Book – Carthage is the story of a family in anguish in a small town in upstate New York. The novel begins with the search for recently returned college freshman Cressida in the woods of the Nautauga Forest Preserve. Her father Zeno leads the search. Foul play is suspected when the young woman is not found. Things get complicated when witnesses come forward stating that they saw her throwing herself at Brett, her sister Juliet’s fiancé. Cressida was convinced that she and Brett are destined to be together, because they are both misfits in their hometown of Carthage. Brett is afflicted by many demons, having recently come home from the war in Iraq suffering severe injuries both physically and psychologically. He is a shell of his former self and has become prone to fits of delusion and violent outbursts. The authorities conclude that Cressida must have been murdered. During the search, Brett is found unconscious in his blood-spattered jeep. Due to pressure from the police and because Brent has no recollection of what happened, he confesses.
The story then picks up 8 years later at a maximum-security prison in Florida and focuses on a young female assistant working for an investigator who champions for social justice issues and fighting corruption. The young woman was found beaten and bruised almost 7 years ago in the Adirondack Mountains. Her Good Samaritan brought her to Florida where the investigator hired her as an intern, even though she shares nothing about her past life.
Oates is a brilliant storyteller and in Carthage she manages to convey the complexity of family relationships, human frailty, mental illness, and the casualties of war, but above all the power of forgiveness and the will to survive.
Book – The Japanese Lover is a sweeping saga of enduring passion, friendship and reminiscing in old age. It is also a tale of secrets. Our central character, Alma Belasco in her 70’s has come to the realization that her health is failing. Her personal assistant, Irina along with Alma’s grandson, Seth have been asked to help her write her family history. They suspect that Alma has a lover, because she leaves her nursing home to go on secret errands every few weeks with an overnight bag packed with lingerie. The story of a romance slowly unfolds as we go back to pre WWII, when Alma at the age of 8 arrives from Poland to live with her uncle’s family in San Francisco to keep her safe from the looming war back home. Feeling displaced, she quickly becomes friends with Ichimei the son of the family’s gardener. Spanning over 50 years their love for each other remains strong, despite many separations including the internment of Ichimei and his family in Utah after Pearl Harbor. The two manage to meet sporadically over the years despite children and spouses. Irina and Seth piece together some of the story by going through Alma’s correspondence and diaries. But Alma is not the only one with a mystery, Irina’s panful past is also revealed.
This is a lovely spellbinding, and bittersweet story. This book reminded me of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and you might also enjoy Garden of Evening Mists. We have many of Isabel Allende’s other titles.
Book – The opening of the book sets the tone of A Reliable Wife. Widower Ralph Truitt waits on a train platform in bitter cold blizzardy conditions in rural Wisconsin. It is 1907 and the wealthy business man awaits his future bride, Catherine from Chicago, whom he chose from numerous responses to his newspaper ad seeking a “reliable wife”. He is shocked to find that the photograph that she had sent him represented her as a plain looking woman versus the stunning beauty before him and it makes him wonder what other secrets she may be keeping from him. Despite his suspicions, he marries her anyway due to his loneliness and his own ulterior motives. Catherine, haunted by a tragic past is motivated by greed and plans to eventually leave Wisconsin as a wealthy widow.
After the wedding Catherine and Ralph treat each other amicably. Catherine tries to be cheerful, though she feels trapped, because of the cold and snow. She also misses her fast-paced life in the city. Sensing her restlessness Ralph reveals to her a splendid house on the property filled with treasures. He had built it for his wife, Emilia and had not gone in it since her death. Ralph also wants to find his estranged son to atone for the abuse that he had stowed upon him. So when some detectives have a lead that he is in St. Louis, Catherine jumps at the chance to go kick up her heels in the city under the pretext that she would try to coax Andy to come home to his father.
