Category Archives: 3.5 stars

The Cafe by the Sea – Jenny Colgan

Review (Amazon): 

Years ago, Flora fled the quiet Scottish island where she grew up — and she hasn’t looked back. What would she have done on Mure? It’s a place where everyone has known her all her life, where no one will let her forget the past. In bright, bustling London, she can be anonymous, ambitious… and hopelessly in love with her boss.

But when fate brings Flora back to the island, she’s suddenly swept once more into life with her brothers — all strapping, loud, and seemingly incapable of basic housework — and her father. Yet even amid the chaos of their reunion, Flora discovers a passion for cooking — and find herself restoring dusty little pink-fronted shop on the harbour: a café by the sea.

But with the seasons changing, Flora must come to terms with past mistakes — and work out exactly where her future lies…

My Review (spoilers, although not that many. it’s a love story; you can guess the ending):

This is our romance novel for 2018, and honestly, one of the best novels I’ve read of this sort. I always find them to be so dramatic or so WW2 or just so boring. It’s still adorably predictable, but I found the setting to be unique and captivating enough to really make up for any of that.

The author sets up the book with a prologue saying that the island of Mure, where the book takes place, is not a real island (so she didn’t get any correspondence from readers telling her how she got something wrong lol), but it’s a pretend Scottish island, like Fair Isle. I’ve never been to Scotland or the Scottish Isles, but the book definitely made me want to go (in the summer).

The main character is a young woman named Flora. She’s 26, and a paralegal in a big law firm in London where she has a huge crush on her boss, Joel, even though she knows better. He’s a big shot American who breaks up with women like it’s his job, and just isn’t very nice of a person.

Then one day, another American, Colton Rogers, approaches the firm because he’s having difficulty with a wind farm which is going to be installed right beside his resort, on an island in the Scottish Isles–the same one on which Flora grew up, and has never looked back at. She’s brought into Joel’s office to discuss with Colton about this, and is straightaway on the case.

We’re introduced to selkies, which was a new story for me. They are a well known myth in this region of the world, something akin to a mermaid. Selkies are seal people who lose their ocean shape while they are on land. They seem to be more common in women where the story is that the only way to keep your selkie bride is to hide her sealskin so she can’t leave you. Selkies also have a very distinct look, pale skinned with pale hair just like Flora and her mother.

Flora begrudgingly heads back to Mure, a place she hasn’t been for a long time, and she’s not excited about returning to visit, although we don’t really know why. She gets to her family home where she sees her brothers Fintan, Innes, and Hamish – all completely different from each other – the family dog Bramble, and her father, a man of a few words.

We learn that Flora’s mother died, and no one has been the same since. Flora and her father had a falling out, and she returned to London, not returning to the island since. The brothers are all struggling in their own ways, and no one is happy with Colton Rogers and his big fancy resort he put in.

Then she gets word that Joel is coming to the island. Colton is uber wealthy and Joel doesn’t want to lose him as a client, and he doesn’t know what is going on with the case. Flora is in a frenzy from it, and she meets up with her old friend Lorna to catch up and gossip, and Lorna suggests that Flora make some good old-fashioned cooking for her family since they haven’t really been eating since their mom died, and Flora’s mother was the best cook.

Flora tries, but is wildly unsuccessful at dinner, and of course her brothers and father start kidding her about how terrible it is, and she gets frustrated and hurt and leaves for a walk. Old buddy Bramble decides to follow her, and he gets injured as it starts to rain. Flora carries him into a cave, where she stumbles upon a big broad shouldered man named Charlie who is on a camping trip with a bunch of kids who have one parent in prison. They help her get Bramble back home but not before Flora gets to meet Jan, Charlie’s partner, who is quite rude and dismissive to Flora.

Still waiting for instructions from Colton or from Joel’s appearance, Flora begins to settle back into her old life. She cleans the house from top to bottom where in the meantime, she finds her mother’s recipe book and begins to start cooking for the family. The family has a modest farm, which is getting tougher each year, and we learn that there is an underlying issue that Fintan isn’t carrying his weight at the farm. It turns out, he’s been doing a side project of making his own cheese.

Joel finally arrives at the island, and Flora is in a frenzy. It’s weird though because although she’s been there for a bit, she hasn’t seen Colton or really done any work except collect gossip about how much the islanders dislike Colton and the Rock (the place he’s building) because he hasn’t integrated with the locals whatsoever, and he isn’t hiring or importing from the island. Flora picks up Joel at the airport and takes him to his hotel and then returns for him later to go to Colton’s.

Colton gives them a tour, and as Flora is inquiring about why he’s not using locals, he mentions that most of the locals move away, sell their produce and supplies elsewhere, and generally he doesn’t find the capability to buy stuff here. Flora explains to Colton that he needs to intermix more with the locals, because The Rock is absolutely exquisite and it’s easy to understand why Colton doesn’t want the wind farm there, but if he wants to sway the vote, he needs to make nice with the voters. Flora’s first task is to start gauging the leanings of those on the council.

After visiting 2 unbudging council members, Flora headed for the shop to buy some groceries for dinner where she bumped into Charlie and invited him over as well. They had a great dinner until a bit of awkwardness when Flora suggested that Fintan bring out his cheese to go with the fruitcake (I guess that’s a thing) and their dad realized that was what was taking him away from the framework. As Charlie is leaving and we start to see the beginnings of attraction between him and Flora, Joel calls.

