Review of “The Last Days of Night” by Graham Moore

 

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I do not care so much for a great fortune as I do for getting ahead of the other fellows.  – Thomas Edison

Until I read this book, I had an impression of what it would have been like to see the night lit for the first time. It was terribly romantic. It was surreal, ethereal, and peaceful. (Sort of like this book’s beautiful cover.) There were scientists and engineers of all sorts slapping each other on the back, congratulating themselves on their enormous contribution to mankind.  Thomas Edison was one of these scientists, of course, and he was a jolly good fellow. He lead this collaboration of gifted men with the grace, elegance, and credibility only natural born leaders of that period possessed.

It seems I was mistaken.

Graham Moore’s  latest novel, The Last Day’s of Night, is the story of the War of Currents. Though it is a work of fiction, the majority of it is historically accurate and all of the characters did exist including Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, and Westinghouse’s attorney, Paul Cravath. Paul, a fresh-out-school attorney in is mid-twenties is hired by Westinghouse to defend him in a law suit Thomas Edison has brought forth demanding the outrageous sum of one billion dollars.

Paul is a thoroughly likable young man who quickly finds himself in over his head. He is, however, determined to win at all costs. He is ambitious, driven, and singularly focused. As time goes on he morphs from naive rookie to shrewd, calculating, savvy attorney. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few SNAFUs along the way… (Though I’d never heard of him, he is apparently quite well-known in the legal world. In fact, the firm he eventually started is still in existence and continues to use the Cravath Sytem which has been credited with changing the way lawyers practice and law firm are structured.)

This book is more intriguing that I could have imagined. All of the same components of modern corporate conflicts and greed existed then. And these scientists we’ve come to hold in such high esteem where not exempt from engaging in all manner of unscrupulous behavior in their quest to be the first and best. From patent infringement to character assassination, from corporate espionage to arson, nothing was off limits.

The author tells this story in such an amazingly engaging, page-turning way that I was fully entertained while being educated. That, I think, is the pinnacle of happiness for those of us semi-obsessed with historical fiction.

There is already a movie in the works. Moore has done the adaptation. My expectations are admittedly very high after having seen The Imitation Game which he adapted from the book Alan Turing: The Engima  by Andrew Hodges.

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Random House for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of “Stranger, Father, Beloved” by Taylor Larsen

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The book begins with Michael seeing his wife, Nancy, talking to another man at a party. He decides that this is the man who should be married to Nancy. He promptly begins working on his plan to make this man Nancy’s new husband.

This is a strange book in the sense that a decent writer (clean, articulate language, etc.) has written a bad story about mostly bad, unlikable characters. My instinct about twenty per cent through the book was to put the book down, mark it DNF, and move on with my life. I didn’t do that for two reasons. The first is that it’s a fairly short book and I knew it would only take me another day or two get through. The second is that I appreciated the author’s writing style enough that I kept hoping that the plot would change, that something would happen to make it a more pleasant to read. Sadly, this did not happen.

We learn that Michael has some behavioral health issues. He suffers from a neurotic paranoia that has been difficult for him to mask/control for most of his life. He also has some other issues but I don’t want to give too much away. These issues, however, do not explain why Michael has such utter contempt and disrespect for women. With the exception of his precious mother, that is. I found his personality to be offensive and didn’t feel it had anything to do with his legitimate diagnosis. He was simply a thoroughly unlikable man.

As for the other characters, I found most of them to be very stereotyped and one-dimensional. Nancy is too timid, too self-sacrificing, too compliant. NO ONE is that nice, that wholesome. I understand that she feels a little inferior because of her lack of education but it was all too much. John, the would-be husband, is too pure, too salt of the Earth.

