Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry
by
Bonnie Garmus

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I waited a long time to be first on the library holds list for Lessons in Chemistry and it was worth it! What a delightful, amusing, heart-wrenching and lovable book. With over 93,000 reviews on Amazon and a 4.5-star average rating, Garmus’s debut novel was named Best Book of the Year by The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, Elle, Oprah Daily, Newsweek, GoodReads, Bookpage and Kirkus.  I am not one to always jump on the bandwagon (though I do pay attention), but guess what? Everyone’s right IMO.

Set in southern California, the story begins in 1961 as Elizabeth Zott starts her day. She’s thirty-one, single mother to precocious five-year-old Madeline, and host of a wildly popular afternoon television show, Supper at Six. Although Elizabeth is an excellent cook, she’s also an unjustly unemployed chemist. Through her show, she opens the eyes of millions of American unappreciated and discounted housewives.

Elizabeth knows about not being taken seriously. As a chemist in a male-dominated field, she fought to be recognized for her work in chemistry, and lost. The irony of being a cooking show host to housewives depresses her. She also lost her soulmate, the brilliant chemist and Nobel nominee Calvin Evans. Calvin was the one person who took her work seriously. Supper at Six pays the bills, but she must find a way back to the world of science.

Supper at Six is an unusual show. Elizabeth offers no-nonsense cooking advice and teaches chemistry while she cooks. And she always offers a message to her rapt female audience: demand to be taken seriously, pursue your goals, you can do anything. “Cooking is chemistry,” she tells her audience. “And chemistry is life. Your ability to change everything—including yourself—starts here.” Elizabeth breaks all the established television rules and drives her producer crazy. Their boss threatens to cancel the show if she doesn’t toe the line.

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot because it’s just too good to relate second-hand. I love how Elizabeth says exactly what she thinks and doesn’t worry about the consequences. I love the dialogue and the POVs of Garmus’s main characters, including Elizabeth’s soulful dog, Six-Thirty. I love how Garmus tempers heartache with humor and depicts the 1960s when women began to demand recognition. Additional themes include love, family, loss, religion, secrets, fame and the accepted practice of going along to get along.

While Lessons in Chemistry may appeal mostly to women, this is a feel-good book for all readers.

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Book Club Mom’s Short Reviews of Recommended Reads

I’m kicking off the new year with a new feature: Short Reviews of Recommended Reads. Take a look!

A Girl Named Truth by Alethea Kehas – I learned a lot about my blogging friend Alethea in this engrossing and beautifully written memoir about her unconventional upbringing, and more importantly, her struggle to know how truth (her namesake) fits into the narrative of her life. From her early days of rustic camping in Oregon, to life on the run with her mother and older sister in various Hare Krishna compounds, to a new chapters in New Hampshire, Alethea adapts, yet yearns to understand where she fits in. Particularly troubling is her father’s distance, a man who had once searched for his daughters, but gave up. For Alethea, truth and understanding come full circle as she enters marriage and motherhood. There’s lots more in this book. Stay tuned for a special author interview in February!

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben – Nap Dumas is a rogue detective in North Jersey, haunted by the deaths fifteen years earlier of his twin brother, Leo, his brother’s girlfriend, Diana Styles, and the disappearance of Nap’s girlfriend, Maura, When Maura’s fingerprints turn up on a car, Nap becomes obsessed with discovering what really happened during the fall of their senior year in high school. In question are his brother’s Conspiracy Club and the government’s Nike missile base in their town during the 1970s. Now it seems that someone is killing off the other Conspiracy Club members. Captain Augie Styles still mourns the death of his only child and feels particularly vulnerable with these new developments. I’m always drawn to books set in New Jersey and knew nothing about the Nike missile bases planted in the area, so learning about that was interesting to me. Overall, however, a typical fast troubled-detective story.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – Jai is a nine-year-old boy living with his family in the crowded slums of a large Indian city. When one of his classmates disappears, Jai and his friends form a detective club to solve the mystery, only to discover a series of terrible crimes. This mystery portrays a vivid and sobering look at the desperate lives of many poor people living in metropolitan India. Despite their impoverishment, Jai and his family cling to their beliefs and traditions. The author also shows the conflicts between Hindus and their Muslim neighbors, who are quickly blamed for the crimes. A multitude of terms and references make this a bit of a slow read, but very moving and informative.

