Reviews by Claire M. (Sarasota, FL)

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Travelers: A Novel
by Helon Habila
Les Miserables 21st Century (5/6/2019)
TRAVELERS is a book of wonder. Through 6 "books" Habilon ties a Nigerian- almost American to tales of people who have survived fleeing their African or Asian homelands to Europe. These are the stories of the migrants we read about every day, fleeing war and the certainty of death for a chance to live. Each person's story is different but ever so much the same: trusting smugglers to get them out or in, horrific death, losing families, near starvation and for some the stress and chaos leaves them beaten, half insane. They exist in refugee camps with conditions unknown to anyone who hasn't experienced one. The question that should be in every reader's mind is – where is human compassion, where is the will to find ways to make life in the countries of Africa, Afghanistan, etc., safer and viable? The culture wars present in most European countries, America and Australia leave no room for empathy but the human tide of travelers will not end.
Helon Habilon is a writer of quiet power. His characters take you into their lives with the simple telling of their quest for a human connection, a place to make a living for them and their families. This would be a good book club choice if it considered the lives that have been lost or the trauma people undergo just trying to live.

Someone will pick this up and either do a reading or a powerful play. It needs to be widely disseminated.
The Guest Book
by Sarah Blake
Secrets and Lies (4/11/2019)
I started The Guest Book with some expectation, and in the end, it is a good book, a good read. As it jumps around in time it might prove helpful for the publisher to include a page with a family tree. People who name their children after themselves make it confusing as the book goes back and forth in time, especially if one does not read this in one sitting.

Perhaps the ability of those who come from and continue privilege in our society who never confront, even within their own family, their secrets, their indifference to the excluded allows them to live in a world of their own with peace.

Ogden and Kitty Milton are the beginning line of this family saga and I find Ogden to be the most interesting character, but his is not developed, perhaps because he appears to be more enlightened. Kitty is ruthless in her maintenance of how life should be lived, and will not tolerate anything that might interfere. And that brings heartbreak to two of her children.

Blake has left us with much to infer as secrets are never directly revealed. Or the results of those secrets may be revealed but never the life between the deed and its result.
Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir
by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
Bright Lights, No Filter (1/5/2019)
Bright Lights; No Filter. Jessica Hindman leaves Appalachia for the big city and in a very short period of time starts to see Culture. That kind, yes, but also the big one: her studies in middle east history and politics as well as small town America and the Capital of the World all create a world view that is currently critical in a country comfortable with false realities.
Hindman enters this new world when she gets a job playing violin in an ensemble which is really not being heard because it is always a sound track the mystery Composer plays for all audiences. The audiences believe the musicians are actually playing and this "what is real, what is not" is the kick-starter for seeing the world anew and calling out the fake for what it is. While playing in the ensemble to pay for her living, she desperately wants to become a journalist to explain the middle east to the outside world, but she is unable to find a job in which she would work for free. Her work and her dreams are both thwarted by the catch-22 of fakery that is reality.
Gone So Long
by Andre Dubus III
Gone So Long (11/2/2018)
Mother love. The thing Susan searches for but never finds, going from man to man with no feeling of finding permanence. The murder of her mother by her father when she was a child haunts the characters in Gone So Long. A lone, vicious act of uncontrollable anger when Danny Ahearn stabs Linda creates a lifetime of fear and self loathing in Danny, his daughter Susan and Linda's mother Lois. Dubus depicts these characters in minute detail, as the story tells us how that act affected each of their lives and what the absence of Linda was to each of them. The story is dark, but some of the pieces are put together to bring some joy to Lois and Susan.
A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Place for Us (4/9/2018)
An incredible debut from a very young author; reading A Place for Us is a richly rewarding experience. Family dynamics, secrets told and not, questioning one's religion and deciding whether and how it works for one is an important subtext. A young Indian Muslim man moves to America and through an arranged marriage brings his wife to start their lives in America. Interestingly, Indian Muslims make up only about 14 of the Indian population, although it is the third largest Muslim population in the world. Being marginalized here or there was not addressed. What Fatima Farheen Mirza does address is how the five family members search for their roles in the family, identity and belonging in that organization as well as in the larger culture. This is a tour de force-the structure, characterization, storytelling, cultural questioning and deeply personal self-reflection culminate in a magnificent addition to our literature.
The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure
by Shoba Narayan
The Sacred Cow (12/18/2017)
Upon returning home to India after 20 years in New York, Brahmin Shoba Narayan is greeted in her new building by a neighbor and a cow this woman is bringing in the elevator for the housewarming benediction of her new home. Narayan is nonplussed but then considers, on the advice of the man moving her family in, having the cow bless her apartment as well. And so begins the story of returning to Bangalore and the relationship Narayan forms with Sarala, the milk woman and her cows. Through this friendship and the need to understand the Hindu customs and cow-centric culture to which Narayan was unaware in her former Indian life she unearths lore, science, custom, and loads of facts and myths about the animal. Reverence is everywhere and towards parts of the cow non-Hindus would probably not dwell on like drinking the urine for various health cures, or using the dung to clean with. There is a wealth of information about local cows, the best milk, the color of cows, foreign cows, the grasses and what they deliver to the milk to aid the human who drinks it. It is part of Ayurvedic health regimens, it is the repository of all the gods, it is the sacred cow.