1.75/5 stars

I would like to thank Gallery Books for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of “We Could Be Beautiful” by Swan Huntley

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Catherine West is a wealthy trust fund (43 year old) kid living the good life in Manhattan. Like many wealthy people, she seems to have it all from the outside. Her days are spent bag shopping and lunching (though she doesn’t actually eat anything). Her nights are filled with gallery openings other society events. Somehow she manages to squeeze in massages on Sundays. She barely has time for involvement in the boutique stationary store she owns though she considers being a small business owner an important part of her identity. She is superficial and judgmental. Even her generosity (she loves to mention that she throws money at her staff, waiters, etc.) seems egocentric rather than being born of a need to actually help or reward people. Though she has been burned a few times when it comes to love, and she longs to have a husband and family, she’s such a you-know-what that it’s hard to find any sympathy for her.

She has a sister who adores her but she finds Caroline to be weak and needy. She judges her parenting skills. She’s happy to let Caroline take on the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to caring for their mother who has recently been moved to an assisted living facility due to the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.

When she meets William Stockton at a gallery opening, things begin to look up for Catherine. He’s handsome and cultured and his parents were friends of Catherine’s parents many years before. This move very quickly and they become engaged. However, it soon becomes apparent something may be a little off with William. Catherine struggles with her competing emotions. On one hand, she’s ecstatic that she’s found her Mr. Wonderful. On the other, she has some questions and William is not exactly open to talking about the past. And why is it that her mother shuts down at the mere mention of the name William Stockton? With her wedding growing nearer by the day, Catherine needs to find out.

The first half of We Could Be Beautiful was difficult for me to get through. It didn’t feel psychological or mystery-like. It felt like Chick-Lit. There’s nothing wrong with Chick-Lit if that’s your preferred genre but it’s generally not mine. Fortunately, the second half was much better. I won’t include much in the way of spoilers but I will say I think Catherine (finally!) grew up.

This was, overall, a solid debut. Though originally categorized as General Fiction on NetGalley, I see that it has now been recategorized as Women’s Fiction on the Penguin Random House  website which I think is more fitting and will draw a more appropriate and appreciative audience.

3.25/5 stars

Thanks to Doubleday via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

May Book Club “Madamoiselle Chanel” and Circo

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A couple of weeks ago, (I am waaay behind on posting), the NYC Ladies Fine Dining and Fiction Book Club got together at Circo to discuss Mademoiselle Chanel, which was selected for the group by one of our regular members. It was a book I’d been excited about reading for a long time so I was quite happy with the choice.

I really enjoyed the book and it’s quite evident that the author did an amazing amount of research. I though I knew quite a bit about Gabrielle Chanel but I was wrong. (Who else thought the trademark interlocking Cs stood for Coco Chanel? Wrong!!)

She led an amazing life having been orphaned at an early age and rising through the fashion ranks to be what many consider the most influential designer in the history of fashion. Though we take many of designs for granted as classics, she was the fashion innovator of her time. Her styles reflected the changing times in Europe, much of which necessitated by WWII and the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Though, in many ways, I couldn’t really relate to her, I appreciated the sacrifices she made for her career and the difficulties she faced as a female entrepreneur, often forced to rely on men for money and opportunity, frequently not in complete control of her own destiny. Though she seemed to be a source of great fascination and enchantment to many men throughout her life, her relationships were often full of controversy and scandal, not the least of which was her romantic liaison with a Nazi officer.

I was also surprised to learn of the  history of Chanel No. 5. While the story if its origins and development were fascinating, the story of her relationship with the Wertheimer family, with whom she partnered to finance, market, and produce the fragrance, appalled me. Not only did she not want honor the contract she entered into with them, she tried to regain all of their interest in the company during the occupation under Hitler’s law that Jews could not own property of business enterprises.

Long-time book club member, Jane, found the story of the creation of the LBD to be fascinating. She also found the history of Chanel No. 5 to be intriguing. She loved Chanel’s idea that the woman should wear the dress as opposed to the standard at the time which was quite the opposite. Though Jane agrees with many of us that Chanel may not have been a very likable woman, she feels that Americans seems to be obsessed with the notion that creative geniuses also be nice people which she feels is often not possible.

