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book review: The Accidentals

The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin. William Morrow| August 2019| 381 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-247175-8

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

 

“That fall June and I had at long last begun to plumb the depth of our mother’s unhappiness.”

In 1957, Olivia McAlister chooses to have an abortion in Mississippi. Illegal at the time, the only options for abortion were often cheap, quick back-alley abortions. Olivia longed to return to New Orleans and feels like an “accidental”—a migratory bird flown off course. Olivia dies leaving her two daughters, Grace and June, and her husband Holly on their own, the effects far-reaching throughout their lives. Holly becomes obsessed with building a bomb shelter. The daughters struggle to find their place in the world.

As a teenager, Grace becomes involved in a love affair with two boys. When she becomes pregnant, she’s sent away to have the child. Originally the aunt had planned the raise the child as her own but the child’s born with a facial defect—a cleft palate—and the aunt gets scared away. At an orphanage, the baby has an accident and is presumed dead. Ed Mae Johnson, an African-American care worker ends up taking the child home and raising her. Grace goes to college and later grad school. She travels the world studying ancient texts—“Here I am, fluent in Greek and Latin and Arabic. I can examine a piece of papyrus and give you its age within twenty years . . .” She works as a professor. She bird watches and feeds the wildlife in her backyard.

“One of the few things I’d come to pride myself on was having learned to take pleasure in things nobody else would think twice about. I had no expectations so I was constantly surprised by small pleasures. A thick peanut and butter and jelly sandwich, flocks of blackbirds flashing their red-tipped wings as they swooped down on the corn, Elsa’s celery smell at the end of a day in the kitchen. The first snow of winter, which had fallen just the past week and melted the next day.”

June finds religion as a teenager. She goes to church with a friend and gets baptized. She practices kissing with a female friend until that friend gets a boyfriend. She attends college and works as a journalist. She notes: “… I am the bona fide reporter, hardcore police beat and such, first woman in my paper’s history to work the news desk.” June unhappily marries and has a son. After undergoing cancer treatment, she starts fostering and adopting dogs—“These dogs of mine, they weren’t pretty to look at, and after Noel left, I made a point to choose the ones I know didn’t have a rat’s chance of getting taken.”

Everyone ends up in Nashville, Tennessee at the end. After many years with little communication or contact, June moves to help Grace after she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Grace’s baby, now grown, lives in the city too. They may have already met. The Accidentals packs in plenty of details as chapters alternate points-of-view. It’s a lovely story about resilience, forgiveness and family bonds.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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book review: Careful What You Wish For

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Careful What You Wish For by Hallie Ephron| William Morrow| August 6, 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN13: 9780062473653

RATING: ****/5*

“Months later, bright and early on this muggy August morning, as she stood in her sunlit bedroom in shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops, the message those socks whispered to her heart was more about privilege than joy. Who on earth needed so many pairs of socks?”

After a video of her organizing her sock drawer goes viral, Emily Harlow decides to leave her job as a teacher to launch a career as a professional organizer. Emily’s lawyer husband remains immune to Emily’s de-cluttering skills, he spends every weekend browsing yard sales. The attic, garage and basement are all filled with her husband’s collection. Emily and her partner Becca have two new clients: an elderly widow, Mrs. Murphy, who needs to de-clutter her late husband’s storage unit and a young woman, Quinn, whose husband won’t allow her things into their home.

Emily finds rare books in the storage unit that appear to have come from several libraries–“Emily was no expert, but it certainly looked old. It was an engraving or an etching, though Emily didn’t know the difference. With no tears or foxing, it was in pristine condition. She used her phone to google the words on the label. Back came a link to an auction house that, in 2012, had offered what looked like the identical map. According to the description, it was published in London in 1624. In “excellent condition,” it had a value estimate of . . . Emily blinked . . . $12,000. If the map in front of her was worth that much, and if it turned out to have been on permanent unofficial loan, she and Becca were catapulted into felony territory.” Did Mr. Murphy steal these books and other antiquities or acquire them legally? Emily brings her librarian mom in to assist with this project. When Emily meets Quinn, after several glasses of wine, the conversation turns personal as Quinn expresses a desire to get rid of her husband. When the husband goes missing and then is discovered dead in the widow’s husband’s storage unit, everyone becomes a suspect. It’s impossible to ignore the similarities between an expensive art collection in Quinn’s house and Murphy’s rare books. How would these men have known each other? Emily’s husband’s law partner recommended that Quinn contact Emily. What’s his connection to all this?

De-cluttering almost always leads to some sort of discovery, often something personal. There’s a reason why people collect or hoard things. Oftentimes it’s to fill a void or due to some emotional connection to their things. According to the Mayo Clinic, hoarding disorder is “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.” Most everyone has seen at least one episode of Hoarders or Marie Kondo’s Netflix show. This topic can go in lots of different directions and provides an intriguing theme.

If you like novels by Elinor Lipman, you’ll like the work of Hallie Ephron. Both women write witty, humorous, observant novels with mature characters. And not mature in any negative sense but in that these are highly capable, experienced women. It gets tiresome to read about 20- and 30-somethings once you’re in your 40s or 50s (I just turned 50). There are a lot of books about 20- and 30-something women out there. It’s refreshing to find older characters with whom one can relate. I appreciated this: “In the month since Emily had least seen her, her mother had dyed her hair red and cut it short and spiky. As she’d told Emily countless times, the problem with getting older was that women over sixty were treated as if they were invisible. At sixty-five, between the hair, a short silk caftan in swirling shades of pink and purple, and the layers of bangle bracelets that jangled whenever she gestured, Lila showed the world just how determined she was not to disappear.”

