Reviews by lani

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Paper Names: A Novel
by Susie Luo
Rising to the American dream (2/20/2023)
Paper names..paper names…paper names…Are they titles people accrue flimsy like paper? Does being the doorman's hero daughter, Harvard graduate, Chinese immigrant lawyer, fiancé mean anything in the end? How do we form our true identity?
Painting in self-assured strokes, the author examines the lives of two families and three individuals. Tony was an effective and accomplished engineer in China who left for the American dream for a life that would prove he had made it in the world for himself and his family, including his young daughter Tammy. Tammy is introduced as a 9 year old and we watch as she explores her world and defines herself by pushing up the ladder to achieve her father's expectations. Oliver is a wealthy white lawyer with a circumspect past who rides the coattails of his family's wealth and entitlements. Both families' lives are embedded with secrets and legacies that serve to shape the next generation.
Tony works as a doorman at an exclusive hotel when a robber tries to steal a famous tenant's purse. He attacks the man and becomes a hero while Oliver watches behind the plated glass. Thus, begins the core of the current day story. The development of the characters is aptly described in chapters with shifting timelines that gives one an Eagles eye view of their evolving characters. What costs accrue as they ascend the ladder of their dreams? In the plot the author brilliantly captures the love of family and how it shapes the family systems' dynamics while also exploring a tale of corruption of affluence and opportunity.
A quick read of an enjoyable story but I didn't find myself rooting for the characters or becoming engrossed in the plot.
Once We Were Home
by Jennifer Rosner
History that needs to be told (11/4/2022)
Two Jewish children were raised by a Christian couple, went to church, and were assimilated into the Christian faith but were surrounded by love. However, they were eventually identified as being Jewish and whisked away to Israel. Another boy was raised in a monastery but when identified as Jewish the church wanted to save his soul, refusing to give him up and tried to hide him. The third girl who was a post-graduate student in archeology went to Israel after her mother's death with unanswered questions about her background. All of them eventually ended up in Israel with questions of identity that tortured their souls. The author divided the chapters from each person's perspective but it was easy to keep track of one another. I admit I was very familiar with the history behind the story and had worked in a kibbutz but wasn't as emotionally drawn in until the latter half of the book. Being Jewish I wasn't sure if some background words would make sense to some readers ie: afikomen, as I didn't feel they were written with context. However, this book is an important contribution to the field where the displacement of children after the war is a subject that needs to be heard.
The Lies I Tell: A Novel
by Julie Clark
What is veracity? (3/24/2022)
When you eat popcorn it's hard to eat one piece. It is hard not to take a handful and stuff it in your mouth. Well, popcorn and I had an amazing ride with a book I finished in two days. The pages began to fly as I easily devoured this crackling mystery. I loved her previous book but I think she has outdone herself. The story revolves around two women, one who goes by different names (Meg, Melody, Maggie) as she cons her way across time, bilking people out of personal wealth and possessions. Her big aim is to reach a man who tricked her mother into losing their home so that she and her mother ended up living in a car. The other woman (Kate) has her own criterion for wanting to expose the first woman. As a journalist she slowly delves into "Meg's life, trying to unmask Meg for ruining her life in the past. As lies and maneuvering abound, both of them arrive to a new admission that there is more than meets the eye.

With its breakneck speed and fleshed out characters, this book will keep you riveted to the last page. Run. Run. Run to submerge yourself in an escape from life. You won't be sorry.
French Braid: A novel
by Anne Tyler
shattering examination of a family (3/20/2022)
French Braid."That's it. And then when she undid them,(her braids) her hair would still be in ripples, little leftover squiggles, for hours and hours afterward."
"Well," David said, "that's how families work, too. You think you are free of them, but you're never REALLY free; the ripples are crimped in forever."
What a perfect metaphor for a family that specializes in distance from one another, secrets of their lives untold, where communication is stifled, even as their lives are enter-twined or braided with one another.
To be transparent, I kept getting knots in my stomach reading this novel as I identified my own family with its secrets, aloofness and silence. This story begins in 1959,a time when housewives generally acted like "Leave it to Beaver" and expressing their secret desires was not the norm. After several decades(60 years) we see the evolution of this family from grandparents, children and grandchildren. Though the family was cracked and detached from one another, love was expressed in small intricate waves. An insecure father, married to a woman who secretly wanted to be an artist, a daughter who was prim and proper, another one wild and contrary, and the unknowable son who distanced himself from the family. After the kids move out, the wife subtlely ships her items to a rented studio proceeding daily to set it up, bringing her clothes, beginning to spend nights there until she moves out completely while her husband refuses to acknowledge the truth. And..typical in this family, the truth is never spoken out loud to the children. The children have their own clandestine adventures in this character driven novel expressed by the minutiae of families every day lives. However, one gets to witness the unraveling which I found sad but not bleak, with the ending showing there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Although this was not my favorite of Anne Tyler's books, Tyler fans will not be disappointed. Themes are consistent with many of her other novels and you know she will pilot you safely forward.