As for the restaurant, I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed. One meal had to be sent back (not mine) and I think the consensus was that the food ranged from just okay to pretty good and the service was somewhat lacking. We were a group of twelve and while I can certainly appreciate that managing a group of that size may present some challenges, I don’t think providing water for the table in a timely manner should be one of them. And then there was the fire alarm which went off not once, not twice but THRICE during our meal!

As for my own meal, it was a mixed bag. I shared the Salsiccia pizza with a friend as an appetizer and it was excellent. For my entree, I ordered the Mafaldine Con Sugo D’Anatra, which is pasta with a duck and mushroom ragu. I didn’t love it but I think that had to do more with my own palate than the preparation. I’ve only been eating duck for a short time and had only ordered duck breast in the past. The sauce was more brown vs. the red sauce I was expecting. The homemade pasta itself was very good, however, and perfectly cooked.

Long-time (probably charter is more accurate) book club member Nadine felt that overall, the food was just okay; the risotto being a bit too al dente, the ravioli a tad bland, and the veal a bit too salty.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The decor provides a nice change from the typical decor you see in different versions of the same aesthetic throughout the city’s better restaurants. It’s colorful, whimsical, and cheery. The sommelier was very helpful and we were able to choose a red which suited everyone’s taste at a fair price point. And, as always, the company was fabulous and the discussions lively.

I wouldn’t necessarily discourage anyone from dining at Circo, and I’m glad I was able to get there as it had been on my list for a long time. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to make a return visit (With rare exceptions I try not to repeat. There are too many great places I’ve yet to get to.) but neither would I be horrified at the prospect of going back if I had a reason to.

After dinner, a few of us went out for drinks at Flute Bar which was a great place to enjoy an after dinner drink. It was not overly crowded, the DJ played great music at a decibel level that allowed for conversation when seated, the service was great, and all at reasonable prices. I would definitely return.

Ratings are my own.

The book 4/5 stars

The restaurant 3/5 stars

The bar 5/5

 

 

Review of “Britt-Marie Was Here” by Fredrik Backman

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Britt-Marie was an intensely unlikable woman in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s SorryPerhaps that’s because she was so unhappy herself. I’m so glad I was able to get to know her better in Britt-Marie Was HereIt should be mentioned that, although I highly recommend reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and you will be even more impressed by Britt-Marie in this book if you do, you won’t have any trouble at all reading this as a stand-alone.

Sixty-three year old Britt-Marie has finally left her philandering husband and is trying to move on with her life. But there are more than a few obstacles in her way. To begin with, it’s more than a little difficult for a woman her age, who has not been gainfully employed in forty-some years to find a job in the middle of a financial crisis. But Britt-Marie is very resourceful. And by this, I mean that she pesters the poor young woman at the unemployment office, wearing her down until she finds her a position in the somewhat disadvantaged town of Borg. Thus begins Britt-Marie’s journey toward independence, friendships, and self-actualization(!). No small accomplishments for this very quirky, somewhat neurotic, maker-of-lists, and keeper of order who loathes soccer, has never had children of her own, and has somehow become the children’s soccer coach in Borg.

This is one of those books that is not terribly long, and is written very simply, but packs a huge punch in terms of conveying an astounding amount of emotional ranges and the understanding of human relationships.(And, at times, those with dogs and rats.) From desperation and sadness to hopefulness and redemption, it’s impossible not to laugh and cry, at times simultaneously. It is a beautiful thing, how Britt-Marie became such a vital part of the community. And even more so how the community became such a vital part of her.

Every character is so carefully revealed and so richly developed it would be quite easy to convince me I actually knew them. There are too many to mention but individually but I will say that I wouldn’t mind having a beer with Bank and Somebody. But as much as each character stands out individually, it’s the collective character of the town that is most unique and endearing.They are mostly good people, doing the best they can. And while they may not agree on every little thing, when the you-know-what hits the fan, they stand together. Many of us have lived in Borg, if not geographically, then metaphorically, at one time or another. And if not, then we should wish that we had.