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Book Review: The Lindbergh Nanny by Mariah Fredericks

The Lindbergh Nanny
by
Mariah Fredericks

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s hard for me to resist a story about the Lindbergh kidnapping and I enjoyed reading this historical fiction account of Betty Goss, the nanny who took care of the Lindbergh baby and was the last person to see him alive. If you’re not familiar with the kidnapping, here’s a quick summary.

On March 1, 1932, in Hopewell Township, New Jersey, Charlie Lindbergh, toddler son of the famous aviator Charles and his wife Anne, was asleep in his crib when someone climbed a ladder, came through the window to his nursery and kidnapped him. Two months later, a trucker discovered his partially buried body on the side of a nearby road. In September 1934, police arrested a German immigrant carpenter named Bruno Richard Hauptmann and charged him with murder. Hauptman insisted he was innocent, but a jury found him guilty and he was electrocuted in 1936.

Betty came under a great deal of scrutiny because she had left the window to Charlie’s room open on the night of the kidnapping. Police and investigators felt strongly that it was an inside job, that someone had told the kidnapper that the Lindberghs would be home that night and suggested that Betty left the window open to allow access to the room. But Betty wasn’t the only person under suspicion. Police questioned and requestioned many members of the staff who worked for the Lindberghs as well as the Morrows, Anne’s family. Police also investigated Betty’s past, suggested she was connected to the Chicago mafia and were suspicious of her relationship with a young Norwegian sailor.

Fredericks does a good job describing the lives of the super-wealthy Morrows and Lindberghs and the lively, sometimes scandalous relationships between the Morrows’ butler, chauffeur, maids and servers, as well as the Lindbergh’s cook and caretaker. Readers also get a look at what Charles and Anne were like as new parents. Charles insisted on a strict hands-off parenting style and felt that too much affection and attention was a bad thing.

I liked how the author described their lives before the kidnapping, during the investigation and at the trial where Betty was called to testify. I also liked how the author tells the story through Betty’s point of view. In her closing notes about the book, Fredericks talks about her fascination with the Lindbergh kidnapping and her interest in writing about Betty Goss. “When I first started exploring the identity of the actual Lindbergh nurse (the term then preferred over ‘nanny’), I was amazed no one had written her story since it first appeared in the headlines nearly a century ago.”

I was going to give this a 3.5 star rating because at times, I had trouble following parts that described Betty’s movements and thoughts. But the story picked up a great deal during the trial and totally surprised me with a possible explanation of how the kidnapping occurred and who was responsible. Definitely speculative, but we will never know the true story.

There is plenty of information about the kidnapping online and you can start with this Wikipedia account. In addition, if you’d like to read more, check out these two books, the first reviewed by my sister, K (thanks K!).

Their Fifteen Minutes: Biographical Sketches of the Lindbergh Case by Mark W. Falzini

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

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The Martian playlist on Spotify!

Hi Everyone,

I enjoyed reading The Martian by Andy Weir and I especially enjoyed the movie starring Matt Damon! Today I’m sharing a Spotify playlist of songs I selected to complement your reading experience! Even if you’re not on Spotify, you can still see the songs I selected. I had fun putting it together and hope you’ll check it out!

When I create a playlist, I try to only include songs I know and that are in my music library. Can you think of any others?

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Book Review: Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Firekeeper’s Daughter
by
Angeline Boulley

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this terrific novel about Daunis Fontaine, a young woman who witnesses a shocking murder and agrees to go undercover for an FBI investigation into the proliferation of a dangerous type of locally manufactured methamphetamine. The investigation, and a developing romance with the enigmatic Jamie Johnson, an agent posing as a hockey player, completely upends Daunis’s already shaky balance between the Fontaine side of her family and her Ojibwe father’s Firekeeper family. Set in 2003-4, in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, Daunis Fontaine lives with her mother, near the Ojibwe reservation where her Firekeeper family lives. Much of the two communities’ activities revolve around ice hockey and the high school, where Daunis has just completed her senior year.