Lightning Strike: Cork O'Connor Mystery Series #18
by William Kent Krueger
Father and son's relationship (9/9/2021)
A gentle yet mysterious novel that will stir your heart. This sounds like an oxymoron but Krueger has pulled off a skillful coming of age story, an unsolved mystery and a deeply transporting picture of the back woods of Minnesota. The vivid descriptions of the water, inlets and sacred lands become just as vital to the story as the well drawn characters. Although I have read his previous levels, the capacity of my brain has weakened and I could not remember the plot lines. That said, this prequel easily stands on its own without the reader suffering any consequences. Cork O'Connor, a 12 year old, comes across the cruel hanging of one of his beloved native Adult friends about 4 days after the occurrence. You can only imagine the status of the corpse at that time. Was this a suicide? Or was this the work of a nefarious person/s. Cork's father Liam is sheriff and tries to elucidate the answers through logic and evidence. Although Cork is married to a Native woman, the tribal Indians have no faith that he will take the right course of action. Much of this anger has to do with the real life Indian relocation act which has colored their belief in the "white system. Clues begin to abound as Cork and his father each develop inklings of the truth, while their relationship changes and Cork begins to mature into teenager with adult sensibilities. Like peeling the layers of an onion, this unfolds beautifully.
Beautiful Country: A Memoir
by Qian Julie Wang
The pursuit of the American dream (9/1/2021)
Who can forget the iconic picture of the Afghan baby being passed over the wall into the waiting arms of the Marine Soldiers? Who could forget the anguished looks of parents trying to get their children and themselves to safety in order to secure a better life. Qian's book describing her resettlement in NYC from China aroused similar feelings regarding the life of immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants. While Qian's parents were educated professionals in their home country, here they could barely get by with menial jobs. Money was extremely tight, the constraint of not knowing the language, the constant fear of being discovered colored their daily lives.

Qian lived with a sense of filial responsibility and from early on learned how to be independent as she navigated the streets to her mother's sweat shop, then to school, and then conquering the subway system at such a young age. While her parents were loving to each other in China, the pressures of life in America pulled them apart making them silent accomplices to Qian's confused mental state. Yet, there are moments of great levity as Qian expertly guides us with a child's voice throughout the book, which moves on while the undocumented status continues to paint and color their lives.

This is a book that tore my heart out.
Damnation Spring
by Ash Davidson
An environment of our times (7/27/2021)
How does a debut author write a novel so self assured and heavily researched, while highlighting characters and families that are so obviously blemished ? Davidson has done this and more with her quietly empathetic look at loggers ,protestors, and family communication. Rich Gunderson is part of a 4th generation of loggers, and has an opportunity to buy a swath of land to elevate his family's fortune, but does so without telling his wife Colleen. Meanwhile Colleen is painfully distressed having had several miscarriages. What compounds the problem is that she acts as a midwife and has to witness live births and then the sudden escalation of problematic births. When an old boyfriend turns up and tests the waters, he believes the herbicides used in logging are causing these stillbirths and deformities.
Just as coalminers have been asked to leave their precarious jobs from working in the mines and the development of "black lung", this situation portrays the tug and pull of working in an occupation that has been the livelihood for a community's lives with little inability to imagine uprooting and changing their line of work. Tensions between the characters are skillfully drawn producing an environmental astute commentary reflective of the times.
I have to admit that the technicality of the logging terms put me off at first and I found myself not wanting to continue but this is a novel that demands pushing forward.
The War Nurse: A Novel
by Tracey Enerson Wood
a bit of a disappointment (6/2/2021)
For historical fiction fans you will find a lot to enjoy here. Reading about the trials and tribulations of nurses recruited into overseas service for WWI victims is illuminating and enlightening. Julia Stimson was a nurse in real life with a noble history that has been swept under the ground. She was recruited initially to lead a group of 65 nurses to a British Base hospital in Rouen, France when American soldiers had not yet joined the fray. They may had been instructed in the dreaded scenarios before they went overseas but the horror of the injuries is nothing compared to real life situations. As a nurse myself who has been in trauma settings nothing prepares you like being out in the field. Perhaps this is the reason why I was not particularly enamored of the story. I felt that it glossed over the depths of what it was like in the tents and the minutiae of the nurses' experience. I kept wanting more dimension to detail as the full extent of the horrors is not revealed. Her love affair was not a necessary angle to include as I thought it took away from the primary purpose of the story.