We learn that Joel was a foster child for his youth, never having an adoptive family. The closest thing he has to a father is a child psychiatrist he has had for many years despite no longer being a child. We learn more about Joel and the struggles he has with relationships and people and trust through phone calls throughout the book to this doctor. We also learn that Fintan and Flora have a strenuous relationship because Fintan was always jealous of the attention that Flora (the only girl) got from their mother. Fintan didn’t want to be sent outside to play with the other boys, and it hurts Flora deeply to realize that she never noticed how hurt he was by this. They have a huge fight, but to make things up to him, Flora invites him to go with her to The Rock to have dinner that evening with Joel and Colton.

A few things develop in this meeting – one being that Colton had no idea he also owns a shop (the pink house) on the main street, and as he didn’t know that it was part of what he bought, it has been abandoned since he moved in. He also had no idea that nothing about his menu was actually local. And we also learn that Colton and Fintan are gay.

The boatman goes to Flora and Fintan’s house to pick up some of Fintan’s cheese along with a variety of things that Flora has recently made, and returns to The Rock so that they can have a more satisfying meal. Colton and Joel are so impressed that the decision is made to open the pink house to sell some things made of Flora’s mother’s recipes along with Fintan’s cheese.

She awakes in the middle of the night to texts from Joel. Not outright flirty, but certainly in that direction. She and Bramble decide to go meet Joel who can’t sleep because of how light it is outside. They walk along the beach discussing work mostly, and once it’s actually morning, they head back to the farm for breakfast. After a wildly chaotic breakfast (Innes’ young daughter was there as well), Joel headed for the airport to go back to London.

While Joel is gone, Fiona gets busy opening the pink house as The Cafe by the Sea and employs some locals to run it using her mother’s recipes. Charlie is there on the first day to buy pastries for the boys he’s taking out hiking that day. Flora is glum that Joel left with nothing being said or happening further, so she asks Charlie for a drink. Lorna and Colton also stop in. Lorna is incredibly impressed, and Colton wants to pry for info about Fintan and just to see how it’s all going. He brings the painters round that same day, and tells Flora that he’s going to host a huge party for the locals to come see The Rock which Flora is also involved in planning.

The day of the party comes and Joel arrives at The Cafe by the Sea. Flora unsuccessfully tries to convince him to wear a kilt for the party! She unbeknownst to him has been persuaded into dancing in her old troupe, costume and all. At the party, all the townspeople and council members are there. Colton is all decked out in his heritage outfit. Joel sees her dancing and starts doing some serious introspection of his own life and begins to realize that things are different with Flora and on this island. But of course Charlie is also at the party. He tells Flora that he and Jan (who is also at the party) are separated.

Flora goes to find Joel. Inge-Britt, the owner of the hotel and the town floozy, has sunk her hooks into him. Joel was just being nice, but he can’t find the words when Flora, visibly upset, finds them. Flora leaves to find Charlie, while Joel, a bumbling idiot, continues to entertain Inge-Britt. Flora and Charlie dance, and at the end, they kiss, with a rude awakening of Jan yanking her away. A fight ensues as Jan does not believe they are separated, and Flora leaves the party.

On other fronts, the party is a success. Colton asks Fintan to work for him full time, and Colton brings up the option of buying the farm with Flora. She struggles with the idea at first but realizes it is definitely for the best. Joel shows up, back to his old cold-hearted self, and becomes enraged when he has to stay overnight because the weather is too bad. Colton, Joel and Flora head into the pub, none really knowing what to do. Colton can’t get back to The Rock in the weather, and neither Colton nor Joel have any more dry clothes, so Flora leaves the pub to head to her house to find them some. Colton urges Joel to go with her, and he does.

They get to her home and some PG-13 action ensues. Flora stops though as she suddenly realizes that she’s conflicted and he’s her boss, and she pumps the brakes. She tells Joel the story about her mother dying, and how at the funeral, she shouted at her father for telling people that her mother was a Selkie who had returned to the ocean. She yelled in front of everyone that he kept her chained to the kitchen even though she had wanted to go out and experience life. And she’d never returned since. In the midst of their heart-to-heart, Charlie arrives. He needs to borrow the tractor due to a whale beached from the storm.

While Flora is helping get the whale back into the water, Joel again being a complete dummy, manages to get to the airport to get off the island. When Flora returns home, she realizes this, but Colton and Fintan are there to discuss the farm. They eventually convince their father that it is the right thing to do, and in the meantime, Fintan comes out to his father about his relationship with Colton. Flora apologizes to her father for her behavior at her mother’s funeral, and the vote for the wind farm is nearing.

Flora has still heard nothing from Joel, but she finally hears from another coworker that Joel took over Colton’s old job in New York and he’ll be up for the council meeting in Joel’s place. The meeting happens, and Colton wins the argument to have the wind farm moved from in front of The Rock to instead in front of his personal home. They leave the council meeting to attend the harvest celebration – a bunch of debauchery – and as Flora is out celebrating, she sees some familiar lights. She takes off to the airport where she finds Joel (he has taken Colton’s private jet) and they return to the Presidential Suite at The Rock. And in the end, there’s happily ever after.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Like I said at the beginning, I liked the setting. This book made me want to visit the Scottish Isles immensely! The love story was a bit average, but the rest of the story was definitely enough to pull its weight. I would definitely recommend this as an upscale beach read.

