Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Bennie and Byron are both devastated over the loss of their mother. Still, they cannot imagine why they are here, sitting with Mr. Mitch, their mother’s lawyer, just a day before her funeral. What could he possibly have to tell them that they do not already know – she’s their mother, after all. And just because Bennie has felt she’s had to separate herself from her home and family for the past several years after a hurtful Thanksgiving feud, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know her own mother. Or does it? As Benny and Byron listen to the recording their mother prepared for them just prior to her death, they learn about her real past and how this will impact their lives in the future.

I should have loved this novel. It was told from a 360 degree narrative that I love – the perspective of different voices, involving different time periods. It is enriched with sensory descriptions and with beautiful cultural imagery, particularly when describing Eleanor’s (their mom’s) Caribbean roots. There are messages of environmental and political importance that were worthy of being elevated.

But what was missing, at least for me, was a deep connection to the characters. Maybe it’s that we are told about a palpable anger and resentment between the siblings that permeates the tone of the story, but I feel we don’t really get to know those siblings all that well. We get quick peeks into their lives, brief snippets of their struggles.  Byron in his constant state of sullenness is the overachieving Black male, having to outrun his peers just to get ahead. Bennie is the opposite: trying to find herself because she doesn’t fit neatly into any box. But not only is the storytelling somewhat dispassionate, but it is also choppy. We don’t really get to feel their feelings, we don’t see their more tender sides. Little wonder we (or I at least) can’t connect.

What I find here is a great idea with such rich potential, but I do not believe it was as well-executed as it deserved. The story deserved characters served up with deep love, empathy and much more heart. I just didn’t feel that here.


Four Ways to Wear a Dress by Gillian Libby

Millie has just lost her PR job in NYC. She really thought this would be her big beginning, when she would show her parents that she’d really become an adult. But alas, once again, in spite of her warnings to the company that their product was impractical and overpriced, they were forced to make cuts – and that included her. So, at least for now, she is going to take her shared, “good-luck” little black dress that her friends are foisting upon her and move out to California, where the final member of their posse, Quincy, is living, helping to run their family-owned hotel. What Millie finds is that Quincy and her friends, social media influencers hoping to bolster the businesses of their tiny coastal town, are living a dual reality: one that is on social media and one that is real life. As Millie tries to find her own way, she has to navigate this duality for herself and figure out where – and if!- she fits into this picture.

My initial reaction to this book for this blog’s purpose is to tell you not to waste your time.

The bulk of this story, which is predictable in almost every way, revolves around the superficial world of social media influencers, which is distracting, disingenuous, and really all about the money. Even the children here are trained to stop suddenly – right on cue, even mid-sibling-rivalry-argument – long enough to plaster lovely smiles on their faces for uploadable photos in a very contrived-but-meant-to-look-natural setting. Any admission of an imperfection is shameful, any hint of real-world troubles is deemed unacceptable. When Millie arrives and begins to be publicly genuine, posting her mishaps and actually getting attention for it, she gets admonished by the local “queen bee.”

That is, of course, the message, though. It is a comment on social media and its influencers. It is a critique of the idea that we must only put our best selves – or a version of ourselves that is “perfect” out there for others to see, and never admit that we are imperfect, or actually human.

But I would suggest that that isn’t good enough. I would suggest that maybe we might not publicize so much of ourselves at all. Maybe we could just be actually living more of our lives; being mindful of, rather than posting, every meal we consume, every outfit we wear, every experience we enjoy. Maybe also, we could be watching less of what others are doing. Certainly research supports this: that is, the more time we spend on social media, the more anxious and depressed we are.

So while the book is not necessarily a worthwhile read, it does get one thinking… which always has value. Lucky for you, I saved you the trouble! You’re welcome! 🙂


Horse by Geraldine Brooks

Jarret, an enslaved Black boy in the South, may be small, but he knows his horses and he knows how their lineage matters. This is what his father has taught him and what he recites with him each night as they sit on their porch on warm, Southern nights. When Jarret witnesses the birth of his newest beauty, Darley, he and the horse form a bond that will last for decades.

Fast forward to 2019, and we meet Jess, who has found herself working at the Smithsonian, far from her home in Australia. From a young age, Jess has been fascinated with the bone structures of animals, and she is now working to prepare them for analysis and study at one of the world’s most venerable American institutions. It is here where her path crosses with Theo, an art history graduate student at Georgetown, writing his thesis and researching articles for a magazine for the same institution. When their research brings them together, they find that there is more that they share than their interest in a horse that lived a very long time ago.

This is one of those novels that you yearn to keep reading to know what will happen, but you also don’t want to keep reading because you don’t want it to end.

