09 April 2021

Book Report - January, February, and March 2021

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been reading lately, but not all that much (at least compared to my usual amounts of reading).  Not a problem, just more of an observation.  My mind has been scattered a lot over the first three months of the year, and a lot of the time it was difficult to concentrate.  But in any case, I thought I'd share the titles I did decide to try, and my thoughts about them, so here they are, in no particular order.

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue.  A very good, very readable book.

This is the story of two families - the Jonga family, immigrants from Cameroon; and the Edwards family, who are wealthy and living a life of luxury in Manhattan - during the 2008 financial crisis and fall of the big Wall Street firms.

Jende Jonga, who has finally managed to bring his wife and young child to America from Cameroon after being separated from them, is fortunate to be hired as the chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers.  Finally making enough money to be able to save some, Jende and his wife Neni, who dreams of being a pharmacist, feel that the promise of America is finally showing up for them.  Even though they both work hard and they live in a small apartment in Harlem, the future looks bright.

Then of course, the collapse of 2008 happens.  Jende and Neni have since had a daughter, and Jende decides that he wants her to stay home with the baby.  When he loses his chauffeur job, their income takes a serious nosedive, even though he finds 2 jobs working in the kitchens of restaurants to keep things going.  In addition, his application for asylum is looking like it will be denied.

Jende makes the decision for himself and his whole family that they will return to Cameroon. He withdraws his asylum request and makes plans for their move.  Neni is not happy about it, since she was really hoping to return to school and have a career.  Their young son has become so acclimated to New York, she also worries the transition to a small African village will be difficult for him.

Meanwhile, things have changed drastically for the Edwards family as well.  They have lost nearly everything, and the pressure is responsible for a tragedy in their lives.  

The book leaves you feeling that everyone will find a way to survive, but for me at least, I felt unsettled about the future the Jonga family.  Neni's character had seen what life could be like for a woman in America, and seemed ready to embrace it, so returning to a society where women still lead lives restricted by culture and society didn't seem like something that would work for her.  Also, she seemed to realize that having Jende make decisions without consulting her was not just upsetting but unfair.  

This story was really about life as an immigrant in America, and the tenuous existence they face.  You felt their dismay and disappointment, and also understood their desire to cling to America as a chance to improve.  The Edwards family, though not typical, were a good mirror to those who live here and take so much for granted, as well as an example of how having it all is neither perfect nor guaranteed.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama.  Before going any further, in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I am a big fan of Michelle and Barack Obama.  In my very active world inside of my head, we are all good friends.  So I was inclined to like this book before even reading it.

And I did like this book.  I liked it because it was readable and accessible, and not full of "look how amazing and wonderful I am," but rather the story of her early life, and how so many decisions and opportunties came her way because of the way she started, and the wonderful actions of her parents and family overall.  

Also, having lived in Chicago for many years, I knew the places she mentioned, which is always fun for me when I actually can picture the buildings, neighborhoods, etc.

Scones and Scoundrels, by Molly MacRae.  This second book in the series begins with preparations for a renowned environmentalist and writer who grew up in Inversgail returning for an in-residence semester at the local school. Daphne Wood grew up in the small Scottish town, but moved to the wilds of Canada when she was young and has not returned since. Plans for several types of events while she is in town has everyone buzzing.

First, Daphne arrives earlier than expected with her Pekingese, Rachel Carson. Secondly, she is not the easiest person to be around, and seems to always feel that she should be the center of everything. The one person who still lives in town who was a school friend of hers in younger days is even surprised at how different she is.  

When a young American visitor is murdered and found behind a local bar, not only is the town shocked, but Daphne decides that she will work with Janet Marsh and the group from the local bookstore to solve the murder.  Janet, Christine, Tallie, and Summer are first of all , trying to keep a low profile, and secondly, do not really want to work with Daphne.

As the story continues, we learn about what happened in Daphne's life that may have had such a profound effect on her that she changed so much. When she and a young teacher in the town are also murdered, Janet and the gang start doubling down to see what is going on.

By the time the book has ended, we have a lot of information not just about Daphne, but about others in the town; and we learn why the young American may have stopped in Inversgail, and why it was his last big mistake.

I am enjoying this series so far.

The Dressmaker, by Rosalie Ham.  This is a somewhat odd, though still compelling story.