I found this book, though tedious sometimes with all the information, a wonderful cultural addition to a not well-understood custom.
Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces
by Dawn Davies
Mothers of Sparta (9/26/2017)
There is some amazing writing here. And as Dawn shifts from one life period to another the tone and substance change, to the point I thought perhaps I was reading different authors. But as one grows, perspective changes and of course, life changes too. One of the funnier pieces talks about Dawn's almost addictive desire to let the family birds, hamsters, etc be free only to be eaten by their dog time and again. A sadder one involves the autism of her son. Dawn writes with eyes wide open, a very clear idea of self that grows with time. She has such a sense of language that I was just left with my mouth open sometimes, wondering how she did it. This is a talented writer and I look forward to whatever she writes.
The Necklace
by Claire McMillan
The Necklace (7/7/2017)
The Necklace is a good bet for a lazy afternoon in a hammock on the porch or a chair at the beach. It lacked character development and really any kind of emotional depth. Having said that, it is a story of family secrets and greed, jealous rivalry between brothers, and perhaps with the development of Nell, and certainly more about her mother it would be quite engaging in how the outcasts of the Quincy family were far more grounded and what actually led to the semi-estrangement. Although the story of May and Ambrose is central, Nell would have been a better focal point.
The Twelve-Mile Straight: A Novel
by Eleanor Henderson
The Twelve Mile Straight (5/28/2017)
There are so many reasons to read this vivid, beautifully written book about life as a sharecropper around the time of the depression. One is that if you think about it while you're reading you'll come away with a greater understanding of life as a black or poor white and how it is embedded in our culture. Another is Henderson's writing and structure. Elma, Nan and Juke are really the central characters and we are introduced to them in the first chapters. Moving on she goes sideways and back to show us how intricately those lives are part of a bigger picture-life in a small town in Georgia where everyone is part of the story.