There is so much that has been packed into this extensively-researched novel that there is so much to unpack. First, I learned so much about horses and horse racing. Not familiar with this world, I learned about the breeding of the horses, how their treatment and mistreatment has evolved, and how important their anatomy is to how effectively they can race. There is a love of animals that is expressed throughout this novel that I share quite deeply.

The story also depicts racism, as it existed during the 1800’s, when slavery was still legal in this country, and as it still very much exists today. We see how Jarret is treated as an enslaved young man, which varies depending on who has ownership of him (and what they believe they can get from him). We cannot help but compare him to how Theo, our graduate student at Georgetown, is treated in current day, where he experiences almost daily comments, micro-aggressions (which are often not very “micro” at all). Both men are highly intelligent, experts in their fields, and are respected – but over and over again, encounter obstacles purely because of the color of their skin.

But don’t be fooled – the learning is all so easy. It comes through a beautiful story, with beloved characters and a heartfelt and moving plot. And even if you’ve never been on a horse or never watched one race, you will fall in love with Lexington (nee Darley)!

This is 100% a MUST READ! Loved it!

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Sadie is full of resentment, even though she can’t admit it. She’s given up her summer to be with her sister – and that’s ok, I mean, her sister is battling cancer, for god’s sake. She’s doing her best to be out of everyone’s way, when she comes upon a quiet boy named Sam, who, it appears, likes to game as much as she does. In fact, as his nurse has observed, Sadie is the first person Sam has actually spoken to since his horrible accident and his multiple foot surgeries. When the nurse requests that Sadie come back and game with him some more, trying to pry him further out of his shell, she encourages the development of a friendship that will go through many lives – almost like those of the characters they become in their games.

I am not a gamer, in any way, shape or form. But I loved this book and found it relatable on all of its levels. While gaming is the language the characters use to communicate, we sense their vastly deeper connection to each other, the love they feel. We also experience their pain and understand how they rely on gaming to escape this pain – to dive into worlds that are dreamlike, fantastical and utterly distracting in order to just get through. As they create games for others, they use this knowledge to create alternate realities for others to escape as well.

I also love how the plot unfolds. It surprises, interrupts, detours, and restarts – almost as if in a game itself. Because of this, it captures our imagination but also feels as real as one’s own heartbeat. It is simultaneously lyrical and tactile. The characters are both idyllic and deeply flawed.

I believe this is a MUST READ – a creative, imaginative, and very modern love story!

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

In Whereabouts, we are introduced to the narrator, a single woman in her mid-forties who is a writer and professor, an astute observer of life around her. With each brief chapter, she shares with us a glimpse of this life, a series of sometimes ordinary, sometimes unsettling experiences that range from a visit to the shore for a friend’s baby’s christening to a trip to the local stationary store that has, to her acute disappointment, suddenly been repurposed as a luggage store. Woven through these stories is an undertone of a guilty resentment toward her aging mother, for feeling criticized all her life for being who she is and for being who she is not.

There are many fascinating aspects of the way Lahiri has chosen to approach the writing of this novel. Leaving her narrator without a name, for example,  universalizes her character – potentially makes her the everywoman of her age and circumstance. She may speak for the middle-aged woman, mulling on her past while contemplating her future.

She is admired by the young and by her peers for her uncluttered independence, but yet she simmers with inner rage. Her mother who is now small and frail looms large and loud in her memory, the ancient critical and jarring comments from her past playing on repeat in her mind, as if they are being uttered today still. It is impossible to forgive but so hard to live with this resentment too.

She participates in groups of friend gatherings, but reports on them as if from afar. She is with them but not of them. It feels as if her rage prevents her from truly connecting to anyone beyond the surface and she cannot overcome this. There is contemplation without real insight, or so it feels. Does this come from the narrator herself or from the fact that she speaks to us through vignettes as opposed to telling us a linear story? Is this disconnect intentional?

And so the telling is as unique as the character herself, which makes for an original, contemplative, and, apparently, Pulitzer-Prize-winning read.

I’m so curious to hear what others think about this one!

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

As Tony Webster reflects back on his life, he begins his account with his early days in high school, describing his friendship with a small group of lads who considered themselves cynically intellectual. When a newcomer, Adrian, joins their group, they realize that he is truly the superior of them all, and they subtly vie for his approval, though each would deny it fully. What distracts them from their everyday rhythm, however, is the news of a suicide by a fellow classmate. This, they feel at the time, is a truly brave philosophical comment on life itself. What Tony doesn’t realize is how he will come to understand this very differently as he ages, as he gains understanding and experience. But will he ever gain true wisdom?

