The Missing Letters of Mrs. Bright by Beth Miller

The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright: An absolutely unputdownable feel good  novel about love, loss and taking chances - Kindle edition by Miller, Beth.  Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

It is time for Kay to end her marriage. She does not have a solid plan of what she will do, but she knows it is time. Her life just has not worked out the way she’d hoped –she has not accomplished even half the goals she’d listed as a young and optimistic teenager. Maybe now is the time to begin to work on them. She’d enlist Bear to come with her to conquer some of these goals – Bear would understand, if anyone would. That is if Bear is ok. She hasn’t actually heard from Bear in months. As Kay seeks out her dear friend, she begins to also discover more about herself, and develop the courage to follow her own, true path.

This story is sort of “midlife crisis lite.” While Kay is truly going through a difficult time, and her decision impacts many around her, no one really seems to be that bothered by any of it. She herself is maybe a bit thrown, and while she has no idea what she’ll do for money or where she’ll live, she seems to not be worried about these details. Likewise, her husband is a bit shocked and maybe doesn’t get out of bed for a few days, but then bounces back so quickly that he’s already moved on by the time she’s returned for her things. Her daughter is bothered by it, but she is, in fact, mobilized out of her own quagmire of stasis, so it works out for her as well. It all fits just a little too perfectly.

On the other hand, this may be just the right tone for this moment, as Covid is still raging, as our country is still so divided, and as we are all struggling to make it through our days – maybe this is the one place where things can work out alright and life can fit back into place. Maybe that is what fiction is for?

Windfallen by Jojo Moyes

Amazon.com: Windfallen eBook: Moyes, Jojo: Kindle Store

Lottie and Celia are almost as close as sisters – in fact, they’ve been raised as sisters for the past few years, although Lottie is acutely aware that she is only with the Holden family as long as they continue to generously support her. However, when she and Celia stumble into the acquaintance of new, artsy friends at the Arcadia estate, Lottie’s eyes are opened to a new kind of freedom, a new way of living that just might present opportunities – or perhaps danger. She is not quite sure.

Fast forward to the present time, and we meet Daisy, whose life seems to be falling apart. Her partner has walked out on her and her infant daughter, and she is left to sort out their upcoming project of restoring a controversial estate -yes, Arcadia. Will she be able to navigate this overwhelming time in her life? Her sister does not seem to think so, but she must prove her wrong. She has to…

Here is another winner by Jojo Moyes. While it did not grab me immediately, I will admit, it grew more and more magnetic with each chapter. It may be that Lottie’s character, while complex and reserved, was so, perhaps, hardened by her circumstance that she was ever so slightly less likable and therefore less relatable. On the other hand, once we meet Daisy, we find her so much more of an open book, her emotions so raw and apparent, that she breathes a sort of spark into the story, enlivening it with her heart and energy. We love her from the start and root for her until the end. Both characters are beautiful in their own ways, of course, but they differ in how relatable they are, I felt.

Moyes beautifully depicts an undertone here of the social conflict between old/conservative thought and new/liberal perspective. The setting is a small, harbor town in England, where everyone knows everyone and families have long-held histories of judging others’ families for past ills. Arcadia, with its modern design, intrinsically represents– both physically and by its inhabitants — possibility, openness, and forward thinking. The town, and its people, are always whispering against those in Arcadia, fearing what it represents and rising up against it in various ways. And Lottie, for her part, becomes caught in between, at once part of Arcadia and then fighting against it, because of what it represents to her at different junctures of her life.

This is definitely worth reading. I don’t think it rises to a “Must Read” but it comes fairly close!

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Amazon.com: Anxious People: A Novel (9781501160837): Backman, Fredrik: Books

Ostensibly, this is a story about a bank robbery gone bad, resulting in a hostage situation in an apartment showing across the street from the bank.  It is even authenticated by the presence of a gun, a police interrogation, and even hostage negotiators on the way. However, what we gradually come to learn is that the real story is in the details of how each of the characters were brought together by an uncanny coincidence of fate to the hostage situation.  As we learn their stories, we become held ourselves, invested in seeing each of them resolve their own personal crises.   

Few are able to captivate their readers in the way that Fredrik Backman is.  His warmth and his humor permeate his writing, and he has a magical way of creating characters that are deeply human, layered and vulnerable.  He also constructs a tale that is utterly engaging.  What starts as a seemingly simple story winds its way into a much more complex drama, twisting with surprises that come when you least expect them, and occasionally unmasking our inherent biases  and beliefs.  

