Book Review: The Address by Fiona Davis

The Address
by
Fiona Davis

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve always enjoyed reading stories set in New York and have been meaning to read The Address for a long time. In this 2017 novel by Fiona Davis, Sara Smythe and Bailey Camden live in New York, one hundred years apart. They are connected in indeterminate ways to the 1885 murder of the fictional architect Theodore Camden. Set in 1884 and 1984, their narratives revolve around the famous Dakota, an apartment building in New York.

The Dakota is a real place. Located on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, its tenants include famous musicians, artists and actors. It’s also where John Lennon was murdered in 1980. When it first opened in 1884, the Dakota was actually in a remote part of NYC, if you can believe it. Designed to attract the newly wealthy, the building opened its doors to a full staff and plenty of luxuries.

Sara’s story begins in 1884 when Theodore Camden recruits her from the London Langham Hotel to become the first managerette (how do you like that job title?) of the Dakota. Unmarried and in her thirties, Sara works as the head housekeeper. She’s ready for a change, however and drawn to Theodore’s charms, despite the fact that he’s married with three young children. In a bold decision, Sara quits her job and crosses the Atlantic to start a new life during New York’s gilded age. She lives at the Dakota and confidently manages a large staff of housekeepers, porters, maintenance crew and the tenants’ maids. Unable to resist their mutual attractions, Theo and Sara begin an affair that leads to Theo’s ultimate death and the end of Sara’s career.

Jumping to 1984, interior designer Bailey Camden must rebuild her life after a struggle with drugs and alcohol. Out of rehab and jobless, she visits her wealthy cousin Melinda Camden, who lives at the Dakota, in the same apartment where Theo was murdered. Bailey’s family connection to the wealthy Camdens began when her grandfather became Theodore Camden’s ward. Melinda will soon inherit trust money, but Bailey, whose family has learned to live without, will not. In a gesture of seemingly good will, Melinda hires Bailey to redesign her apartment and agrees to let her live there until she gets on her feet. When Bailey discovers personal items belonging to Sara and Theo’s family, she will soon learn more about the affair and just how she fits into the Camden lineage.

I enjoyed this novel which is part mystery and part historical fiction. Davis explores the messy themes of money, class, inheritance and family and entertains the reader with images of New York’s upper and working classes and the city’s development and its varied architecture. In addition, a special appearance by investigative journalist Nellie Bly provides an up-close look at the horrors of Blackwell Island’s Insane Asylum. I recommend The Address to fans of New York stories as well as readers who like historical fiction, interesting characters and themes of money and class.

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Book Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage
by
Tayari Jones

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Can a young marriage survive a long separation due to a prison sentence? How will they cope and what could it look like at the end? Roy and Celestial, a young black couple, must face these questions and additional challenges as they begin what they hope is a temporary, though daunting situation.

Roy and Celestial have just celebrated their first anniversary at the Piney Hotel in Louisiana when Roy is arrested for assaulting a woman at the hotel. Although falsely charged during a time of racial profiling, he’s convicted of rape and sentenced to twelve years at a prison in Jamison, Louisiana. Time can only tell if their marriage is strong enough.

Despite their love, Roy has a weakness for women, Celestial has a fiery temper and there are a few additional conflicts in the making. But before his arrest, they were managing and were on the road to success. Roy’s career was taking off and Celestial, an artist, was building a promising doll-making business. They were both proud of their achievements, especially Roy who grew up in Eloe, Louisiana, the son of hardworking parents. Celestial, from Atlanta, also came from humble beginnings, but her father, a high school teacher had recently hit pay dirt with a scientific invention. Both have strong ties to their families, but different ideas about parenthood, tied to their own experiences.

In the first year of Roy’s sentence, they exchange heartfelt letters and Celestial visits regularly, but over time, Celestial becomes more distant as she builds a life of her own and turns to her childhood friend, Andre. In prison, Roy can only count the months and years as he thinks about family, fatherhood and winning his appeal.

When Roy’s conviction is overturned after five years, Roy, Celestial and Andre must decide what their new lives will look like and what a marriage commitment means. Andre tells Celestial, “My parents’ divorce made it clear what kinds of raw deals are brokered at the altar. But right now, in America, marriage is the closest thing to what I want.” Celestial thinks of marriage differently, “like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk.” Roy wants to return to what he had.

