The Art of Losing by Lizzy Mason

Harley’s only wish is that she could unwind the clock, just reverse time to the moment before she made the impulsive decision to leave her best friend’s party before assuring her sister had a ride home with someone other than her own drunken boyfriend, Mike. Maybe then her sister, Audrey, would not be in the Neuro ICU in a coma, having just barely survived a near-fatal car accident. And although it was not Harley at the wheel, she feels so much responsibility for the whole mess, it may as well have been. Overwhelmed with anger and guilt, Harley muddles through Audrey’s recovery, all the while sorting out issues around her relationships, substance use, and how to manage and express her own very complicated feelings.

Written as a young adult novel by an author who has experienced addiction and rehab treatment herself, this novel seeks to provide a wake-up call for those who try to deny that those in their teens can be addicts, and/or that just alcohol alone can be a drug that can endanger lives. Many minimize the risks of teenage binge drinking that is seen both in high schools and on college campuses, but it in fact takes a huge toll on both the physical and the psychological health of those affected (and often those around them as well) – and alcohol intoxication is a cause of 30% of fatal car accidents in the US. Only when one takes treatment seriously, whether through residential or intensive outpatient rehab or through regular group meetings like AA, can one begin to find a path toward recovery.

Unfortunately, while the message here is crucial, the story itself is part after-school special, part soap opera. The characters are a bit flat and over-privileged (every teen has their own car, somehow), and the plot just misses the mark in plausibility. For example, we learn that somehow, just when Harley realizes her boyfriend is really a dick, she discovers that her literal “boy next door” is really the love of her life? Really? Way too pre-packaged, in my opinion. Why does she need another boyfriend anyway? I would have loved to see her come to an understanding of herself without another guy in the picture, all on her own. That was a bit disappointing…

In spite of my misgivings about the delivery, this novel still raises truly valuable messaging around addressing mental heath treatment, particularly addiction and substance use. If it can sway even one young person to confront their own issue, to turn to someone for help, then the author will have accomplished tremendous good.

 

 

 

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Osla and Mab come from very different backgrounds, but suddenly find themselves on a train headed toward the same, mysterious destination. What with the war on, who knew what they’d be brought in to do to fight the Nazis, who seem to be speedily and frighteningly making their way toward London.  What awaits them is a challenge beyond their imaginations, and an opportunity to prove that they can do more than be “witless debs.”  What also awaits them is a profound friendship that brings its own challenges and heartbreaks as well.

This is an amazing yarn of historical fiction that will keep you on the edge of your seat from the very first page to the last. Do not be daunted by its length, because it will glide by in a heartbeat and you’ll only wish it had lasted even longer (although you will be happy that it didn’t because you’ll finally get some sleep!). The writing is brilliant, with the story structured by flipping back and forth from during the war to just after the war, creating a knot of suspense that keeps getting tighter and tighter throughout. The characters are strong and vulnerable and we come to love them, even when they are imperfect and rash. And even if some of the final scenes are a bit implausible, we believe them anyway, because the drama is right there where we want it – no, need it – to be.

And we learn quite a bit about how the war was actually won against Hitler and his army. It wasn’t necessarily just about sheer force, but rather intelligence, breaking code. Somewhere in a small town outside London, on a compound where secrecy was maintained above all else, codebreakers – often women – were employed around the clock to break the codes the Germans were using to communicate their war plans to each other.  In addition, this base was utilized to enable false messages to be sent back, to mislead the enemy.  Apparently, this was done by those sworn to secrecy on threat of treason to the crown. 

This is another MUST READ – you won’t regret it, I promise!

 

 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Cussie Mary is never more satisfied than when she is able to carry a new bit of reading material to a beloved patron, whether it be a young, aspiring forester or an elderly, near-blind seamstress. She loves her mission as “Book Woman”, working as a Pack Horse Librarian here in Kentucky, and does not wish for any other role in what others might perceive as a lonely life. Pa, though, has a different idea. He seems hell-bent on finding her a husband, and continues to light the courting candle, much to her dismay. What ensues opens up her very narrow world to unimaginable possibilities, both dangerous and hopeful.