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A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

Review (Amazon): Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others. “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year,’ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down” (Booklist, starred review).

My Review:

Executive Summary: slow to start but sweet at the end

This book took a little while to get into, but once you were, it was an easy read. It did remind me quite a bit of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which was on our bookclub list pre-blog, thus it had been a few years since I read it, and it didn’t really make me like this book less.

As I’m writing this review, I just scrolled back to page 1 of the book, and I realize that the first sentence of the book is “Ove is fifty-nine.” Interestingly, I had forgotten this throughout the book, as Ove seems well into his seventies. He’s grouchy, stuck in his ways, and basically hates everyone and everything. He’s the neighbor you don’t want who does daily inspections around the neighborhood, ensuring that not a hair is out of line, even when it’s not a rule for the hair to be in line.

Ove used to be happily married to a teacher, Sonja, a ray of sunshine in Ove’s dark life. And when she died of cancer six months prior, Ove regressed into his darkness. The underlying plot of the book is Ove trying to commit suicide, in a dignified way, because he can’t go on living without his wife. However, each and every time, something bamboozles his attempt. He lives next door to another couple, Anita and Rune, who have been friends and frenemies over the course of their lives, and now that Rune has had a stroke, city officials are coming into the neighborhood to investigate whether Rune should be taken away from his home for his safety. Rune and Ove moved into the neighborhood at the same time and are two of the original members of the neighborhood. With Rune getting sick, Sonja dying, and the additions of various new neighbors, Ove sees his familiar, regimented old life slipping out of his grasp.

On his first neighborhood round of the book, we get introduced to most of the main players of the story. Ove meets a cat who he tells to scram. We meet Anders, who has a lot working against him. He’s divorced, self-employed, drives an Audi, goes jogging, and has a wife nicknamed “The Blonde Weed”. She has a little obnoxious dog, and Ove especially hates them both. Ove also finds a bicycle parked outside the bicycle shed, so he angrily puts it inside and continues on his route. And as he finishes inspecting unauthorized cars parked overnight in the guest parking or trash being properly sorted, we meet the new neighbor family as the husband backs their trailer into Ove’s house.

The Lanky One gets out of the Japanese car, and both Ove and The Lanky One’s pregnant Arabic wife begin to shout at him for being a moron. Ove thinks he may get along with her. The Lanky One tries again, and then runs over Ove’s mailbox, so Ove orders him out of the car so that he can maneuver the car into the driveway for them. Once finished, he shouts at them for driving where cars are not supposed to be and then stomps to his house! Shortly thereafter, the two daughters–a 7-year old and a 3-year old appear with food for Ove because their mom said he was probably hungry.

This begins a begrudging relationship with Parvaneh and her family. Parvaneh encourages Ove to take in the stray cat when it’s near death from being outside in the Swedish cold. Through this, he also reintroduces himself to Jimmy, as he uses his big body and its heat to help warm up the cat…and then realizes he’s allergic and Ove and Parvaneh take him to the hospital.

Parvaneh convinces Ove to teach her how to drive, and in the meantime, imposes herself and her children on him, always at crucial times during his suicide plots, to drive here various places.

But Ove isn’t only making friends with her family. He also helps the teen, Adrian, who owns the bicycle which was not in the shed like it was supposed to be. He’d agreed to help fix it it up for a girl who he likes.  Ove, with Parvaneh, deliver the bicycle to his place of employment, a cafe, where Ove learns that Adrian knows nothing about fixing bicycles, and his dad is in prison. So Ove shows him how to fix up the bicycle. Upon returning into the cafe, Ove meets one of Adrian’s coworkers, another adolescent named Mirsad, who is “bent”, and his father Amel. He also saves a man who has fallen onto the train tracks, as he is there planning to jump in front of them to take his own life. Through this, he makes the acquaintance of a journalist who he continues to shrug off for her story about his heroic deeds

Later in the story, Mirsad comes out to his father, who doesn’t take it well, and Ove ends up taking Mirsad into his home. Mirsad asks if he can accompany Ove and the cat on the daily neighborhood round. Upon this route, they stumble upon Jimmy who informs Ove that social services is coming to get Rune. Anita has been appealing it for two years, but the decision has been made. Ove is furious that he and Sonja didn’t know anything about this, but Jimmy says that they had specifically made the decision to not tell Ove and Sonja because they had had enough troubles of their own after the accident. Ove is furious. He’s had his share of run-ins with the “white shirts” over the years–first when he was younger and his house burned to the ground, and later after Sonja’s accident when the driver was drunk. In both cases, the bureaucracy did not work in Ove’s favor, and he was bound and determined that it wouldn’t happen again.

With the help of all the neighbors, Anders, who works with a towing company, manages to tow the white shirt’s car, illegally parked in the neighborhood of course, while he’s in getting Rune ready to move out. When he comes out and finds his car missing, he of course assumes Ove, who has been badgering him about the illegally parked cars for years and calls the police. When the white shirt returns, with two other white shirts, the neighborhood is ready. Jimmy, Anders, Mirsad, Parvaneh and co., and of course Ove are all there to back her up. So is Lena, the journalist. They show the white shirts a bunch of information about themselves, and basically suggest that the white shirts leave Rune and Anita alone or the information will be published. (This was a bit of a stretch in the plot, but OK.)