Things become more twisted when Andy becomes part of the plot. The gothic tone of this suspenseful story will keep the reader engrossed and the pages turning. If Hitchcock would have been alive, I’m sure he would have made a movie out of this. This book reminded me of Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Book – My Brilliant Friend is a complicated, but insightful coming of age story of two girls that are best friends. Elena narrates the story which begins in the 1950’s in a working class neighborhood in Naples. Being somewhat shy and timid Elena is fascinated by her classmate Lila who is very clever and daring. They have dreams of writing a book together some day and both compete at excelling in school. Their friendship is put to the test when they get to the step of continuing on to middle school. One of the girl’s family lets her continue while the other is held back to help in the family business. However, living in a small village their paths still cross and they still rival each other in popularity, good looks, boyfriends, achievements, etc. The girls, now becoming young women also learn some surprising revelations about one another.
This is the first book of the Neopolitan series and it is beautifully translated from its original in Italian. I am excited to read the other three books that follow, since the first one ended when Elena and Lila are just sixteen. I had the pleasure of listening to this from a Hoopla download. All the Italian pronunciations by the reader enforced the novel’s strong sense of place. I highly recommend this especially if you enjoy leisurely paced, lyrical, and character driven novels. The next book in the series is The Story of a New Name.
Book – The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey is perfect as a small gift or stocking stuffer. Known for beautiful costumes and settings, great characters, stories, and excellent writing – Jessica Fellowes has compiled some of her favorite quotes from the show. The book is beautifully illustrated with color stills from the series. Paging through it the reader will be reminded of some of the most memorable scenes and the personalities of the characters. It’s also interesting to experience all the social changes that happened over the six seasons.
Some of the best quotes are from Violet played splendidly by Maggie Smith. “Have we all stepped through the looking glass?”, “Poor souls. It’s bad enough parenting a child when you like each other.” Speaking to her grown son Robert: “When you talk like that I’m tempted to ring for Nanny and have you put to bed with no supper.” And loving words between one of my favorite couples: Mrs. Hughes: “You can always hold my hand if you need to feel steady.” Carson: “I don’t know how, but you manage to make that sound a little risqué.” This is just a small example of many, many more. A fun little book that is truly witty and wise.
You may also like Behind the Scenes of Downton Abbey, The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, Downton Abbey: A Celebration, and The World of Downton Abbey.
Book – The Signature of All Things is an epic saga of the Whittaker family that takes place in the late 18th and early 19th century, the Age of Enlightenment and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. This work of fiction is a new venture for non-fiction author Elizabeth Gilbert author of Eat, Pray, Love and will delight readers.
Henry is a wealthy American import tycoon whose ambition left behind his life of humbleness and poverty in England. His daughter, Alma is bestowed with all the benefits of money; a good education and fine material possessions. Though she is scholarly and has a passion for learning about the natural world, especially botany, she is rather plain in her looks and socially awkward. Having lived a sheltered life, she is thrilled when almost middle-aged, she meets Ambrose Pike an artist, spiritualist, and dreamer who shares her love of flowers and plants that he expresses in his artwork. They soon get married and Ambrose whisks Alma, who has never been out of Philadelphia, on a ship to exotic Tahiti. Though the story reveals insight into the couple’s relationship, it mainly focuses on Alma’s love and impact on science and emerging theories on evolution. Well researched, this is a fascinating story, not to be missed about a woman who was well ahead of her time.
When asked about the title, in an interview the author explained, “The Signature of All Things is the title of a 16th century botanical/divine theory posited by a German shoemaker-turned-mystic named Jacob Boehm, who believed that God so loved the world that He had hidden in the design of each plant on earth some clue for humans as to that plant’s usefulness. (For instance: Walnuts are good for headaches, and are also—helpfully—shaped like brains).”
TV Series – If you haven’t watched The West Wing yet – WHY NOT? This is easily one of the highest rated shows in TV history. If you haven’t watched it in years, then it is time to re-watch it. Once again it is very timely with the upcoming election and I bet that you will be wishing that a person like Jed Bartlet would be running for President. If you aren’t familiar with the show, it gives you a sneak peek into the everyday workings of the staff of the West Wing of the White House. Unlike some other political series, the main characters are realistic with human shortcomings and watchers can’t help but sympathize and root for them and get an insight into their personal lives and their devotion to public service. It’s fun to compare this drama which originally aired in 1999 and aired for 7 seasons to current series such as House of Cards, Madam Secretary, Scandal, and Veep.
