Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult

Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel (Wsp Readers Club): Picoult, Jodi:  9780743431019: Amazon.com: Books

Shocking both herself and her husband, Jane has done something she cannot believe and she must get away. To her surprise, her teenage daughter, Rebecca, is ready for her, bags packed, in their car, ready to leave with her. They have no idea where they’re headed, but they get on the road and begin an adventure that will change them forever.

I love Jodi Picoult and have read, I believe, almost all of her books. She has a pattern – not exactly a formula, but a definite style. She meticulously builds a story from the perspective of more than one character, gradually reaching a crescendo that always has a fantastic twist of some kind.

This was not quite that book, however. While normally Picoult’s transitions are smooth and easy to follow, they were not so here. I found that characters were not “properly introduced” and I found myself wondering at times whom I was reading about. And the non-chronological telling of the story, which is normally ok with me, felt choppy here.

This not to say that the entire book was uninteresting. The underlying plot, while a bit far-fetched, was engaging, and as usual, the science was well-researched. The tidbits about whales were actually intriguing and even the details about apple farming was fun to read. Once we did get to know the characters, we did like them. It just took time to figure out who was who.

I’m still a fan, for sure. But this is not the best of the bunch…

 

More than Words by Jill Santopolo

Nina has known that while she was passionate about speechwriting for the mayoral campaign,  this could only be a temporary departure from what she has been destined to do.  She knew that at some point she’d need to take the helm of the family dynasty of NYC hotels, but she thought she had more time.  But as her life was changing faster than she’d expected, with her father’s illness rapidly progressing, it seemed that her usual supports were failing her.  The only one who seemed to truly understand her was the one least likely to and the one she could not let anyone else see her turn to.   Or could she?

This was a modestly entertaining read, but honestly, disappointing.    With characters that are entitled, stereotypical, and one-dimensional, a plot that was predictable, and a message that said, in my opinion that if you’re wealthy enough, you can get away with a crime.  Bottom line -in my opinion, it was a mediocre at best.

And that’s about all I have to say about that.

 

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

Lily, Ted’s 12 year old dachshund, has been the love of his life from that very first moment when she chose him, by tugging on his shoelace.  She may have been the runt of the litter, but she was brave and wise and she’s been perfect company ever since.   They’ve shared walks on the beach, Saturday night movies and pizza, and discussions about cutest guys – and Ted was very content to continue his life with her.  That is, until, the advent of the octopus, who invaded their lives and turned everything utterly upside down.

This is a very unusual story about love and loss, told as a medley of poetic license, imagination and great tenderness.  Anyone who has ever lived with a pet can relate to the deep bond that forms, and the dependence that runs in both directions.  It appears that Ted may have elevated this bond to a higher level, but the way it is depicted is engaging and endearing and we can all relate to some degree.  And loss is hard, no matter whether what kind of living creature it may be.

My only hesitation in fully recommending this book is that it is somewhat monochromatic.  It is missing a secondary plot line, a more layered approach.  It might have benefitted from a side story about his best friend, Trent, to make him more interesting?  Maybe more about Ted’s sister?  Something…

On the other hand, it was incredibly sweet, it had an ironic crescendo, and quite a bit of heart.  And you will definitely also fall in love with Lily.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Young-sook has no time for talking – she has always busied herself with diving and collecting food from the sea on her Korean island of Jeju, and today is no different.  She usually has no patience for the tourists, but this family who is approaching her is different.  This family appears familiar, somehow.  When they begin to question her and mention the name of a woman from her past, they wash her whole personal history back to her in a wave that crashes over everything she ever understood about herself.

Lisa See has a gift for depicting historical fiction and here, again, she paints vivid cultural details into the well-researched,  deeply emotional saga of Young-sook.   By going back through the history of this fictional character, See recounts the history of the island of Jeju, caught in the middle of the two world wars, the Korean War, and the division of the Koreas.  She recounts the impact of the colonialism of the Japanese and then, essentially,  of the Americans on Korea, and the massacres that occurred on the island of Jeju during the power disputes.   This is history about which I personally have been quite ignorant and I am thankful I have learned, painful as it was.

