Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry
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: Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake
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: Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Good Company
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I knew this book was going to be good before I even started it, and it wasn’t because I thought I’d relate to the characters’ professions or to the setting, but simply because I loved Sweeney’s characters in The Nest and was confident she would write another good story! The main characters in Good Company are two married couples who have been best friends since their early days. Three of the four are stage actors (one is a doctor) who move from New York to Los Angeles and undergo west coast career and life changes. I’m neither a New Yorker nor an Angelino and my last stage performance was in my school’s fifth-grade production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. The reason the book is good is because Sweeney draws you in with her characters, who are really just regular people who face typical life problems. The title, named after the actors’ New York theater company also looks at old friendships, family, love and marriage and forces the characters to question if they are indeed in good company.

The story begins in Los Angeles, when Flora Fletcher finds her husband’s lost wedding ring in the back of an old filing cabinet. Thirteen years earlier, Julian had told her the ring had slipped off his finger while swimming and, despite searches, they had declared the ring lost forever. So, what’s it doing in the cabinet?

Flora’s discovery puts a cloud over their daughter, Ruby’s high school graduation party that night and leads to an unraveling of her life and marriage as she knew it. How can this be? She and Julian are in a good place in their marriage and careers. She’s a voiceover actress for a popular animated show and Julian stars in a successful seventies’ series. Also at risk is Flora’s relationship with her best friend, Margot, now a regular on a popular medical drama.

This is a book about transitions and the stresses that pop up, a super-interesting topic to me. I love how the author writes about how big life changes force you to reassess.

While Los Angeles is their current home, New York City and Good Company’s upstate performance venue figure prominently. The author jumps back to New York, when Flora and Julian first meet, marry and have Ruby. I liked the realistic dynamics between Flora and Julian in during these times, what they disagreed about, how they soldiered on, despite not having regular work. And while readers know Flora and Margot, who are very different from each other, are best friends, I liked learning how they became that way and what Margot brought to the relationship. Readers also learn about Margot’s marriage to David and why he gave up his practice.

I could say a lot more about this book, but readers are better off enjoying it first-hand. Told from several points of view, readers get a look into the minds of Flora, Margot, Ruby and later, Julian. Sweeney tackles the universal tough questions, writes with humor, and gives us authentic and likable characters.

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Book Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

The Four Winds
Kristin Hannah

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I’ve always liked stories of endurance and standing up for what is right. I also like sagas and historical fiction and The Four Winds checks all these boxes. The story is set in the Texas Panhandle in the 1920s and 30s, during the Great Depression, years of drought and continuous dust storms, and later in California during the great migration west. Throughout these hardships, Elsa Wolcott undergoes a transformation and discovers the strength she needs to protect and provide for her family.

Before this, Elsa has only known a life of seclusion. At fourteen, she contracted rheumatic fever and doctors tell her she has a weak heart. Her father’s prosperous business has ensured that the family lives well, but because of her condition, Elsa’s parents declare her unmarriageable. Besides, who would want a woman like her, overly tall, with thin and colorless hair and so unlike her pretty sisters?

Now, at twenty-five, Elsa knows she must do something to change her life. She takes the advice her Texas ranger grandfather. “Don’t worry about dying, Elsa. Worry about not living. Be brave,” he told her before he died. A period of rebellion leaves Elsa pregnant by an Italian boy named Rafe Martinelli. Upon hearing the news, her parents disown her and she must begin a life with Rafe’s farming family.

One of the reasons I like sagas is because I like reading about how events and the characters change over time, so I’m not going to describe what happens next. But you can be sure that the author includes plenty of developments to keep you interested, especially with the historical backdrop of extreme hardship. Hannah includes themes of the American Dream, perseverance, heroism, love and family countered by the Martinelli’s and other families’ stubbornness about leaving Texas. How can you give up on the land that provided for you?

I liked this book. It’s very readable, but it’s hard not to compare it to The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I don’t think there is any book that better describes the plight of dust bowl farmers and the migration to California during the Great Depression. When The Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck said, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” He put heart and soul into expressing his outrage over the treatment of these poor migrant farm workers and he did it with vivid descriptions and powerful characters. It’s a tall order to write another story as powerful as his.