Although her father, Levi, died years earlier, Daunis has close ties to the Firekeepers: Gramma Pearl, Aunt Teddie and Daunis’s half-brother, Levi. She’s equally close to her maternal grandmother, Grand Mary, who just suffered a stroke. And she wants to protect her mother, Grace, who mourns the unexpected death Daunis’s Uncle David. To help her mother care for Grand Mary, Daunis will attend college in town, instead of her dream school, University of Michigan.

The tension between the Fontaines and the Firekeepers goes back to when Grace, “the richest white girl in town” met Levi, a promising hockey player. When Grace discovered she was pregnant, her parents sent her away to have the baby and kept Levi Firekeeper’s name off the birth certificate. And when Grace returned, she discovered that Levi had married someone else and had fathered another baby, Levi, Jr.

Daunis fills her life with Ojibwe rituals, including daily offerings of semaa, a tobacco used to give thanks and communicate with the spirit world, and attends powwows to celebrate her tribal heritage. Aunt Teddie, a strong role model, wants to help Daunis become a strong woman, yet protects her from knowing too much too soon about the Ojibwe women’s blanket parties, a secret ritual that dispenses justice to men who have abused them.

Readers also learn about the community’s connections to each other and its racial divides, its struggles with drug abuse and alcoholism as well as the differences between enrolled Ojibwe descendants who receive allowances from the tribe’s casino, and others, like Daunis, who are not enrolled. But the Ojibwe, despite their problems, always show respect for the elders and the important wisdom they offer and this becomes an important theme of the book.

As the investigation continues, more young people go missing and questions arise about a drug ring inside the community. Daunis learns shocking truths about the people close to her, including Jamie, and she must make hard decisions about her future.

I enjoyed learning about the Ojibwe tribe, its beliefs and rituals, as well as the modern problems its members experience. And of course, it’s a sober reminder of the injustices Native Americans have suffered at the hands of white colonists. Although this is a Young Adult book, I think it’s an excellent read for all ages. The author, Angeline Boulley, is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. This is her first novel.

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Book Review: Yellow Door by C. Faherty Brown

Hi Everyone,

Since I recently posted Colleen Brown’s Author Update, I thought this was a good time to re-share my 2020 review of her book Yellow Door. I hope you get a chance to read it!


Yellow Door
by
C. Faherty Brown

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If you’re looking for something calming to read, take a look at Yellow Door by C. Faherty Brown, a quiet reflection of one woman’s bold choice to upend her life.

The author describes the book as “a journal of a wish lived out, in fiction.” “When you have a wish” she explains, “you imagine it, how it will be, how it will happen. Instead of imagining it and leaving it in my thoughts, I wrote it down. I created my wish and lived it in this book. It is adventure, perhaps low key, but it is a real wish. A wish of travel, exploration, living on an island, visiting history, learning and discovering about a place. And about myself.”

As Faherty describes, it’s a fictional journal of a woman who quits her job, sells her house and rents a cottage on an isolated island off Ireland, much to the shock of her friends and family. Although open to day visitors and some overnighters, the only people who live on the island are the narrator and the island’s caretakers.

Her desire is to escape from a hectic life with an undefined meaningful purpose, from the constant bombardment of media, political dissention and too much technology and return to a simple life. And she wants to write. It starts as a private blog (she has internet for that), for her close friends and family. Named “Yellow Door” after her new home’s door, her daily posts are both updates and a glimpse of her private thoughts.

Her journey across the ocean is, of course, a metaphor for the journey she takes in her mind and soul. Experiencing the beauty of nature and understanding her place in the world and chronicling her time there are some of the steps she takes. She learns what is important for her, which is not to isolate herself from people, but from the traps of modern life. She welcomes tourists and wants to know them. Her other goal is to learn as much as she can about the island’s history, its people and what it was like to have lived there centuries ago.

I enjoyed this introspective read. Brown’s unique writing style has created a brave and humble character, someone who is open and easy to know. Yellow Door is a great way to imagine how a simple life can refresh and redirect your inner self.

