The last three months of 2020 found me not finishing quite a few books - at first, I thought maybe my brain was not functioning as usual, since I seldom do not finish a book, and some of them were things I'd been wanting to read for a while. But after the second one, I have to say, I just don't know.
I did enjoy reading most of what I had chosen though, so it was good overall.
Here they are, along with my thoughts on each one.
More Myself : A Journey, by Alicia Keys. I am a big fan of Alicia Keys, and when I saw an interview with her on "CBS Sunday Morning" about her life and this book, I decided to give it a try.
Her early life and struggles were extremely interesting to me. She has worked hard not only for her music, but in school, and in her personal relationships. Her family dynamics, though not "traditional," helped to make her driven, kind, and understanding. The fame that seemed to descend on her suddenly was something that she really didn't understand, and was not really prepared to face. But she was smart enough to realize that it was time to take her life into her own hands and not let others control everything she does.
Admittedly, I am not really interested in most of the current music scene, so as the book moved into that, I found it kinda boring. But the clincher for me was when she was successful enough that as a gift, she arranged for a store and a museum to stay open just for herself, others, and a guest that was very special to her so that they could have a lovely dinner and a private tour of the museum.
Because I work in a museum, I know that they do this, because they can generally make quite a bit of money and possibly create an ongoing donor relationship. But as someone "in the trenches," so to speak, I can attest to how frustrating, disruptive, and often insulting this can be. You work hard to make things accessible to the most people, but like so many things, it's all about the money. And very often, it means that you are shunted aside - not even allowed to be seen working in your own space! Food and drink is served in inappropriate places, where normally someone would get in trouble for having a water bottle. So, no - this part of the story was where I stopped. Perhaps if I had continued to be more invested in the book in the first place, I would have moved beyond it, but I was already losing interest in it.
That, however is my personal rant, so you may find the book interesting all the way through. It's not a bad book, at all, in fact for the most part it is very readable. But I chose to not continue - there's a good chance that your mileage may vary.
Notes on a Silencing, by Lacy Crawford. Do not read this book if you have ever been a victim of a sexual assault, or actually anything similar, because you will likely experience trauma. I am fortunate enough to have never had that happen to me, and I found this book to be difficult to read, and truly upsetting. But it is in a lot of ways, necessary to understand what so many women - and others, on occasion - face when bad things happen to them.
The author came from a well-to-do family in Lake Forest, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and was sent to boarding school by her parents to St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, which is affiliated with the Espiscopal Church, and considered one of the best in the country. She was fourteen years old her first year. The book details how her innocence about adult topics, particularly sex, made her a target for some of the other students at the school. She was sexually assaulted without really understanding what was happening to her. She felt it was her fault, and it led to loss of friendships, reputation, and self-esteem. She ended up with a sexually transmitted disease, which she did not know, but that the school administration and many of the male students knew about long before she found out.
It's also a disturbing but not surprising view of the lives of these privileged young people, from families that have names we would all recognize. It's an example of the way "boys will be boys" works, especially in these kinds of environments. It's a microcosm of everything in society, the class differences, the assumptions of power, the way money speaks volumes.
I found the book upsetting, but not really surprising. I attended a school where most of the students boarded, and were extremely privileged. I was not just a lowly commuter student, but my mother worked at the school, which was even worse to a lot of the students, because who actually *needed* to work? I am fortunate in that I was very aware of the world around me and not that interested in most social things, so I had my own little universe. But I know that similar things happened, and that school administrations will do anything to keep it under the rug.
Lacy Crawford spent her teenage years and a lot of her early adult life with this hanging over her. When an investigation opened up because a later student claimed to have been sexually assaulted, she was contacted by the investigators, and though it opened up a world of pain and made her revisit so much, it also allowed her to help other victims realize they were not alone. She was finally able to put a lot of it behind her, and has moved on with her life. The investigation was dropped and the school made a settlement. She has been able to place her experiences into a slot where they are part of her past, and allowed her to move on with her husband and her own children.