That said, I am fascinated by this period of American history and the resolve of those who lost their farms and traveled west for a better life. I’d call The Four Winds a light version of a similar story.

Click here for a review of The Grapes of Wrath and stay tuned for a post about the Great Depression and the western migration.

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Like Kristin Hannah’s books? Check out this review of The Great Alone.

Book Review: The Party by Robyn Harding

The Party
Robyn Harding

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

About a month ago, I was getting a haircut and my stylist, knowing I have a book blog and work in a library, told me about a book she liked: The Party, about a sweet sixteen party that went terribly wrong. Curious, I went home and downloaded it from the library. Plots like this are hard to resist because we’re reading them and thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad this isn’t happening to me!”

The Party, set in a posh neighborhood in San Francisco, is all about bad decisions, bad relationships and cyberbullying. And it’s not just the kids who make the bad decisions. The adults are just as bad! There’s more at work here too. Themes of friendship and what’s right work themselves into the reader’s experience. So what sounds like sort of a voyeuristic look at a messed-up group of people points to what’s really important in life, even if the characters don’t get it. And believe me, they don’t!

The story begins as Hannah approaches her sixteenth birthday. She’s been a good girl her whole life, directed by her mom, Kim, who is intent on keeping her daughter on the straight and narrow. Her father, Jeff, is a workaholic and a work-out fiend and he’s in the dog house because of some event that comes out later. Hannah’s an A-student, an athlete and plays piano, but lately she’s been dissatisfied with her high school social life. That changes when she gets a cool boyfriend and Lauren, the most popular girl in school, brings her into the cool crowd. Hannah’s old friends, Marta and Caitlin seem so boring to her now!

Turning sixteen is a big deal and her parents allow a small sleepover, to include Lauren and Ronni, a girl Hannah knew when they were kids, but part of the fast crew now. The girls solemnly agree to Kim’s rules: no alcohol, no drugs and no boys. What Kim doesn’t know is that Jeff, in an impulsive mood and wanting to be the cool dad, sneaks the girls a bottle of pink champagne. That might not be enough to cause too much trouble, except that the girls have brought in a variety of drugs and alcohol. More secret plans ahead, too.

Something bad happens during the night, resulting in a police investigation and a lawsuit. Lauren becomes the ultimate “mean girl” as she and her friends work to destroy their classmate. Other friendships also break and Kim and Jeff’s marriage, due to major indiscretions by both, may not survive.

Harding writes the story from her main characters’ points of view, giving readers a good look into their selfish and shallow thoughts. Hannah exhibits a few redeeming qualities, teetering on the “what’s right” side and readers will wonder where she’ll land.

I enjoyed this read. Harding includes details about the privileged and upscale life, poking fun at the value her characters place on nice things and experiences. I’m looking forward to my next hair appointment so I can tell my stylist that I read the book she recommended!

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Book Review: Nantucket Sisters by Nancy Thayer

Nantucket Sisters
Nancy Thayer

I picked up this beach read to cross off another square on my summer reading bingo card. The squares are filling up and I’ll share the final results next month. Maybe I’ll win the staff prize!

Okay, so this is going to be a light review and I’m going to make a video with some different comments, to tie into my special Beach Read episode of Read React Decide. Stay tuned for that. I’ll link it to this post eventually.

Look at this cover! I loved it. I felt like I was right there on the beach and could imagine a book or two in the bag. This very fast read, despite its 334 pages, is about two women who become friends on Nantucket as five-year-olds. Emily Porter’s parents are wealthy New Yorkers and summer on the island. Their Nantucket house is beautiful. Maggie McIntyre is a local. They have no money and live in a cramped fisherman’s shack that’s been converted into a cottage. Emily’s father deserted them so it’s just Emily, her brother, Ben and their mom.

The story spans more than twenty years, during which the girls grow up, go to college and develop romantic relationships. At the center of the story is Ben. Emily’s girlhood crush on her best friend’s brother develops into a full-blown romance, but the big problem is money. Emily is used to the finer things and Ben can’t provide them. And he’s pretty chippy about it. Meanwhile, Maggie rejected her high school love interest and her geeky best guy friend has moved away. She swears off men for now because she wants to be a writer.