This is one book that I may actually go back and reread at some point, in order to fully appreciate what it has to teach me. There is so much to unpack here in this short yet deceivingly rambling novel. Tony mulls and overthinks and constantly questions his past, sharing and reexamining details, pondering the reliability of memory itself. We’re not clear why it all bothers him so, as it seems all to be benign enough, so much the typical male adolescent bravado. Even his relationship during college with Veronica, while hard to understand given her cold and disparaging manner, we attribute to his naivety and we applaud him for moving on from her when he finally does. We come to know his overly sensitive and analytic nature, his coming to terms with his own mediocrity, and what he sees as his inability to effect change in others.

What we – and Tony – don’t see until it’s very late is what we should all know: our words impact others always. Our relationships and how we conduct them have consequences always and our actions have a ripple effect much in the “butterfly effect’ analogy. We may not know what they are now, we may never know what they are. But they are there. I believe this is the message of this novel, delivered in its final twisty pages.

The writing here is a bit ponderous but it’s as if you’re walking along the beach and if you’re looking, you find the shells and pearls of wisdom if your eyes are open to them. It feels as if each word is intentional, each fact placed where we are meant to find it. In this way it builds so that we are as flummoxed as Tony, then, by the ending.

Perhaps not a MUST READ, but I highly recommend this to those of you who are more philosophically inclined. Also to those of you who enjoy a surprise!

Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah

Jo is exhausted from her day of moving from nest to nest, from observing the details of nature that will add to her data for her dissertation research. All she wants to do is get some dinner prepared on the grill so that she can eat quickly and get some sleep before the cycle starts again tomorrow. Suddenly she sees a small, thin, unwashed, shoeless girl in pajamas step out from amidst the trees, claiming to be an alien who has newly inhabited the body of a human girl named Ursa Major. As reluctant as Jo is to feed her in, she also cannot abandon her, especially because she appears to have already been. And so begins the magical and starlit journey the two begin together, each bringing hope and light into each other’s lives, albeit in somewhat unpredictable ways.

This is a sweet and engaging novel that you’ll need to, in your mind, suspend reality somewhat first in order to go along for the pleasant ride. I guess what I mean is that it is just a bit too saccharine sweet for my taste. For example, while each character has a complicated past giving them some depth, they seem to overcome their personality flaws almost miraculously just by having been brought together by their circumstance. Gabe, the neighbor who has, for all his life, never been able to overcome his social anxiety to make any friends, suddenly becomes a graceful and articulate partner to Jo in her caring for Ursa. Likewise, later when more of Gabe’s story is revealed, and we learn the root of the tension between Gabe and his sister, we learn that just one conversation between them resolves years of built-up conflict and resentment. Many things are just too smooth, just too perfect. And don’t get me started about the ending…

Nevertheless, it is a decent story with likable characters, even with some suspense at points.  And if you like endings that are wrapped up and tidied, this one will be delivered to you absolutely perfectly – even with a bow on top! 


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

While still a boy, Patroclus is brought by his father, a king, to compete for the marriage of Helen, considered the most beautiful woman in all of Greece. They bring gifts, and the bashful boy is expected to demonstrate his wit and intelligence measured against the famous princes and demigods around him. While his father speaks up for him, his unabashed disdain for the boy is apparent. It is no surprise when Helen chooses another. Upon their return home, when disaster strikes, Patroclus is not surprised when he is sent away from his home, forced to live in exile, with a king known to take in other exiles like himself. While he does what he can to avoid attention, he inadvertently catches the eye of the son of the king, none other than Achilles, a demigod himself. Their friendship grows and leads to adventures that Patroclus can not even imagine.

Not being so well-versed in Greek mythology myself (having read the Odyssey in high school and little beyond that- not generally a huge fan) I can’t comment with much authority on how this compares to the original . What I can say is that while some of the themes of vanity and hubris are well-preserved, this was certainly a modernized version of the events told in those ancient texts.

What is done so subtly and beautifully, I believe, is while Patroclus tries to uplift the Achilles heroic narrative, he (or the author), in fact, reveals himself as the true hero: the one who maintains humility, kindness, and true loyalty even in the midst of what becomes chaos. While he always folds himself into the background, always shining the light toward Achilles – who accepts this with no hesitation, as his position and stature would dictate – Patroclus meanwhile bolsters, soothes, even guides Achilles toward the proper direction. Few see him for who he really is. Some even hate him – and none more than Achilles’ mother. (Could it be that she hates him because she sees him for who he really is?)

So while I did read The Odyssey quite a long time ago, I did enjoy this adventure much more than that one! I’m curious if you out there in cyberspace did as well! I’d love to hear your opinions!

