Reviews by lani

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American Dirt: A Novel
by Jeanine Cummins
A jewel embedded in stone (11/12/2019)
Blurbs have covered the stratosphere heralding the publication of this novel. I am here to tell you that these comments are not hyperbole; all of them are well deserved. Simplistically, it is the story of one woman's heart wrenching flight from Mexico with her young son to El Norte to escape the cartel and its spiteful drug lord. The horror of the first chapter alone is enough to put one over the edge. However, it is the prose and the dramatic tension throughout that propel the dynamism of the novel. Cummins shines a lens on our own biases lumping all migrants together, and helps us understand the harrowing ordeal that they encounter to try and escape persecution. How sobering to think that she must have written this a few years before the issues that confront us today were not staring us in the face painfully day after day after day. It is also the story of a mother's deep love for her child that tugged at my heart's drawstrings with an aching hurt. This is a fabulous book for book groups but you might want a lot of wine to get you through the discussion.
Patsy: A Novel
by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Defining oneself (5/20/2019)
Nicole Dennis-Benn writes with such color and vividness that makes her characters and dialogue sparkle. Immersion into Patsy's world is lining the streets with patois, teenage sex and pregnancies, lesbianism, and the need to forge ahead and elevate themselves. Patsy has a job as government worker with little opportunities for advancement. Engaging in sexual activity early, she becomes pregnant with Tru, while still a child herself. Feeling boxed in, she applies to go visit her dear friend Cicely in the USA but with no intention of returning home. When she finally gets there things are not what she had hoped for and she spends her life grasping at the American dream, only to find it elusive. It becomes harder and harder to connect with her daughter whom she literally ran away from. Tru, meanwhile has grown up scarred by her mother's absence until an incident pushes her over the wall. Told with profound truth, this is a mesmerizing story about motherhood and sacrifice, finding oneself, and the plight of women who must jump hoops to preserve their legitimacy; but mostly this is a story of LOVE...keenly felt and wonderfully appreciated. Do not miss this one!
When We Left Cuba
by Chanel Cleeton
One to watch! (12/14/2018)
When I finished Next Year in Havana, I had hoped that Cleeton would write another novel regarding Cuba. We can now jump for joy that Beatrice Perez is back in action, entertaining us with her fiery strong character and passionate beliefs. Whereas the previous book focused more on the revolution, this novel is equally part romance, espionage, and the events subsequent to the revolution and its fallout.

Truthfully I was afraid that the romantic aspects of the novel would weaken the strength of the historical and familial aspects but that was far from the truth. Her writing is taut, crisp and contributes to making this a solid entry onto one's
"keeper" shelf.

Though it can be read as a stand alone, the reader will find more satisfaction and depth if one reads the previous novel first. In this story, Beatrice becomes involved with a senator, while willfully objecting to her mother's plans to marry her off into high society. This independent woman is not to be trifled with and has never relinquished her anger at the brutal murder of her twin brother in Cuba. She vows to return one day while imagining how she can help fight the Fidel regime.

Mesmerizing in its plot and scope, this compelling read is sure to be on everyone's lists and bring a smile to one's face reflecting on this spirited and brave heroine.
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls
by Anissa Gray
Absorbing family dynamics (9/30/2018)
An amazing debut with such authenticity and well developed characters. I became so invested in their lives, feeling like I was in the middle of the turmoil, exquisitely feeling their heartache. The parents, Althea and Porter are upstanding citizens who run a restaurant, until they are charged with a scam and sentenced to prison. This becomes the pivotal nexus on which their sisters, brother and children deal with the complex issues that each of them face within the family structure. Having worked with women in an eating disorders treatment center, I found Olivia's internal dialogue and coping skills regarding her bulimia very genuine, bringing me to tears. The shame of incarceration, the struggle to define oneself within a family covered with warts and all, and the bond that underlines it all made this novel destined to be put on a keeper shelf.
