Reviews by lani

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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.
The Last Flight
by Julie Clark
Suspense is undeniable (6/28/2020)
In the age of covid-19, when we all would all like to escape to the moon, Julie Clark offers up the perfect remedy. Speeding forward like a locomotive, the book pulsates with the energy of a good suspense novel, while creating heart stealing characters. Claire is married to a powerful, rich, handsome man but who abuses her physically and emotionally behind the scenes. Eva, the other main character, brought up in orphanages,has a hard time adjusting to life and gets involved in manufacturing and selling drugs to survive. Both want to escape their lives and when a chance meeting occurs at the airport they decide to switch tickets and identities. The consequence of that becomes the main focus of the book and structurally is ingeniously crafted. Friendship, "the Me Too Movement "and morality come into play in this propulsive novel that begs to be read in one fell swoop. Thank you Ms. Clark, for giving relief to part company from the real world around me.
Apeirogon
by Colum McCann
Wrenching stories (5/31/2020)
Breathtaking.. Heart stealing characters. A voice that somersaults on the page. Pulsates with urgency and lingers with hope. My absolute favorite of 2020. A mosaic of small chapters, descriptive snippets of the Israeli Palestinian confrontations examined through the voices of the actual individuals, Bassam Aramin and Israel Rami Elhanan . In 1997, Rami's 13 year old daughter was killed by a suicide bombing on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Ten years later, Bassam's daughter was killed by an Israeli's 18 year old border guard with a rubber bullet when she was going to buy candy. These two men who were acquainted previously through an organization called Combatants for Peace join Parents Circle, a group of fellow mourners who are joined together by grief to encourage a peaceful solution to their respective struggles. Their search for peace in the narration of their powerful stories and discourse forms the struggle to find common ground. Their stories are one of aching humanity.This is a book that begs one to feel and experience, rather than one just reading their tragedies.
Hollywood Park
by Mikel Jollett
Pulls at your heartstrings (5/25/2020)
Prior to reading this, I knew nothing about the author, nor his place in history as the frontman of the band Airborn Toxic. In fact, as I immersed myself in the book, I had to remind myself that these events really happened to someone, sometimes outlandish and always painful. I immediately had the same feeling that I had when I read Educated, but this time a startling story of a blighted life from when he was first raised in a famous commune/cult called /Synanon. Separated by their birth parents the children had to live on their own in the "School" after 6 months. One day his mother escaped with him and his older brother Tony but life inside was more stable than the outside world. A narcissistic mother who expected her children to care for her, frequent men, temporary husbands, violence, drugs and alcohol permeate the book and wreak havoc in all their lives. Enter Dad. The ex husband. Another character who though he was an ex junkie and prisoner, spends summers with the kids in a crude but very warm and loving fashion.The book starts from Mikel's perspective as a child and metamorphosis into a more mature man as he struggles with the questions of life and experiments with who he wants to become. It is the struggles and love that are the backbone of this book, and pulled at my heart heartstrings. The pain was raw, and I found myself constantly underlining passages . Readers will understand later when I say.."He saw me!"..Definitely a book not to miss!
My Dark Vanessa: A Novel
by Kate Russell
a variance on Lolita (5/24/2020)
It took the author 18 years to write his novel. Who would have know how prescient it would become during the current "Me-Too" crisis. This is a very unsettling novel examining the life of a 15 year old girl who becomes enamored with her 42 year old teacher as he stealthily draws her in to his affections. Everyone can remember this period of "hormones walking on legs", the insecurities of that age, and for some the deep need for affection and love. Her teacher supplies all those to Vanessa with persistent attempts at grooming her. The author skillfully transitions from the present day to the past constructing the unstable emotions. Painful issues are explored about boundaries, consent, abuse, justice, responsibility, and victimization just to name a few. It is an all consuming read, infested with the ambiguities in scurrilous relationships.