I have my own biases of course, regarding people with money, but I have to say that this book did nothing to redeem them. And though the author acknowledges that in her own case, she had many privileges that the minority and scholarship students did not, she also realizes that for all that happened to her, she was lucky enough to have certain tools at her disposal.
A good book, but disturbing and upsetting. Proceed with caution if this kind of thing causes personal trauma for you.
The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay. I really enjoyed this book.
It's 1880, and Beatrice Dunn, who has lived with her Aunt Lydia in Stony Brook, New York since her parents died when she was young, is wanting to spread her wings and live her own life. When she sees an ad for an assistant at a shop called Tea and Sympathy in New York City, she decides that is her goal. She embarks on her adventure at the same time that Cleopatra's Needle, an obelisk with supposed magical powers is traveling to and arriving in the city as well.
Meanwhile, Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair, the owners of Tea and Sympathy, are dealing with their own personal issues, as well as religious zealots in the neighborhood who suspect something evil - witchcraft - is being taught/practiced/celebrated in their shop.
Right away when Beatrice arrives, things get strange for her. Once she is settled, she realizes that she too has magical powers. Adelaide meets a alienist through one of her clients, who is very interested in proving that magic does or does not exist. When they arrange for Beatrice to do a display of her powers, it seems that it will be able to prove there is another world and level of existence. Except Beatrice never shows up. And no one has seen her.
It turns out that she has been kidnapped by a reverend who thinks he has been appointed by God to rid the city of evil, especially the evil of witches. So the search for Beatrice runs up against time, as he has every plan to kill her if she does not repent.
The story is well written, and you begin to understand why the characters have reached this point. I am not a believer nor a disbeliever in witchcraft or the supernatural - to be honest, I just don't know, and really don't think about it a whole lot. I have had experiences which have seemed impossible, but not regularly so that I don't know what may or may not be. But I will admit that in this book, the communications with the dead were more calming than scary, and often very sweet.
There's some spookiness, but the real worry in this book is the behavior of people convinced that their way, their thinking, is the only right one.
The Wanderers, by Tim Pears. Leo Sercombe has been banished from his home farm, and at his tender age, it is necessary for him to live on his wits and rely on the kindness of strangers. It's 1912, and there are rumblings about a war, but Leo just needs to survive. He starts out by becoming guests of a caravan of gypsies, where he meets new people, learns new things, and is able to hone his skills as a horseman. When things begin to go awry there, he escapes, hoping to make it to Penzance where he knows he has extended family. Before that though, he must find a way to survive, and becomes a hand at an abandoned mine, works at a farm, and then lives for a while with a traveling farm hand who is actually somewhat of a hermit. In each place, he finds a certain level of friendship and happiness, but becomes more determined to figure out how to live life his way. He often thinks of his family, and particularly misses his older brother and hopes one day to see him again.
Back where Leo started life, his friend/girlfriend Lottie is still on her family estate, where her widowed father has decided to marry a younger woman, who is eager to make changes. Lottie, meanwhile, has become very interested in animal anatomy, and with the help of Leo's older brother, who brings her dead animals, she is learning dissection and anatomical identification.
By the end of the book, Leo is on his own again headed towards Penzance, and Lottie is starting to bristle due to the changes being made by her new stepmother. I am looking forward to the next installment to learn more about what happens to both of them.
A Fatal Fleece, by Sally Goldenbaum. We're back with the Seaside Knitters for another palate-cleansing read, which did not disappoint.
The town of Sea Harbor is trying to figure out how to get Francis Finnegan, one of the old fishermen in the town, and known simply to most as Finn - to either clean up or sell the land and house where he lives. It has become an eyesore, and is on valuable waterfront property. Finn is a well-known curmudgeon, who beloved wife dies years ago, and whose daughter ran away as a teenager. But he is adamant that he will continue to live as he likes.
The he's found murdered. And a body is found buried on his land. So many people wanted him out of the way, but would they have killed him? And did he kill someone and bury them on his land? His estranged daughter, now an artist, has recently returned to Sea Harbor, and is apparently counting on inheriting the land and everything else. But when it turns out that he has left everything to one of the Seaside Knitters - Cass, whose family fishing business is in incredible debt - she becomes a suspect as well. Which means that her friends want to make sure that she is cleared of suspicion.