I adore how literature can shine a spotlight onto pivotal moments and impactful individuals in our history, instructing us without ever having us enter a classroom. In this dramatic read, we learn about the US initiative to encourage literacy in the remotest parts of Kentucky, bringing books to those who would otherwise never have had access. These brave women (and some men) of the Pack Horse Librarians walked or rode out on their own mules or horses for miles each day, delivering donated books, magazines, and newspapers to folks living in the rough, mountainous terrain of Appalachia. Children and adults who barely had enough to eat gained sustenance on what they learned from this program, and these women touched the everyday lives of their patrons in so many ways.

We also learn here of the Blue families of Kentucky as well. These families have a rare blood disorder called methemoglobinemia, which gives the skin a blue appearance. Cussie Mary is so afflicted and this sets her apart. She is shunned by white and black folks alike, many afraid to even touch her for fear of catching it (it’s not contagious), thinking it something from “the devil” or worse. She is treated with scorn and derision by so many. Only those able to see through color see her for the kind, caring person she is. How universal is this concept, eh?

There are many tender moments here, woven through the story, but I believe what is missing here is humor. While many books deal with significant issues and enlighten us about historical moments of note, there are, intertwined in them, moments of levity to alleviate the tension. I felt there were not enough of those here. There is an almost relentless tone of tension here that is somewhat wearing. A perfect novel has a bit more balance, in my opinion.

This is still an important story to share and I believe a worthwhile read. Just prepare to be anxious – you can’t avoid it here!

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

Nora cannot reconcile the guilt she feels that while she was relaxing over a celebratory glass of champagne with her roommate, her father was, at that very moment, tossed into the air by an as yet unidentified driver and killed. Nor could she believe, even through her profound grief, any possibility that this was a random accident. All she had to do was convince others to see things from her point of view as well. Would she be able to do this, without any witnesses, without anyone coming forward in her favor? Especially when even her family was willing to accept the party line…?

This is an excruciatingly timely story, as it addresses the deep-seated fear and resentment that so many white folks have toward any immigrant that has achieved any modicum of success. This “replacement” conspiracy theory once again rears its hideous head here.  Nora, a smart, talented, but dark-skinned, Muslim girl has been left out and “othered” most of her life, growing up in their desert town near Joshua Tree. Similarly, she’s observed her father, a hard-working immigrant from Casablanca, survive being targeted by racial incidents as well. While Nora has found solace in her music, she’s continued to experience micro-aggressions repeatedly and continues to struggle with navigating her way through. 

The author makes excellent use of a rotating narration, imbuing a distinctive and familiar voice to each character.  It feels as if we are sitting with the characters, hearing their side of the story as it is told perhaps in an interrogation room to the investigating officer.  We come to know each character deeply, understand their passions, and feel their pain. It works.

One character that is particularly endearing is Efrain, the singular witness. I will not give away details about him or his perspective, but he is portrayed beautifully and his struggle over coming forward is both understandable and tragic.

This is an engaging story with a powerful message – a worthy read! 

 

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

If you don’t play hockey, or follow hockey, or at least tolerate hockey, you will not last long in Beartown. The entire population, intimate as it is, is consumed with it. Kids begin skating once they can walk, and everyone is on the lookout for those charmed few, those who have that natural gift, that drive, that will send them through to the A-team. Kevin certainly has it, and with Benji at his side, fighting off any opponent who might threaten his path, he is a sure shot. That is, until a crime is committed, which might just change everything.

Fredrik Backman is another writer who, by virtue of the beauty of his writing, has me convinced that there is no way I should ever even think of trying to write. He has the uncanny ability to weave complicated, layered, and realistic plot lines around complex and gorgeous characters.  And unlike with some novels with so many characters, we come to know each one so well that we never confuse any of them, never wonder who is whom, because we have fallen in love with most of them. The warmth with which he imbues them grants them their familiarity. They become our dear friends.