 

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Atria Books via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper” by Phaedra Patrick

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Arthur Pepper misses his wife. It has been a year since she passed away. Miriam and Arthur were married for forty happy, peaceful, uneventful years. It’s not until Arthur steels himself to the task of sorting her things that he discovers a charm bracelet he’d never seen before. A telephone call to a number on one of the charms prompts Arthur to begin a journey in search of the truth of his wife’s past prior to their meeting. Along the way he meets some interesting characters, forges some unlikely friendships, and slowly discovers that it is possible to be happy, or at the very least, content again.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper has a lot going for it. Arthur is a very likable guy. If fact, most of the characters are of an equally likable, upbeat sort. The story is pretty relatable in its essence. We’ve probably all learned things about a spouse or lover at one time or another that made us question how well we really knew that person. Arthur’s adventures help him to reconcile three versions of his wife; the wife he thought he knew, the (post-finding-the-bracelet-wife) he then questioned if he ever  knew at all, and finally, the “true” Miriam.

Unfortunately, there was something I found lacking that I’ve not been able to put my finger on after having reflected for a few days. I can only describe it as an inability to be excited or completely engaged. Perhaps it was a bit too predictable. Maybe it was the implausibility of some of Arthur’s adventures. While I appreciate why so many readers are giving such glowing reviews, I find myself unable to do likewise. There was nothing overtly wrong with the book. It just left me feeling a little flat.

3/5 stars

Thanks to MIRA via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “Modern Girls” by Jennifer S. Brown

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Rarely, upon finishing a book, am I at such a loss for words. What I want to know is: Where is the rest of the book?  Modern Girls had the potential to be so much more…

Rose and Dottie, a Jewish mother and daughter living in 1930’s Manhattan, become pregnant at the same time. Neither is exactly thrilled to learn that they are in the family way. Rose is in her early 40’s and will soon regain some freedom as her youngest son begins his education. Dottie is unwed and running out of options.

There were some very interesting twists and turns of events. And a nice illustration of a pretty ideal mother-daughter relationship; not without some strife, of course, but with maximum love and loyalty. The relationship Dottie has with her brothers is also very touching. As I was nearing the end of the book, however, I became concerned that nothing seemed to be coming to any sort of conclusion. I thought perhaps there was going to be some sudden, drastic event that would wrap up all of the loose ends. Not so. If the end was intended to be a set-up for a sequel, it is still far too lacking. It needed a prologue at the very least. If I’d had to rate the book half way through, I would have given it 3.5/stars. Unfortunately, the ending was too disappointing to overlook.

2.25/5

I received a free copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “The A to Z of You and Me” by James Hannah

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This book filled me with a sense of bittersweet melancholy from start to finish. Ivo is a young man with diabetes who didn’t take very good care of himself and, as a result, his kidneys have failed and he’s in a hospice with (mostly) elderly people who are (mostly) dying of cancer. Throughout the book we learn the details of how he lost Mia, the love of his life. The story  of Mia and Ivo, which is slowly revealed, is certainly central but by no means all this book has going for it. It’s really a beautiful exploration of all types of relationships that complicate and make our lives whole. It’s also a more-than-gentle reminder that the choices we make today can have life-long effects on not just ourselves but those who love us.

My heart broke reading about Ivo’s mother and the way she cared for him. Having lost her husband to cancer when Ivo was just a boy, I found her love and sadness palpable. Though she is not mentioned frequently, I felt James Hannah did a fantastic job of bringing her character to life in a rich a meaningful way.

Another character that certainly deserves to be talked about is Sheila, Ivo’s nurse. I wonder if the author has spent time in a  hospital or perhaps has a nurse in his life as I’m a nurse by profession, and felt as though she could have been been a colleague at some point in my career. There’s a certain way to best take care of someone who is dying and it’s truly an art. Sometimes it’s best to leave someone to silence, sometimes it’s best to draw them out. There are times when distraction is a good tactic and times when the problem must be faced head on. Times when you are asked to muddle in business you really would prefer not to be involved in and times when you must gently and respectfully insert your nose in a place it may not belong under other circumstances. What I’m saying is that everyone should have a Sheila when the times comes…

As for Ivo’s  sister and circle of friends, I found them to be relatable. They provide influences that are times positive and, at times, not. They give good advice and bad. Probably not much different from friends we all have now and especially when we were young. It’s sometimes difficult, particularly in the case of Ivo’s friend Mal, (short of Malachy but interesting that mal means bad in French) to tell if they have malintentions or simply the selfishness and recklessness that are part and parcel of youth itself. In any event, suffice to say that friendships are tested.