Tilly Dunnage returns home to her small Australian town to check on her mother, "Mad Molly" Dunnage, who she hasn't seen in twenty years.  An outcast even when she was a child, Tilly decides to stay a while and take care of her mother, and fix up their house.  She makes money by using her couture dressmaking skills for the women in the town - who, even though they are suspicious of her, and gossip about her, find her designs irresistable.  

Eventually, Tilly becomes fond of one of the young men in the town who is from another family scorned by the locals.  That young man, and the local police sergeant - with his own secret - become her social group.  

After tragedy occurs, we learn not only why Tilly was gone from the town for so long, but the reasons why her mother was an outcast as well, and why the people in the town now hold her especially responsible for bad things, saying she is cursed, and cursing the town.

By the end of the book Tilly has left town, but not before exacting revenge in a major way.

I did not expect the book to end as it did, though it fit into both the story and the strangeness of it all.

As Bright As Heaven, by Susan Meissner.  When Thomas Bright moves his wife Pauline and their three young daughters - Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa - from Quakertown to Philadelphia in 1918, the future is bright.  Thomas' uncle owns a mortuary and having never married and had children, would like to train Thomas in the business and eventually leave it to him.  The opportunities for the whole family are there for the taking.  Things look so promising, and then ... the 1918 flu epidemic begins.  

Soon, people are dying all over the place - not just due to World War I, but because the flu spreads like wildfire through the city as a result of the Liberty Parade, attended by thousands (today it would be a superspreader event).  Pauline Bright volunteers to aid the sick through an organization at their church, and this leads to series of life-changing events for the entire family.  As the flu spreads and kills hundreds of thousands of people in Philadelphia alone, the lives the Bright family members expected to live are turned upside down.

The second half of the book takes place in 1925, bringing the reader up to date on how the family is doing once the epidemic is long past.  It's not as satisfying as the first part, but it is still interesting to find out not just who survived, but how each one of them has moved forward. 

This book was both interesting and heartbreaking.  There were so many similarities to life during the Covid-19 pandemic that it added another layer to the story.  I found it hard to put down.

The Gone Dead, by Chanelle Benz.  Billie James leaves her home in Philadelphia and returns to the Mississippi Delta after the death of her grandmother, who has left her a bit of money and the run-down house where Billie was with her father when he died unexpectedly when she was four years old.  Her father was a famous black poet, just beginning to be appreciated for his writing and sensibilities.

While cleaning out some things, she comes across an interesting piece of writing by her father, called "Chapter 2," dealing with his years as a civil rights activist and meeting her mother, now also deceased.  When people in the town say something about how Billie disappeared for a short while the night her father died, she is intrigued since she remembers nothing about it.  As she starts to ask around about it, and talks to various people, she - along with a few others - begins to think that maybe his death was not the accident that it had always been reported to be.  But it also becomes very clear that the more she looks into it, the more she puts herself in harm's way.

I really liked this book.  It was evocative, poignant, and full of characters that kept you reading.  The story of Billie's family, not that long ago released from slavery, intertwines with the lives of her neighbors and the community where she eventually decides to settle.

An Incomplete Revenge, by Jacqueline Winspear.  Once again, I listened to the audiobook version of this.  I have found that they are truly enjoyable to listen to, and I enjoy the reader's voice characterizations.  

When the son of Maisie's patron asks for her help, she is glad to be of assistance.  Things are tough in post-war England, and she is happy to have work for herself and her assistant, Billy Beale.  The case involves a potential land sale in Kent, and Maisie is tasked with finding out more about the land in question and the community.

She travels there herself, during the summertime when Londoners head there for their vacations, to help with hop-picking.  It's also the time of year when gypsies are visiting, which causes some friction since others are suspicious of them.  When Maisie learns of a series of regular fires that have occurred, as well as small crimes, all during this time of year, she becomes even more intrigued and starts to delve deeper into things.

At the same time, Simon, the doctor that Maisie fell in love with during her time as a nurse in the war, dies.  He has been in a hospital for several years, having shell-shock and not being responsive to anyone or anything, in spite of Maisie's continued love, attention, and regular visits.  His death throws Maisie for a loop, even though she realizes that he has not really been "there" for a while.  Still, they loved each other, and might have married, but for interference from his mother.

This was interesting on several levels to me - first of all, I was intrigued by the city dwellers spending their vacations picking hops.  I found the death of Simon and Winspear's treatment of it quite poignant.  And, I was intrigued to learn that Maisie's mother was a member of one of the gypsy tribes.

Another good installment in this series.