Sold on a Monday
by Kristina McMorris
Heartbreaking tale out of the Depression era (7/25/2018)
Simply put I.LOVED.THIS.BOOK..If it weren't for the hour I would have read it straight through the night but still ended up finishing this within 24 hours. Heartwarming and all the more poignant as the impetus for the story was based on a real photograph that the author discovered on the computer. In this page turner of the highest order, the action begins 1n 1931 when a young reporter happens upon a house where two young boys are sitting. Near them scribbled in chalk was a sign, 2 children for sale. Horrified by the ramifications of this he snapped the picture, beginning the unraveling of what was to unfold. Enter Lily the Philly Examiner's secretary who saw the picture in the darkroom and brings it to the boss's attention. Lily has her own secrets that she has fought hard to keep from the general public, becoming another side issue to the unfolding story. When the photograph's original is destroyed, the reporter ends up staging the photo, leading to a domino effect that affects all participants.A wonderful story of family, a mother's love and the many paths to healing.
American by Day
by Derek B. Miller
a quirky erudite gem (6/3/2018)
A piercing commentary on America seen through Norwegian eyes makes this novel one of the best of the year. I found myself relishing this book, rolling each word over my tongue, tasting it, digesting it and oh so appreciating it. Take one smart ass sheriff and mix it with an erudite logical police officer (Sigrid)from Norway and you have the basis for a story that cannot fail to delight and one that you may want to read over and over. When Sigrid's brother, Marcus who is living in the US, disappears, Sigrid travels to the USA to try and find him and see what is wrong. All of the police force believe that Marcus is responsible for the death of a black female college professor with whom he was having a relationship. However, Sigrid refuses to believe this and uses her scholarly investigative capacities to try and convince the sheriff that there could be other alternatives. I suppose this could be labeled a mystery but it was such a wonderfully drawn and unconventional novel that discusses race relations(at a level I found enamoring), religion, individualism that it is so much more. If you are looking for a novel to make you think, race to get this. I bet you will not be disappointed.
The Mars Room: A Novel
by Rachel Kushner
Prison injustice (4/30/2018)
I feel I may be in the minority, but...I was fully prepared to fall head over heels with this novel. It has all the elements that I love and am interested in but as I plowed through it, I finished it with a sense of emptiness. It contains important issues relative to the justice system and the poor hand dealt to women by virtue of their place in the socioeconomic ladder and their choice of vocation. This misfortune extends to the judicial process and the disadvantages that these women face in initial arraignment and in parole questions. Life inside the prison portrayed the loneliness, the cruelty and power hierarchy but also the love and support that can occur within these walls. Raw and unflinching, this story of a sex worker who killed a man who was stalking her is told in chapters that had me confused from time to time as to which character was talking. Some of the transitions felt muddled but more importantly, I cared about the issues but not the characters. I wish it had spoken to me more.
Gods of Howl Mountain
by Taylor Brown
A whopping good time (4/25/2018)
LOVED THIS!. Taylor Brown is a new author for me, but his incredible characters burst with sparks. They were so alive, full fleshed and gritty, coloring the landscape of North Carolina with a delicious decor. Rory Docherty returns home from Korea, minus one leg, to the back hills of NC where he lives with his Granny, the most vividly descriptive whore and folk healer, that you will ever want to meet. His mother is confined in a mental institution where she has not spoken a word since her lover and boyfriend were killed. Rory runs bootleg whiskey, a common occupation, to various institutions in his souped up automobile affectionally known as "Maybelline". Much of the novel centers on the rule of the mountain by different factions. Granny tries to protect her grandson, even when he uncovers past secrets and threatens revenge. The dialogue is often out right hilarious, and the ambience pitch perfect. I am sorry to see them go...