Also, there is a beautiful message here about the challenge of loyalty; whether that be loyalty to one’s family, to one’s friends,  to one’s team., or to one’s own values. Most of the characters find themselves wrestling here with conflicting loyalties. and some impress us and some disappoint us. But all of them are so stunningly human in their struggling. My favorite is Ramona, who is a bartender. She’s depicted as someone who’s seen it all, and who has been loyal to those who have lost the loyalties of most everyone else. She sees people for who they are, not who they profess to be. I would love to be more like Ramona.

This book has it all – characters, plot, warmth, important message – all the makings of a MUST READ!

 

Shrill by Lindy West

In this memoir, Lindy West shares her alternatingly traumatic and triumphant experiences as a feminist writer venturing into online journalism. Because she is also fat (her self-description), she also becomes a target in our fat-phobic, one-size-fits-all-definition-of-beauty society and is branded by trolls with repulsive vitriol. When she tries to stand up, for example, against comedians who use rape as a topic for jokes (which is about as funny to most women as I imagine Putin is to most Ukrainians right now), she gets accosted online by the most offensive trolls imaginable, with comments liked by some of her friends. (It is pathetic how quick people are to take sides against those who are perceived as vulnerable.) Lucky for women, she is a strong, smart, and good-hearted person who rises above and sees the forest for the trees, speaking out for all of us. She proceeds to make history in her accomplishments, one troll at a time.

This book is replete with paradoxes. West is vulnerable yet powerful. She puts herself out there, stands up and stands out in a public forum, knowing she’ll open herself up to criticism – and omg, does she – but yet she stands up again and defends herself so strongly that she silences others to a screeching halt. She hears the noise, feels it, but does not allow the noise to infect the clarity of her argument. Despite feeling isolated, she thinks about women in general and not just herself as a woman. She also sees herself as others see her, yet she will not bend to their perception of who she is.

Some may find her story stirring, even jarring. We are not used to hearing women with loud voices. We are not used to hearing women be comfortable and secure in larger bodies. We are not used to hearing women stand up for themselves when they have strong opinions and strong minds, especially when they go against the (male) grain. But I know it’s about time we got used to hearing and appreciating them!

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi

Now that Malik has grown and has been educated in a more formal way, Lakshmi feels a responsibility to continue his training by sending him back to Jaipur to be exposed to the practical aspects of the construction business, which will inevitably continue to open doors for him professionally. While he is not her son by birth, Lakshmi has taken him under her wing since he was 8 years old, cared for him almost like a son, and feels a responsibility toward him – no, really an affection toward him, as if he were her own. And while he is hesitant, because of his newly blossoming relationship with Nimmi, a local Himalayan widow with 2 young children, he is also respectful and appreciative of his opportunity to learn more and grow from the relationships he has in Jaipur. Little does he know that a disaster awaits of epic proportion that will change the course of his life and potentially endanger both his future and the future of his beloved Nimmi.

For readers of The Henna Artist, this is a must-read. It is the next in this beautiful series and informs us of what happens to the resourceful, loyal and beloved character, Malik after he has grown and matured. While he has become a bit more cosmopolitan from his prep school education, he retains his down-to-earth integrity and grit, and he and Lakshmi continue to be the force to be reckoned with as a team, almost despite themselves.

And even while we may see where the story is headed in general, there are enough suspenseful twists and turns to keep our noses in this book and keep the pages turning. And the warmth and love that spills onto the pages keeps us needing to know that our characters will all be ok in the end. We also have the added plus that we get to learn about Indian culture, as well as about the culture of some of the Himalayan nomadic tribes as well.

This is a delightful novel that will bring you joy and warmth as you read – and what is better than that???

