Book Review: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
Gabrielle Zevin

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I waited a long time to get my hands on this popular book and it was worth it! I was traveling when I read it, so sadly, I took no notes. Now a week later, I will have to draw on memory to tell you about it.

I knew nothing about Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow when I started reading. That is my preferred method, by the way. I was delighted to meet Zevin’s characters who are brilliant, yet human, and whose decisions based on their emotions create divides that the reader is just hoping will be resolved before it is too late.

The main characters, Sadie Green and Sam Masur are brilliant gamers and game designers, who first meet in a hospital when they are children. Sam had been in a tragic car accident and Sadie’s sister was battling leukemia. In the hospital lounge, they quickly discover their mutual love for video games. They have a big falling out when Sadie turns thirteen, however, and pride prevents them from making up. Now they meet by chance in Boston as college students. Sadie is at MIT, Sam’s at Harvard. Note: sometimes I get frustrated when I read books where everyone goes to elite colleges. Don’t let that put you off. They belong there. Ultimately, they collaborate on a video game that launches a hugely successful game design company. Barely into their twenties, Sadie and Sam are millionaires and they head for California. But egos, hurt feelings and misunderstandings get in the way of happiness.

The title is a Shakespeare reference to Macbeth’s well-known soliloquy, but also refers to the essence of video games where there’s always a chance to start over. Also playing into the story are the characters’ mixed races and cultures, as well as their loneliness despite their success. Believe it or not, it reminds me of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson because it has that “what would have happened if I did this or of this didn’t happen” theme.

I’m not a gamer, but I enjoyed diving into the gaming world and especially loved reading about their creative process, which really is about developing characters, themes and story lines. It’s definitely not just graphics. I will tell you that the last section gets a little meta because you’re deep into a game and its avatars. I thought it was really clever how the author wrote that into the story.

Throughout the book, I wondered if Sadie and Sam would ever have a romantic relationship. There are many missed opportunities and Zevin fills the book with strong emotions and realistic human situations. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens!

I recommend Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow to readers who like stories with great characters. This is my second book by Gabrielle Zevin. I also loved The Storied Life of A J. Fikry.

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Book Review: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Next Year in Havana
Chanel Cleeton

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I learned a great deal about the Cuban experience in this novel about Marisól Ferrera, young Cuban-American journalist who travels to Havana to spread her grandmother’s ashes. The novel takes place in Havana during two time periods, 2017 and 1959, and includes a storyline that ties the two women together in a surprising way.

The story begins as Marisól’s grandmother, Elisa Perez and her wealthy family flee Cuba. Fidel Castro has overthrown the government and the Perez family faces danger due to Elisa’s father’s alliances with ousted President Batista. Now they must leave their sugar dynasty and all their riches behind. In 2017, when Marisól arrives in Havana, she travels under the guise of writing an article about sightseeing in Cuba. She hopes to write the article, spread Elisa’s ashes and connect with her Cuban culture, especially with Elisa’s dearest friend, Ana Rodriguez.

At their first meeting, Ana gives Marisól a box of letters Elisa had asked Ana to safeguard, letters from a mysterious lover, Pablo. After she reads them, she knows she must learn the full truth about her grandmother. But unforeseen problems force Marisól to reconsider the risks. In addition, Ana’s handsome but enigmatic grandson, Luis, makes Marisól wish she could stay in Havana longer. She wonders what her life might have been like had her family not fled.

As a Cuban-American, Marisól has always struggled with her dual identity. She holds the Cuban culture close, but sees a great divide between the Cubans who left and those who stayed. Her grandfather, Emilio was able to rebuild his sugar dynasty in Florida and the Perez family has enjoyed a life of wealth. But the Rodriguez family stayed in Havana and have since endured desperate conditions amid continued control under Castro’s communist regime, now led by Fidel’s brother, Raúl.

I enjoyed learning about the Cuban culture, its food and architecture. I was impressed by the Cubans’ fierce loyalty to their place in Havana, despite extreme poverty. In addition, the author’s descriptions of breathtaking seascapes made me jump on the internet to see. What was most impressive, however, was the author’s ability to describe beauty in the once-grand buildings that have fallen into disrepair. The author also explains the complex relationship between Cuba and the United States, which has caused a good deal of resentment.

Next Year in Havana is the first of Cleeton’s series about Cuba. Many thanks to my blogging friend at Hopewell’s Public Library of Life for recommending Chanel Cleeton to me!

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Book Club Mom’s Short Reviews of Recommended Reads – March 2023

Weldome to a new feature on Book Club Mom: Short Reviews of Recommended Reads. I hope you’ll take a look!

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave: Hannah Michaels doesn’t know what to think when she reads a hasty note from her new husband, Owen. “Protect her” is all it says, referring, she thinks to his sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. When Owen doesn’t return home from his chief coding job at a California software startup, and when police arrest the CEO for embezzlement and fraud, Hannah suspects that Owen is on the run. But why is Bailey in danger? With limited information, Hannah must decide whether to hide or seek out a hunch she has. Soon they’re in Austin, chasing down memories that lead to Owen’s secret and dangerous past. Here, Hannah faces a difficult and irrevocable choice, but she’ll do anything to protect Owen’s daughter. A fast, light and easy read about families and secrets, good for the beach or a plane ride.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline: I liked this book that parallels the story of a young girl sent west on an orphan train from New York City in 1929 and a present-day Native American teenage girl who has struggled in the modern foster care system. I think Kline does an excellent job showing us how Niamh Power and these destitute orphaned children, both numb and frightened, must have felt as they traveled and met up with their matches, which were often far from perfect. In present day, Molly Ayer is a rebellious, Goth girl whose father has died and whose mother is addicted to drugs. Molly meets ninety-one year-old Niamh, now named Vivian, when she is assigned to a community service punishment for stealing a book. The two form a friendship as Molly helps Vivian sort through her attic and together they relive Vivian’s story.