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Book Club Mom’s Author Update: News from C. Faherty Brown

Hi Everyone, Happy Friday! I recently caught up with author C. Faherty Brown to learn about her TWO NEW BOOKS. Read more about them here:

I learned years ago that brevity is my friend, so my news is short. I just published SNOW NIGHT, a fictional story inspired by a story my grandmother told me many years ago. It has sadness within, but it is full of love and how we move forward. Earlier this year, I published ANOTHER YELLOW DOOR, a follow-up to my favorite piece of work, YELLOW DOOR, (though SNOW NIGHT runs a close second.)

Website/blog link: https://bikecolleenbrown.wordpress.com/


Are you working on a new book? Have you won an award or a writing contest? Did you just update your website? Maybe you just want to tell readers about an experience you’ve had. Book Club Mom’s Author Update is a great way to share news and information about you and your books.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for more information.

Open to all authors – self-published, indie, big-time and anything in between

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Book Review: Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake
by
Charmaine Wilkerson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What better way to start off the new year than to share a great book I just finished? Black Cake is Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel about family, secrets, race, identity, displacement, and tradition in which the author asks the recurring question, “What are you willing to do?” This book is loaded with important themes and wrapped around characters and situations that are both unique to the story and universal to readers’ experiences.

The story begins as Byron and Benny Bennett meet to listen to a recording their mother has made before her death. As part of her final wishes, Eleanor Bennett insisted that they listen to the recording together and that her adult children, one day, find a way to share the black cake she has stored in her freezer. Byron and Benny have barely spoken to each other since a disastrous Thanksgiving eight years earlier. Their estrangement was further set two years later when Benny was an apparent no-show at their father’s funeral.

Set outside Los Angeles and on an unnamed Caribbean island, readers learn about Eleanor’s childhood, how she met and later married Bert Bennett and how the couple moved to California to raise a family. Eleanor and her husband, Bert were always vague about their childhoods, saying only that they were orphans. And although their children sometimes wondered, they never pressed for details. Eleanor made sure, however, to teach Benny how to make the traditional black cake, prepared with fruits soaked in rum and port. “This is your heritage,” she tells her children.

Byron and Benny’s lives are about to be upended in ways they can’t imagine. The timing could be either terrible or just right because they are both at crossroads. Byron, a highly successful ocean scientist with a huge social media following, was recently passed over for the director’s position at the institute where he works. In addition, as a black man, he has been pulled over by police too many times. Benny has floundered since dropping out of the elite college she had attended, moving several times while studying cooking and art. Being light-skinned, Benny experienced a different kind prejudice at college and felt a dividing tension and ignorance between her black and white friends. She has also struggled with her sexuality, part of the reason for the Thanksgiving rift in her family.

As I mentioned earlier, this book is all about making hard choices and deciding what you are willing to do to go forward. In addition to choices, each questions how their inherited physical and personality traits fit into their identities. Physically, Benny is light and Byron is dark. Benny also has a “spirit of defiance” just like her mother. Now that they know the whole story, they will need to make their own hard decisions and accept their altered ideas of family and identity. In the end, Eleanor reminds her children, despite the secrets she’s kept, “Who I am is your mother. This is the truest part of me.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Black Cake and recommend it to all readers. I want to thank F for recommending it to me!

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Book Review: The Second Life of Mirielle West by Amanda Skenandore

The Second Life of Mirielle West
by
Amanda Skenandore

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Here’s a book I picked at random and it turned out to be something entirely different from my first impression! Based on the cover, I expected a high-society historical fiction and although it begins in glamorous Hollywood, the story quickly takes a dramatic turn.

In 1926, Mirielle West, the wife of a silent film star, visits her doctor for a burn. During the exam, he notices a pale lesion on her skin. Concerned, he orders tests and soon, Mirielle finds herself in a boxcar headed to the U.S. Marine Hospital 66 in Louisiana, a quarantine facility for lepers. Without notice, she has left behind her husband, Charlie and their two young daughters. Because of the stigma associated with leprosy and to save his career, Charlie tells everyone his wife is visiting a sick aunt. Later, he changes his story: Mirielle has suffered a breakdown and is being treated at a facility. Hollywood gossip magazines run with the second story, citing Mirielle’s unstable behavior after their son’s tragic accident.