Elma Jessup gives birth to what are called the Gemini twins – one light skinned the other dark. A black hired hand is accused of raping her and he is hung, which ultimately forces the townspeople to confront who they really are. She lives with her father Juke and Nan, the black daughter of her dead household help. Elma and Nan are like sisters - Nan can't speak because her mother cut out her tongue when she was a child. Elma is bringing up the twins as she can, but eventually all the lies and secrets of intertwined families begin to surface and the good and the evil in Florence, Cotton County, Georgia explain how we come to be where we are.
Rise: How a House Built a Family
by Cara Brookins
Rise-A family made house (10/31/2016)
An inspirational story of a woman who finally has the courage to break away from her schizophrenic, abusive husband, Cara Brookins and her four young children grow individually as well as a family through building a house. Cara sits down one night and talks about building a house. Her son Drew pipes up with rooms and where they belong. Cara obtains a lot and the building begins. Talk became life and a game changer. You want to read this story: it's real life in the making.
The Tea Planter's Wife
by Dinah Jefferies
The Tea Planter's Wife (7/25/2016)
A captivating read about a well to do Englishman, the wife he marries in England, brings to his tea plantation in Ceylon in the early years of the 20th century before the fall of the Raj. Gwen meets Laurence and falls deeply in love with him, a widower who has a few secrets that impact their life and Gwen ends up having one of her own. It is an interesting combination of romance, mystery and life in a colonial household. We get glimpses of the future when the civil war will tear apart the Tamil and Sinhalese and a sense of the racism and the resentments of locals toward the plantation owners and in some cases, the reverse.
I found it a good read that indulged my long time desire to travel to India to take in the variety of peoples, the sites and senses.
Miss Jane
by Brad Watson
Miss Jane (4/8/2016)
I love this book! Really love it. Each of us has a story, but the ability to tell it is what keeps most of us from doing so. Brad Watson gives voice to Miss Jane's story in some of the most beautiful writing I've read in a long time. Set in the South, in pre-depression Mississippi up through recent times it is about a rural family coping with their lives in ways often alien to one another. Miss Jane is born with some type of genital defect and since this is relatively unknown in these times her life is compromised in several ways and she attends school for a short period. But her life is fulfilling in so many ways as she teaches herself from keen observation and the natural environment. Jane's life is rich and full though she spends so much of it alone. She is a strong character who intrigues those who come to know her. The friendship she has with Dr. Thompson throughout their lives is special to both-and became so to me. It was also a portrait of the south that appealed to me through its gentle approach to the people and their land. Watson is a storyteller of great power and finesse.
The Language of Secrets
by Ausma Zehanat Khan
The Language of Secrets (11/10/2015)
A post 9/11 Canadian terrorist plot brings out the political tensions within subsets of the RCMP and Muslims in the department and those connected with a local terrorist cell in a mosque in Toronto. Inspector Esa Khattak and his partner Rachel Getty become enmeshed in an investigation of murder of an informant who was also a close friend of the Inspector and whose murder highlights the political, ideological and personal motives of all involved. There are stories within stories and Khan's writing explores the poetic side of Islam as well as the jihadist and the idealists drawn in by the charisma of the mosque leader, all of which gives a more complete picture to see the enemy within.
Girl Waits with Gun
by Amy Stewart
Girl Waits with Gun (8/11/2015)
This delightful adventure reminds me of Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames; adventure series for girls back in the 50's. This is an adult version but one of historical fiction. Our chief heroine, Constance Kopp is taller, braver, and quite formidable for a woman in 1914. She and her sisters are traveling to town in their horse drawn buggy when they are hit by the car of an industrial mogul which begins a tale of kidnapping, guns, and 3 sisters who confront the issues of the day in definitely feminist ways.
Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir
by Jamie Brickhouse
Sex, Drugs, Rock&Roll. And Mama (3/20/2015)
A searingly forthright memoir from a high level publishing exec recounts his escalating drinking problem, his need for one night stands, and the power his mother's love held over him. Jamie Brickhouse grew up in Texas in an outrageously dysfunctional family and moved to NYC right after college. He had always known he was gay and being free of Beaumont Texas, he soon met his unbelievably supportive partner who stood with him through years of alcohol abuse, trysts in which he found himself waking up in strange towns, losing a few jobs and ultimately, a near death experience. Jamie dried out and it lasted for awhile but there were fall outs along the way until he finally came to grips with the shadow of his mother's love and the need to function without having to prove who loved whom more. It's quite a ride and a story of family and almost unconditional love.
Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story
by Mac McClelland
Irritable Hearts (1/4/2015)
McClelland writes an intensely personal and deeply researched memoir of years of her life in the clutches of PTSD. That she actually functioned through most of it is perhaps because she sought subject specific help and had friends, two therapists and a new lover who supported and never abandoned her. There is so much of her invested, so much investigation of what and who gets PTSD that at times it seems we are all candidates. Her work with veterans' wives and sexual abuse cases is considerable and as she hardly needs to point out, the mental illness can be fatal. As I read this I understood quite clearly why a distant friend and so many vets kill themselves. This is a powerful and eye opening testimony of living with PTSD and reading it may well be consolation to others with the disease.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors
by Nayomi Munaweera
Island of a thousand mirrors (4/22/2014)
Munaweera is an exciting and talented new voice. Her descriptive powers are enormous and in using both sides of the Sinhalese/Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, a case for the casualties of war-that are really the innocent families of both sides-becomes paramount. The violence perpetrated on Saraswathi leads her to perpetuate it and visit it on the sister of Yasodhara. This was a civil war that occurred before those of most recent years in Bosnia, Sudan, Rwanda. It is also about class: those with connections and/or the means are able to leave, those in poverty are doomed to be victims.
The writing is quite lyrical and gives voice to each character. I felt emotionally vested in them, no matter the nationalism because Munaweera is capable of finding the humanity beneath the cultural divide.
The Cairo Affair
by Olen Steinhauer
The Cairo Affair (12/20/2013)
Engrossed in reading the story, towards the end I put the book down and thought about spies and diplomats, moles, double agents, wives of any or all of them and wondered what possesses them. Although I felt the story was plot driven I was pushed to think about what drove the characters, possibly because I didn't understand who Sophie was, and because they seem to me to represent a variety of human motivation for the sins we commit.