I enjoyed the central conflict in this story, a reminder of the unfair suppositions and treatment of blacks in America, making it an important read. But I found the main characters unlikable, especially Roy for his transgressions and Celestial for her selfishness. Minor characters were more likable, but no one seemed to have good judgement. In my opinion, the story could have been more powerful if there had been at least one character readers could feel good about.

In addition, readers must accept Roy’s wrongful arrest and conviction, with no discussion of evidence, the investigation or trial. How could he have been convicted during an age of detailed crime scene investigations? I also had trouble believing the highly unlikely coincidence involving his cellmate.

Despite these comments, I enjoyed reading about Roy and Celestial’s college experiences at Morehouse and Spellman, how their relationship developed and the overwhelming problems they faced. I recommend An American Marriage to readers looking for a light story about real problems.

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Book Review: The Lying Room by Nicci French

The Lying Room
by
Nicci French

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When Neve Connolly’s phone pings during a family breakfast, she drops everything and goes to Saul Stevenson’s pied-à-terre. At forty-five, she’s deeply embedded in what’s become a drudgery of marriage and children. Her affair with Saul makes her feel young again.

When Neve arrives, she finds Saul dead on the living room floor, brutally murdered. Terrified their affair will be found out, she scours the apartment and removes all evidence that she had ever been there. After hours of careful cleaning, Neve returns home, anxious to resume a normal life. But she can’t shake the feeling that she’s forgotten something and it begins to torment her.

Saul was her boss. His company, Redfern Publishing, has just taken over Sans Serif, a small printing company that Neve and her friends started after college. Now all of Redfern is shocked at Saul’s death. His assistant seems to know all and Detective Chief Inspector Alastair Hitching is on the scene, asking questions and taking DNA samples.

As the story develops, readers learn that Neve and her husband, Fletcher have been struggling. Neve is the main breadwinner and Fletcher, an illustrator, can’t find work and battles depression. Their two young boys need attention and their moody daughter, Mabel may or may not go off to college.

Neve and her Sans Serif friends move in a unit and know each other’s business. Tamsin’s marriage is over. Renata drinks too much and Gary’s bitterness over the merger has changed him. At the center is Neve, the friend everyone thinks has it all together. During the investigation, she continues to play this role, but she’s cracking underneath. Hitching’s relentless questions and shocking revelations at home force Neve into a manic overdrive. A days-long party at their house with awkward overnight guests provides a look at how the characters interact with each other and the secrets they keep.

I enjoyed reading The Lying Room, a standalone book set in London. It’s much different from the other book I read by Nicci French (Blue Monday, the first in the Freida Klein series.). At first, I thought I was reading a thriller but the more I got into it I felt like it was more of a classic mystery. Scenes at the Connolly house remind me of other mysteries in which clues and motives emerge. And while the story begins with the tension of a thriller, it becomes much lighter as we learn about the characters and their lives. In addition, many references to cooking up sophisticated meals during the chaos of Neve’s nightmare give it a cozy feel. Although I enjoyed getting to know all the characters, I didn’t like all of them, but that’s okay.

Themes of marriage, friendship and motherhood play strongly in the story. The authors (yes that’s plural – it’s a husband-wife team) finish up with an exciting confrontation and a satisfying tie-up. I recommend The Lying Room to readers who enjoy lighter suspenseful mysteries.

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Book Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel
by
Emily St. John Mandel

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Someone has scrawled this disturbing message on the glass wall in the lobby of the Hotel Caiette, a five-star hotel on Vancouver Island. Vincent, a bartender at the hotel, doesn’t understand the message, but she has an idea who wrote it.

The staff quickly covers the words before Jonathan Alkaitis, the hotel’s owner and a wealthy investor, arrives, and Jonathan never learns the message was intended for him. When Vincent serves him a drink and they strike up a flirtatious conversation, she sees an opportunity and takes it. She walks out on her job and into the “kingdom of money,” living with Jonathan as his trophy wife.

Jonathan’s wealth gives Vincent “the freedom to stop thinking about money,” but the source of his wealth is a Ponzi scheme that ultimately sends him and his asset managers to prison. That’s not a spoiler. It’s the premise of an excellent story about greed, naïve and vulnerable investors and ultimately, the downfall of a mastermind who knew what he was doing but couldn’t resist the opportunity.