Needless to say, a lot more goes on, involving other characters, but this is the gist. It's a fun read, and for once, I suspected the right person of being the guilty party, which seldom happens!
The Beautiful Struggle : A Father, Two Sons, and An Unlikely Road to Manhood, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is a very good book. It's the story of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a young boy, growing up in Baltimore through high school. There are stories of the neighborhoods, his friends and foes, about his large family, particularly his father. A former Black Panther who ran a tight ship but more than anything wanted success and good educations for all of his children.
Coates tells the story with the perspective that getting older provides, but also introduces us enough to his younger self that you feel like you can picture him exactly. I cannot imagine anyone reading this book and not understanding that he is a product of a world that appeared one way to "the public" and white people in general, but was full of layers and nuance just like their lives.
One of the things that amazed me was his disinterest in school for most of the years he attended - he was a good student when he tried, but had little interest in applying himself. But fortunately for him - and for us, those who enjoy his writing - he found his voice at some point and made the commitment to share it with the world.
The Talented Miss Farwell, by Emily Gray Tedrowe. Becky Farwell is a young woman who kept her father's farm business afloat as a young girl, when she figured out how to take care of the accounts. She ended up skipping college, and got a job in the accounting department for the town of Pierson, Illinois, where she grew up. Everyone in town admires her, and knows she can be counted on to always find the "extra" for what the town needs.
Reba Farwell is a serious art collector and dealer, well-known in Chicago and New York. She started her career after a painting she saw in a university art gallery during a visit drew her in and owning it became an obsession. She has even adapted the barn where her father used to sll farming equipment to store her treasure safely, away from prying eyes.
The biggest problem here? Becky "borrows" funds from the town so that Reba can make purchases. At least at the start of the book, she manages to pay the money back before it's discovered. But as her desire to purchase more art grows, she becomes unable to pay everything back in a timely fashion. When recession hits both the art world, and the country, things start to spiral. By the end of the book, Becky and Reba - one and the same person, in case you haven't figured it out - are caught, and life it's been for years is over.
This was a really interesting book, and for the most part readable. There were sections where my interest waned because of elaborate and factual descriptions of art and the art world - which I do enjoy for the most part, but I felt that a lot of the time here, it was just padding to the overall arc of the story. Becky/Reba is truly a whiz with figures. And in her own way, she cares deeply for the few people who mean something to her. She is an odd character, and you go between liking her just fine and thinking she is just awful.
The saddest part was the end, not so much because she was caught, but because the few decent relationships she had in her life were completely destroyed, and also led to the destruction of others' lives and reputations.
Plaid and Plagiarism, by Molly MacRae. This is the first in a series that currently has 4 titles in it. I decided to give it a try, because I figured that during this week (November 2020 election in the U.S.), it would be enough of a read to enjoy, but not something requiring intense concentration.
Janet Marsh, her daughter and a friend, along with one of Janet's friends have relocated to Inversgail, Scotland where they have purchased a bookshop that they hope to add a B&B and tearoom to for a successful business. At the start of the book, Janet and her friend Christine walk over the house that Janet owns that has been rented until now, and there is a dead body in the garden shed! It's identified as a local nosy, gossipy reporter.
So as Janet and the crew try to start their new lives, they have to deal with a murder investigation as well. They learn a lot about the people in the town, and Janet learns something new about her ex-husband.
It's a book that took me a bit to really get into, but it was enjoyable reading about the small town and trying to figure out "whodunit." I will probably read at least the next in the series to see if it has staying power with me.
Actress, by Anne Enright. This book is a memory of a [fictional] mother's life - the story of Katherine O'Dell, an Irish acting legend, as written by her daughter Norah. Katherine started out in the humblest of acting days, in bit parts and in traveling shows, but eventually became the toast of Ireland, England, and to some extent, Hollywood. Her travels, her experiences, her circles of friends are all seen through the eyes of her daughter, who really and truly only ever saw her as her mother, and took care of her at the end of her life, when mental illness caused her decline.
