends she can ask to be in her super deluxe, big deal wedding. Arriving at Cape Cod the day before the wedding, it's clear this is going to be a big deal--and Daphne could benefit from the exposure and grow her Instagram followers (and make more money). 

Cape Cod, high end wedding...what could go wrong? Oh boy, do things go wrong. Horribly wrong. I can't tell you, because it's a major spoiler! You've got to read the book and find out. 

I so enjoyed this book. It really digs deep into how we treat people, how social media can make or destroy a person, and how things we did years ago can come back to haunt us. It's also about loving yourself enough to walk away from people who don't value you. 

This is the second summer book I've read that takes place on Cape Cod. I guess this is the new summer book setting. I'm fine with it--Cape Cod is on my list of places to see. These books just confirm that yes, I really do want to visit. 

Rating:  5/6 for a thoroughly enjoyable novel with some darker elements thrown in--you'll find Daphne and Drue's friendship baffling and compelling. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Eliza Starts a Rumor by Jane L. Rosen

I've had this novel on my radar for quite some time, and I had a chance to read an advanced digital copy (but for a limited time). I noticed I had just a few days left before my time was up, so I sped through it this weekend. To be honest, it wasn't hard to do--I got hooked and couldn't put it down. 

Eliza has been the moderator of the Hudson Valley Ladies' Bulletin Board for over fifteen years. It's basically an online digital discussion group where women can post questions and others chime in with answers or suggestions. It's Eliza's one lifeline, since she's home alone after her twins have gone to college. Eliza also suffers from agoraphobia, and hasn't left the house in months. She had one bout in high school that lasted a few months, then one day it disappeared and she returned to her normal routine. Now, years later, she's suffering from it again, and can't tell her loving husband Luke. Instead, she has an elaborate system set up so he never suspects she doesn't leave the house. 

One day, Eliza manages to get to the grocery store. Sweating, shaking, and close to being physically ill, she's in the donut aisle when she overhears two younger women talking about an online discussion group--a newer one that is more titillating than The Hudson Valley Ladies' Bulletin Board. In fact, the ladies scoff at Eliza's board. She gets home and checks out the other board, and sees it's more popular and current than her board. 

Eliza decides the only way to bring people back to her bulletin board is by starting a rumor. A rumor that has lasting effects on the community she lives in, and the women who follow her board. 

Along the way, Eliza meets Olivia and Allison, two new moms who are new to the area and trying to make connections. There's also Amanda, Eliza's childhood friend, who has returned from Los Angeles with her two girls after her husband has been accused of sexual misdeeds as a famous producer in Hollywood. Oh, so many issues! And yet you never get confused about what's going on, and each woman's story is equally readable. I couldn't even begin to pick which one I enjoyed the most. The plot is at times funny, charming, sad, hopeful, and troubling. It's a quick read, and the last 50 pages just flew by. 

I did begin Jane Rosen's previous novel: Nine Women, One Dress a few months ago, but I lost focus and returned it to the library. I think it was at the beginning of the Covid-19 mess, when I stared at the TV for hours and couldn't read anything. So I am probably going to return to that novel and gulp it down. Maybe now is the right time!

This is a great read if you're going on a short trip and need something engaging but not 500 pages. Something you can finish in a weekend. There's lots of wine drinking, so you may want to have a bottle on standby. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel that brings together women over a rumor that blows up a community, and leads to a lot of life-changing decisions. A cast of characters you'll enjoy, plenty of drama, but a lot of lighter moments, too. 

Available in hardcover, audio, and ebook on June 23, 2020 in the United States. Thanks to Edelweiss for an advanced e-copy. 

Monday, June 8, 2020

Summer on the Bluffs by Sunny Hostin

I received an advanced copy of this novel from William Morrow/HarperCollins and if this doesn't scream summer, I don't know what does. It's a kick off your shoes, pour a cocktail, sit on your porch swing kind of a book, and perfect for a summer getaway (even if it's in your own backyard).

This novels oozes glamor, money, and lots of name dropping. Centering on New York City and Martha's Vineyard, it is the tale of three women who are goddaughters to Ama & Omar Tanner. Ama and Omar are an African American power couple in every way-both successful in their careers, wealthy, and connected to all the fabulous people. They built a summer home on Martha's Vineyard where they are part of Oak Bluffs society. However, Omar has died, and now Ama is gathering her goddaughters for one last summer, where she will reveal who will be granted sole ownership of Chateau Laveau. But in doing so, Ama may alienate the three women she loves the most. 

Perry, Olivia, and Billie are three very successful African American women, brought together as little girls by Ama and Omar. Each woman has become highly successful in their chosen careers: Perry is an attorney; Olivia is a wall street trader (like Ama), and Billie is a scientist working at Woods Hole. Each are beautiful, talented, and living their best lives. Except of course, there are always issues. Perry is married to her college sweetheart Damon, who is a doctor. She wants a baby, and after two years of trying, is frustrated. It's putting a strain on their marriage. Olivia is single and always feels less than because of her dark skin. Whenever she's out with Perry, the men always gravitate towards Perry's light skinned beauty. It's a source of anger for Olivia that men always pass her by in favor of other black women who have lighter skin. She simply wants to fall in love with a good man. Billie is gay, and afraid to come out to Ama, Perry, and Olivia. She has a girlfriend, and it's serious-and now she's got to be brave and be truthful. 