Although her writing did not inspire me, it was clear and written simply which many will find comfortable. For those not acquainted with the intimacies, struggles and improvisation needed in these distressing situations, there is much to be gained from immersion of this novel.
The Burning Girls
by C. J. Tudor
spine tingling (3/11/2021)
Never have I felt more sure that a mystery deserved 5 stars. You will be introduced to a vicar at a local parish that bears no resemblance to any priestly figure I have ever met. And SHE is named JACK. A book that crackles with energy and a narrator who constantly surprises with her ironic tongue. I had to keep smiling along with the suspense at all the wisecracks blurting from her mouth. Jack is suddenly transferred to the quiet sleepy town of Chapel Croft where she takes over from the untimely death of the previous vicar. There she and her teenage daughter find the community obsessed with creating twig like dolls that commemorated 8 Protestant martyrs 500 years ago. What she and her daughter discover is a community full of secrets and conspiracies that read like an onion constantly revealing new narratives, ghostly figures, devious characters and layers of twists and turns. As they unravel the truth, I found myself more and more absorbed, not wanting my bedtime to interfere with the narrative of this high wire story line. Don't miss this one!
The Bad Muslim Discount
by Syed M. Masood
Irreverent with serious overtones (3/3/2021)
Funny, irreverent, and profound. How do you get all these attributes enveloped in one novel? Well, you need Masood's copious skills. He managed to create a story with religious, political, love and romantic tones. Yet all these are in the context of the main characters voice, a child who at the age of 10 emigrated from Karachi, Pakistan to California. Anvar is a bright resourceful cheeky son while his older brother is straight laced and a rule follower. However, it is not without irony that the tables turn by the end of the novel. Azza is another character who has fled with her father, a man who turned abusive after being imprisoned by Americans, and another man who has agreed to bring them to the United States a long as she marries him and gives in to his sexual advances despite her Muslim mores. The remaining characters have robust natures whose dialogue is humorous and compelling. Full of satire, the narratives hammer into one another. Despite my enjoyment, I would have liked to see more editing but still I feel this book will make people laugh out loud while contemplating some serious issues.
The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice
by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Fight for the right (2/2/2021)
Take one war. Combine with women's oppression. Mix with inestimable courage and bravery. The final product...the daughters of Kobani, Syria. Four major female characters are highlighted to illuminate the tenacity and heroism of the Kurdish women who became an all female militia and helped direct men in battle to take back their land against ISIS and other geopolitical forces. In a world where women are expected to be more docile, these rising warriors sacrificed much in the inhumanity of war. The author, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, spent several years researching and traveling to Syria to explore the history of the war and to observe this group of dedicated women fighting not only for their land and tribe but also for women's rights and long term political and social change. Kobani is pressed right up against the Turkish border along with nearby Iraq ,and the people experienced minimal rights within their own country being essentially stateless, with Arab families living on the land owned by the Kurds. The author, with painfully exhaustive research becomes a guide to the history of the war while giving tribute to the women. This non fiction piece is a testimony to accomplishing a goal with grit and boldness. Hillary Clinton thought so. Along with Chelsea, they are adapting this book as a TV series. May we all be so lucky to view both.
The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice
by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Inspiring women fighters (1/25/2021)
Take one war. Combine with women's oppression. Mix with inestimable courage and bravery. The final product...the daughters of Kobani, Syria. Four major female characters are highlighted to illuminate the tenacity and heroism of the Kurdish women who became an all female militia and helped direct men in battle to take back their land against ISIS and other geopolitical forces. In a world where women are expected to be more docile, these rising warriors sacrificed much in the inhumanity of war. The author, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, spent several years researching and traveling to Syria to explore the history of the war and to observe this group of dedicated women fighting not only for their land and tribe but also for women's rights and long term political and social change. Kobani is pressed right up against the Turkish border along with nearby Iraq ,and the people experienced minimal rights within their own country being essentially stateless, with Arab families living on the land owned by the Kurds. The author, with painfully exhaustive research becomes a guide to the history of the war while giving tribute to the women. This non fiction piece is a testimony to accomplishing a goal with grit and boldness. Hillary Clinton thought so. Along with Chelsea, they are adapting this book as a TV series. May we all be so lucky to view both.
