Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto
by
Ann Patchett

Here’s a perfect example of a book that is great to re-read. I remember loving Bel Canto the first time I read it so on a recent trip to the beach and with the need to grab something quick, I chose Bel Canto from my shelf. Published in 2001, it begins with a lavish birthday party held at the home of the vice president of an unnamed South American country. Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa, chairman of the largest electronics firm in Japan, is the guest of honor and the hosts hope to convince him to build a plant in their country.

Mr. Hosokawa is a passionate opera lover and the only reason he’s there is because Roxanne Coss, the beautiful and most talented opera singer in the world, has agreed to perform.

Everything goes wrong just after she performs. Terrorists invade the home in order to kidnap the country’s president. When they discover the president is not there, the three generals and fifteen young soldiers have to decide what to do about the nearly two hundred guests who are now hostages.

After the initial release of all the staff, women and children, except Roxanne Coss, the group of hostages has been reduced to forty. In a fascinating stand-off between the terrorists and the country’s government, days become weeks and then extend to months, during which the generals, their soldiers and the hostages undergo remarkable transformations. Days revolve around the hostages’ infatuation with Miss Coss, her music, and her daily practice sessions. Another central figure is Mr. Hosokawa’s personal translator, Gen Watanabe, who takes on the all-consuming task of interpreting negotiations and helping the international guests communicate with each other. Other important characters include Joachim Messner a negotiator from the International Red Cross, whose patience is tried as talks drag on, Vice President Ruben Iglesias, who assumes a completely different role in his own home, and of course, Mr. Hosakowa, who didn’t want to attend the party, but may have found happiness as a hostage. There are many other great characters, including the generals and their soldiers and Patchett shows their personalities and human sides to give the reader an understanding of their lives and their cause. These and other surprises are best for the reader to discover first-hand.

The group settles into a new and comfortable routine. Life is pretty good at the vice president’s home and many are in no hurry for the conflict to be resolved. In addition, hostages and their captors begin to form tentative friendships, blurring the lines between them. They may be in denial, but Messner and the reader know that this can’t go on forever.

I enjoyed Bel Canto just as much the second time around and recommend it to readers who enjoy stories about how people change under constrained and dangerous circumstances. Heroes emerge and others look deep inside themselves. And many discover (ironically) the freedom to redefine themselves during their captivity.

Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. You can check out my reviews of some of her other books here:

The Dutch House
Commonwealth
State of Wonder

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Book Review: Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward
by
Ann Napolitano

Rating:

Eddie Adler is twelve years old when his family boards a plane to move across the country. He’s grown up in Manhattan where his father has homeschooled Eddie and his fifteen-year-old brother, Jordan. Now the Adlers are headed to Los Angeles where his mom is set to start a new job as a screen writer. There are 192 passengers on the Airbus and when it crashes in the flatlands of northern Colorado. Eddie is the only survivor.

Badly injured and stunned by his new circumstances, Eddie moves in with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. It’s going to take a long time for Eddie, now Edward, to adjust. He makes friends with Shay, a girl across the street and together they try to make sense of their place in the world. As they grow, their friendship becomes an anchor they both need. At the house, Edward’s aunt and uncle are trying hard, but they have their own personal struggles and marital issues, something Edward becomes more tuned into.

In addition, the Internet is exploding with stories about Edward and the crash and his aunt and uncle do their best to protect him. But is that the right thing to do? What’s the best way to heal and move on? A chance discovery points to a solution but it means confronting the events and memories of his family and the other passengers.

People say Edward is lucky to have survived. He wonders how that could be true.

The story alternates between the day of the crash and Edward’s new life with his aunt and uncle and leads up to what happened that made the plane crash. In the pre-crash chapters, readers learn about the sometimes-tense dynamics in Adler family as well as the backstories about other passengers on the plane. These include a business magnate with several ex-wives and children who hate him, an injured soldier who is trying to come to terms with a recent encounter, a young woman hoping to make a new life, a free-spirited woman who believes in reincarnation, and a cut-throat young executive with a drug problem.