They all go on to live their happy lives. We learn that Ove has a heart condition–his heart is too big! Oh the irony is a little ham fisted here. The book technically ends when Parvaneh has her third child, a boy. But of course there is an epilogue to give everyone closure on the story. Four months later, Ove dies in his sleep. He gifts many things to all his recent friends, and over 300 people come to his funeral.

Verdict: 3 stars

Generally pretty good. It’s drily funny, and I always love a good curmudgeon. The ending was a bit overdone in my opinion (a bit too Hollywood ending), but generally the story moved nicely and was a decent “feel good” tale.

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The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

Review (Amazon): Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: Interesting but challenging

This was actually my book for book club this year. I chose historical fiction as my category, and while I wouldn’t really consider this to be hard historical fiction, it is in the past and is referencing a culture which is unfamiliar to me. So I think it counts.

I’ve been procrastinating on writing this review for over a month because I’ve been busy partly, but also, I don’t really know how to write a review for this book. It’s short stories of 4 Chinese women (one is written about her as she has just passed) who immigrated to America during a not-great period of relationships between China and America and their 4 Chinese American daughters. It’s sort of an auto-biographical account from what I can tell as Amy was born in 1952 to Chinese parents who were living in America.

The story shows in many different facets the dichotomy between the Chinese (mothers) and the Americans (daughters) and the rift that fluxes depending on the situations. All of the daughters had the option to be more free and more American than their mothers, but in differing ways, they realize their connections to the old country and cultures.

Most of the daughters (like most daughters in general) know very little about their mothers. The big reveal in the book is that Suyuan (the mother who has died) has two daughters who she had to leave behind in China that her daughter Jing-Mei didn’t know about. During the day of the Japanese invasion, Suyuan left her house with thousands of others, with nothing but a few staples and her 2 daughters. She eventually decides that because she is going to die (and that finding children with a dead mother would be a bad omen for someone who might take them), she leaves them with all the valuables she has and a note. However, she doesn’t die and is rescued and eventually goes on to move to America and have a new family.

A lot of the things that are weird and interesting to me in the book are the superstitions and customs. The horoscopes (whether you are born in the year of the Horse and are strong-willed), the fear of ghosts coming back to haunt people, general karma of behaviors, the jade stones that none of the younger people understand…

And I think that’s really what the book’s point comes to. The younger people are more like me (or just generally a person who doesn’t have a lot of family heritage and/or culture) and the mothers assume that they have inherited this. But the gap is that the mothers learned it because everyone around them when they were growing up believed the same culture and superstitions. So now the mothers are at a loss for why their daughters don’t believe what they believe, and the daughters are old enough to try to connect with their mothers but find that they don’t have the background to fully understand them.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Good book, and thought provoking. Really challenging to follow at times due to the way that it was written (broken up into little sections). At book club, we had to pull up the wikipedia article to be able to fully go back and place daughter with mother because it just is too disjointed to really remember who goes with whom.

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Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

Review (Amazon): From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

My Review:

Executive Summary: Interesting

This story is an interesting glimpse into a section of America that not many people know about and even fewer understand. I include myself in that, and I grew up in nearby (to Ohio) Pennsylvania, 7 miles from the closest town whose population was around 1000 people. So you’d think I’d be familiar, but not really. In fact, a guy I work with was born and spent his early years near where I grew up, but he moved to Middletown (where most of the book is set) and spent the rest of his childhood there. He said there was (he’s in his 60s) a huge difference between the folks who emigrated from Kentucky, like the author’s family, and those who didn’t. He mentioned too that they didn’t call them hillbillies; they called them briar hoppers.

J.D.’s family was a bunch of rabble rousers from Jackson, Kentucky. It seems like most people from there were the same rough crowd, although endearing in their own way. Everyone knows everyone and has for a long time so people are friendly and nice to each other, but cross one of them, and they legitimately might kill you. So you can see how moving to Ohio (where not everyone has the “take God into your own hands” attitude) in search of better opportunities can prove challenging.

J.D. made it work though, seemingly partly by accident or luck, but he had some moments where his family made it work. His most constant family were his grandparents, although when they were parents, they were pretty terrible. Due to their alcoholism and fighting, J.D.’s mom was not set up for success. The other two children seemed to be fine enough, but J.D.’s mother never really got it together. Despite being smart enough to get a nursing certificate and at moments of lucidity, to stress to J.D. and his sister how important school was, a series of shitty boyfriends, fights, addictions, and job losses did not put her into a position to be a remotely decent mother.

Between his sister and his recovered grandparents, J.D. manages to graduate high school, and enrolls at Ohio State. However, he can’t bring himself to go. He’s nervous about all of the costs, and leaving his family, and just everything about it. So he decides to do the Marine Corps (still has to leave his family). Mamaw doesn’t think he’s making the right choice, but he does his 4 years in the Marines and comes back to go to Ohio State. (Reading the book, the author does mention advantages of going to the military but when he goes to Ohio State, he’s still doing stupid things like taking out payday loans or showing up for interviews wearing army fatigues). He packs his schedule full of classes and graduates in record time and then starts applying for law school.