The Secret Wife by Gill Paul

After stumbling upon her husband’s phone, left in full view with evidence of an affair, Kitty finds herself boarding a plane for the States without telling either her husband or her best friend – or anyone, for that matter – where she is headed. She just has to get away to sort out her thoughts and her next steps and fortunately, for her, she’s got a perfect place to do just that. Coincidentally, a few weeks prior, the papers came through confirming her inheritance of a cottage on a lake near Albany, NY, from a great grandfather she has known almost nothing about. As it turns out, while she sorts out her own situation, she also becomes curious to learn about her great grandfather, Dmitri, the prior owner of this cottage. Why has she never heard about him? Why did she not know there was another writer in the family? And from whom is this very expensive Faberge pendant she’s found in the cottage? As she pieces together the mystery of her great grandfather’s past, she finds she also learns quite a bit more about herself.

By pivoting between Kitty’s story and that of Dmitri’s, we learn about what did happen and what could have been. Dmitri’s story begins in 1914 at the start of the Russian revolution when he is first injured and is tended to by one of the Tsar’s daughters, Tatiana. The original historical legend is a horror. This one has its horrific moments as well, for sure, but the author also intermixes it with love, hope and much imagination.

There are a few themes that resonated throughout the narrative and over which I struggled. One was that of loyalty and the other was forgiveness. Kitty is crushed by her husband’s failure of loyalty, and evades and then contemplates a path to forgiveness. Likewise, Dmitri is fiercely loyal to Tatiana, but when he finds another love who lifts his spirits when he believes he is lost, his loyalty to his new family is questioned by others. Some forgive and others cannot – and this impact lasts for generations. What this story highlights to a dramatic degree is that things may not be as they appear to be. While we think we know someone, their circumstances, their history – we may know nothing at all about what is going on inside their heads or their hearts, their truth.The only genuine path to forgiveness is to hear someone out, to give an opportunity for them to voice their truth. To get there, that requires having an open heart to what they have to say – and that may or may not be achievable.

This is why I believe reading is crucial. If we read and take in what we read, we, in turn, open our hearts and minds to other ideas. This is what makes us more human, more compassionate. We understand others’ perspectives, others’ voices. I have a long way to go yet, but this is one of the ways in which I strive to grow and move forward.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Belle da Costa Greene is never happier than when she’s holed up among Princeton’s trove of ancient texts, soaking in the artistry of the lettering inside these relics and conjuring up the historical context in which they were printed. Since childhood, she’s been passionate about the art and literary relics of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, and so when her old friend, Junius is about to show her a unique specimen in the Princeton library, she almost shudders to think how fortunate she is to be able to see this ancient text up close. She is not prepared, however, for his offer of a recommendation for the position that will, ultimately change the course of her entire life: to be the personal librarian to his uncle, the one and only JP Morgan. For any woman, this would be an intimidating position, for this was not a position women were offered. But for Belle, there is a complicating factor that would make her uniquely unsuited – so she is bound to keep her true identity hidden from the world. But can she do this when it is so dangerous for both her and her family?

This is the fictionalized story of an actual woman, born Belle Marion Greener, who made her way into New York society by virtue of her ardent passion for the preservation of art, her intellectual prowess, and her social guile. Her earliest memories were of leafing through art history textbooks with her father, and her curiosity for learning that sprouted from this never waned. Though a woman, she was granted access to the library at Princeton, working with the trove of sacred texts that were housed there, and from there she was referred to interview with the larger-than-life collector of art and ancient texts and artifacts, JP Morgan. Impressed with both her fund of knowledge and her pure moxie, he not only hired her but gave her license to maintain and expand his collection as she saw appropriate. Together, they amassed one of the world’s largest and most impressive collection of ancient texts, bibles, and artwork.

What I will not spoil here is the secret that Belle must keep – I will keep that secret along with her. But suffice it to say, that this secret stays with her and directs the course of her life. She is not free to do as she wishes nor is she free to be who she really is in order to secure her career and maintain the security of her family. Because of the era she lives in, she is tied to the social mores and prejudices of the moment and cannot risk revealing her true identity. She is caught between two worlds and she must make her choice, which she does for the sake of herself and for others who depend on her. Even while she struggles, she finds that it is the way it must be and she ultimately makes a sort of peace with it. But at many junctures, it impacts heavily upon her in very deep and cutting ways.

On the lighter side, this story does give an insider peek into the life of the Gilded Age of art and high society and how social status was brokered at this time. It was a sort of precarious time, whether you were in or out, depending on what people were saying about you, whether you bought the appropriate art, had the “right” taste, or your money came from the right source. There was also the beginning of hope for women, suffrage and equality, with women like Belle who broke into what had been a man’s world. She was certainly a pioneer in her field, showing that she did not have to relinquish her femininity to be successful in her dealing in the art world.  She just had to be so much smarter – which she apparently was!

This is an entertaining and educational read, both. Great fodder for all you historical fiction fans!!