America Is Not the Heart
by Elaine Castillo
Filipino immigrant experience (4/8/2018)
For fans of third world literature, you might want to dive into this novel for there seems to be a void of Filipino novels. It opened up a world that I was not familiar with as it broached the immigrant experience, the horrors of insurgencies and conflict, familial ties, and also lesbian relationships. This is a multigenerational saga filled with many characters but chiefly Paz, the nurse who has settled in the Bay area with her husband, Pol,who formerly a surgeon but now acted as a security guard in this new environment. Pol's niece, Hero, who was studying to be a doctor in the Philippines, got caught up in the revolutionary fervor, was disowned by her parents and then suffered costly injuries at the hands of the enemies. She was offered sanctuary at Pol and Paz's home with no questions asked. The rest of the book focuses on the interfamilial relationships, the secrecies, the sacrifices made in the name of family and Hero's blossoming relationship with Roslyn. The fierce but tender relationship with Roslyn and Hero created a beautiful visual scene of two women finally allowing themselves to be true to their own selves .Admittedly, I am conflicted about the book. I kept wanting to read it and figure out how this family would survive but I found myself irked at the Tagalog and Philippine words and sentences used heavily throughout the novel that were presented without explanation. The author might have thought this made it more authentic but for the average reader it was only frustrating and distracting.
The Sandman
by Lars Kepler
Terrifying nightmare (3/19/2018)
OMG! OMG! OMG! Take a tincture of Jo Nesbo's books, stir with Steig Larsson, and top with Hannibal Lecter and you get a stew that is so fraught with tension that you will not want to leave your sitting area. Block out your schedule because this is a book that will consume you and eat at you until you finish. Dark and terrifying, this mystery/thriller is composed of very short chapters, each of which leaves you hanging so that you feel compelled to start the next chapter immediately. The tension does not diminish even on the last page. This is the fourth book in a series but is perfectly fine as a stand alone. However, if you are like me, you will want to go back and investigate the other books. The book begins as Joona and his team race to find a girl who has been missing for 13 years as her escaped emaciated brother is found wandering on the train tracks. That is all you need to know because the book is so excruciating that you will want to dive into it immediately. This is a 10plus book for atmosphere.
The Female Persuasion: A Novel
by Meg Wolitzer
A female manifesto (3/16/2018)
How prescient of Wolitzer to create a novel that is so reflective of the current atmosphere that we live in. On the surface, it is a story of young Greer Kadetsky, her boyfriend, her mentor that she meets in college,and the female friendships she meets along the way. Through these individuals, the author explores several large issues, such as women in leadership and power positions, the role of mentors in one's life, the angst of teenage love, and the search for becoming a fulfilled female individual. As Greer matures and becomes more aware, she loses some of her idealism as she finds that women have to always compromise in today's world. An enjoyable story but I did not find any surprising revelations that enriched my sense of the nuances that figure into being a woman in today's world.
Sometimes I Lie
by Alice Feeney
Ride of a lifetime (3/15/2018)
Phew! What a glorious fireworks explosion of twists and turns right up to the very last page. What a brilliant psychological turn of the corkscrew leaving me to think I had the plot all figured out when I couldn’t have been More. Wrong. Feeney has created such a complex storyline that will leave your jaw dropping to the floor. Seriously, I have read other great suspense novels but none so deceiving and rich in structure.The novel begins with Amber in the hospital stating three truths:
"1. My name is Amber Reynolds.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore
3. Sometimes I lie.”
And from there the race is on. Just don’t forget to tie up your shoelaces.