I am reluctant to say more, as I don’t want to give any of it away.  Suffice it to say that reading this will be a wonderful gift to yourself – it is a gem with perfect writing, beautiful characters, and a plot that will hold you and keep you smiling until the very last word.  

A DEFINITE MUST READ!!

 

 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: 9780140186390 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Cyrus Trask is a man who has returned from his brief stint in the army with a wooden leg and an enormously embellished story about his military experience. It is this military persona who has raised his two sons, Adam and Charles, and his driving pressure which divides them as well. For while Charles pines for the approval of his father, Adam shirks away from it. And like many sibling rivalries, it is just too onerous to overcome. Their journeys are both tortured and enriched by the people they meet and we follow Adam in particular as he winds his way across the country to the Salinas Valley, where he ultimately settles and raises his own two sons.

I have been maintaining this blog for over 5 years and I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled by a novel as I feel by this one. There is so much more than I could ever possibly understand in this story, so much significance and reference in this allegory that I can not even begin to appreciate the depth of it.

The underlying theme, to me, seems to be the struggle over good and evil impulses that exists in all of us. Steinbeck depicts some of the characters as being born to be destined to be purely one or the other, almost as if they do not have the choice over their path. Cathy, for example, is described as someone who is missing something essential, and we come to expect nothing but evil from her all throughout. Yet, there is discussion amongst three of the characters in the story about the biblical story of Cain and Abel about the possibility of having choice over what path a person chooses to follow – good or evil. Ironically, one of the participants is Adam, whose brother has assaulted him quite violently in an attempt on his life.

The unsung hero of this book is certainly Lee, who cares for Adam and his two sons. Because he is of Chinese descent, he experiences constant racism and is dismissed as being less-than, even when, in truth, he is far more intelligent and well-educated than most of the men around him. Yet he humbles himself to those around him and reveals to them neither his resentment nor his superior intellect, unless he is shown the respect he merits. Only then does he reveal his true self or his boundless wisdom.

If you never read this classic in high school or college, as I hadn’t, I would encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading this extraordinary novel. This is absolutely a MUST READ!

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

The Last Story of Mina Lee: A Novel: Kim, Nancy Jooyoun: 9780778310174:  Amazon.com: Books

It’s been two weeks since Margot has heard from her mother, Mina. She’s not answered her phone, nor has she called. And while they are not close, they are really each other’s only family.   So Margot now finds herself driving down from Seattle to Los Angeles, with her best friend, Miguel, to investigate. What she finds there leads her on a search for answers – answers about her mother’s fate, about her mother’s past, and about her own origins.

This is a book that I wanted to love. Mina was an immigrant of Korean origin who came to this country seeking what so many come to the US seeking – refuge from war, refuge from a painful, dangerous past, seeking opportunity. And like many, what she finds is obstacles. Barriers because of language, culture, and xenophobia. There is a universality to this story that I know is important to readers in this moment – important for us to understand the immigrant experience, to develop an empathy toward it, and to fully comprehend the urgency to open doors for immigrants in our country.

The story does accomplish this goal. However, it is so bleak and so unrelentingly tragic, that the reader develops almost a compassion fatigue while reading it. Mina’s life is so full of horror that it is almost unimaginable. The details that are leaked, almost like tears leaking from the eyes of someone afraid to show emotion, are devastatingly heartbreaking.  Mina is truly the hero of the story, as Margot comes to realize, but we are almost too exhausted to fully appreciate her.

There was also much in the way of repetition. Rather than introducing additional vignettes about the life of either Mina or Margot, or, more importantly, of their memories together while Margot was growing up, the author chose to recount the same scenes again and again from different perspectives. This sometimes added some depth, but occasionally grew old, and it would have added more, I believe, to create additional memories, shared times between mother and daughter, to give further insight into their complicated relationship. Margot was searching for more – and so was I as the reader.

I think this is an important story to tell. I wish I’d loved the telling of it more.

 

 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - By Lisa Wingate (Hardcover) : Target

Avery Stafford is finding her place, as she’s come back to the south to possibly carry on the family’s senatorial dynasty. When she visits a nursing home during a publicity event, she stumbles upon a woman she fears may hold a family secret that may threaten all that she and her family have worked for.

Then flash backward and we meet Rill Foss, a precocious 12 year old living with her poor but happy family in their river shanty. Rill is thrust suddenly into being responsible for her 4 younger siblings, for keeping them together and safe, and we watch as she is torn apart as adults attempt to destroy the family she fights to save.