The Giver by Lois Lowry: The Giver is a terrific thought-provoking middle school read, great for adults too. It is the story of a controlled society in which there are no choices or conflict. When Jonas turns twelve, he must train with The Giver and prepare to receive all the memories of love, happiness, war and pain. During his training, Jonas learns the hard truth about his community and its rules and knows he must act decisively to bring about change. The best part about this book is that every word counts. Lois Lowry is great at describing her characters and their community. She includes meaningful foreshadowing that leads the reader through a gradual understanding of what might initially seem like an acceptable way to live. She accomplishes this by revealing just enough details and we realize the facts just as Jonas does. The Giver ends just as you want to learn more. And thankfully, there is more to the story in Messenger, Gathering Blue and Son.

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Book Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Taylor Jenkins Reid

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I find it hard to resist a juicy book about Hollywood, especially during the 1950s and 60s. I’ve read a few nonfiction books about Hollywood and, while this one is fiction, there are just enough hints about actual actors to make it appealing.

Based on the title and cover, I immediately thought of Elizabeth Taylor and her seven husbands. But Evelyn Hugo is not Liz Taylor. Unlike Liz who was British and grew up in privilege, Evelyn was from Hell’s Kitchen in New York and her parents were Cuban. She used her sex and beauty to make it to the top and made calculating and ruthless decisions in her career and in her marriages. Along the way, she became an acclaimed actress and was known to take big chances, some of which cost her dearly.

The story begins in present day New York when Evelyn, nearing the end of her life, contacts Vivant magazine. She proposes the magazine write a feature article about her, but insists it be written by Monique Grant, a lower-level writer for Vivant. The editor is baffled, but begrudgingly agrees and assigns Monique the story. At their first meeting, however, Evelyn shifts plans. There will be no feature article and Vivant is out. Instead, she gives Monique full rights to write a tell-all life biography about Evelyn, to be published after her death.

Through several weeks of interviews, readers learn about Evelyn’s life and, of course, her husbands, and why she married them. She married actors, singers, a studio producer, a film director and a financier, and she’s coy when Monique asks her who her greatest love was.

That’s one teaser. And the other teaser is why Monique? I’m not giving any hints. You’re going to have to read the whole book to find out.

I enjoyed this book. It was thoroughly entertaining and seemed an accurate portrayal of the Hollywood scene during this time period. I liked the way the author showed how movies changed from the prim and picture-perfect 50s to much edgier subjects and daring scenes in the 60s, 70s and beyond. I also liked reading about Evelyn’s relationships and friendships. She may not be a likable person, but she did what she had to do to make it and has no regrets. I liked being given the task of trying to understand this complex character. In some books, you have to like the main character to enjoy it, but not this one!

Other good books about Hollywood:

Elizabeth and Monty: the Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship by Charles Casillo

Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise by Scott Eyman

Howard Hughes: The Untold Story by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

I also enjoyed Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

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Book Review: The Measure by Nikki Erlick

The Measure
Nikki Erlick

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I’ve been struggling with what to say about this super-hyped-up book that forces its characters to either confront their mortality or ignore it. Set in New York in present day, it begins when a mysterious box appears at the door of every living person in the world and inside the box is a string that shows the length of each person’s life. And every day, those who turn twenty-two receive a box with a string inside. I thought this was a great concept and enjoyed the inevitable problems that resulted, especially at the beginning. Erlick’s characters are mostly young professionals who seemingly have their lives in front of them, but of course, some don’t. How do you plan your life when your partner is a “short-stringer” and you have decades ahead of you? Short-stringers must decide what to do with their lives, but long-stringers must contemplate losing people they love. Some with only a couple years left become angry and violent.

I liked seeing how Erlick’s characters make sense of a world in which everyone knows exactly how long they will live, unless they choose to not look. The strings bring up many interesting ideas about purpose, risk, faith and fate. As the U.S. and governments around the world come up with policies, it’s not long before the strings become political. Is your string length anyone else’s business? Many say yes.

I read this book eagerly because I wanted to know how the characters would deal, but about half-way through, the story becomes heavy with political, social and personal messages. There’s nothing subtle about it, nothing left to contemplate and interpret, it’s just so plain and obvious. I can’t argue with the idea of living your life to its fullest. Carpe diem has been around since 23 BCE (Before the Common Era). And no one wants the government to force you to disclose your string length. And no one wants a president who supports that. I think the author wanted to find a way to express her political opinions and worked the string theory to symbolize these ideas. While some of the author’s characters initially struggle, in the end, they make brave and noble decisions.

So, personal taste, obviously, but I would have preferred more developed characters, much less message and maybe an explanation of the boxes’ origins. Sometimes I think popular authors feel like they have to hammer home a message because they don’t think we’ll get it otherwise. I’m giving it 3.5 stars because I thought it started out well and the idea is interesting.

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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 – January 2023

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

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.