He doesn’t initially apply to any top tier schools, but after realizing that law degrees from those sort of schools give you jobs as waitresses, he reconsiders and applies to Yale. He is accepted and even pays less than he would have at a less esteemed school. But it’s a huge culture shock that is entertaining but a little sad to read. Luckily classes there are small and he has fellow students and teachers (specifically one in particular) who helps him find his way. At the end of the day, he graduates, and he and his wife take jobs in Cincinnati. He still has a challenging relationship with his mother, but a good one with those who had continually supported him–his sister and some of his aunts and uncles. Hopefully we see more to come from him in the future.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Overall I thought the story was interesting. It was fairly cohesive and provides a glimpse into a life that most of us (thankfully including myself) never experience. I did feel like the story dragged a bit once J.D. goes to the marines and then back to Ohio State, but all in all, the stories of his upbringing and challenges go a long way to explanations. However, I felt like the conclusion was a little weak. Not that I expected the author to “solve the problem”, but I left wanting more of a conclusion. It could have been  “here are ways to help” or more social activism from him (a website which has political candidates to follow or laws/bills to support), but instead, it ended on a little bit of a neutral. Overall though, definitely would recommend.

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The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

Review (Amazon):

At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that is not meant to be read…

My darling Cecilia,
If you’re reading this, then I’ve died…

Imagine your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not only the life you have built together, but the lives of others as well. And then imagine that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive…

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything—and not just for her. There are other women who barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they, too, are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

My Review (MAJOR SPOILERS!!!):

Executive Summary: deeper than first glance

This is our literary fiction for the year. It’s a bit of a love story (stories?), a bit of a whodunnit, but mostly just a people drama. It’s set in Australia, mostly Sydney, and it has multiple quickly intersecting stories.

The “main” family that the book follows is perfect wife Cecilia and her husband John-Paul and their three children–Esther (a Berlin Wall enthusiast), Isabel and Polly (the outspoken beautiful youngster). One day, by accident, Cecilia finds a letter in her attic addressed “For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick to be opened only in the event of my death”.

We’re also introduced to Tess, her husband Will, her cousin Felicity, and her son Liam. Tess and Felicity have always been closer than sisters, and apparently even closer. After Felicity lost a ton of weight in the last year (after always being the fat girl), Will and Felicity fell in love. They announce to Tess who, understandably, freaks out and decides to take Liam back to Sydney (from Melbourne) to stay with her mother.

Next chapter, we meet Rachel. Rachel is a widow, and her only son Rob brought her over to tell her that he, his wife Lauren, and their son Jacob were going to be moving to New York for a few years. Rachel is overwhelmingly devastated. She had had a daughter, Janie,  who had been murdered many years earlier, and that pain had never healed. She feels like Jacob is all she has. Meanwhile she never really lets Rob or Lauren into her grief.

We cut back to Cecilia who brings up the letter she found when she knocked over some boxes in their crowded attic to her husband who is on a business trip. She can tell that he is trying to sound nonchalant, but that there’s more to it.

The following day, the connection between the 3 stories makes sense. Tess goes with her mother, Lucy to drop Liam off at his new school. Cecilia’s children go there as well, and Polly is in Liam’s grade. Rachel is the school’s secretary. While at the school, Tess also meets the gym teacher, Connor Whitby, a man who she dated years prior and who used to be an accountant. As soon as they meet, there’s obvious sexual tension.

Cecilia is going through all the things in her mind. She and John-Paul have not have sex in a year. Is he gay? Polly mentioned that Jean-Paul looks at Isabel strangely. Is he a pedophile? Esther saw him crying in the shower. Is he depressed? He tried to commit suicide once when he was younger…? She decides that she is in fact going to open the letter that evening after her Tupperware party she’s hosting. She volunteers to drive Rachel home from the party (her first one she’s attended) and arrives at home to find that John-Paul is home early. He asks her if she has opened it and she says no, but once he goes to bed, she opens it.

SPOILER! Stop reading here if you intend to read the book!!!

 

In the letter, John-Paul writes that he in fact is the person who killed Janie. They were secretly going out, not boyfriend/girlfriend, although that’s what he wanted. One day, Janie meets him at the park to break it off and tell him that there’s another boy who she’s more interested in. He’s furious and instead of being sympathetic, she laughs. He didn’t mean to kill her. He just attacked her in rage and before he knew what he was doing, she was dead. The police never suspected him because they didn’t know he was involved at all. He went to a different school, and Janie hadn’t told anyone about him. John-Paul said that he would have confessed had anyone else been accused for the crime, but the only person of interest was Connor Whitby and he had an alibi.

Welp, OK. So a) I figured out the secret ahead of time (because really what else could it be? there’s only one unsolved mystery in the story) and b) now what?! The book to me got really dull after this because the letter was opened less than halfway through!

So the book progresses that Tess begins sleeping with Connor. Rachel finds a video of Janie and Connor, and she turns it into the police as new evidence. She is convinced that Connor killed Janie and it just eats her alive seeing him at the school every day. Cecilia and John-Paul try to have a normal life, but Cecilia is having a lot of trouble keeping it together (at least to the perfect mom level she had previously).