As these two stories unfold side by side, we are breathless to know how they intersect.

This was an excruciating story to read at times, but at the same time, it was one that I could not put down. And while Rill herself is not an actual person, her story is based on historical events and children’s experiences that have been documented from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. That is, a woman named Georgia Tann, ran an adoption center in Memphis that actually bought and sold children as if they were property. Some of these children were actual orphans, but many were stolen from their homes, kidnapped while walking home from school, or worse. Some were placed in high profile homes, such as in homes of celebrities and politicians, but many were mistreated and hundreds are thought to have actually died under her care. She apparently made thousands of dollars from this business and had politicians and law enforcement in her pockets and avoided any legal confrontation to her dying day. Georgia Tann is the one non-fictional character in this book.

The writing in this book is gripping, particularly Rill’s story. On the other hand, it at times can be so utterly painful that some is extremely hard to read. It’s that same feeling one gets seeing a terrible car accident – can’t look but can’t look away. I personally have the hardest time hearing/reading about abuse of children and tend to avoid books like this. I have to admit, though, that the author handled it well. Just as it reaches a moment of peak discomfort, the story switches to Avery’s story line to lighten the mood and give the reader a chance to breathe. This is the only way I was able to get through, I think.

And in Rill, the author has created an extraordinary character. Though young, she is wise, cautious, kind, and she fights for her family with a passion that brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat. There is no way not to love and empathize with this character.

This is an extraordinary tale, told well. Isn’t that all we want in a book???

 

 

 

 

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Lakshmi has been cultivating her business for the past 10 years, painting henna designs onto strategic body parts of the socialites of Jaipur, and doling out her herbal remedies on the side. Now if she could only seal the deal on her newest and most ambitious venture, she’d be able to finalize the details on the house that has come to symbolize her dream of full independence. But will the advent of a surprise family member put a thorn in her meticulously laid plan? How will she negotiate what she now cannot fully control?

This artistically drawn narrative embraces you from page one and holds you in its tender wrap until the very end. The writing is lyrical and poignant and all the stark colors and radiant spice of India spill out of its pages to give you the full sensory experience. At the same time, we are also privy to Lakshmi’s emotional turmoil as well, feeling connected to her experiences by this same sensorial thread. Her struggles become ours and her victories ours as well.

I do wonder why the author chose to restrict the narrating voice to only Laskshmi’s. In some ways it gives some mystery to her sister, Radha’s character, but I wonder if it might have broadened the perspective to tell the story from her sister’s side as well. Her sister was an intriguing character with a tragic past who we know from hearing her story from Lakshmi’s point of view. It might have added that much more depth to the story to give her more of a voice.

At the same time, I loved the characters. They were full of lovely and sage Indian adages, which I loved, and they exhibited such warmth and humanity. One of my favorites was Lakshmi’s little assistant, Malik. His impish but extraordinarily wise tendencies and steadfast loyalty were heartwarming, and Lakshmi warmed to becoming almost a maternal figure to him as the story progressed. Their relationship was subtly and tenderly portrayed.

There was so much to love about this book – I’d love to hear from you what you loved. Please let me know when you’ve given yourself the gift of reading The Henna Artist! It is, I would say, a MUST READ as well!

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Lillian and Madison go way back – having been roommates at boarding school in high school. And while they’ve not seen each other in years, they’ve been in touch, with Lillian offering minimal details of her dull unaccomplished life, while receiving letters from Madison filled with details of her picture-perfect marriage to the senator, her picture-perfect home and her picture-perfect little boy. Now, finally, as Madison has written to ask Lillian to visit because she has a favor to ask of her, she will finally see her again in the flesh. Will it be the same between them? Will Madison really be as perfect as she has always seemed? What is this mission she is being asked to do? Will Lillian be able to live up to Madison’s expectations? Will she be able to live up to her own?

Spoiler alert: The mission involves Lillian caring for two children who spontaneously combust. Yes, they burst into flames when they are upset. They are not harmed but they can cause harm to what may be around them. They are awkward kids and are clearly affected by this inconvenient trait, but inside, they are just kids. Lillian appreciates them for who they are, in spite of this trait, but others fear them and have difficulty accepting them for who they are.

While I appreciate a dramatic metaphor as much as the next reader, I just find this entire story too incredulous to swallow. Even beyond the flaming children, there is the history between Lillian and Madison that leads one to question why Lillian would come running at Madison’s behest. And then there is the question of how, with such a neglectful mother as Lillian is demonstrated to have, she has such a knack for mothering challenging children that no one else seems to be able to handle.