Mr. Churchill's Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal.  Maggie Hope grew up in Massachusetts, where her Aunt Edith was a professor at Wellesley College.  Though born in England, she lost her parents in a car accident when she was very young, and so went to live with her aunt.  As she is preparing to start her Ph.D. program at MIT, she learns that her grandmother in England has died and left it to Maggie to sell the family home there.  So Maggie delays her MIT entrance, and goes to England - right as Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister, and World War II starts creeping into the everyday lives of the English more than ever.

Through a friend, Maggie takes a job as a typist in the PM's office, and when the lead typist is sick, Maggie takes over for her.  Frustrated that she can't work in the research section of things, she learns how to interpret Churchill's "language."  However, one day she notices something about the patterns in a newspaper ad for a dress, and takes it to one of the others in the office, saying that she is sure there is a hidden code there.  

At this point, the story gets more complicated, and some of the additional characters become a bigger part of the action.  Throughout the book there are hints about who Maggie's father is, and does she really know, etc., and the reader is left in the dark as well.  But as things move forward, we learn more about Maggie's father, her co-workers, and even some of her friends.

This was a very readable book, with a lot happening towards the end of the story.  My only issue with it was that at least to me, things worked out a little too perfectly in the end for Maggie.  Her ending seemed incongruous to me, based on the problems she had throughout the book with sexism, etc. not just in her work but in British society.  

But it is an interesting, good escape kind of read.

Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts, by Mary Gibson.  Nellie Clark lives in Bermondsey, England, where she works in a custard powder factory right before the beginning of World War I.  Her wages help her family avoid homelessness and starvation, and when she and other workers go on strike for better pay and win, she thinks things might be looking up.

But it's a place and time when major changes in people's stations in life just don't happen quickly or easily.  Nellie makes a promise to a friend's dying mother that causes her to worry and fret that she might have gone too far.  She starts to see a young man who is an activist, and who it seems does not have the same regard for her as hers for him.  On top of all of this, there is talk of war, and of England joining the fight.  

When the friend's mother dies, and the friend joins the Royal Artillery Force, Nellie takes in the younger children in the family to live with her and her siblings. The bulk of the book is the story of how they manage to survive on the little money they have, while Nellie learns that maybe she has loved someone who has been there all along.

This was a good book, in that it did a good job of describing the hardness of everyone's life, and the work they had to do to simply keep going.  It gave you a good feeling for the way that days were long, and joy was fleeting.  I enjoyed it overall.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.  Janie Crawford is a young black woman in the American South during the 1930s.  When her grandmother more or less arranges a marriage for her to a man she is not interested in marrying, Janie begins to try and figure out a way to live a more independent life, based on what she wants to do.  This is the story of her life she is telling to her friend Phoeby upon return to her original hometown.  She details the joys and sorrows of her life, the places she has lived, and how all of it led her back home.

This was a fascinating book, and I am glad I finally was able to read it.  Though it was sometimes hard to do, since the dialogue is written in dialect, so each time I would sit down to start, I'd have to get into a rhythm again to really appreciate the story.  Janie's experiences and the people she meets along the way are a window to a world that is unlike any I have ever known, and reading this gave me a true appreciation for Hurston and her ability to make characters seem like living and breathing people.

The Winter People, by Jennifer McMahon.  This was a good book, albeit creepy and  somewhat fantastical.  It takes place in a small, rural town in Vermont.  At first we meet Sara Harrison Shea, writing a diary in 1908, who has recently lost her young daughter.  Sara had an interesting upbringing, with a mysterious "auntie" who helped her father raise the children after the death of her mother.  

Zoom into current day, and we meet Alice, mother to teenage Ruthie and her little sister, Fawn.  They have lived in the same farmhouse where Sara lived, and are completely off the grid, as Alice and her late husband were firm believers in making sure no one would interfere with their lives.  One winter morning, Ruthie wakes up to realize that her mother has disappeared - no indication of foul play, but no indication of where she might have gone or why.

This is where the two stories - past and present - begin to intersect.  As Ruthie and Fawn try to figure out what happened to their mother, they also come across some pages of Sara's diary, tucked away in hiding places.  But there are also some puzzling finds of a more recent nature.

This book intertwines past and present, and challenges the reader to follow along, no matter how weird the story becomes.  I'll admit that I found some of it to be a bit more than I was willing to suspend my disbelief for, but overall it's very readable, and keeps you wanting to find out what has happened, both to the Shea family in 1908, and people involved in the story in the current day.  Not my favorite book ever, but a creepy and atmospheric read for a wintry day.