And then it’s Good Friday. Apparently no one does anything at all on Good Friday in Australia except eat hot cross buns with lots of butter. (I thought hot cross buns were from a nursery rhyme and weren’t really a thing any more.)  So on Good Friday, Tess tells Connor that she and Liam will come to the park to fly a kite. Unfortunately, Felicity appears earlier in the day to tell her that she and Will are splitting up and he’s on his way to meet her to try to get Tess back. By the time she lets Connor know that they can’t meet him, he’s already at the park. Cecilia, John-Paul and the girls are also there on their bikes and Polly spots Connor, one of her favorite teachers, and races to catch him before he heads off. Unfortunately Good Friday is also the anniversary of Janie’s death. Rachel has spent the morning with Rob and Lauren visiting the grave site before getting the police call that they are not reopening the case due to her new evidence as it wasn’t substantial enough. All of those things pieced together lead to Rachel seeing Connor–the man she believes killed her daughter–about to walk into traffic and blinded with rage, she hits the accelerator and hits…Polly who is trying to get Connor’s attention.

Polly is rushed to the hospital, where she is in critical condition. She ends up having to lose her right arm below the elbow because it couldn’t be salvaged. Rachel is there too getting checked up and she goes to try to apologize to Cecilia and explains that she was enraged seeing Connor because he killed her daughter. At that moment, Cecilia confesses that it was actually John-Paul who had done it. And then the world was right and everyone got on with their lives.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

The book was fine. It had some ups and downs. The whole underlying premise though that this stupid boy murdered a girl who wasn’t even dating him because she nervous giggled at him. It makes me want to kill him. She died. His daughter only lost an arm. It’s not the same. I thought the prose itself was good so that helped a little, but all in all the story felt a bit like it was trying to prove a point then be realistic.

 

 

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Graceling – Kristin Cashore

Review (Amazon): Kristin Cashore’s best-selling, award-winning fantasy Graceling tells the story of the vulnerable yet strong Katsa, a smart, beautiful teenager who lives in a world where selected people are given a Grace, a special talent that can be anything from dancing to swimming. Katsa’s is killing. As the king’s niece, she is forced to use her extreme skills as his thug. Along the way, Katsa must learn to decipher the true nature of her Grace . . . and how to put it to good use. A thrilling, action-packed fantasy adventure (and steamy romance!) that will resonate deeply with adolescents trying to find their way in the world.

My Review (SpOiLeRs!!!):

Executive Summary: a fun escape

The book is set in the Seven Kingdoms which were originally ruled by the same family, but now many generations later, each has a different ruler–some good and some bad. In this land, certain children are born with two different colored eyes and a special skill of some sort. These children are called Gracelings and their skill is called their Grace. The main character Katsa is a Graceling who is from the Middluns and her Grace is killing.


As it is the protocol in most of the kingdoms, Gracelings are given to the ruler once their Grace appears and the ruler can determine whether the Grace is of use. (If your Grace is holding your breath underwater for a long time, it might not be. If that’s the case, you’re sent home to your parents.) Katsa’s mother was the sister of the Middluns king so either way, she ended up as the king’s ward at a young age when her parents died. Once her Grace appeared at age 8 as she accidentally killed her distant cousin, a creep who liked little girls and tried to touch her, the king put her to work.

It was a lonely childhood as most view the Graced as people to avoid–a sort of curse. Especially in Katsa’s case. Her only friend was the King’s son Raffin, her cousin. Eventually she also gained the confidence of Captain Oll who helped her train as well as a woman named Helda who was the nurse of the royal nurseries, but who had a son who was a Graceling who she had left behind so she took a particular fondness to Katsa.

As Katsa grew older, she trained in all fighting skills and did King Randa’s dirty work. She continued to get more and more disenchanted with it. She, Raffin, and a few others decide to start using their skills for good and assemble a council.

The book begins with a mission. Katsa, Captain Oll and Giddon (one of Randa’s right hand men) were in the dungeons of Sunder to rescue the father of the King of Leinid (Prince Tealiff) who had been kidnapped. During the process while Katsa knocks the guards unconscious and gives them some sleeping medicine developed by Raffin, she encounters another Graceling, a Lienid, who she wasn’t expecting. She doesn’t want to kill anyone but she also doesn’t want her plan foiled. She debates what to do with him and eventually leaves him unconscious like the others. They rescue the Prince and take him back to Middluns to hide him and figure out who kidnapped him and why.

They immediately thought of the kings of Wester, Nander, and Estill as they were typically the most troublesome. King Randa for the most part minded his own business so he wasn’t likely to blame. King Ror of Leinid was the least troublesome and well-liked by his people. Even King Murgon of Sunder where the Prince was found was typically only doing someone else’s bidding, not plotting something on his own. The only other kingdom was Monsea who was ruled by King Leck whose wife was a Leinid and also the daughter of Prince Tealiff. Monsea was separated geographically but the general view was that King Leck was well liked and kind to children and animals. However, the word was also out that the queen had locked herself in her room after hearing of her father’s disappearance.

After returning to the kingdom after some time away, it turns out that Prince Tealiff hasn’t spoken. She asks Raffin if he had ever heard of a Graceling Leinid and Raffin mentions that he’s the son of King Ror and is in the Middluns castle at the moment as he is searching for his kidnapped grandfather. On the way to her rooms to dress for dinner, she sees him a floor above and feels his gaze on her.

At dinner, she is seated next to Giddon and next to the next potential suitor, Lord Davit, that King Randa has arranged, except this one has come to inquire about the Council. Katsa overhears the King telling a story about her and gets enraged and leaves the dinner to go for a walk. The Leinid Prince, Po,  finds her at the archery range. He explains that he is no good at fighting with weapons but is graced with hand to hand combat. He’s looking for his grandpa and he fights Katsa, an even fight, to get some answers, and he is invited to that evening’s Council meeting.