This was a fast read--it's close to 400 pages, but I definitely got caught up in this world and couldn't put it down. I spent most of the weekend reading it whenever I could, and getting household chores done so I could sit down and focus on the plot. Yes, it's pretty glamorous, and does discuss the issues African American women face in today's world. But it is also about women finding their happiness, coming to terms with their past, and realizing that those we put on pedestals are often only too human. Full of glitz, glamor, fabulous food, and lots of living large, this reminded me a lot of Anita Hughes novels. Total and complete "take me away" reading. I could definitely see this being a Netflix series! 

This is the first in the Oak Bluffs series, with the next book out in 2021. One thing I did learn reading this book: the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, and the fascinating history behind this African American community. If you're interested, click on this link to read more about it. And yes, darn it, I really want to visit Martha's Vineyard. 

This book will be out in the U.S. on June 16 in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel full of beautiful people who seem to have it all, but don't have what they really want. Lots of glitz and glamor, beautiful places, and cultural references to who's who and what's what in East Coast living. I can't wait to read more! 

Thursday, June 4, 2020

A Review of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Summer. It's here. It took me a few months to get back into my reading groove, and I think I'm almost there again, thankfully. 

The world is a hurting place, and I, along with so many others, are self-reflecting on my place in it, and my responsibility towards living a life of peace and love. I have always looked to the stories that books tell-whether they are fiction or non-fiction-to help me understand where the world was, and how we came to be where we are now. How others live; their cultures, the barriers they face, and the ugly and brutal things we do to each other out of fear and just plain ignorance.

 I will continue to read stories, memoirs, and history books that will help me understand the beautiful, magnificent, deeply troubled and damaged world we live in and call our home. And I hope I can, in some way, make it better. I may not be out protesting, but I will vote for change, and donate to causes I feel are important. We all do what we can. 

I saw a quote from Denzel Washington yesterday. He said that "Resistance is NOT a one lane highway. Maybe your lane is protesting, maybe your lane is organizing, maybe your lane is counseling, maybe your lane is art activism, maybe your lane is surviving the day. Do NOT feel guilty for not occupying every lane. We need all of them." 

So, onto The Vanishing Half. I received an advanced copy of this novel from a library conference and it was a great choice to kick off my summer reading. Brit Bennett's the author of The Mothers, which is the  adult All Iowa Read for 2020. I haven't read it, but now it's definitely on my list. 

The Vanishing Half is about two sisters-identical twins. The Vignes sisters: Desiree and Stella. They live in the very small town of Millard, Louisiana. Millard is a black community with a bit of a twist: everyone there is light skinned. They could pass for white people, but they identify as black, and are treated by the white people around them as black. It's the 1960's, and both girls want to escape Millard. Memories of their father being murdered by white men haunt them both, but especially Stella. They run away to New Orleans, and seem happy there for a bit. But Stella decides to try for a 'whites only' job, and gets it. She hides her secret every day, afraid someone will find out she's not white at all. And as she works, she realizes that she wants that kind of life-the white kind. But it means leaving Desiree behind. 

Years later, Desiree returns to Millard with her young daughter, Jude. Desiree did what most folks in Millard consider unforgivable: she married a black man-a very dark black man, and produced a child that did not fit into Millard's light skinned community. Poor Jude. She's shunned by everyone in the town; sits by herself at school, and running track is her only way out. Desiree stays in Millard, reconnecting to an old boyfriend and taking care of her mother. She always says she'll leave, but she never does. Desiree thinks about Stella-where she is, what her life is like, and the depth of her anger, sense of betrayal, and grief never goes away.

You also dive into Stella's life. It's vastly different from Desiree's life. She lives her life as a white woman, and keeps her secret from everyone, including her husband and her daughter, Kennedy-a blonde, violet eyed beauty. She has lived her life as a white woman longer than she ever identified as a black woman. And she lives in a privileged community in L.A., caught in her lies and unable to make peace with all of it. 

The novel moves into the 80's, as Jude and Kennedy grow up--and yes, cross paths. You may think it's just not possible, but Bennett writes the story in such a way that yes, it's very possible and makes perfect sense. How can these two women find any commonality? Will Stella ever return to Millard? Will Desiree ever see her sister again? What do you do when you live a lie for so long that it traps you? 

This was such a powerful novel about sisters, family, race, and identity. Hiding behind masks. Struggling to be seen. Jude--I loved Jude! She is such a powerhouse. Kennedy--a hot mess so lost she doesn't even realize how lost she is, and just keeps spiraling down. Stella so full of guilt; Desiree who tried to escape but finds herself right back where she started. The characters in this novel are worthy of long discussions, and this would make an excellent book group title. 

Rating: 5/6 for a powerful look at how we identify ourselves and people of color, and how society identifies us-the struggles to reconcile dreams with reality, and the sacrifices made on the journey. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.