The Great Alone
by Kristin Hannah
Fractured families and the wilderness (3/13/2018)
For those of you who have read Hannah's previous novel, do not expect a carbon copy of her work. This new book is, however, a wonderfully atmospheric and poignant look at the Alaska wilderness, PTSD, and fractured families. 13 year old old Lani Allbright is growing up in the 70's in the age of EST, Patty Hearst and Vietnam, where free love is all the rage. When her hippie parents decide to leave and move to land bestowed to them by a Vietnam buddy they hope getting away from the chaos of city life will be healing for the father and for the family as a whole. At first, it feels like this might be the answer to their prayers. With a colorful cast of characters, they plunge into a very rustic way of life yet awed by the majestic beauty of the state. However, the people keep warning them about the winter dangers and the people itself. As time goes on the winter darkness does takes hold but it becomes apparent that the real issue is not Alaska's winters but the darkness within the family. We watch Leni's growing awareness of the weakness within her family and her rising maturity regarding its dangers. Be warned-there is a lot of physical abuse in this book and for those who are sensitive to this issue, it may be a trigger. However, Hannah's beautiful prose portrays the splendor and ruggedness of a world we know too little about. It is easy to see how this world could unfurl difficulty for those running away from something. Note that this has already been optioned for film rights.
Girls Burn Brighter
by Shobha Rao
a gut wrenching read (2/13/2018)
Being born a girl, and into a poor Indian caste, is the unfortunate fate of two girls who meet when Poornima's father hires Savitha to help weave saris after the death of his wife. With Savitha, Poornima finds a love and sisterly bond that totally encompasses her life and makes her narrow existence less confining. However, Savitha runs away when an atrocity is committed against her, and Poornima's world turns into a laser beam focus to try to find her friend. This search will take her within India and to the United States, focusing on an underbelly of society that represents the scorched earth of humanity. However, what rises above all of this is the steadfast belief that the two of them are stronger together and that their fierce love of one another will have some meaning in this world. Warning though..this is not for the faint of heart. Told in brutal stark truths, yet with an underlying simplicity , this novel of friendship, power vs impotence, will burn deeply in your soul.
Educated: A Memoir
by Tara Westover
Family pathology and hope for the future (2/5/2018)
What an accomplished novel: superb execution, raw unflinching dialogue, impressive character descriptions,and unrelenting tension. I am not sure there is going to be a better memoir in all of 2018. In Westover's searing novel, and I can't use hyperbole enough, she discusses her Mormon survivalist's family who refuse to vaccinate their 7 children, send them to public schools, or participate in anything that looks like an arm of the government. The children all have to help on the farm working with heavy machinery, scrapping for parts and enduring pain from accidents- the latter being the Lord's will. Early in Tara's life, her mother becomes a midwife and then develops oils and herb infusions to treat mishaps, as doctors and hospitals were mostly verboten. As the children were rarely exposed to others their age, they had no other frame of reference to know that their way of life was not the norm. Violence between one of the brothers and the author was downright scary, more so as the parents defended his actions and looked the other way. The story continues to unfold as Mary begins to find a sense of self, learning to read and write, going on to college and even securing a prestigious Gates scholarship. When one views the trajectory of her insular life to her final accomplishments, one can only shake his/her head in disbelief. From beginning to end this is a riveting, unwavering look at the power of family to define identity, and to explore the determinants of breaking free from deleterious bonds.Settle in and be prepared to be swept off your feet with this austere desolate novel that will scorch and penetrate your soul...and don't forget concurrently to be amazed!
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After
by Elizabeth Weil, Clemantine Wamariya
Painful, riveting and IMPORTANT (2/2/2018)
Powerful, powerful novel painted with shades of raw urgency that propelled me to read this in two days. Clementine and her older sister Clara,born into a middle class family in Rwanda, were sucked from their family's bosom due to the vile nature of war and internecine conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis. The next several years they spent on the run from country to country and from one refugee camp to another finally ending up in the United States,hoping this was the land of the American dream. What makes this book different from all other refugee books is the riveting dialogue and self exploration that accompanies Clementine's growth as she lands in a foster care's family in Chicago and eventually on to Yale as a undergraduate. It was eye opening to observe the circumstances that formed her personality, to contemplate the horrors that she underwent each and every day, and to be humbled by my own insensitivity as to how questions might have been perceived as she tried to claw her way towards her own humanity. I cannot recommend this enough!