What was beautiful was the passion with which See imbues her characters, which gives the story its energy.  The women of the island are the breadwinners, who dive in the ocean for food – with no oxygen tanks, no equipment, just each other as their safety net.  They are the farmers, who toil the land for the food they grow to support the families as well.  While the women were not normally educated, they supported the family in a practical way, and made the fundamental decisions for the family, such as the matchmaking, and saw themselves as responsible for the survival of the families in every sense of the word.  They also have a fiery passion for each other, as in the love that Young-sook and her friend Mi-ja have for each other- not a lovers’ passion, but a pure and devoted friendship that may even surpass many lovers’ relationships in their depth and trust.

This is a beautiful story in every way – the story itself and the telling of it.  Give yourself this gift!

 

After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid

It comes as no surprise to either Lauren or Ryan that they are at a crossroads in their marriage.  In fact, if they are honest with themselves, they’ve been struggling, with resentment and anger cresting like a slow wave, for months now.  As they are finally forced to acknowledge their painful situation, they strike a condition — an unusual, creative test of a sort —  to try to determine their future together.  Will this work?  Will this test drive them further apart?  Or will it, as they hope, bring them back together?

After reading a few of Reid’s books, I have come to understand that her gift is writing about relationships.  She has the uncanny ability of being able to create warmth between characters so palpable that is seems to rise up from the pages of the book.  I think that’s why I enjoy her writing so much.  Present here also is her signature use of an alternative medium of writing, using emails between characters to serve as an inspired means of allowing the reader to dive deeper into their hearts.

In truth, this book is really a light, beach read-type book.  It’s a love story, with sunny, quirky characters, and a few entertaining subplots that push the story forward.  In fact, there are a few details missing that I find odd.  For example, we never learn what Ryan actually does for a living – and he’s a pretty significant character.  I don’t know why that is.  And when Lauren goes to work (we do know what she does), we rarely hear about the work that she does.  Just an interesting and strange thing.

But that said, it is a fun, light, summer read that is a good antidote to all that is surrounding us at the moment, so I say, go for it!  Good therapeutic distraction!

 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Amma is anxious.  Tonight is the opening of her newest play, and although she’s been doing this for years, she’s never before opened in the National Theatre.  This feels so much more colossal, so more auspicious than anything else she’s undertaken.  She thinks back to her modest beginnings, when she partnered with Dominique, an independent, creative woman like herself with ambitious dreams and a personality to match.  And she thinks about all the people who will be there for her.  And we will meet many of these people as the book unfolds, and we will hear each of their stories unwind through the pages as they all wind back to Amma.

Everything about this book is unique.

The writing is almost without punctuation, written as if it is one, very long, run-on, but poetic sentence.  However, it is divided by starting new lines,

very

strategically.

While I admit this took a bit of getting used to at first, I found it worked – and actually made the writing extremely powerful.

Most of the characters are women of color, often of mixed heritage, and often identify as LGBTQI – and each is given a deeply vivid story to tell.  While most experience racism of some kind, they confront it in many different ways, and most finding a way to either rise above or cut right through.  There are many characters – and to be honest, I did find it sometimes hard to keep track of them all – but each had her/their beauty, each was sympathetic in some way, and each was was someone you came to think of as an actual, tactile person.

It is easy to see how this book won the Booker Prize in 2019, as it is beautifully composed, with gorgeous characters and with a memorable round of stories to tell.  It will keep you glued and it will warm your heart.

I”ve got another MUST READ for you!

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

Franny is so ready to be away from New York City – but is she ready to be on an island with her family for two whole weeks?  How will this work, given all that has happened with her husband, Jim?  Will they be able to maintain the wall of secrecy they’ve maintained from their son, Bobby?  Will Charles, Franny’s best friend, and his husband, be the buffer she hopes they’ll be?  As it turns out, Franny is not the only one anxious about the trip, and we learn from each of the vacationers that the aspirations they bring with them on this journey impacts both themselves and each other.

This was a perfect summer read – light but with substance, honest but with some fluff, and gritty but with humor.  I was definitely engaged.  I found myself giggling at some points, but also found myself feeling tenderness for some of the characters at many points as well.  And maybe there was a little of the idealistic here, a little “fantasy,” with the setting on the island of Mallorca, the beautiful house, the mountains, the characters who forgive easily, etc., but isn’t that what fiction is for?

At this moment, when things are so dark, with an ongoing pandemic, with the uncovering of decades of racial injustice, with a frightening election on the horizon, this is a wonderful escape into a sunnier place.  Let yourself vacation here!