Lazarus: Joona Linna #7
by Lars Kepler
Do you want some sleepless nights? (12/21/2020)
Riveting. Dark. Page Turner of the Highest Order. Taut. Pulse Racing. Whiplash inducing Final Pages. Do you think I liked it? I was literally gripping the edges of the chair trying to race to the closing lines.This is definitely a book that is grim and gloomy but truly was a wonderful escape. I found it so easy to devour the writing: I have never missed a book in this Scandinavian noir that I haven't liked. Lars Keplar is the pseudonym for a husband and wife team from Stockholm, Sweden who have now written 7 books in this series. However, you can definitely start with this one though the others may give you more background information. Detective Joona Linn has a stalker that has been pursuing him for years after Joona killed his brother. This is no ordinary criminal though. He is a mastermind at invading his victims' minds and always keeping one step ahead of the game. Although it was thought this individual was dead, when 2 fatalities show up with the criminal's character trademarks on their bodies, Joona is sure he is still alive. As bodies continue to mount, Joona is positive these are secret messages to let him know he wants to kill him and those closest to him. Thus begins the spree to try to keep one step ahead of him. This is not your popcorn thriller but one that guarantees a good deal of sleepless moments while glued to the pages.
Confessions on the 7:45
by Lisa Unger
An antidote for these times (11/4/2020)
The day after the election -a gift to me during the process and last night. Engrossing. Compelling. Absorbing. Captivating. An easy flow with characters who were strongly developed and with pages that began to fly. Can I say it again? Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. for these days when we need to escape the realities of Covid and the election or for that matter, any day in your life. Some days we want something serious, but others we need to fly into another world and escape. The chapters are divided by the experience of different characters though not in linear order. Fear not, it did not even impinge on the flow. When Serena leaves her work late, she takes the 7:45 train to go home, and is bamboozled by another woman who tells a sad story and lures Serena into sharing her own. The woman keeps following up through text messages but eventually Serena is suspect of the women's intentions. During this process, secrets are divulged about Serena's husband, the unknown woman's mysterious background is uncovered , and the interplay between them all creates a hellish story.
Shuggie Bain
by Douglas Stuart
Beware: it hurts (10/27/2020)
A finalist for the National Book Award and the Booker Prize shortlist,, this novel's depiction of Glasgow's mining town vividly portrays the landscape and the atmosphere around the 1980's. Most of the book is centered around the relationship with a young boy named Shuggie and his mother. It is a story that brilliantly captures the suffering wrapped around alcoholism, addiction, sexuality and destitution. However, I have to admit, reading this in 2020 and a week before the election, made me spiral into a downward depression where I thought I couldn't go lower. This is a book that hurts. Hurts because of the dark side of poverty, the way Shuggie is bullied because of his sexual orientation, the way Shuggie becomes an adult before his time to assist an alcoholic mother who is increasingly falling to pieces, the sexual predatory nature of these men, and a structure and neighborhood that does not support one another. I know I am portraying a grim, deeply sad book but it is also brilliantly written and made me feel as if I was caught in the middle of this cyclone. Few novels can explore these issues so astutely
Magic Lessons: The Prequel to Practical Magic
by Alice Hoffman
magic at its best (10/11/2020)
Alice Hoffman always has a beautiful way with words. I had not read her previous books, Practical Magic and Rules of Magic but that blunder will soon be assuaged. It certainly was not necessary to read the other books to understand and adore this novel. Wonderfully immersive, not only being a treatise on witchcraft, but is centrally a story about love. Love withheld, fear of love, all consuming love, love of friends and motherly love. This was also a commentary about the place of women in the 1600's where superstitions thrived, where women were subservient ,where women had no voice, could not publish or own property. Powerless under the edicts of men, they were thus coerced to have clandestine lives. Maria ,the main character in this novel, was cast off by her mother and taken in by Hannah, a sympathetic woman who taught her the arts of healing and so called"witchcraft". As time evolves she is smitten with a man and fools herself into thinking this is love, a feeling which produced a child. When she is abandoned by him, she sails to Salem to find him . As he cast her from his life she induced a magical spell that affected the rest of her life. Much follows from this point, between a sailor whom she saved from a mysterious illness and an attempt to find her daughter who was snatched from her life. Adventures abound , centering on one of the themes "You make love what you want it to be. You decide.You walked toward it or walk away."Excellently crafted and full of mysticism, this novel sucked me right in.