Here’s some background: Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease is a long-term, bacterial infection that begins with small lesions and a decreased ability to feel pain. It affects the nerves, skin, eyes and the lining of the nose. Advanced cases lead to disfigurement, loss of extremities and life-threatening complications. The first signs of the disease occurred as far back as 600 BC, but leprosy did not appear in the Americas until European colonization. At first, leprosy was believed to be highly contagious. Those infected were sent to leper colonies and forbidden to leave. At the U.S. Marine Hospital, also known a. s Carville and the only national leprosarium in the United States, patients who snuck out were jailed. Over time, doctors learned that the disease does not spread easily, but there were many uncertainties during Mirielle’s time at Carville. Doctors did not discover effective treatments until the 1940s. Carville operated from 1894 – 2005 and now operates as the National Hansen’s Disease Museum.

Mirielle arrives as a spoiled Hollywood wife who wants nothing to do with the other residents, certain she will leave the colony after a short time. But as her disease progresses, she builds a new life inside the colony. Although she misses her daughters and worries about Charlie’s distant letters, she realizes that all the patients at Carville carry sadness and hurt and long to leave. Sister Verena, the head nurse in charge of the infirmary and clinic, puts Mireille to work, where she excels. She befriends her housemate, Irene, who tells her, “I know it’s hard, baby. Took me months to accept it.” Frank, a longtime patient and World War I veteran, however, views Mirielle warily, especially when she shrinks from his extended hand. Readers sense an attraction, however, and hope they can find each other. Mirielle faces her greatest challenge when she meets Jean, a young girl, but a trouble maker, whose father abandoned her at Carville.

I enjoyed this story, although I felt it was a little long and a bit heavy on the medical descriptions, however, I learned a lot about a disease we rarely think about today. The author is a nurse, so that makes sense too.

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Book Review: Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara

Clark and Division
by
Naomi Hirahara

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I was interested in reading this crime fiction about the Itos, a Japanese American family that was sent to the Manzanar internment camp in 1942, after the Pearl Harbor bombings. Manzanar was one of ten American concentration camps, where more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, a shameful period of American history. While at Manzanar, the Itos and others lived in cramped barracks surrounded by barbed wire and wondered what they had done to be treated this way.

Source: Wikipedia

In 1943, U.S. government relocated “loyal” Nisei (2nd generation Japanese) to the Midwest and east coasts and the Itos were sent to Chicago. When twenty-year-old Aki and her parents arrive, they expect to meet Aki’s older sister, Rose, who had settled ahead of the family. Instead, they learn that Rose was killed the day before by a subway train at the Clark and Division station. Though the police rule Rose’s death a suicide, Aki refuses to accept that her sister, a beautiful and confident young woman, would take her own life.

Right away, Aki and her parents must plan Rose’s funeral. In addition, although the War Resettlement Authority found them an apartment, they must immediately find jobs to support themselves. Many other Issei (1st generation) and Nisei live in the Clark and Division neighborhood, including people the family knew in Los Angeles and at Manzanar. These connections help the Itos get settled.

Soon, Aki begins her investigation, talking to the police, the coroner, and friends. When she visits Rose’s roommates, she is sure they are hiding something. Can she trust family friend, Roy, who had hoped to marry Rose? Who are the rough-looking men in zoot suits who show up first at Rose’s funeral? Although determined to learn the truth, and emboldened by the memory of her sister’s fearlessness, several of Aki’s decisions endanger herself, her family, and friends. The story is a classic mystery in this sense and raises suspicion in several characters, leading Aki down a few wrong paths. An unexpected romance further complicates Aki’s investigation.

Told through Aki’s voice, readers learn about her family’s hardships, how they were forced to leave their homes and belongings behind, about the Japanese culture and their resettlement in Chicago. I was very interested in this part, which makes the book, in my opinion, more historical fiction than mystery. Through her characters, the author provides a look at Chicago’s multicultural neighborhoods and highlights the unique situations that arise during World War II. Hirahara, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, based her story on thirty years of research of Japanese American history.

I enjoyed reading Clark and Division. As I mentioned, I would describe it as a light mystery and heavier on the history, which was okay with me. I have read a lot of historical fiction set during World War II, but never one about the Japanese American experience.

No playlists today, but here is a song (Kenji by Fort Minor) that I immediately thought of when I began this book:

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