Review of “The Orphan Mother” by Robert Hicks

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Having not read The Widow of the South, I was concerned that I may have difficulty following  along with The Orphan MotherThankfully, it is easily read as a stand-alone novel and I’m now inspired to read The Widow of the South. 

Mariah Reddick is the former slave to Carrie McGavock. Since becoming a free woman, she has established herself as a competent and respected midwife to the women of Franklin, Tennessee. Her grown son, Theopolis, is a cobbler with political aspirations.

Theopolis had told her it gave him comfort to think that he, a Negro, might soon be sitting in the legislature with his feet up on the rail and voting according to his own instincts and philosophies.” 

Though the Civil War is over, racial prejudices violent crimes against former slaves and free black men and women, especially those who rocked the political boat, are widely and publicly tolerated, condoned, and even encouraged by the men to whom they become a threat. When Theopolis tells Mariah he is going to give a speech in the town square, Mariah is fearful that Theopolis will fall victim to these men as a result of his courage and bravery. Her worst fears are realized as Theopolis is murdered before he has the opportunity to address the crowd. In the mayhem and chaos, a white grocer is also killed.

The Army is sending troops to keep the peace and investigate the events of the day. But as Mariah comes to the realization that they are being sent primarily to investigate the death of the grocer, she become singularly focused on finding her son’s killer/s on her own.

“”I will find out. I ain’t gone stop’. Mariah had not known this until she said it. But now she knew she would go on just as she formed the words.”

Along the way, Mariah becomes close with a man named George Tole. ‘Tole’ is new in town and has a difficult and troubled past. Tole is broken man; he’s seen and done more than he can cope with in the war and has turned to the bottle for consolation. He is now doing his best to become a better man. As the two grow closer, we begin to understand them on a deeper level.

Robert Hicks has written a book that beautifully illustrates the strength a mother is able to summon in the name of avenging her child’s murder. Mariah is a force. She does not have time to indulge in her grief. She’s a woman on a mission.

There were times in this book when I, expectedly, felt saddened, angry, and ashamed at the culture of racial prejudice and violence. However, I found the overall messages of strength, dignity, and perseverance to be encouraging.

At its heart, this is a book about love, loss, and coming to terms with the truth. I was especially touched by the epilogue. I think Theopolis would have been very proud of his mother.

4.5/5 stars

Many thanks to Grand Central Publishing for proving a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

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.

 

Review of The Girls by Emma Cline

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The Girls , Emma Cline’s highly-anticipated debut novel, is the story of 14 year old Evie, growing up in 1960’s  California, and how she becomes entangled with a violent cult. Evie is now an adult who has, for the most part, moved on with her life. The story toggles back and forth between the two timelines in a well-paced and seamless manner.

The parallels with the Manson killings of that time are very obvious. I’m a bit obsessed with true crime books and TV (ID is pretty much the only thing I watch). I read Helter Skelter many, many years ago, and was fascinated by the ability of Charles Manson to control the minds and actions of so many people. Let’s face it – he was a super-creepy looking misfit. What were these people thinking??

I was hoping this book would answer that question and really dig deep into what makes people join cults and allow themselves to be brainwashed in such a way. We know that they are often looking for a sense of belonging and acceptance. (Evie’s parents had recently divorced and she had become estranged from her BFF… ) We know they are often young and beginning to use/are using drugs and alcohol. (Evie does.) We know they often feel a lack of control and a resentment toward authority. (Evie is about to be sent to a boarding school against her will.) But there must be something much deeper and darker. Many young adults have similar experiences and don’t seek out murderous cults to be their surrogate family.

While this book was a page-turner, I didn’t gain a clear enough understanding of why Evie joined, and kept going back to, this cult.While I understand that Evie’s attraction to and fascination with Suzanne, the most influential of the girls, was a major factor, I don’t think it was enough. And it didn’t explain how Russell was able to gain such power and influence over the rest of the group. I needed more details. Russell, the leader of the cult, was not as central a character as I’d expected him to be and I was a little disappointed in that. I would have liked to see him more fully developed and to understand more about his relationships within the group.

 

Overall, however, this was a very solid debut novel. I feel that if I didn’t know so much about the Manson Family, I may have actually enjoyed it more. It was unable to stop making constant comparisons between the novel and the real-life story and I think that certainly had an impact on my overall impression of the book.  I would look forward to reading Emma Cline’s next book even though I didn’t end up loving this one as much as I’d hoped.

My rating: 3.25/5 stars

Thanks to Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy 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.