Po remains in Middluns until they decide what to do, practicing fighting with Katsa which continues to make Lord Giddon upset.  Katsa and Po get to know each other out of the ring too as Katsa has never really met any other Gracelings. She learns that he has six older brothers, his own castle, and has never felt weird about his Grace. In the meantime, Lord Randa sends Katsa to do his bidding. When she arrives, she makes the decision to not follow orders because she knows the King can’t actually harm her. She also refuses Giddon’s proposal for marriage but something he says gives her cause for concern–it’s an exact phrase that Po has said to her. When she returns to Middluns, she confronts Po that his Grace is not what he has said–he is in fact a mind reader. Katsa is furious, but Po eventually convinces her that he has to keep it a secret so that he can lead a relatively normal life. He tells her that he is leaving the following day and asks her to come with him.

Before she can answer, she gets called in to see the King for her disobedience. The king has lined up all his best soldiers to confront her, 10x more than the usual amount. Instead of unleashing her fury, she listens to Po’s voice in her head and tells the King how she could defeat all the soldiers and still get to him and then tells the King that she will no longer be his pawn and is leaving the following day with Po.

As she and Po travel, she becomes more accepting of his Grace and they figure out a way to make it work. He openly shares with her and she practices on guarding the thoughts that she doesn’t want him to outright know and also how to communicate with him without speaking. He boosts her confidence, first by suggesting that she keep in mind that she started the Council so therefore is not completely evil and only good for doing the King’s bidding and then leading to her revelation that in fact, her Grace is not actually fighting–it’s survival.

Po also tells her the tale of the King of Monsea. The previous King and Queen of Monsea yearned for a child but never could have one. One day, a young boy arrived, wearing an eye patch, and charms the King, Queen and the rest of Monsea. The King and Queen take him in, feeling pity for this poor boy who has no home and has lost an eye. So a few years later, when the King and Queen still do not have an heir, they name him the heir. Only a few days later, the King, Queen and their closest advisers had all died.

They collect information along the way which leads them into changing their plans to head to Monsea instead to talk to King Leck. And then they realize that his eye patch might mean that he’s actually Graced and has used the patch to hide it. They suspect that King Leck’s Grace is distributing misinformation. So they head that way and assume that Po’s Grace will protect them. As they travel, both Katsa and Po hone their Grace. Po begins to be able to sense things around him, even inanimate things that could not be thinking of him. Katsa and Po also begin to think about each other. Katsa does not want to get married or have children, and Po is OK with that.

When they arrive in Monsea, they stumble across a scene–a woman is running from an army of men, led by a man with an eye patch. The woman is shot in the back trying to escape. Po tells Katsa to kill King Leck, but he sees them and goes on about what a terrible accident the whole thing was so Katsa doubts what she has just seen and puts down her bow. Po and Katsa run into the woods although Katsa’s thoughts are blurry and disoriented and she doesn’t understand what is going on. It takes a while for her to realize that she was fooled by Leck’s Grace. He shot his own wife in front of Katsa and he was still able to convince her that it was an accident.

They hide out in the woods until they believe that it is safe (that King Leck’s men aren’t looking for them) and they go off in search of Bitterblue, the King’s daughter who took off and is hiding. Luckily Bitterblue’s mom thought about where Bitterblue was hiding as she died so Po has a good idea of where it is.

Once they find Bitterblue, she reinforces that her father needs to be killed. He tortures children and animals. And her mother locked the two of them up so that her father couldn’t get to Bitterblue. King Leck stole Prince Tealiff to try to blackmail Bitterblue’s mother into changing her mind. Po is to set out early to find King Leck and kill him. However, he returns very injured and King Leck is very much still alive. Po remains in hiding because he will slow them down due to his injuries. Po gives Katsa his ring so that his parents will trust her, and Katsa and Bitterblue set off to Leinid. They take an impossible pass since Leck and his minions will be watching for them at the obvious ones.

The journey is incredibly difficult but Katsa’s Grace protects them. Eventually they arrive at Po’s castle and his whole family is there…with King Leck. King Leck has the entire family in a trance. Luckily Bitterblue has fought against him long enough to be able to combat his trickery some. King Leck wants to talk about Po–where he is and how he is doing. When he begins to suggest that Po’s Grace is more than just fighting, Po’s mom and Katsa become agitated and Katsa kills Leck with a dagger to the throat.

It takes quite a while for the effects of Leck’s spell to stop but eventually Po’s family realize that they had been tricked. They set off the next morning to take Bitterblue back to Monsea where she will be the new queen. They make their way back to find Po. He has healed some but Katsa finds him depressed and not the fun loving person she left. Eventually, she realizes that he is blind–blinded during his fall into the river after his attack with Leck’s men. His Grace keeps the others from realizing what has happened. Katsa begins training him as well as Bitterblue so that Po can get back to full health and Bitterblue can learn to protect herself. She decides to take her skills on tour–starting in Monsea where she continues to teach Bitterblue along with other girls how to fight. The book ends with her planning to meet Po back in Leinid in the fall.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

This book was a fun, easy read. It had a lot of resemblance to Hunger Games but it didn’t feel quite so dark. I did enjoy that while it was still a YA, it wasn’t the traditional “I’m just waiting for that man to come along and suddenly I’ll be smitten and get married and have babies!!!” On the other hand, I wished that we got to see a bit more depth out of Katsa throughout the book. Maybe in the next one.