Everything changes when Cameron Chadwick, a loaded Wall Street trader, comes on the scene. His effect on both Emily and Maggie makes for a lot of trouble. Thayer’s task is to figure out how the women (and a hurt Ben) can untangle the mess that results.

I enjoyed this story, but there’s nothing deep here. All the characters are gorgeous, talented and they all go to great colleges. There’s also a lot of insta-love and a good dose of totally unrealistic situations in these pages. But, it’s a soap opera in a book and you have to go into it with that in mind. It’s pure entertainment. Readers looking for realistic situations and character studies will not enjoy Nantucket Sisters unless they leave those expectations behind.

Thayer does a great job describing Nantucket. I enjoyed imagining the houses and landscape. She also explains the challenges the island faces as overdevelopment threatens the environment, tying her characters to these ideas.

So now I’ve read a few beach reads. I recently read The Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons which was also a fast read, but the characters did not appeal to me. I thought Nantucket Sisters was more enjoyable. I listened to the audiobook version of The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand a few years ago and liked it the most because I felt it had more substance.

Do you read beach reads? What ones would you recommend?

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Book Review: Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Hour of the Witch
Chris Bohjalian

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Here’s an excellent historical suspense set in 1662 Boston about twenty-four-year-old Mary Deerfield, who is desperate to get away from a violent marriage. When the court magistrates deny a petition for divorce, Mary must return to her husband. Fearful of more cruelty, Mary plots her escape, while mounting evidence of witchcraft threatens to send her to her death.

I enjoyed reading about this time period in early America and how Puritans used God and the Devil to explain things that happened in their lives. Mary is sure she has been framed, but even she secretly wonders if she is possessed by the Devil. The author also highlights the treatment of women during Puritan times. Although her husband is violent, the odds are against Mary when she petitions for a divorce. From the beginning, readers see that Mary is strong-willed and resourceful. She’s willing to accept being ostracized if her divorce is granted, a difficult future, but better than her marriage.

Ultimately, even though her father and one of the magistrates believe her husband has mistreated her, they support the Puritan rules. The reason? Back then, it was acceptable for a husband to physically discipline his wife if it was to teach her to be a good “helpmeet” and to follow the laws of God. Better to send Mary back to her husband to work things out, they reason.

In addition, readers get a closer look at the harsh punishments for other infractions, such as adultery. Anyone suspected or caught in adultery had to face the stocks and a whipping. The author also shows how, although the Puritans relied on herbal remedies and medicines, they feared that those administering them were witches.

I enjoyed this account of Puritan New England, when the fear of God and the Devil ruled. Truly a page-turner, readers will need to untangle characters’ complicated motives and the mystery of the witchcraft evidence. The reward is a better historical understanding of these early settlers’ lives.

This book is a lot different from the other books I’ve read by Chris Bohjalain. It’s much meatier and more historical, although I’ve only read three others, so I’m not an expert. I read Double Bind a long time ago, so it’s not here on my blog, but you can check out these others, which I thought were very good:

The Flight Attendant
The Guest Room

Have you read Hour of the Witch or any other books by Chris Bohjalian? Leave a comment!

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Book Review: The Family by Naomi Krupitsky

The Family
Naomi Krupitsky

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You know when you pick a book by chance and it turns out to be a great read? That’s what happened to me with The Family. As I browsed books online, I was attracted to the cover and the storyline. I’m a big fan of The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, and because I grew up in northern New Jersey, I like reading about places that are familiar to me. But I hadn’t heard of The Family.

Although there’s always a storyline in these movies and shows about getting out of life in the mafia and the dangers that go with leaving, what’s unique about The Family is that all the main characters struggle with the choices they’ve made. They ask themselves two questions: “What would I have done if I hadn’t been pulled into the Family?” and “What control can I take over the life I do lead?” Some, desperate to escape, ask, “How can I get out of this alive?”