I think the author had an interesting idea that started well but went so beyond the boundaries of reality that it was no longer viable. And this, at least for me, was a disappointment. Much of the story felt ridiculous and I had difficulty envisioning at least parts of it. While I did develop affection for some of the characters, such as the 2 flaming children, I wondered always what the attraction was that Lillian had for Madison, as Madison was quite the selfish, and eternally self-serving character. And while the message clearly was one I respect – that we should all be appreciated for our weirdness and quirks as well as what we can do for others —  it was delivered at too a high price.

So, unfortunately, I have to say for Nothing to See Here – nothing to read here, at least in my opinion.  

 

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

Amazon.com: Lost Roses: A Novel (9781524796372): Kelly, Martha Hall: Books

8-year old Luba is not happy, having to share her older sister Sofya with anyone, let alone this American, Eliza. Here in Paris, far away from their home in Petrograd, they seem to be the best of friends somehow, laughing and talking of anything but what Luba is interested in (astronomy, of course!)- that is, until their big surprise, arranged just for Luba. All too quickly, however, Luba understands that Eliza may be the best friend that the two sisters have, as their whole world comes crashing down on them, with the uprising of the Bolsheviks and the disintegration of the Tzar’s regime.

This story, loosely based on the real life story of Eliza Ferriday, is a gorgeous narrative about the plight of the “White Russian,” the elite Russian class torn apart and displaced by the Bolshevik revolution. It is told from the perspectives of each of the main characters, as well as from Varinka, a poor, young woman who worked for Sofya briefly, taking care of her young boy. While each woman was struggling with her own internal battle, each also was a victim of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. They were also interconnected and the story was woven together with threads that bound them throughout. This telling of the story through each of their perspectives also served to build tremendous suspense, particularly at the end of each chapter.

One unusual aspect of this story was the absence of demonizing the rich. So often in literature, the wealthy are assumed to be snobbish and evil and the poor are assumed to be altruistic and pure and good. What I admired here was that the characters were beyond that. There were some wealthy characters who were elitist for sure, but there were plenty who were generous and kind – likewise, with the poor. It was a refreshing avoidance of stereotypes.

I felt I gained more of an understanding of the Russian Revolution from this book. It gave an alternative version, something of a balanced viewpoint. It is true that the Tzar was terrible in his management of the country – his mismanagement of the economy, ignoring the needs of the masses, and certainly murder of the Jews in the country. This story strongly acknowledged this. But the Bolsheviks’ methods were not exactly honorable either. There was so much bloodshed and misery in order, really, to just put a different small number of people into a position of power over the masses. With new forms of propaganda that were just as deceiving and dishonest.

From the author of Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly, this is another MUST READ! Give yourself this very gripping and very loving gift!

Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams

Amazon.com: Her Last Flight: A Novel (9780062834782): Williams, Beatriz:  Books

As a photojournalist, Janey Everett has learned how to use everything she has to get information. In pursuing the backstory of the perilous crash of Sam Mallory, whom, she knew, was considered the best pilot of his time, she is determined to stop at nothing to get to the details. She knows that her only hope is to find the elusive Irene Foster, once his co-pilot, and thought to be lost at sea years prior. But Janey follows her instincts as well as the trail of rumors that she may just be alive. And as Janey chases her story, we are also brought back in time to follow Irene’s. Both women, through their narratives, reveal how courage and grit can lead to a life lived as one’s true self.

Once again, Beatriz Williams has knocked it out of the park with this book. Don’t let her breezy, familiar, and accessible style fool you. This is a heavy book – historical fiction, fully researched and chock full of detail that make it feel as real as any biography might. There is subtle reference to blood and war and the ugliness of humanity, just as in other historical fiction novels. But here, because the references are kept so subtle, they really hit you more when you look back on the story and realize all that you’ve just taken in.

Usually what I love most about Williams’ writing is her gorgeous, fallible, earthy characters. Generally, the main character is a strong female, who is in full control (how refreshing!!). She may make a few less-than-ideal choices, but she is smart, witty, somehow vulnerable, courageous and resilient. Nevertheless, in this novel, I was enthralled by the plot as well, as there were as many twists to it as I imagine there were in a flight demo by Mallory himself. It was as driving as it was passionate.

There is no question whether I’d recommend this book. I’d say it’s even a MUST READ!

 

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