Though there are lots of heavy topics and themes presented in this book, it’s beautifully written with wit and warm compassion. I look forward to seeing what James Hannah will come out with next.

4.5/5 stars

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

Review of “Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley

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Though I probably shouldn’t have started reading Before the Fall during a super-turbulent flight, I will say that it’s certainly a page-turner.

We know how the story ends (begins). The plane crashes. Nine people are dead. There are two survivors; Scott Burroughs, an artist who was offered a free ride to the city from a woman he’s met on the Vineyard, and her four year old son. Beyond that, we are left with nothing but questions. Many, many questions… What is Scott’s relationship with Maggie, the plane’s owner, and why is he really on the plane? Is Scott really the hero he seems to be? Or is there an explanation for his being one of only two survivors? Was it mechanical failure? Or was the pending indictment of one of the passengers (he was a finance guy, of course) a factor? Was there a lover’s quarrel in the cockpit? Did the bodyguard go rogue?

It must be difficult to develop characters for a book when said characters are almost all dead beyond the first few pages but I think Noah Hawley does a fair job here. There are some interesting dynamics in the bond that has formed between Scott and JJ, the little boy he rescued, and Eleanor, the boy’s aunt and legal guardian. These relationships help to give the book more depth and interest than is sometimes found in a more typical whodunnit.

I loved the way this book kept me guessing until the very end. The crashed could have been caused by any number of things and I vacillated back and forth unendingly in my own theories. I do admit to being a little disappointed, however, when the truth was revealed. I felt that there was a lack of creativity in the way it all wrapped up which surprised me as it was in sharp contrast with the rest of the book. Overall, though, I would say it’s a great read and I would definitely read this author’s next book.

4.25/5 stars

Thanks to Grand Central Publishing, via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of “Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House” by Kathleen Grissom

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“I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

-Harriet Tubman

I absolutely loved The Kitchen House and was thrilled when I heard Kathleen Grissom was writing a sequel. Though Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House is a stand-alone novel, I highly recommend reading The Kitchen House if you haven’t already.

James Burton (formerly Jamie Pyke) is passing as a wealthy white Philadelphia silversmith who has denied his true identity for many years after fleeing Tall Oaks, the Virginia planation where he was raised. He has fallen in love with Caroline, a white woman from a wealthy family. She becomes pregnant and he intends to tell her his secret, fearing that it will become obvious to all when the child is born. But before he gets the opportunity, his beloved servant, Pan, is captured and brought to the South to be sold into slavery. James embarks on a dangerous journey to save Pan, the son a friend to whom he owed his very life.

I really liked this book but I’m not sure I loved quite as much as The Kitchen House. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I loved Pan’s character and wanted to jump into the story to protect him myself. In fact, all of the characters were crafted with the same depth and complexity as those I grew to love in The Kitchen House. Perhaps I simply had a difficult time reconciling certain aspects of James’s character. For example, while I could understand his reasons for wanting to maintain his identity as a white man, I took offense at his disdain toward slaves. That’s all I’ll say about that. There are other examples but I don’t want to include any spoilers. On the other hand, there are characters I absolutely adored. For example, the young but formidable Adelaide Spencer. She is the teen daughter of the man who owns the property adjacent to where Pan is being held. She’s a young woman of conviction; someone I would like to believe I would have been like had I lived in those times.

Kathleen Grissom has told us another beautiful story. Even when the story is full of unimaginable pain and hardship, she has a unique way of weaving in enough snippets of the good in humanity, and the awesome strength of good people working together, to prevent us from losing all hope.

4.25/5 stars

Thanks to Simon & Schuster via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.