One of Edward’s biggest challenges is to shake survivor’s guilt, especially the feeling that his brother should have survived instead. To Edward, Jordan was on the brink of thinking for himself and doing something great. Pain washes over Edward when he reaches his own fifteenth birthday, and later passes his brother’s age. He understands it’s because he both misses his brother and what his brother has lost.

Although Edward’s experiences are tragic, they lead to a touching coming-of-age story in which Edward strikes a balance between past and present. I enjoyed Dear Edward very much. It’s very readable and I felt like I understood how Edward was feeling throughout it all. I recommend it to readers who enjoy stories about love and overcoming grief.

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Book Review: Members Only by Sameer Pandya

Members Only
by
Sameer Pandya

Rating:

Professor Raj Bhatt is having a terrible week. He’s made an offensive comment to a prospective member of his tennis club, students from his Anthropology class are protesting remarks he made in class, and his son is in trouble at school. Raj has all the credentials to be accepted in elite circles: an Ivy League doctorate, a professorship, and a white wife. He’s also a member of an exclusive tennis club, a place where his wife grew up and a place he and his kids already love. But Raj didn’t grow up with the elite. His grandparents did well in Bombay, but when Raj’s mother and father moved the family to the United States, they had to start over. As an immigrant, he’s aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle slights towards him and other minorities in professional and social circles.

So to be accused of reverse racism on several fronts shakes Raj to the point of collapse. How can he make people see he’s been misunderstood?

It starts with the offensive comment. Raj was merely excited that people of color were being considered for membership and blurts out the worst possible thing. The membership committee is outraged and embarrassed and the prospective black couple, a prominent cardiologist and trauma surgeon, rush out before Raj can apologize.

What’s at the core of this scene and others in Pandya’s debut novel is the bundle of complex issues of racial and religious discrimination, class distinction, feeling inadequate and being an outsider. It’s ironic for Raj because, as an anthropologist, he chose his profession to understand human societies and cultures.

I had done it because I loved the idea of talking to people and trying to understand them, to see how different they were. And perhaps, if I dug far enough into their lives and histories, I could discover how similar they were too,” he says.

I enjoyed this fast-moving and very readable story. Raj’s character is well developed and wonderfully human, a reflection of how complicated prejudices and misconceptions can be. Pandya places these problems in the middle of a contemporary marriage, where pressures to have it all and maintain an image can distort what it means to be happy.

Members Only tackles difficult and modern problems, ones that its characters seem unlikely to entirely resolve. But the story is also full of compassion, forgiveness, hope and several touching scenes. I recommend this book to readers who like stories with realistic characters who make mistakes, but who are good people underneath.


Members Only will be released on July 7, 2020. I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


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Book Review: The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

The Flatshare
by
Beth O’Leary

Rating:

Tiffy Moore owes money and is short on cash. And she needs to get out of her ex-boyfriend’s place as soon as possible. Leon Twomey has an apartment and also needs money. To earn extra cash, he’s been working the night shift as a palliative nurse, but how to get more? Why not rent out his apartment while he’s at work? That should work, right?

Tiffy has looked everywhere and when she sees the ad for Leon’s place, she thinks this unusual arrangement just might work. Since she works days at a publishing company, they could share the apartment and never even meet. One tricky part is that the flat is so small that they will also be sharing a bed, at different times, of course.

That’s the premise of this cute romantic story, about two people who aren’t looking to get together and must learn what to do when the sparks fly.

The story takes place in London and is told from both characters’ points of view. They get to know each other through running conversations on Post-It notes, stuck in various places in the flat. For me, this is the best part of the story. The notes are clever and fun and reveal their personalities as they become more comfortable telling each other about themselves.

But they both have problems and emotional baggage and these back stories slowly come out, making The Flatshare more than just a fluffy story. And while readers know they are in for a romance, it’s not clear how Tiffy and Leon will get over the many hurdles they encounter.

I enjoyed this story because of its pure entertainment value. The characters are likable, modern and fun. While the plot is improbable and sometimes silly, there’s no harm in giving in to a story like this. I can picture The Flatshare as a romantic comedy film.

I recommend The Flatshare to readers who are looking for a quick romantic story, with a little spice.