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Those Who Save Us – Jenna Blum

Review (Amazon): For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.

Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.

Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.

My Review (spoilers!):

Executive Summary: decent

I’ve expressed my general apathy toward WW2 (German-focused) books on here before. Yet somehow I keep reading them (because I foolishly take recommendations of them from people who love them). This one really is not bad, however it was my 3rd WW2 for 2016 (technically I finished it in ’17 but it was started in ’16 so I’m counting it). It wasn’t as great as The Nightingale, but it wasn’t as rotten as The Book Thief, so I guess that makes it solidly decent.

The book follows two intertwined stories–One of Anna and eventually her daughter Trudy in 1940s Germany, and another story in the present (late 1990s) of the mother and daughter in Minnesota. Despite that literary device being a bit overused in my opinion, the author did a good job with it and was able to freshen it up a bit with the modern story.

Trudy is a professor of German history. When her colleague and only friend tells Trudy about her upcoming project to interview Jews who lived through WW2, Trudy has a revelation that she wants to do the same with German nationals. She wants first person stories about how people who lived through such atrocities could turn a blind eye to what was going on around them. She also secretly has a desire to learn about her own past since her mother has closed off everything about that time.

Anna grew up in Weimar in Germany (not the town in Texas that has really good fried chicken). Her mother died and she took over the job of taking care of her father who early became a Nazi. He was a social climber and wanted to find Anna a good pure husband. Unbeknownst to him, she had other plans. Anna falls for the town doctor, a Jew, and eventually hides him in their home. Anna’s father is away much of the time and she visits Max in the secret closet. Her father inevitably finds out and turns Max into the Gestapo. Anna at this point is pregnant and retreats to a sympathetic Mathilde, the town baker.

Mathilde keeps her hidden until Trudy is born and begins teaching her the craft–not just baking, but also smuggling food to prisoners at the nearby work yard where she collects and returns with their messages.  Mathilde keeps this up until she is eventually killed, presumably caught in the act, and Anna takes over. However, this is not to last either. A German officer, the Oberstrumfuhrer, takes interest in her. Anna makes the decision to encourage these advances to both protect her daughter and also feed them. She keeps up work at the bakery until there is no more ingredients left from which to make bread (although she is only feeding the Nazi soldiers at this point and is not taking any to the prisoners). The Oberstrumfuhrer is a man of some depth. While he is a horrible man in many ways, he does seem to generally like Anna and Trudy, bringing them chocolates and taking them on trips. Anna struggles with her decisions daily, but she doesn’t see another option. When finally the American arrival is inevitable, the Oberstrumfuhrer leaves and heads for Argentina, leaving Anna and Trudy in Weimar.

The Americans arrive, and one drunken soldier breaks into the bakery and tries to rape Anna. He is stopped by a superior officer, a Jack Schlemmer. He and Anna marry and they move to Minnesota with Trudy. Anna never really fits in with the locals in the small town, and she has so much emotional baggage from her time in Germany that she and Jack have a very broken relationship until he dies and Anna is put into a home which she is eventually kicked out of when she comes to live with Trudy.

Trudy continues doing interviews. In one, she is bamboozled by a Jew who has called her for an interview only to berate her entire project denouncing all Germans for what they have done. However, Trudy is drawn to this man and feels a connection to him. She tells him that she is the daughter of an Oberstrumfuhrer as she has seen the picture of him, Anna and her in her mother’s cigarette case. He tells her that his brother was shot in the head point blank by a Nazi soldier just to make a point. They date for a while, Trudy falling in love with him, but it is not to work. Her mother secretly watches the interviews and Trudy has caught her watching the one of Rainer, but her mother will not agree to be interviewed and spills no information.

Another interviewee who reaches out to Trudy is a man named Felix who grew up just outside Weimar. Trudy acknowledges her birthplace and begins to listen more intently to his tale. He tells of how he was a bit of a scumbag–out to make money on the war. He bought people’s valuables in exchange for papers and ways out of Germany. Eventually he was caught and imprisoned. He tells Trudy about the bakery angels who would leave presents in the hollow tree and take their messages. He tells Trudy about a man named Max who was also in the camp and had a secret daughter with one of the bakery angels. At this point, Trudy, in shock, asks her camera man to stop the tape and asks Felix if he will come meet her mother. He agrees and while they are waiting for the camera man to pack up, Trudy asks what became of Max. Felix responds that Oberstrumfuhrer von Stuern hanged him and kicked away the chair.

When they get to Trudy’s, Anna still does not give away anything. She says she cannot remember ever seeing a murder at the prison while she was delivering food, although Felix later assures Trudy that it was indeed Anna who he saw there. He has lunch with Anna and when Trudy returns him to his place, he tells her that he would like to visit Anna again, and Trudy agrees that she thinks her mother would enjoy it. The book ends with Trudy in silent reflection.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good book. I enjoyed the premise of Trudy being a child in the war who grew up to be a professor of German history. I found the characters to be very well rounded and well developed and they felt very real, even the ones the readers didn’t know well. The only real downside is that…it’s hard to be very original on a German WW2 novel.

 

 

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