If you like suspense novels, this one doesn’t disappoint. Be Careful What You Wish For is an ingenious and amusing novel that makes a great summer or vacation read.

–review by Amy Steele

I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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book review: Lady in the Lake

The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman. William Morrow| July 23, 2019| 352 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-23904-2

RATING: ****/5*

“Alive, I was Cleo Sherwood. Dead, I became the Lady in the Lake, a nasty broken thing, dragged from the fountain after steeping there for months, through the cold winter, then that fitful, bratty spring, almost into summer proper. Face gone, much of my flesh gone.”

“It was only when she started moving her things in that she realized while the apartment was charming, the neighborhood was decidedly mixed. Mixed on its way to being not so mixed. Maddie wasn’t prejudiced, of course. If she had been younger, without a child, she would have gone south to join the voter registration project a few years back. She was almost sure of this. But she didn’t like being so visible in her new neighborhood, a solitary white woman who happened to own a fur coat. Only beaver, but a fur nonetheless. She was wearing it now. Maybe the jeweler would pay more if she didn’t look like someone who needed the money.”

When Cleo, a young African-American woman is murdered in racially divided Baltimore, recently divorced Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz thinks she can solve the mystery.  It’s 1966 and Maddie wants to have her own success apart from her wealthy ex-husband –“The infuriating thing was that her mother was right. Everything about Maddie’s post-Milton life was smaller, shabbier.”– She starts working at a newspaper where she’s relegated to answer questions for an advice column. She becomes romantically involved with an African-American police officer who provides her with inside information on Cleo’s case. She’s determined to figure out who killed young Cleo and to earn a better position at the newspaper. Maddie seems to be the only one interested in uncovering the truth about Cleo’s murder. Meanwhile, the ghost of Cleo has her own opinions about Maddie’s sleuthing. Author Laura Lippman effectively takes readers to the gritty streets of Baltimore in the 1960s through the vastly different and unique experiences of a black woman and a white woman.The novel alternates between Maddie, Cleo and a cast of characters (such as a bartender, a classmate, a patrolman, a columnist, a waitress) who may or may not know things about both women and the murder. As the novel progresses, we discover details about each woman. It’s a classic noir novel but also a strong psychological novel that examines what motivates women to make the choices they do, particularly in a white male-dominated society. Will Maddie’s own secrets end her journey of self-discovery, freedom and empowerment?

–review by Amy Steele

I received a copy of this novel from William Morrow for review purposes.

 

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book review: The Tenth Muse

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. Ecco| June 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-257406-0

RATING: *****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“A mathematical proof is absolute once it has been written and verified: if the internal logic of a proof holds, it is considered unassailable and true. The underlying structure of my family was something I’d never questioned. It had formed the foundation of my life. When it suddenly dissolved, I was unmoored. It had never occurred to me to question my mother’s love for me, or our relationship to each other. I had believed these things were absolute.”

Who would expect a novel about a young math prodigy working on the Riemann hypothesis and uncovering her family history in the process to be so riveting? The Tenth Muse is the best novel I’ve read this year. It’s an engrossing work of historical fiction with gorgeous writing, unforgettable characters and events. It’s a sprawling page-turner set in academia.

Katherine always loved problem-solving and equations and that’s what drew her to math: “Math had always seemed miraculous to me because of the beauty it revealed underlying nature, because of the deep sense of rightness that came over me when I understood something all the way through, as if for a moment I’d merged with the grace I only ever caught glimpses of.” Katherine is a brilliant mathematician working in a male-dominated field. During college and graduate school, her classmates remind her that there are few noted female mathematicians throughout history, notably Emily Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya. She recalls: “But by then I was resigned to these jokes, to the constant reminder that I was an anomaly, an outsider, a kind of freak. I was aware that even if I contributed to our field, my name would also become a punch line. I didn’t know how to resist, except to make clear that I wasn’t trying to fit in, that I knew I was different and to highlight that difference to make it clear.”

I especially loved all the scenes focusing on Katherine’s academic studies. Reading about books, academia, college and university settings greatly appeal to me. Author Catherine Chung provides plenty of real-life math references and establishes a clear sense of Katherine’s struggles as well as her inspiration. Being one of the few women in a male-dominated field, Katherine is constantly questioned, undermined and often taken advantage of by her colleagues. She has several pivotal love affairs, one with a professor during graduate school.

The novel ultimately centers on Katherine’s identity and I can’t reveal too much. It gloriously unfolds. When Katherine decides to tackle the Riemann hypothesis and it leads her to discover her family story and its connection in World World II. Her Chinese immigrant mother remained an enigma to Katherine throughout her life. Living in Michigan and married to Katherine’s white father, she faced extreme prejudices in post-WWII America. “I heard her called a dirty Jap once, and China Doll, and Red China, and while I flushed red with shame, my mother never so much as flinched at the slurs, so that I was never sure that she heard them.” When Katherine travels to Germany to study abroad, she discovers some shocking information about her family connected to both mathematics and WWII. Don’t think you need to be a math whiz for this book to make sense. There’s so much beauty and bravery within these pages.

 

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.

 

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