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If you want to read more, check out these blogger reviews.

booksandbakes1
Our Book Boyfriends
Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Stuck in the Book

Short reviews from 2013: The Cay, The Giver and Orphan Train

As I approach my 7-year blogging anniversary, I’ve been looking at some of the old reviews I posted. A lot of them are pretty short, with limited plot descriptions, and mostly my opnions. I’d love to go back and beef them up a bit, but I think I’d have to re-read the books before I did that. So today I’m just going to share three short reviews of books I liked, but didn’t say too much about!


The Cay
by
Theodore Taylor

Rating:

This is a touching coming-of-age story about eleven-year-old Phillip Enright, an American boy living on the island of Curaçao during World War II. When Phillip and his mother leave the island to escape the dangers of the war, their boat is hit and sunk by a German U-boat. Phillip is struck in the head and thrown into the water and he wakes to find himself on a raft with Timothy, a large, old, black man from the West Indies. The blow to Phillip’s head causes him to lose his sight as the two of them float aimlessly in the Caribbean.

This unlikely pair struggles to survive first on the water, and later on a tiny uninhabited island. But the biggest struggle is within Phillip, whose preconceived ideas about a black man run counter to what we see in Timothy. Timothy pushes Phillip to learn how to fish, climb trees and find his way around the island on his own, without his sight. Timothy is both kind and patient and through his wisdom, Phillip learns the true meaning of friendship and sacrifice.

I think this story does a great job showing how an eleven-year-old boy thinks and feels, from selfish, angry and scared to generous and caring.


The Giver
by
Lois Lowry

Rating:

The Giver is a terrific read for anyone, but it’s perfect for middle school students because it is so thought provoking. 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 Lowry’s newest, Son.


Orphan Train
by
Christina Baker Kline

Rating:

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. Molly Ayer’s present-day story of a rebellious, Goth girl whose father has died and whose mother is addicted to drugs is somehow less powerful, but provides a necessary structure to the story. 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.

I liked Vivian’s story very much. I think Kline is great when she describes Vivian’s feelings and her desperate situation. It is very easy to imagine these children and their simple desire to live in a home where they are wanted, or at least fed and clothed and treated kindly. It’s somehow both shocking and understood that these orphans don’t always get that.

I enjoyed the book. It’s a look into a time that, because of the changes and struggles in those years, is full of stories.

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Audiobook Review: Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes

Hidden Bodies
by
Caroline Kepnes

Narrated by Santino Fontana

Rating:

I just finished listening to Hidden Bodies, the sequel to You by Caroline Kepnes (read my review of You here). It’s the continuation of Joe Goldberg’s twisted serial-killing narration as he leaves the New York bookstore he manages and heads out to Los Angeles. Joe is on a revenge search for the new girl in his life, Amy who has taken off with rare books from the bookstore.

As is expected, Joe is full of sarcasm with a huge chip on his shoulder. But in some ways, he’s like everyone else, searching for love. The problem is, he just can’t let things go. In addition, Joe still has problems on the East coast. His biggest mistake is the DNA he left at Peach Salinger’s family mansion. In addition, the wrongly convicted therapist in jail for killing Beck has a team working on a reversal and cops are sniffing around.

Out in California, Joe gets mixed up in several situations, and the killing continues, but then he meets Love Quinn and falls in love. But Love’s twin, Forty is a big problem. He’s a wannabe script writer and drug addict with a sharp instinct for taking advantage.

Joe’s life on the West coast is a running commentary on the shallowness of the place and the stupidity of everyone he meets. His disdain for consumer culture, social media and false conversations contributes to the pent-up anger that propels him into murder. Joe’s intense rants are what makes this story so appealing. Yes, he’s a serial killer, but he has a point. And, buried deep in Joe’s anger is a someone soft and, can I say lovable? Well not in real life, but in a story, yes.

I especially enjoyed listening to Hidden Bodies because the narrator, Santino Fontana, is fantastic as Joe. Fontana also narrates You, but I read the print copy, so hadn’t experienced how much he nails Joe’s personality. Having the story in your ears like that is an intense listen. I don’t think Hidden Bodies is quite as good as You. Sequels are always hard. And if you’re thinking of reading or listening to it, be warned, it’s what I call a little racy! But I recommend both You and Hidden Bodies for readers who like twisted stories about complicated characters.