 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Emira was in the midst of celebrating one of her best friends’ 26th birthday, when she was called, late at night, to come babysit for little Briar.  Pleading an emergency that would bring police to the home, Mrs. Chamberlain wanted Briar out of the house.  Needing the cash, and actually adoring spending time with Briar for whatever reason, Emira arrived in heels and her short skirt to take Briar to the grocery store where Briar was entranced with the nut selection.  When an off-duty security officer created an outrageous scene over what Emira was doing with Briar in the grocery store late at night, this led to an uprooting in Emira’s life that she never would have ever imagined.

On the surface, this is a fun read, full of twists and cringe-worthy moments.  It’s almost as if we are seeing the characters on their way to driving into a virtual car crash before they actually do – we see them heading toward it, we feel it coming, we are, in our minds, trying to stop them and we can’t. And it isn’t exactly a crash, and it isn’t fatal, and so we can ride with them and enjoy the irony of the moments as they careen into each other, so to speak.

But look a little deeper and you see that layered in these pages is a much stronger message.  Once again, we see the White folks telling the Black woman (Emira) what is best for her, what she should be doing with her life, as if they know.  They are blind to their own shortcomings, but dole out guidance and, indeed, intervene on her behalf, uninvited.  Believing themselves “nice,” they are merely patronizing and using her as a symbol of their liberal leanings.  A scene I know is not unique.

This book is powerful in its subtlety and will be far reaching because of its accessibility. Highly recommend this one!

 

The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John

As the Christmas season approaches, it is decided that two new temporary hires will be added to the the Ladies’ Frocks Department at Goode’s department store, in Sydney, Australia (circa 1950).    This creates quite a buzz among the staff, who are fairly set in their routines and social circles.  As we come to know each of the women and her personal challenges, we see how the influx of these new women brings with it a fresh air for each woman’s life circumstance.   Bonds form and there is a warm embrace that envelops around the Ladies’ department of Goode’s after all.

I was looking for a lighter novel to read on the beach, and this was a placeholder.  It is definitely light, sometimes funny, and the characters hold charm, for sure.  The writing aims for an old-timey, 1950’s-ish tone, with a nostalgic air.

On the other hand, it is hard to read this without feeling that it is somewhat vacuous.  The message here is clear that no female character can achieve fullness in their life without being  married to a man, even if that man is dull and insensitive.  And even if a woman is smart, it is up to her father (yes, of course, another male) to determine if she is allowed to foster that intelligence to its fullest.  Everyone here with any power is male.  And I do understand that this was the 1950’s but I am not convinced that all that much has changed.

I suppose I am just tired of acquiescing to the fact of this power scenario, and going along with the status quo without calling it out.  I can’t do it anymore.  And maybe if we start calling it out in the books we read, we’ll gain confidence in calling it out in real life as well.

 

 

Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera

The 1920’s may have been “roarin'” for some, but it didn’t take the stock market crash to bring financial despair to Gertrude and her girls. No, she had that thrust upon her much earlier, with the boll weevil devastation of her husband’s cotton crops a year earlier and his drowning himself in alcohol for comfort.   Now, all she can do to save her four daughters from abject starvation, is to leave them with others until she comes up with an urgent action plan.  As she enacts her plan, and without meaning to, she draws in the support of two other women, Oretta and Annie, who are confronting their own, shared, past.  Very quickly, she finds herself slowly enabling them to be strengthened by her evolving strength.

This is a gorgeously written novel that is engaging from the very first words.  What is most magnetic are the characters – they are so beautiful and private,  vulnerable and proud – they pull you right in.  You just wish for the opportunity sit with each one, to drink sweet tea and to talk for hours.  Oretta, especially.  Oretta has worked for Annie all her life, as has her own mother.   She is kind, gentle, compassionate and wise, and has had losses and loves that have shaped her.   She is the person who would take in a young, sick child,  a perfect stranger, and care for her as her own.

There are so many layers tucked into the pages of this work of historical fiction, which make it so strong.  Layers of plot lines, layers of personality traits to each of the characters, even layers of voices.  I am in awe at the ability of a writer to incorporate all of this into a novel without it saddling the novel with sagging detail.  This one moves quickly, keeps the reader always engaged, and leaves you wanting more time with it.

Although this is a painful story and the details are difficult, I very highly recommend this book – and give it a rare MUST READ!