Cat Me If You Can, by Miranda James.  In this latest book of the series, Charlie Harris, his fiancee Helen Louise Brady, and Charlie's cat Diesel are in Asheville, North Carolina, having traveled to a mystery readers' getaway planned by the Ducote sisters for their mystery loving group at the Athena (Mississippi) Public Library.  Everyone is excited about the getaway, with the chance to talk mysteries non-stop, as well as enjoy the sights and sounds of Asheville, and a tour of the Biltmore Estate.

Things go sideways on the first night though, as an uninvited guest interrupts the first gathering of the group and causes a scene.  Later that night, he is found dead in his room.  Charlie and Helen Louise realize that most likely, someone in their group is the killer, and soon everyone is on a "forced" getaway until the killer can be found.

As time goes on, a hotel maid is found murdered as well, and it looks to everyone that the two must be somehow related.  Charlie is determined to stay out of it, but at the same time, these are people he is not just spending time with now, but that are part of his community at home.

As usual, there are twists and turns until things are resolved.  I enjoy this series because it's always interesting enough to keep me reading, some of the dialogue and local expressions are really amusing, but mostly because the author clearly understands the work of rare book catalogers.  Oh, also, there's Diesel the cat!

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters.  This book is - like the others by this author - a combination of fascinating characters, remarkable stories of otherwise unremarkable people, and just a touch of information here and there about social mores of the time when the story takes place.

In 1922, the war (WWI) has ended, and many of the soldiers who have survived are out of work, and on the street.  Life has changed for everyone in England, most especially for Frances Wray and her mother.  Not only did they lose their sons/brothers in the war, but upon the death of the family patriarch, they learn that they are not as comfortably set financially as they had assumed.  As a matter of fact, they will have to rent out part of their house to lodgers - aka "paying guests" - in order to stay in the house. 

When their tenants, a young couple named Leonard and Lilian Barber move in, there are things that Frances and her mother must learn to adjust to, as they are no longer the only ones living there.  Leonard and Lilian are part of the "clerk class" and not like other people the Wrays are used to knowing.  Leonard works at an insurance company, and Lilian works to transform their living quarters from the formal, somewhat Victorian decor of the Wrays, to something more modern and lively.

The arrival of the paying guests will end up changing the lives of everyone in the house.  By the end of the book, everything is turned on its head, and though Waters leaves things in some ways for the reader to decide, the story in no way seems finished.

Sundown Towns : A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, by James W. Loewen.  Just read this book.  It's a lot, it's long, but it is incredibly well-written, and you will learn so much.  Just read it.

The Smallest Lights in the Universe : A Memoir, by Sara Seager.  I wanted to like this book more than I did.  It was interesting, sad, and I did learn about exoplanets and a bit about astronomy, but the author was not someone who I ever felt connected with, and though the story took some very sad turns, it was hard for me to finish the book.  There was a lot of technical and scientific content that I got bored reading, mainly because I wasn't that interested in the details, which I realize is on me.  But the combination of that and my ambivalence towards the writer just made it an OK book for me.

On All Fronts : The Education of a Journalist, by Clarissa Ward.  I recently saw an interview with this author on television, so thought I'd try this book.  It is her own story of how she decided to become a journalist, and of her experiences over the years working as a correspondent from the Middle East.

One of the things that I thought was interesting was that she did not originally set out to be a journalist at all - it was only after 9/11 when she was moved to find out how we got to a place where this could happen.  From humble beginnings working for Fox News, she eventually worked her way to being a major reporter for CNN on all things Middle East.

Ward points out that she feels one of the most important things she can do is make her stories about real people and what is happening in their lives.  In order to accomplish this, she has sometimes had to take serious risks, and develop complicated plans to get the story and avoid detection by authorities.  Some of the examples she uses to illustrate this point are harrowing and serve as a reminder that working in the media can be seriously risky.  

She is a good writer, and her descriptions of the different places where she lived, including during her childhood are quite vivid, as are the individual portraits she paints of those she has worked with and/or interviewed.  You know how hard it was for her when someone she learned to trust and who helped her with contacts, transportation, etc., ends up dead.  

Mostly, I think she does a good job of making the people involved in these conflicts human, rather than just "other."  She tries to explain where the problems, animosities, and misundertandings have not just started, but where they might go in the future.

Clean : The New Science of Skin, by James Hamblin.  This book was so interesting, and in many ways fascinating.  The author is a doctor, who decided to look into what being "Clean" really meant to people and why.  He starts by talking about the fact that he has not taken a shower in three years, and explains why.  Then he delves into the history or hygiene, and how that has become entangled with beauty, which has then been determined to equal goodness in one way or another.  