Set in New York and Vancouver, the story follows Jonathan, Vincent, his team and an assortment of investors, both before and after the collapse. In prison, Jonathan contemplates a parallel life outside of prison. He’s plagued by ghostly visions that pick at his conscience. Vincent reinvents herself and goes under the radar, choosing a life that’s drastically different. And investors, many of whom have lost their life savings, enter the “country of the cheated.”

Through her characters, the author studies the idea of morality as the fund managers, who never actually invested their clients’ money, either face up to or rationalize their involvement in massive theft. She shows the incongruity of how some led their everyday lives with the idea of knowing they were stealing but trying to be a good people “around the margins of the bad.”

A separate point looks at the moment Oskar Novak, part of the investment team, consciously decides to continue with the fraud. He later backpedals in court, saying “It’s possible to both know and not know something.” Likewise for Vincent, who suspects something, but prefers to look away.

In addition, Mandel shows how each of her characters acts when they face opportunity, related to the fund and in their own relationships. Jonathan, his employees and some inside investors seize the chance to take advantage. On the other side are investors like shipping executive Leon Prevant who is about to be laid off and a once-promising artist. Both and many other vulnerable investors lose their life savings.

There are no real main characters in The Glass Hotel. It’s more a story of what happens to a group of people and how the collapse of the fund affects them. But Mandel looks at relationships, particularly between Vincent and her half-brother, Paul and their semi-connected lives. This relationship is also one of opportunity, tying it to the author’s theme.

I recommend The Glass Hotel to readers who like stories in which characters face a crumbling of life as they knew it. Throw in a lot of moral decisions and you come up with an engrossing read.

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Book Review: The Stranger in the Mirror by Liv Constantine

The Stranger in the Mirror
by
Liv Constantine

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Suspenseful psychological thriller about a woman with amnesia, who builds a new life for herself, only to be confronted by her past. Many twists, plus the absolutely required suspension of disbelief, take you on a wild ride of new developments, just when you’re getting comfortable with how things are.

The story begins when a strikingly beautiful and vulnerable young woman finds herself on a highway in New Jersey, injured and with no memory of how she got there. A trucker named Ed picks her up and fortunately, he’s the good kind. Wanting to do the right thing, Ed and his wife, Gigi take the young woman into their home in Philadelphia.

Ed and Gigi provide loving support while the young woman recovers and struggles with questions about her injuries and disturbing flashbacks. After the woman recovers from her physical injuries, the new “Addison Hope” begins a job at a photography store. While working, she meets Gabriel Oliver, a gallery owner from a wealthy family. It’s instant attraction. Gabriel and Addison fall in love and Gabriel proposes. Gabriel may be smitten, but his mother, Blythe is suspicious. She wants to love Addison, but Blythe’s protective instincts tell her that they must know more about this woman before she joins the family.

Meanwhile, Julian Hunter, a prominent doctor from Boston, has not given up hope that he will find his missing wife, Cassandra, mother to their seven-year-old daughter, Valentina. A chance discovery reveals, as the reader has already figured out, that Addison has another life in Boston. Readers see how the two families react to this news, especially Addison/Cassandra. The interesting part is how Gabriel, Blythe, Julian and Valentina adjust, as a lurking evil overshadows them all.

Constantine’s characters represent the good, the evil and the manipulated, and a few who do the right thing but for selfish reasons. And the story’s villain, while somewhat obvious, acts unpredictably with a twisted set of ideas. The author includes themes of marriage, family and parenthood, especially what it means to be a good mother. Problems of mental health and domestic violence show the repetitive nature of these family struggles.

The Stranger in the Mirror is a fast read, with an interesting premise. In the first half, the author lulls the reader into a false sense of security, only to pull out the rug and disrupt the characters’ lives. The second half of the book is filled with twists and reveals, many too outrageous to believe. But the story moves along to a satisfying conclusion.

Liv Constantine is the pen name of sisters Lynne Constantine and Valerie Constantine. They are also the author of The Last Mrs. Parrish, The Last Time I Saw You, and The Wife Stalker.

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Book Review: The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot
by
Jean Hanff Korelitz

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This is the book everyone has been talking about this summer, which is about a book everyone is talking about. The Plot is a clever story about Jacob Finch Bonner, a promising young novelist whose career has stalled. His first book received a lot of attention. His second, not so much. Now he’s teaching a writing class at a sub-par MFA program, with a stalled third book on his laptop.