Norah provides everyday details of life with Katherine, who was glamourous to the rest of the world, but not always to her daughter. She could be mercurial, generous, mean, and also loving. Norah tries in the book to not just tell the story of Katherine, but her own story as well. How she felt she never quite reached her potential because of and in spite of her mother.
I have read one other Anne Enright book, and though I like them overall, I have to say I have not ended up loving them. I think a lot of it is that they seem very real - you want to like the characters, but they have so many human flaws, they can be both exasperating and a bit too much like people you know. Which in its own way, is an excellent compliment to Enright's writing ability.
A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, by Helen Jukes. This is a book I'd never heard of, but saw on my local library's site as one of those, "If you enjoyed _____, try this," and decided it looked pretty interesting.
At the start of the book, the author has moved in with a friend to the friend's house, having moved on from previous relationships and changed jobs. She has apparently done this several times leading up to that time, never feeling like she has settled anywhere. She has also accompanied her friend Luke when he has visited beehives he tends for others, and finds the whole idea fascinating. After doing some research and giving it some thought, she decides she might like to keep bees. That year a group of her friends joins together and purchases a hive for her for Christmas.
The bulk of the book takes up her preparations for the venture. Research into the history of bees, beekeeping, the structure of hives and anything and everything relating to it makes her feel overwheimed at times, but she still wants to move forward with the plan. She shares the resources and stories of current beekeepers and the ancients with the reader, and you end up not just learning about bees, but about philosophy, natural science, history, and language.
Finally it is time to collect her hive and get it installed. Each chapter is a month of time and what happens/doesn't happen, how the bees are doing, and how the author is doing. By the time the book is over - and a year has passed in the author's life - you not only get a feel for the intricasies and work involved taking care of bees, but can see how it begins to change her and her approach to both people and the world around her.
It's not the best book I've ever read, but it is very readable, really interesting, and as someone who loves bees anyway, provides so much enjoyable information about them, that I'm glad I came across the book.
Deck the Hallways, by Kate Carlisle. And now we enter the time of year when I read Christmas/wintertime holiday themed books. Which is good, especially this year, since my concentration levels are not that great.
In this book, Shannon Hammer is thrilled because she has been put in charge of the holiday home extravaganza in her town. It's where contractors, decorators, and volunteers come together to renovate or build new homes for those who need it, and have things ready for the new tenants to move in on Christmas Eve. This year they are renovating an old Victorian mansion, creating apartments of varying sizes for several different types of tenants.
Shannon is not as thrilled that she hasn't heard from her boyfriend since he left on a book tour. She is trying not to think he has dumped her, but it's not looking good.
Anyway, they get things underway and everyone is excited about the house project, when Mr. Potter, whose bank is overseeing the funding and costs of the project shows up on site and begins causing problems (Mr. Potter = shades of "It's a Wonderful Life"). No one in town - and in particular no one on the site - seems to like him or get along with him. The next day, when Shannon arrives early to check things on the site, things go downhill quickly when she finds Mr. Potter dead, with her father's ax in his neck.
Between trying to keep things moving on the worksite after it not being available due to the murder investigation, and trying to make sure that the chief of police doesn't arrest her father - who everyone agrees is innocent - Shannon has her hands full. When she leaves the site one day, and finds a baby in her truck, things get even weirder.
Suffice it to say that by the end of the book, things have been resolved, and the house is ready for new tenants. This was an enjoyable read, because it mostly focused on the project and the mystery, rather than only Shannon's love life. It's a good start for this year's reading.
Eggs on Ice, by Laura Childs. This book started with a lot of potential, but in the end was a disappointment. Which is too bad, because I enjoy Laura Childs' Tea Shop mysteries. This is the first book in this series that I tried, and I can't say it made me want to read any others.