Using separate sections to discuss different aspects of the complicated universe of soap, bathing, deodorants, etc., he talks with both experts in public health and medicine, as well as entrepreneurs who have developed "clean," "natural," and other such products.  He discusses what the really means and why people are so drawn to those products.

He also devotes time to discussing his own situation and how his thinking has or has not developed during the past years when he has taken what most people consider to be such a drastic step.

I found it fascinating, especially since I started changing my face-washing routine to one that is super basic and simple last summer, and have found that my skin is looking better than ever.  Having said that, I'm not sure I could - or would be ready - to take the leap into never showering at all, even though I have cut down on how often I do shower, since I had problems with severely dry skin beginning about four years ago.

This is a good read, and provides a lot of food for thought.  The author is neither preachy nor dismissive, so you read it and are left to your own devices to decide just what you do or do not think about the information presented.

Lady of Ashes, by Christine Trent.  When Violet Morgan married her husband Graham, she expressed an interest in learning his business - that of undertaking.  In Victorian London, she is building a reputation for their business with her excellent work and instinctual people skills.  While she is busy making things work so they can have continued success, her husband becomes involved in a mysterious undertaking with his brother, having to do with transporting goods in support of the southern states during the American Civil War.

As things progress, Violet is called upon to assist with the preparations and funeral for Prince Albert.  This brings her some new business, but the suspicion surrounding her husband's work is causing problems.

Taking some historical facts and events and weaving them into this story, the author creates some really amazing characters that interact with actual persons and events and seems believable.   A lot happens in this book, and though there are parts that drag a bit, I found it very interesting and extremely readable.

Cat About Town, by Cate Conte.  Maddie James has traveled from San Francisco, where she lives and is part owner in a successful green juice bar, home to Daybreak Island off the coast of Massachusetts for the funeral of her grandmother.  While there, she learns that her grandfather's house - the long-time family home - is being considered because of its prime location, as a possible transportation hub for people visiting during the summer.  The head of the local chamber of commerce sees it as a  great spot for a bicycle rental place run by his problematic son.  The biggest issue is that Maddie's grandfather does not want to sell the house.

During a local food event that is extremely popular, Maddie and her newly adopted cat come across the body of the chamber of commerce head, with an icepick in his back.  Right away, suspicions rise about Maddie and maybe even possibly her grandfather.  When things don't seem to be progressing in the investigation, another person is murdered, again with ties to her grandfather's house.  What is going on, and why have there now been two murders in a place where that seldom happens at all?

This was an enjoyable read, and you don't even really get a good hint of the killer until nearly the end of the book.  The author does an excellent job of making you feel you are visiting a shore town, with the sights and smells to go along with it.  This was especially fun to read after having read some more serious non-fictin books.  I may try the second one in the series at some point.

And now the weekend is upon us.  I have no specific plans, other than to continue on a household project I started a little while back, which is neither immediately necessary or even all that important, but will feel good to have finished once it's over.  I'm also hoping to start doing my usual semi-annual "review" of my stash to see if anything will move into the "donate" pile; since I've been doing this pretty regularly, I've managed to winnow quite a bit out of it, but there are still some things that will fall into the "If I still haven't done anything by now with this, it's gone" category.  And it always feels good to send the things I have decided I no longer want to keep to the knitting group at a local women's rehab shelter.  

I hope your weekend goes well, and that you have some time for some crafting, reading, or whatever activity is all yours and brings you some joy.  See you next week!


Araignee said...

I always look forward to your book reviews. I don't know how you remember so much about so many books. I find that as soon as I close a book I can't remember what I just read. I've been reading my way through the Nancy Drew series for the past few months and even those have been hard to keep up with...lol.

Vera said...

That's a whol lot of books! Thanks for your recommendations.

Nance said...

I, too, look forward to your book reviews. I always find a couple to add to my list. I'm very intrigued by a few here.

I just finished Miss Benson's Beetle, which I enjoyed immensely. I've got a few more in my stack, and then I'll delve into a few of yours.

KSD said...

Yours is the second reading roundup I've read this morning. Both of them have made me feel lazy, as there are three books within arm's length that I am not getting to.

Ellen D. said...

Thanks for so many book recommendations! I will check my library to see which of the books you liked are available there. Many sound very interesting and you do a terrific job of describing them for me! Thanks!