In walks Evan Parker, an arrogant student who announces he already has a story that is so good he knows it will become a best seller and movie. When Parker tells him the plot during a private meeting, Bonner hates Parker even more, jealous of an idea he didn’t think of himself. The course ends and Bonner returns to his career as an online writing coach, with an eye out for Parker’s book. But the book never surfaces and Bonner later discovers that Parker is dead.

Parker never wrote the book. Bonner knows the plot. Why not just use it? He rationalizes that every story needs to be told. And it isn’t plagiarism, really, if Bonner writes his own book about it. Sure enough, Bonner’s new book becomes a top best seller, an Oprah pick, and the movie is in the works. Bonner is riding high with book tours and interviews until he receives the first of many messages calling him a thief.

That’s the basis of an interesting look at what happens to forgotten or unclaimed story ideas. Are they fair game? A first, Bonner ignores the messages, but the sender ramps them up. And soon Bonner knows he must uncover the person harassing him. The second half of the book focuses on the race to stop the messages before Bonner is outed as a fraud.

I enjoyed The Plot because of its original story idea. It was fun reading, although I figured out early on who was sending him the messages. That almost never happens to me. From that point, the story followed a predictable path to the big showdown. I’d call this a good summer beach read because it’s entertaining and easily readable. I also enjoyed reading about writers and all the movers and shakers in the publication business. The author does a good job showing the reality of being a writer. An added bonus was realizing the story was partially set in my college town! I recommend The Plot to readers who are looking for a light read.

Have you read The Plot? What did you think?

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Books set in Australia

Wow, I hadn’t realized until recently just how many books I’ve read that are set in Australia! Here’s what I’ve read. Can you add to this list?

Alone – Lost Overboard in the Indian Ocean – Brett Archibald

The Dry by Jane Harper

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth

The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty


Check out these lists for additional books set in Australia:

Goodreads – Best Books Set in Australia

Tale_Away – Books Set In Australia: Australian Novels

Crime Reads – 10 Essential Australian Novels


For even more, visit my post More books set in Australia here.

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Audiobook Review: Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner, read by Ari Graynor and Beth Malone

Mrs. Everything
by
Jennifer Weiner

Read by Ari Graynor and Beth Malone

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Mrs. Everything, Weiner’s 2019 decades-spanning family drama about two sisters who grow up in Detroit during the 1950s. I’d read All Fall Down and remembered it as a semi-light read that covered serious issues. In that sense, the two books are similar, but at 480 pages (and close to 17 hours of listening), Mrs. Everything covers a lot more ground.

Jo and Bethie Kaufman are young girls when their parents move them from a racially-diverse apartment in Detroit to a mostly Jewish, and safer residential neighborhood just outside the city. Early on, their stay-at-home mother tells them that “birds of a feather must flock together,” based on her own painful childhood experiences as the daughter of immigrant parents. When their father dies, Jo, Bethie and their mother must learn to fend for themselves.

Jo is tall, strong and athletic, the classic tomboy, and Bethie is rounder, pretty and loves everything girly. Both girls struggle to find their own way and face many obstacles. Jo knows she’s different. She only likes girls, but must decide between what was then an unacceptable lifestyle or the conventional route of marriage and children. Bethie, a promising singer and stage performer, learns early that being pretty can attract the wrong kind of attention and enters a ten-year-long period of self-destruction.

Mrs. Everything is historical in that in addition to cultural, political, and social references, it covers major national and political events, wars, civil rights protests and women’s rights movements. To add color to her story, Weiner also includes trends, fashions, music, popular foods, descriptions of homes and interior décor. Present-day problems focus on women’s struggles in the modern world and highlight the Me Too movement.

I don’t like criticizing a book that supports worthy issues, but Mrs. Everything is an exhausting read in that it covers every single bad thing that could happen to a family and is a certifiable man-hater book. Most of the men in the story are terrible people, with only two exceptions: the deceased father and Bethie’s husband, a minor character. I found this approach very one-sided and unrealistic. Although I didn’t try to verify every date and fact, other readers have been critical of the author’s inaccurate references to time and place. I will say that I think that the author is very casual with some of her descriptions and plot lines. Maybe that doesn’t matter. I found it a little annoying.

Reviews of Mrs. Everything are mostly positive (It’s a New York Times Best Seller), but I’m not alone in my opinion and best seller doesn’t always mean it’s good. In the end, I’d say that this type of book just isn’t for me. To help you make your own decision, here are three bloggers’ reviews.