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This epic tale begins with the birth of Effia, born during a fire that devastated her father’s crops, a harbinger of the impact that fire would have on generations to come. And as we learn about the generations that follow, we also learn about the history of the warring tribes that inhabit the Gold Coast of Africa as well as the movement of enslaved Black men and women to America and their experience through generations there.

This is another work of genius by Gyasi. Through many endearing characters and colorful and impassioned scenes, we learn about the history of the peoples of current day Ghana as well as how so many came to be enslaved in America. We learn, too, about their experience of continued oppression beyond the years of slavery in the US as well. The stories are so tactile and sharply painted, the reader cannot help but feel a connection to the many characters, as if we are traveling along the family’s lineage ourselves, through each generation.

And Gyasi omits nothing. She includes the dark reality for those who migrated north seeking relief from enslavement only to find continued prejudice and rejection in different forms. She includes the ugly truth about our history of replacing slavery with mass incarceration. She writes about our American reality now and how, in spite of some change and advancement, divides persist.

It’s a beautifully rendered portrait of the not-so-beautiful history of Ghana and the history of our country. Yes, another MUST-READ.

 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

 

Lila (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Kindle edition by Robinson, Marilynne.  Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Lila is still trying to reconcile that she is here, now, in Gilead, married to the “old man,” John Ames, the respected preacher of this tiny village, especially given her meandering, even sordid past. If he knew the details, would he have so quickly and without judgement have been willing to baptize her? Would he still love her?  Is she willing to risk telling him her secrets? Lila continues to hold herself close, even as she gradually learns about love and trust from the very gentle and kind John Ames.

This is a beautiful prequel to Gilead, very gently revealing the traumatic story of Lila’s youth. We gain insight into her quiet and independent nature, reading about the tender but precarious relationship she had with her beloved Doll, the woman who snatched her away from her house of origin and who raised her and protected her as a mother lioness would protect her young.  We also are with Lila as she struggles to reconcile the ironies of organized religious precepts with the practical realities of the everyman’s day-to-day life.

Once again, Robinson’s writing is exquisite. She is able to quietly release the painful details of Lila’s life just as one might accidentally drop a pearl every now and then from a fine string. She creates images and characters that are imprinted in Lila’s mind, and so too, are imprinted in ours. We feel her loneliness and we are empathetic when Lila can only feel mean, because we are entirely with her in her lived experience. And the intermixing of philosophy and theology and storytelling is so subtle that we are contemplating it without even being aware.

If you’ve read Gilead, you must read Lila – it will only enhance your understanding of the story and of yourself. 

 

Joan is Okay by Weike Wang

Joan is an ICU attending at West Side Hospital in New York City. She is never happier than when she is reveling in the fast pace and the intensity of the Medical ICU, almost worshiping the machines that aid her in maintaining the lives of her patients. So why does everyone around her concern themselves with what else she might be doing? Why do her brother and his wife constantly ask her when she’s going to move to Greenwich and get married? Why does her neighbor, Mark, feel compelled to force-feed her a diet of current and past pop culture, as if there’s some form of test at the end? As Joan comes to terms with various changes around her, in her family, and in the world, she also learns to become more rooted and comfortable with who she happens to be.

This is, quite subtly, a coming of age story, although the heroine is already of age. While she is a fully accomplished adult, having achieved a brilliant career, those around her still are not satisfied and feel they need to impose upon her their own values of what a “full” life entails. Interestingly, I found myself, as the reader, getting sucked into the allure of what these others were suggesting for her. It initially feels innocent enough, particularly from her neighbor, Mark. It feels, at first, like generosity. But we see that what masquerades as kind very gradually reveals itself to be presumptuous and patronizing. Sometimes what others need and want, in fact, is to be left alone.

The writing here is superb. The story rumbles along in a way that is nakedly honest, much like the thought patterns of Joan herself. Her observations are often awkward and flat – and yet clearly betray her struggle over her identity and her relationships, both familial and social.

This is an engaging read, with a lot to say about how we interact with others who might see the world differently from how we might.