Anxious People
by Fredrik Backman
A brilliant book (10/3/2020)
If Fredrik Backman knocked on my door, I would hug him to death, Covid or no Covid. This book made me indescribably happy, alternating with tears, and lots of moments laughing out of loud. I think it was one of those books that you want to clasp to your heart and never let go. It was profound but with simplistic prose as one becomes enmeshed in the characters' lives. And what a cast! A bank robber who is not a robber(You will just have to trust me on this one!), a banker, a retired couple who renovate houses, a sweet grandmother, an actor, a real estate agent, a therapist, who all become involved in a hostage situation( except it really wasn't). It is during their time together, that their life histories and emotional lives unfold like a flower about to bloom. Primarily, it is a character study with an insane improbable plot but it all works. In all Backman's novels, he has a unique ability to flesh out his heart steeling characters in ways that are profoundly human. It was an ingenious ride, and though I just finished it, I want to go on the ride again and again !
All the Devils Are Here: Chief Inspector Gamache #16
by Louise Penny
A new look at the Gamache family (9/19/2020)
I have loved all of Penny's books about Chief Inspector Gamache and the quirky inhabitants of Three Pines. When I read these books it felt like I was coming home, sitting at my desk with a cold beer on a hot day. Set in Paris this novel takes a different tack. The whole Gamache family is in Paris and his daughter is about to give birth. His godfather Stephen meets him in Rodin's garden but delivers some quirky comments. It turns out that those declarations would prove to unlock a sizable mystery. The plot felt much more involved and accelerated from her previous books, as the others were characterized by a languid gait. Stephen is hit by a hit-and-run driver and another person is found dead in his quarters. Uncovering the multilayered plot becomes the central issue of the book with an emphasis on family love, togetherness, and actions based on miscommunication. I really enjoyed it, but kept missing the old folks back home. However, that is not a criticism of the book at all. It is just Penny's ability to make one so involved with the characters that you ache when they are not there.
Fifty Words for Rain
by Asha Lemmie
a heart felt sweeping saga (9/14/2020)
Once you begin this book, it is hard to not be swept up into this enveloping narrative. Niko, an 8 year old Japanese child is a product of an illegitimate affair or a woman of Japanese royalty and an African American GI officer in the post world war II. I dare you to read this without your heart strings tugging . As a child she was taught to acquiese ,to not have opinions, and to obey orders at all costs. When her mother abandons her, she is sent to her haughty grandmother who houses her to avoid the shame of her skin color and her clandestine birth. She is cooped up in an attic for 2 years practicing her obedience, being the"perfect" child until the arrival of her half brother Akira. He helps her to unravel the rules that she has been subjected her whole life. The deep brother sister love dominates the book along with the controlling" Queen Grimholde."into scenes that deliver anguish. During the time she learns to have a voice, takes charge of her own life, and evolves into the woman who owns her self. A truly moving heartfelt story.
Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town
by Barbara Demick
a riveting piece of history (8/21/2020)
Forgive my ignorance, but I did know that China has been trying to seize control of Tibet but I never really understood why. Barbara Demick delivers a non fiction book that feels like fiction but delivers a remarkable arc of history spanning Mao's Long March through the current day. The novel speaks to us in the form of various individuals who tell their story intermixed with history and complete with vivid and horrifying details. Centered around the town of Ngaba was the first interaction of the Chinese communists with the community. As these communists escaped their own fight dealing with the Chinese Nationalists, the soldiers in the Red Army were desperate and hungry. They stole items from monasteries, ate votive candles shaped like buddhas that were made composed of barley and flour (To the Tibetans it felt like they were eating the Buddha himself),destroyed monasteries, deposed a king, ripped up floors for firewood, seized their essential livestock , and even defecated on their religious texts.These rounds of defiance and crackdowns generated the only way the Tibetans felt they had to resist. To date there have been 156 self immolations that we know of that progressed to swallowing gasoline and covering themselves with wire laden blankets. To date 156 immolations that we know of have taken place. These rounds of defiance and crackdowns induced the only way the Tibetans knew to resist. The reader is exposed to the horrific situations through historical events leading up the present. Many Tibetans have fled to Lhasa, the home of the Dalai Lama, but despite the material things that have accumulated in their lives, want they want and don't have is their freedom. This book is so much more than the simple words I am trying to convey. If anyone is interested in learning and understanding this chapter in the Tibetans' lives I urge you to not walk but run to read a brilliant and heavily researched novel that is ingeniously created.

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