As the book begins, a local theater group is at a rehearsal for "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. Suzanne and Toni of the Cackleberry Club (a cafe) are responsible for lighting and effects (i.e., fog machines). When the Ghost of Christmas Past comes onto stage, Suzanne and Toni are amazed how creepy and realistic his costume seems to be. But then they realize that local attorney Allen Sharpe, who is portraying Scrooge, has been stabbed to death by the Ghost, who has left the stage, and who Suzanne has a dangerous encounter with during pursuit.
Though Allen Sharpe was not beloved by most people in the town, it's still upsetting to them to think the killer got away, and that it was most likely someone they all know. So the goal becomes solving the murder, so that everyone can relax, enjoy the holidays, and so the show can go on.
This was an interesting premise to me, and I was intrigued. But the rest of the book was frankly not that entertaining. Suzanne and Toni didn't really appeal to me, and the whole story just kinda dragged along. It was a murder that took place around Christmas, rather than a book about Christmastime that happened to include a murder. Except for the beginning, you wouldn't know anything other than it was winter, since it snows in the story. I read the whole thing because a) it wasn't that long and b) I wanted to find out who the murderer turned out to be. It was not someone I easily suspected, but the whole thing was a real let down. To be honest, I just didn't really care about any of the characters that much one way or another.
Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue, by Victoria Thompson. This is apparently an "extra" in this series, featuring some of the minor characters, but it was neverthetheless an enjoyable read. It takes place in one of my favorite time and places: New York City on the late 19th-century.
A woman comes to the house of Frank Malloy, a former NYPD officer and now a detective, to ask for his help. Her daughter has been accused of killing her husband, a businessman of some repute. Since Mr. Malloy, who has recently come into some serious money, is on his honeymoon in Europe, the household staff decides to do what they can to help out.
It's an interesting story, and takes place during Christmastime. You end up finding out a lot about the city at that time - for instance, Harlem is "the country" and just starting to be developed, Macy's is introducing a Santa Claus, and electric lights on a Christmas tree are a novel idea, and only affordable to those with some money.
I enjoyed the book not just because of the story, but because it is very good at evoking time and place, from the rise of newspapers as gossip mongers as much as news (thanks to William Randolph Hearst), to talking about the roles of women and how class made a true difference in their lives.
The resolution of the murder was not quite what I was expecting, and I enjoyed this read.
Saving Mr. Bingle : A New Orleans Christmas Fairy Tale, by Sean P. Doles. I really enjoyed this book, about a large department store conglomerate that takes over a local New Orleans beloved department store and it's honored traditional character, Mr. Bingle. The story is told through the eyes of one of the long-term employees who tries his best to keep Mr. Bingle, and the local traditions alive in the face of a takeover and a young boss who won't even bother to pay attention.
There's a lot in this book that is magical, and it is both sad and bittersweet. But the basic story is one of traditions that people love and that actually mean something to them, and how that is not always a tired or unfashionable thing.
Even better, at the end of the book, I learned that this is based on a true story and the background of the whole thing. Fascinating and lovely for the Christmastime season.
Read and Buried, by Erika Chase. This was an enjoyable read. When Derek Alton, a famous author, comes to town, the owner of the local bookstore suggests that he attend the next meeting of the Ashton Corners Mystery Readers and Cheese Straw Society to give a talk about his work. The head of the group, Lizzie Turner decides that it's OK, but after a dinner with him, realizes he's somewhat of a sleaze. When he visits her the next day to apologize while she is decorating for Christmas, a gunshot goes through the window of her living room and kills him.
So as if that isn't bad enough, a few days later, another shot is fired, this time as Lizzie is standing in her kitchen making breakfast. Fortunately, she is just grazed by the bullet, but it makes her determined to find out what is going on.
Not great literature, but a good mystery and fun to read.
Anxious People, by Fredrick Backman. I surprised myself by not liking this book, and not even finishing it. It's the first book by Fredrik Backman that I have not really enjoyed at all. I'm not sure if it was my frame of mind, or if it just was not my cup of tea. I will likely not try it again anytime soon, and there are other books by him that I would like to try, so I'll move on.