Subakka Bookstuff
Read with Aimee
Becky’s Reading Journey

Have you read Mrs. Everything? What did you think? Leave a comment!

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Book Review: The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth

The Mother-in-Law
by
Sally Hepworth

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I really enjoyed The Mother-in-Law, an engaging family drama about money and secrets and a look at how adult children deal with problems. Set in Australia, the story opens with Lucy Goodwin, a stay-at-home mom with three children and her husband, Ollie. From the beginning, Lucy has never had a close relationship with her mother-in-law, Diana, who is cold and controlling, especially when it comes to the family’s vast fortune. And Diana has made it clear that Lucy doesn’t measure up. She’s also hard on Ollie and his sister, Nettie, denying them loans that would help them in their adult lives. She frequently points to the struggling women refugees she helps with her charity, her life’s passion. In contrast, Diana’s husband, Tom is friendly and generous, and has secretly loaned Ollie and Nettie money, setting up a complicated family dynamic.

When police discover Diana Goodwin’s body, the evidence suggests that she took her own life. Her family tells detectives that Diana, newly widowed, had breast cancer. But investigators think there’s more to the story.

In alternating chapters that jump between past and present, readers learn more about Lucy and Diana and begin to understand why Diana feels so strongly about withholding money from her children. After she denies Ollie a loan, Diana tells her husband, “I think Ollie could do with being a little hungry. A little hunger is good for young people.” She reminds Tom, “It was the making of you.” Readers also learn more about how the adult children regard their future inheritances and how the family relates to each other.

Despite its 340 pages, this is the type of book you can finish quickly because of its interesting storyline and characters. I especially liked seeing how the relationship between Diana and Lucy changes, offering an insight into how seemingly opposing characters are more connected than they realize.

I was less satisfied by the tie-up at the finish and how the big reveal omitted details about the investigation and its resolution. I think this book fits better in the women’s fiction and family drama genres and is less of a thriller or mystery. A couple grammar problems (the old “between he and I” mistake) detracted from its polish, which was otherwise excellent. I would definitely read another book by Sally Hepworth.

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Book Review: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
by
Kim Edwards

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’ve been working my way through fiction set in Pennsylvania and just finished The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. First published in 2005, the story begins in 1964 in Lexington, Kentucky. Norah and David Henry, newly married are expecting their first child. On a snowy night, Norah goes into labor and David, who is a doctor, takes them to his clinic where the obstetrician will meet them. Because of the weather, the obstetrician doesn’t make it and David delivers a son they name Paul. To their shock, Norah gives birth to a second baby, a girl. As soon as she’s born, David recognizes that the baby has Down Syndrome and believes she will not survive long. While Norah is unconscious from the last dose of ether, he quickly hands the baby to his nurse, Caroline, and instructs her to take the baby to a home for the disabled. When Norah wakes, David tells her she had twins but that their daughter died. They name their lost baby Phoebe and move on with their lives. The title refers to a camera Norah gives David on an early anniversary, called the “Memory Keeper.” David becomes obsessed with taking pictures, perhaps to escape the real world.

Instead of giving her away, however, Caroline takes Phoebe to Pittsburgh and decides to raise the baby as her own. While Norah mourns their daughter and Paul grows up without his sister, David resolves never to tell. Readers learn David’s backstory and his reason for giving Phoebe away, an explanation of sorts. Meanwhile, Caroline keeps in secret touch with David, sending him updates and pictures, but mailing them from random locations so he can’t trace her. And David sends her money, to Post Office boxes her truck driver boyfriend has set up across the country.

Because of what hangs over the Henry family, David, Norah and Paul suffer in unforeseen ways, and they grow distant from one another. The story concentrates on the Henrys, but follows both families for twenty-five years.

The author also shows the difficulties of raising a child with Down Syndrome during the 1960s and 70s. Caroline becomes an advocate for children with learning challenges and fights for Phoebe’s right to a public education. As Phoebe grows to adulthood, Caroline must make important decisions about Phoebe’s future. The author does a good job showing Phoebe as a strong-minded young woman who falls in love and wants a life of her own. Caroline worries about Phoebe but knows she must plan for a time when Phoebe moves out.

That’s the premise of a story that starts out great, but loses steam as the characters settle into their lives. I became frustrated by several unrealistic plot lines and connections that no actual person would accept or make. So just an okay book, with a fair amount of repetition and a lot of minute description that makes the book overly long.

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