Eden Mine
by S. M. Hulse
a gem-perfect for book clubs (5/18/2020)
I don't even know where to start. Reading this was like finding a precious jewel in the bottom of a haystack. I hadn't even heard about this book until a book friend that I respect introduced it to me. I will be forever grateful. I was transfixed by this quiet contemplative work that addresses so many issues. While finding myself simultaneously savoring and devouring this book, it made me think of the biblical Garden of Eden and how biting the apple thrust the characters into a crisis of faith and the spiritual death coming from banishment of the ideal world. The ties to the physical environment were so profoundly drawn, arresting and immersive. Indeed, I also found the inner dialogue and thoughts of the characters vivid and pensive. There are so many issues raised that capture the reader's attention regarding guilt vs. innocence, questioning of faith, painting as a creative modality to express one's emotions, sibling relationships, choices in life etc. I could write about the story but you can find that in the blurb. It's a book that is absolutely perfect for bookclubs. Just know that this is a novel you won't regret reading.
These Women: A Novel
by Ivy Pochoda
Gritty and powerful (5/18/2020)
Once in a while, if you are lucky, a novel comes along that leaves you breathless and stunned. Pochoda's book threw me down a whirlpool sucking me under . Using descriptive street language ,the author explores the life of five different women who live in southwestern LA, a section known as "the corner." These very different women tell their individual stories in very explicit visual language but have the commonality of living through past and current violence . They are judged by police and the world by the color of their skin and /or by their occupation. When two girls are murdered in their neighborhood, their past surpassed pain dissolves and their connection to a serial killer surfaces. There is peril, brutality,grittiness and power in their words that felt so pictorial and real. I was living in their neighborhood;I felt immersed in their feelings. When the book ended, after I put everything aside for the whole evening, I just sat still, amazed, bereft and finally privileged that Pochoda offered an experience like no other. If I could rate this to the googolplex power I would. Admittedly, if you don't like audacious fierce novels, you might pause before reading this book. But for the others, run, run, run
A Good Marriage
by Kimberly McCreight
Wicked ride of surprise (5/15/2020)
A perfect book for a book club discussion! What indeed constitutes a good marriage? How do we even define that? This novel creates 4 marriages that are wildly disparate, emphasizing the foundation of McCreight's work. In this fast pacing mystery, it is peppered with surprises and forms a compelling read of twists and turns. Lizzie is at an elite law firm when an old friend from college calls her from prison and tries to coerce her into taking his case in the mystery of his wife's death. Chapters take us behind the scenes into the lives of his wife's best friends and husbands who all possess secrets that threaten to uproot their lives. This mystery will grant the enthralled reader a work to devour during this Covid crisis.
Code Name Hélène
by Ariel Lawhon
Resistance for the brave (5/12/2020)
Fascinating historical fiction of Nancy Wake, a spitfire woman who, though only in her early 20's to 30's became a celebrated heroine in WWII. Through her work as a salty tongued firehouse, this Australian woman worked for the British as an intrepid spy. She went on missions that I found absolutely daring to help the French resistance movement. Her exploits and love for her newly wed husband was beautifully crafted and immersive. I could have done without the gratuitous sex scenes but that was a small blip in the overall scheme. Do not read the comments by the author contained in the epilogue until you finish the book. I was in awe of how much of the story was accurate. This tightly coiled book will be a favorite of those who like historical fiction, but others will stay for the suspense. Red lipstick will never be the same for me...
Hard Cash Valley
by Brian Panowich
page turner (5/10/2020)
How do I begin to even talk about this hard scrabble book that I loved with such fierce intensity. Panowich is such a great writer; I was lucky to have found him before and read his previous two novels. I finished this book with tears streaming down my face. Who would have thought that I would be attracted to a southern noir novel set in the Bull Mountain area, north Georgia where criminals and fringe of society members live in a world of their own. A world is created whose characters spar between good and evil with pulse racing prose that whirls with tension creating an immensely compelling book. Dane Kirby, an ex-arson investigator lives in this brutal crime area and is called upon to investigate a bloody murder of several people ,and then assigned to a new female partner. But the carnage only leads to a circuitous trail of more crimes and massacres culminating in the search for a young autistic boy who holds the key to it all. It can be violent; but it is also about love, tenderness, and the deep bond of friendship. Oh, how I didn't want this to end!