Oona Out of Order, by Margarita Montimore. This was one of those "suggested" books on Overdrive, and it looked intriguing, so I thought I'd give it a try. As the book opens, Oona Lockhart is at a New Year's Eve party, which also happens to be her birthday. She is turning 19, getting ready to travel with her band, and feeling better than ever about her relationship with her boyfriend.
But when she wakes up on New Year's Day, she is 32 years old ... WHAT? It turns out that she will be living her life out of order.
I made it through a third of the book (her life?) and gave up. I just didn't care about her enough to wonder how it would all work together.
In Peppermint Peril, by Joy Avon. Callie Aspen returns to her childhood special place, Heart's Harbor, Maine, to spend the Christmastime holiday with her aunt, who owns Book Tea, a vintage tea shop where everything has a hint of literary origins. She happily agrees to help her aunt set up a Christmas part at an estate where Callie and her close friends used to play and spend time together when they were kids. It played a huge part in her life, and she is more than happy to return.
Needless to say, things don't go as planned. The elderly woman who owns the estate has invited everyone to the party to announce changes to her will. Between that (which gets waylaid that evening due to other circumstances), a messed up marriage proposal plan, and a murder of the estate's long-time gardener, the evening takes more than one unexpected turn.
As Callie begins to try and figure out what happened and why, she re-acquaints herself with the town and some of her old friends. Having known the late gardener when she was younger, and only having been around him telling them stories about the estate, she is surprised to learn that he was not popular with a lot of people. But was he unpopular enough for someone to murder him?
This was a good read, and slightly different than a lot of other holiday themed books, which was nice. However, I think "Book Tea" is a dumb name for a shop. I'd have given that more thought.
Winter Stroll, by Elin Hilderbrand. The second in a series I started last year at Christmastime, this one finds the Quinn family gathering on Nantucket at the family inn to celebrate the Winter Stroll, the kickoff of the holiday season there, as well as the baptism of new granddaughter Genevieve.
If you have read the first book, this is a continuation of the story of the characters. It's a good read, with enough to keep your interest, and not too much soapiness or gooeyness to make you sorry you picked it up. I look forward to #3.
Six Geese A-Slaying, by Donna Andrews. This book was pretty entertaining. I have not read any of the previous ones in this series, so there were definitely backstories I didn't know about. But I can say that it didn't really mean that reading this as a standalone was problematic.
Meg Langslow has been tapped to organize the yearly Holiday Parade in her small Virginia town. She feels that things are pretty well under control until the day of the big event, when the man playing Santa Claus is found murdered right before the parade starts. He was not very popular with the residents of the town, but Meg wants to try and get things under control so that a visiting reporter from D.C. doesn't insult the town in the coverage he will be providing.
The fact that a huge, unlikely snowstorm hits that very weekend doesn't help, as people are stranded, cell phone service is down, and power is out.
This was an entertaining read, and I for one did not even suspect the murderer until very close to the end of the book.
A New York Christmas, by Anne Perry. Jemima Pitt travels from London to New York City in 1904 to accompany Delphinia Cardew, a young woman who is marrying the son of her father's business partner. Jemima's father is a well-known police detective in England, and the Cardews are a friend of the family. Because "Phinnie's" mother is dead (or so Jemima thinks) and her father is ill, so they rely on Jemima to join her and help her prepare for her wedding.
Initially, they are made to feel right at home, but when the fiance's older brother asks Jemima for help in locating Phinnie's mother - who is as it turns out alive, but "unstable" - she helps because they do not want her to show up unannounced at the wedding and cause a scandal.
The trouble is, when they find the woman they are seeking, she has been murdered, and due to circumstances, Jemima is arrested as the murderer. A young police officer believes in her innocence, and between the two of them they work to clear Jemima's name, and find the true murderer as well.
I suspected the murderer shortly into the story, but still enjoyed the book. There are some unexpected twists and turns, and Jemima is an appealing character.
Let me know if you read any of these, and what you thought about them. And if you have any recommendations - or titles to avoid, for that matter - let me know in the comments.
I've already finished my first book for 2021, so I'm on my way for this year. 😊