I've lived long enough to know that we don't remain static in our beliefs forever, particularly when events and human characters press on our nerves. Most people probably enter the intelligence services in their formative twenties, having an unexamined sense of patriotism and perhaps they are true believers, but the events and people with which the spymasters, spies and the assassins deal have to impact on their sense of who they really are and what they are doing . And for what reason. For Zora, perverse pleasure in controlling another as well as money. For Emmett, a belief in country because he wasn't a spy but an economist thinking he could further the interests of his country. For Sophie, an undeveloped woman who was essentially amoral. But imagine Omar, a drone who finally figures out the whole damn series of betrayals, double agents, and what it was all for who then co-opts the evil assassin in a world that has changed dramatically. Omar is the most interesting character because he has worked for the state under Mubaryk for most of his career and it is only when weird happenings in the Arab Spring put him in play and each time he is onto something he is yanked back by his boss that he ultimately becomes the master of the game. He has a moral center, or does he? Power backstage on the world theatre is a devil's game.
Last Train to Istanbul
by Ayse Kulin
Last Train to Istanbul (10/1/2013)
A little known aspect of WWll, Ayse Kulin relates the efforts by Turkish diplomats to aid Turkish and other Jews out of Nazi occupied France. Although it's a compelling story, telling it as a historical novel I think compromises part of the tension of the actual events by making two sisters of a Turkish pasha the focal point. One is the wife of a busy bureaucrat and her antics don't really contribute to the story other than to introduce one of the diplomats who will be in France dealing with the solution of getting the Jews on the Last Train. The other sister marries a Turkish Jew and chooses exile in France that is the engine for the novel. However, it is Selva, rather than her husband Raphael and the other Jews, who is written as the strongest character against the almost fecklessness of the Jews and the men of the diplomatic corps who took the biggest risks. I also take exception to using current expressions in a novel about 70 years ago, which may be the translation, but nonetheless jarring.
Having said all that, I did enjoy the book and think it's a story that should be wider known. Of those who aided Jews out of Europe very little is known about who they were and how they were able to accomplish it. I also think it's important because we don't have here in America a whole lot of into about Turkey. Istanbul was quite the place for spies and diplomats during the war and there is a sense of that here. The novel is a good starting place for those interested in these times and particularly the efforts of the Turkish government.
How to Be a Good Wife
by Emma Chapman
How to be a good wife (8/22/2013)
Wow! What a wonderful read this book was! Skillful writing and plotting takes us through the lonely marriage of Marta Bjornstad. There are feminist issues raised tracing the marriage from its shadowy beginning; a husband too dominated by his mother who seemingly is concerned about the mental health of his wife. But is his wife being manipulated by his concerns? As Marta begins to rely more on her own instincts she begins to think about her past and in doing so, raises the spectre of paranoia, which ultimately creates an ambiguity that will be read differently by the marital or feminist position of the reader. Emma Chapman has delivered a stunning debut.
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