If you’d like to read more about Hidden Bodies, check out these other bloggers’ reviews.

GritLitGirls Book Review Nook
Reens Reads and Writes
What Jess Reads

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Audiobook Review: The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

The Guest Room
by
Chris Bohjalian

Rating:

Kristin Chapman has agreed to let her husband, Richard host a bachelor party for his younger brother, Philip. She’s sure there will be hired entertainment, but she trusts Richard, even though Philip and his friends are a bit on the wild side. After all, Richard and Kristin are settled, in the prime of their lives and enjoying the comforts of wealth and success. Philip is a managing partner of a New York investment banking firm, Kristin is a respected high school teacher and they live with their young daughter in an upscale neighborhood in Westchester.

But wild is not the word. Before long, the burly and intimidating bodyguards who accompanied the “dancers” are dead and the girls, Sonja and Alexandra, have fled the house, leaving Richard, Philip and the rest of the guys in a wrecked house with the two dead men.

When morning comes, Richard begins to grasp how much trouble he’s in. Shame and horror fill him when Kristin learns of her husband’s transgressions and their young daughter is exposed to a sordid and dangerous world.

The repercussions of these events are endless. The story explodes on the internet, news reporters hound him and friends keep their distance. Richard is put on leave at work, Kristin shuns him and their daughter worries her parents will divorce. And it’s soon revealed that the Russian girls, possibly underage, had been kidnapped and were brought to New York as sex workers. Richard also faces lawsuits and a blackmail scheme, but the worst is the damage to his family. Or maybe the worst is that Richard is haunted by his encounter with Alexandra.

As detectives chase down the Russians behind the girls’ kidnappers, as well as the girls, Richard, now understands Alexandra and Sonja’s situation, tries to do what’s right and fix his marriage, leading to the inevitable confrontation between the story’s players. Throughout the story, both Richard and Kristin, whose voice is strong in the story, struggle with their decisions as they face their losses.

I enjoyed the audiobook version of The Guest Room, narrated by Grace Experience and Mozhan Marno, who switch between Alexandra’s story and the third person voices in the alternate chapters. I was especially drawn into the story by Experience, the voice of Alexandra. Through the author’s story and Experience’s voice, the audiobook provides a sobering look into brutal sex trafficking crimes. Marno has great range and deftly manages the other characters’ personalities, with subtle changes in her voice. Through both voices, I felt I knew the characters well.

I also enjoyed the author’s smart descriptions of the Chapman’s home and their lives. The fact that many of their things are ruined is a great reflection on how their lives may also be wrecked. Bohjalian is also great at presenting different points of view and showing his characters’ weaknesses. I felt the dread of each of the characters, even the ones I didn’t like.

I listened to The Guest Room during my many walks this week and recommend it to listeners who like stories with characters who make bad decisions.

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Short reviews from 2013: Fahrenheit 451, The Art of Racing in the Rain and The Weird Sisters

As I approach my 7-year blogging anniversary, I’ve been looking at some of the old reviews I posted. A lot of them are pretty short and I’d love to go back and beef them up a bit, but I think I’d have to re-read the books before I did that. So today I’m just going to share three short reviews of books I liked, but didn’t say too much about!


Fahrenheit 451
by
Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is a very well written science fiction from 1950. Despite being written before the explosion of modern technology, Bradbury’s book-burning story makes many timeless observations about censorship and the suppression of original thought and personal interaction.

Bradbury’s seashells as earbuds and the parlors with surrounding interactive screens are hardly a stretch to imagine if you have ever competed with an iPhone, iPod or a flat screen for another person’s attention.

Despite many hopeless characters and some violent destruction, the ending is optimistic as Montag and his hideout professors devise a way to preserve the classics.


The Art of Racing in the Rain
by
Garth Stein

I loved this book. It’s a touching family story told from an original point of view.  Denny Swift is the main character, a husband and father – a family man. His dog, Enzo, tells Denny’s story and gives us simple insights into love, misunderstanding, pain, and loss. He cleverly narrates a sad story and leaves the reader feeling alright about the very difficult job of saying goodbye to the people (and pets) we love. Enzo is a true hero in the way he influences and communicates with Denny, Eve and his family.