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
by Robert Kolker
the history of schizophrenia (5/8/2020)
The deft assured writing was the icing on the cake as it explored the history of schizophrenia and the price it cost for this family of 12 children. Six of the children were eventually diagnosed with this disease as the reader becomes intimately enveloped in their individual stories. A family is a system; what affects one member of the family is bound to alter another person's experience. Throughout the childrens' years the reader is assaulted by the damage done, by the horror and torture of the delusions and altered voices and by the lack of true and meaningful conversation with one another. This family become an investigator's dream to study the nature of this disease and ultimately helped to further define what schizophrenia is and is not. It was a fascinating story but difficult to even imagine how anyone could come out healthy under those circumstances. I did find it a bit tedious by the end, as I just didn't want to keep feeling all the hurt and lacerations it was doing to my soul.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors
by Kawai Strong Washburn
Mythology and family tussles (5/4/2020)
Enter magical realism. Combine the mythology of the gods and their importance in the land of Hawaii. Produce a family that grapples about upholding their bonds to one another while escaping them and the land for freedom of a different sort. Bake for 376 pages. Serve to find the glue that binds the land and family making them healthier together than apart. The story begins when Noa falls overboard from a boat into a circle of sharks who save him and give him back to his parents whole and intact. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, from the mother, father and 3 children. Each grapples with their identity throughout the years, trying to understand themselves and the Hawaiian land that tugs at their soul. The book felt slow to me in the beginning and picked up pace midway. There is a lot of Hawaiian words that are not translated, leaving the reader to discern their meaning. I would give this 3.5 stars because I did enjoy it but the way the magic realism was characterized overwhelmed it for me.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line
by Deepa Anappara
A voice that is textured and enveloping (4/23/2020)
This was no popcorn thriller that pulled you to alarming heights. No, this was a book to savor slowly enjoying each sentence, sipping slowly to obtain the full body and essence. Her words spilled out with a sumptous resonance, along with piercing observations along the way.It was also one of the most clever and unusual books I have discovered in a long time. I found myself rolling the words around my tongue, tasting their heft and density.There are so many passages I underlined that I felt were exquisite, wanting to store them away safely for my lifetime. The beginning of the novel was eerily prescient when she was taking about the sounds of the city. During this period of coronavirus, I experience sound so differently and find myself quietly tuning in to the absence and presence of echoes and noise around me. The book itself, you can read about in the jacket cover, but I found that it doesn't even do this book justice. If you want a contemplative piece, you will be in your glory.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line
by Deepa Anappara
the slums of India (4/23/2020)
Because I adore India and have traveled there several times, I treasured the authenticity revealed in this novel. There are some who may be reluctant to read this because it is filled with poverty, class divisions, sadness, kidnapping ,and abandoned children. However, from my time there I found a richness of spirit that is reflected in the characters. Despite very difficult circumstances, the children who narrate this book were independent, bold, saucy, and determined. We follow a triumvirate of children whose mandatory schooling becomes disrupted due to family obligations and religious tensions, to a life brimming with ambiguity in their day to day life and their future expectations. When children in their neighborhood go missing, the trio attempt to become"detectives" and try to find the answers. Muslim and Hindu tensions arise, which is not dissimilar to what is happening in today's world. The characters felt true to reality, from the scavengers, the beggars, to the local police. Narrated by the children, it felt genuine and honest. This is a novel to explore the credible issues in slum areas, the plight of the children living there, and the power of murkiness regarding their future worlds.

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