And here’s another bonus – Joshua Malina, who was on the show as Will Bailey for 4 seasons now has a podcast called “The West Wing Weekly” that he co-hosts with Hrishikesh Hirway. Every week, the Podcast features one episode of the show airing chronologically starting with the “Pilot” which aired on March 23rd. So you can binge watch and catch up or watch an episode and then listen to the corresponding podcast episode.
Each podcast features recaps of the episode, commentary from the hosts, and special guests including former West Wing cast members, writers, and directors.
Book – Nina Borg has a kind heart and is passionate about her work as a Red Cross nurse and social worker that tries to assist refugees. She lives in Copenhagen with her husband and two children. One day Nina receives a call from her friend Karin begging her for a favor. At first Nina is reluctant, but the friend sounds desperate. So Nina goes to the train station and retrieves a suitcase from a locker. What she finds inside is a naked 3 year old boy who has been drugged. As she decides to tell the police, she notices a man kicking the empty locker in rage glaring directly at her, so fearing for her own and the boy’s safety she panics and runs. Nina tries to get a hold of Karin for an explanation, but discovers that she has been murdered.
Nina is a likable character, but her need to help others surpasses her family and personal obligations. But you have to admire her protectiveness of the boy, because soon it is apparent that there are three parties seeking the child – the mother, the kidnappers, and the man who paid for the boy to be abducted. The boy can reveal very little, because of his age and he only speaks Lithuanian. This fast paced thriller gradually reveals the motivation behind the abduction and it’s probably not what you think.
This is the first book in the “Nina Borg Mystery” series, followed by Invisible Murder, Death of a Nightingale, and The Considerate Killer.
Book – What could possibly go wrong at a bachelor party held at a respectable middle-aged investment banker’s house in the suburbs of New York? So thought Kristin, even knowing that some naughty entertainment was scheduled. She gave her husband, Richard, her blessing to host the event for his younger brother and went off to Manhattan with their 9 year old daughter. But something happens that Richard never fathomed and his life becomes a total nightmare. The two beautiful strippers providing the entertainment stab and murder their bodyguards, take their hard earned cash, and flee the scene of the crime.
Bohjalian does an excellent job telling of how Richard and Kristin’s life and marriage start unraveling as a consequence of that night. Richard admits that he had gone into the guest room with one of the girls, but swears that nothing happened, though Kristin has her doubts. Richard is also suspended from his job, is hounded by the press, and threatened with blackmail. Meanwhile we learn of the plight of the two fugitives. Alexandra and Sonja are not really women, but girls from Armenia and not only are they on the run from the police, but the Russian mob, as well. The girls were kidnapped as adolescents and turned into sex slaves in Russia and then brought to the United States. We find out about their sad and desperate circumstances. And now with no identification, credit cards, or knowledge of any different type of life are they really free? This story of suspense and desperation will keep the pages turning.
Bohjalian wrote this book to bring awareness that human trafficking and slavery is very prevalent and profitable to the exploiters. To learn more, please visit The Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking.
Book – The Light in the Ruins is a wonderful blend of historical fiction and a murder mystery. The story starts during World War II at the Rosati Villa in Monte Volta, Italy. The Nazis have a keen interest in an Etruscan tomb on the property and coerce the family into helping them seize Italian works of art. Unfortunately, this cooperation and the fondness between Christina Rosati and one of the German officers is seen as betrayal to some of the locals. What they did not realize is that the Rosatis also secretly sheltered partisans on their estate.
Years later in Florence in 1955, Francesca Rosati is found murdered with her heart cut out and displayed. It is up to Serafina, a young detective to solve the crime. Things are further complicated when the matriarch of the family, Beatrice is murdered in the same fashion. The detective determines that this is a vendetta against the Rosatis and wonders if the family’s activities during the war had somehow triggered these killings. It also appears that Serafina, who is severely scarred by burns received during the war, may also have had some sort of connection to the Rosati’s.
Heartbreak abounds during the war and as a result of the homicides for the remaining family. The Villa is no longer grand but falling into ruin, since the Rosatis cannot afford its upkeep. The suspense builds as Serafina races to catch a murderer, before another Rosati is killed.
I think this book would appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah’s Nightingale and Chris Bohjalian’s other works such as Sandcastle Girls.