You don’t have to know anything about driving a race car or even be a NASCAR fan to enjoy the connection Stein makes between being a champion behind the wheel and taking charge of your own destiny.

This is a fast read with a solid feel-good ending.


The Weird Sisters
by
Eleanor Brown

It is so nice to read book that is actually upbeat as it depicts characters who struggle and confront difficult problems. Eleanor Brown does just that in The Weird Sisters. This is a story about three sisters who face turning-points in their own lives. It is believable, interesting, funny and emotional as the three face their mother’s illness and their own relationships with their parents and themselves. Anyone who has siblings or children of their own will appreciate the dynamics that occur here.

Brown tells this story through what I guess you would call the plural first person, as she speaks as the collective sisters. In the beginning, I thought there was a fourth sister! It’s a little different and awkward at first, but I got used to it. I think she uses this format to show the unity between Cordy, Rose and Bean.

I thought the Shakespeare references might be overwhelming because it has been a long time since I picked up a Shakespeare play. But they weren’t. They are there because they help explain the way the family communicates with each other. You don’t have to remember exactly what happened in King Lear or Macbeth to get the point.

Other people might think this original style is quirky. I did not. It works and, like the Shakespeare references, the style helps you understand the sisters and their story.


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Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

You
by
Caroline Kepnes

Rating:

Joe Goldberg is an average guy working in a bookstore in the East Village. In walks Guinevere Beck a beautiful aspiring writer. They flirt and Joe’s obsession begins. It’s not hard to find out more about the girl who goes as “Beck” because she’s all over social media and that’s how Joe gets his foot in.

You is an addicting story about a guy who seems pretty normal, loves books (he’s a bit of a book snob too), but will stop at nothing to get to the girl. Joe is a weird combination of likable and a little bit scary, a perfect character for a thriller.

And Beck is a mystery. Her public image on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is one thing, clever, cute, literary. But she has a reckless side that Joe wants to protect her from. He’s working people, but is she doing the same? A mix-in of ambitious, needy and maybe not-so-good friends makes Beck’s character even more interesting.

You is told from Joe’s perspective. Not talking to the reader, though. He’s talking to Beck. And the whole time he’s explaining to her what he’s all about.

I devoured this book. I don’t want to say too much because this is the kind of story you want to experience, one creepy moment at a time. You might wonder why I’m giving 5 stars to a book that might seem a little trashy when you start reading it. Read on and you’ll discover that the genius of the storytelling is that Joe’s character becomes almost completely knowable by the end. I say almost because there are plenty of issues to resolve at the end of You, explained, I hope, in the sequel, Hidden Bodies.

Anyone who likes to read will love Kepnes’s literary references because, you know, the story does revolve around a bookstore. And the music references are equally fun, especially the one that indirectly refers to the book’s title. It was only by chance that I caught it.

You is a Lifetime series and I’ve already started watching it. It’s equally addicting. I recommend the book to readers who like stories of obsession and complex characters.

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Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk – still my favorite!

One of the best things about looking back at your all-time favorite books is reliving the great feelings you had when you read them. And no matter how many new great books I read, I’ll always go back to my number one all-time favorite book, Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk.  Last year, I was excited to learn that a couple of my blogging friends (Annika Perry’s Writing Blog and Pamela Wight at RoughWighting) had added it to their 2019 reading lists. How fun to see that people are still reading this book that first hit the scene in 1962!

Youngblood Hawke is the story of a young author from the coal mines of Kentucky who arrives in New York and becomes a hugely successful and prolific novelist. Publishers, agents, Broadway producers, filmmakers, real estate developers and, of course, women, all want a piece of this larger-than-life, good-natured and ambitious personality. Hawke’s goal all along is to make enough money so that he can really get down to business and write his most serious work, something he calls his American Comedy. There are lots of ups and downs and many detours. At 800 pages, it’s not exactly a fast read, but it’s lots of fun and well worth the commitment.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who’s read Youngblood Hawke, but there are lots of fans out there. Check out these reviews and maybe you’ll add it to your list!

The average rating on Goodreads is 4.04
Amazon rates it at 4.5
This review from the LA Times says “’Youngblood Hawke’ Is No Turkey”

Are you tempted?

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