White Houses
by Amy Bloom
an inflamed passion (1/29/2018)
Historical fiction has the ability to allow one to imagine the underpinnings of a relationship while focusing on real historical events or characters. Amy Bloom has concentrated on Roosevelt's relationship with Lorena Hickok which historians still disagree as to the erotic nature of their relationship. When Doris Fabor was allowed to look, however, at the letters between these women she felt that is was undeniable as to their deep rooted physical love for one another. The story is told from Hickok's point of view, beginning with her sharing her early childhood abusive days with her family, and leaving home at the age of 14. How much of her circus days were real or fictionalized I cannot say as I found no evidence researching this area. However, her "imagined" recount of this time was vivid and engaging, but I became less interested as the book wore on feeling it more fluffy and needing more substance than their whispers to one another. More of a character study than a plot driven novel although Bloom does take us through Roosevelt's passion about social injustice, civil rights and devotion to encouraging Americans to stand up for its ideals of humanity and tolerance but does not go into any depth in this matter. Hickok's acclaimed career as a newspaper reporter, her job as the chief investigator of FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Administration) and her devotion to Eleanor were explored but I never really engaged or grew to care about the characters. However, I left wanting to read more and have since purchased further biographies. This fictionalized account is a good headway to read about their historical lives for those we feel the need to explore further.
Only Child
by Rhiannon Navin
A unique voice, unfortunately timely (1/28/2018)
Can my eyes produce any more tears for this heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting story of a family consumed by a school shooting? Wise beyond his 6 year old self, Zach narrates this story in a voice so authentic, I could feel his pain as his world is torn asunder from the death of his 9 and a half year old older brother.While his mother strikes out with anger at the world and the family of the killer, she dissociates her self from her family and husband. Her husband has a secret of his own and buries himself in his work while trying to be supportive of Zach at the same time. And there is Zach..the hurting child caught in the middle...trying to make sense of something which doesn't make any sense. Through the books he reads, he tries to find the secrets of happiness and with it bring his family together and teach them the true meaning of compassion. There have been many books about school shootings lately much to my chagrin, but Zach is a special character whose voice has a lot to teach us all. Highly highly recommend.
Anatomy of a Scandal
by Sarah Vaughan
legal thriller (1/1/2018)
Brilliant...brilliant...brilliant...A wonderful courtroom drama set in England that was not only erudite but very suspenseful in terms of courtroom logistics. Reading it I felt I was involved in a real court room drama and was holding my breath for the final verdict. There are many words peculiar to the British language but it was easy to decipher their meaning from the overall context.
The story begins with the elucidation of the stories behind James, a sauve British minister, his adoring wife Sophie, whom he met in college and Kate, the lawyer who was hired to prosecute a rape case against James. Told mostly in alternating chapters between Kate and Sophie, we peer back into their college days when they all attended the same college and then to the present day. Questions arise as to who is the most truthful, and the power of the barrister 's persuasive abilities to influence the final outcome of the jury. Does truth really matter? Ethics play into the role as well, as well as individual responsibility to ferret out the truth in spite of moral dilemmas. I truly loved this book and will recommend this to anyone who is looking for a terrifically written and satisfying book.
The Girls in the Picture
by Melanie Benjamin
Surreptitious delight (12/22/2017)
A fascinating look at still movies and beyond through the lens of Mary Pickford and Frances Marion from the 1914-1969. How prescient of Benjamin to examine the sexual misconduct and the treatment of women as second class citizens in the movie industry. With the current climate, this could not have come at a more opportune moment. I love when a novel engages you but also teaches you about a pivotal time in the Hollywood scene, as well as the effects of war on the industry as well. But mostly this is a story of two women's friendship, with power imbalances and balances.Admittedly, I knew nothing about Frances Marion and was astonished at how much she had created in her life, while Mary Pickford's name seems to have stood the test of time. This engaging book should hook many a woman who loves romance, friendship, movies and women's rights...I think that covers a large swath of the female race.

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