The story spans twenty years and begins in 1928 Brooklyn. Readers meet two girlhood friends and next-door neighbors, Sofia Colicchio and Antonia Russo. Sofia’s father, Joey, is ambitious. Antonia’s father, Carlo, however, is not cut out for the violence.

“By the time Carlo was keeping a shaky-handed, shallow-breathed watch outside of rooms where unspeakable acts of violence were doled out for minor infractions against the Fianzo Family, it was too late for him to extract himself.”

Lives and family dynamics change forever when Carlo disappears and Joey is put in charge of his own faction.

Written from a third-person omniscient point of view, readers enter into each character’s inner thoughts and reasonings. Tension develops in a multitude of ways. Lina Russo, Carlo’s wife is trapped. She hates that the Family takes care of her after Carlo’s disappearance and does all she can to withdraw. And though they don’t know the details of the Family business, Sofia and Antonia understand they are part of a family they can never truly leave. Their tendencies waver between making their own lives and accepting their lot. This is especially true when they marry and have children. One thing they do know is that neither wants to be like their mother.

I really liked the historical aspect of this book. The author shows how Italian immigrants played an important role in building New York at the turn of the century, but they resented the lack of respect they got. She describes how the Italian mafia developed and changed during Prohibition and the Depression and how they took advantage of new opportunities during World War 2. What’s interesting are the conflicting roles the Family plays during this time. For example, during the war, they got into the forgery business, selling new identities to Jews fleeing Europe. So, helping desperate people, but charging them to be safe.

The author also describes the Jewish mafia and introduces Saul Grossman, one of the most interesting characters in the book. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop there.

If you’re considering reading The Family, I’d describe it as more literary and introspective than sensational. The theme of choosing an alternate life reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books, Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.

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Book Review: The Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons

The Girls of August
Anne Rivers Siddons

I’m working on my library’s summer reading Bingo card and picked The Girls of August to fill one of the squares, to read an eBook from the library’s staff picks.

The Girls of August is a beach read about four southern women, Madison, Rachel, Barbara and Melinda, who become best friends when their husbands are in medical school. Every August since, they’ve rented a beach house for an all-girls week of sun, wine, food and gossip. The story, narrated by Madison, opens when the women are in their forties. After a three-year lapse, plans are underway to meet again, but this time it will be without their beloved Melinda, who died in a tragic accident.

After much discussion, the women agree to meet at a new place, but there’s a catch. Melinda’s husband has remarried and his new wife has volunteered to host. Problem is, the new wife, appropriately named Baby, is a free spirit and twenty years younger. She’ll never be able to fill Melinda’s shoes.

Baby’s house is located on the remote fictional Tiger Island where Baby grew up, among the Sea Islands of South Carolina. The women will be all alone, for two weeks this time, except for the Gullah people who live on the other side of the island. The house is gorgeous and fully equipped and Baby shows it off with pride. Madison, Rachel and Barbara settle in, but they can’t let go of Melinda’s memory. To ease their pain, they target Baby with snide remarks and eye rolls. To be fair, Baby is a puzzle. On the surface, she’s immature, acts erratically and prances around the rooms and on the beach half-naked and sometimes naked! Is she reacting to the women or are the women reacting to Baby? In addition Madison senses trouble with her dear friends. Barbara hasn’t stopped drinking since they arrived and Rachel’s dark mood frightens her.

Small calamities, storms and plenty of drama frame this story about friendship and acceptance. To be honest, these weren’t my kind of women. The older friends are selfish and petty, the kind who wield power from inside their clique. Readers will learn more about Baby’s life and why she acts mysteriously. That makes her the most relatable, but none of the characters are fully developed. Siddons also brings the culture of the Gullah people into the story to tie together some of the plot lines. I thought this was the most interesting part of the book.

Anne Rivers Siddons was an American writer of nineteen novels, including The House Next Door (1978), Peachtree Road (1988) and Outer Banks (1991). I realized later that I read Peachtree Road years ago! The Girls of August (2014) was her last novel. Reader reviews suggest it wasn’t her best and I’m thinking about going back to her earlier books to get a better taste of her stories, including Peachtree Road because I don’t remember much! Have you read any of Siddons’ books? Which would you recommend? Leave a comment!

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