Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Book– New York Times’ Bestselling author Jodi Picoult does it again with another one of her remarkable novels tackling prominent, arbitrary controversies of today’s times. This novel was so captivating, that I ended up not only borrowing the printed copy from the library, but listened to eAudiobook on the Libby app at every opportunity:  in the car, making dinner, cleaning the house, etc.

Ruth is a single mother of a high school honors student and a Labor and Delivery Nurse of Mercy-West Haven Hospital of 20 years. She is a person of color.

Turk dons a Swastika tattoo, a Confederate flag arm sleeve, oversees a white power website, and is a distinguished leader in the movement. He and his wife Brittany, are white supremacists. She just gave birth to their son, Davis.

After a brief encounter checking Davis’ vitals, Turk and Brittany make a point to remove Ruth from their service. They write, “NO AFRICAN AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT,” on a post-it note and affix it to their child’s file. When the unit is short staffed however, Ruth has no choice but to watch over baby Davis while the other nurses handle a medical emergency. But then, baby Davis goes into cardiac distress. Unforeseeable circumstances leave Ruth with two choices: intervene and go against the charge nurse’s orders and the wishes of the parents, or do nothing and break the nurse’s oath.

Readers are challenged to question whether Ruth should disobey the orders she’s been given by the hospital, or care for the baby to try to save him. This riveting story underpins racial discrimination and freedom of choice and expression. It confronts issues of power, privilege, and race in the United State’s justice system and brings to light the realities that African-Americans face every day, which white people often take for granted.

Above all, Small Great Things invites conversation about the implicit biases we hold and how our actions or inactions can ultimately be a disservice to others. Racism is very much alive in the U.S. and this story illustrates the societal ramifications microaggressions play in the lives of underrepresented groups in our country.

This title is available in print book format, Large Print, and as an eAudiobook in Overdrive.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Image result for fingersmith coverBook – As a fan of historical fiction, I was lucky to recently discover the work of Sarah Waters whose novels include: Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith, set in the Victorian era. Additionally, the notable The Night Watch (WWII) and her most recent work The Paying Guests (WWI), are set during or directly after world wars.

Fingersmith tells the story of Sue, a seventeen-year-old orphan living in Victorian London, brought up by and among, professional thieves. A frequent visitor to her home, known to her only as “Gentleman” hatches a plot to steal the fortune of young woman, Maud Lilly. Gentleman proposes Sue help him secure the fortune by posing as a lady’s maid in Maud’s home. Maud lives a secluded life on her scholarly uncle’s country estate, where she acts as his secretary, but otherwise leads a rather aimless, dull existence. Maud agrees to assist Gentleman in exchange for a cut of Maud’s fortune, which Sue hopes to use to pay back her adoptive mother, Mrs. Sucksby. An unexpected bond and attachment forms between Sue and Maud, which threatens Gentleman’s plan as well as the rather meager lives both young women have come to accept for themselves.

This is a novel full of twists, turns and unexpected developments. Fans of Victorian literature (in particular Charles Dickens) are sure to appreciate Fingersmith, not simply because of the Victorian era setting, but because the book reads in the manner of classic Dickens novels, only with a modern twist. Readers familiar with Dickens will find his writing style reflected in Waters’s style: the use of memorable, humorous names, and a talent for creating mystery and suspense. Readers will also note Dickensian themes such as, a focus on social class, a preoccupation with orphans and their misfortune, and complex portrayals of the story’s villains. Fingersmith is long, but the plot twists and character reveals make for a thoroughly engaging read.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

BookA Gentleman in Moscow is a beautifully written and magical story. Set in Moscow in 1922 and spanning four decades, we meet Count Alexander Rostov, who exudes old world elegance and aristocracy. He is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest for life at the luxurious, Metropol Hotel in Moscow and declared a “Former Person.” Despite the hotel’s grandor, the Count is imprisoned in a small attic room, which he attemptos to make cozy and familiar with a few of his favorite items. These include: two high back chairs, an oriental coffee table, a Louis XVI desk, two table lamps fashioned from elephants, and his grandmother’s set of porcelain plates. He also loves his books. “…the book had been written with winter nights in mind. Without a doubt, it was a book for when the birds had flown south, the wood was stacked by the fireplace, and the fields were white with snow; that is, for when one had no desire to venture out and one’s friends had no desire to venture in.”

Confined indoors, the Count spends his time exploring the hotel and making the acquaintance of staff and guests. His friends include Nina, a precocious young girl seeking lessons on how to become a princess, the chef and maître d of the hotel’s famed restaurant and Anna, a beautiful actress and Alexander’s lover. The author, Towles skillfully brings the world to the Count, since he cannot go out into the world. His encounters with each guest and staff member make for fascinating stories. “By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”

A truly delightful read. Amor Towles is also the author of Rules of Civility.

The Game Plan (2007)

DVD –  The Game Plan is fun and family friendly. Joe Kingman, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the top scoring quarterback for his professional football team. He is living the high life of a single playboy- sporting a penthouse, owning fancy cars, and enjoying fame. The morning after the biggest play of his game, 8-year-old Peyton arrives on his doorstep claiming to be his daughter, and never knew existed. Many silly things happen as their relationship evolves, from Leaving Peyton behind at a restaurant, to wearing bedazzled clothes to her ballet performance, to rushing to a medical emergency. This movie runs through the gamut of emotions, but relies heavily on the ability to garner laughter.

I found The Game Plan funny and charming. Although categorized as a comedy, the film includes serious scenes that explore family dynamics, trust, friendship, and love. If you are looking for a simple giggle for movie night, I definitely recommend this older gem.

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovich

Book– I grabbed this audiobook for my commute to work. I was instantly hooked! The wonderfully talented, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, a Ghanaian-born Brit, brought the main character to life.

Peter Grant, Probationary Police Constable (rookie cop for us stateside) with London’s Metropolitan Police Services is having a rough time. His policing skills are found to be lacking by his superiors and is easily distracted and fancy’s hotshot PC, Lesley May who unlike Peter, is on the fast track to the Murder Team. Peter is resigned to join the pencil pushing ranks of the Case Progression Unit. Nothing can possibly make his life any worse! That is, until he is rudely introduced to a ghostly chap while on duty watching a murder site. Peter is not convinced ghosts are real; the supernatural is all just mumbo-jumbo! Yet, this ghost is real enough and Peter soon finds himself assigned to the charming C.I. Thomas Nightingale of the Economic and Specialist Crime. Nightingale takes an instant shine to Peter and his magical potential. Peter soon finds out that not only are ghosts and magic real, they have an established history in the city, and that he can have a part in this world. I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, but suffice to say this is a contemporary urban fantasy with aspects of mystery and magic, not to mention a very interesting London police procedural. Adult fans of Harry Potter will enjoy Aaronovitch’s grown up magical world.

Midnight Riot is Book 1 of the London River series.

The Favourite (2018)

Movie – In the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), early 18th century England, the physically and emotionally frail queen rules with the support of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), her oldest and closest friend. When a cousin of Lady Sarah’s arrives at court, fallen on hard times and happy to take a job as a servant, Lady Sarah takes her under her wing, giving cousin Abigail a chance to regain her aristocratic status. War rages in France, Abigail (Emma Stone) takes advantage of Lady Sarah’s distraction to insinuate herself into the queen’s affections, and soon the war between the two women is as fierce as anything being fought on the Continent.

This is often described as a sex comedy, and while there’s quite a bit of sex and any number of funny moments, I wouldn’t call it a comedy – it’s far too bittersweet. The Favourite is a political story, full of backstabbing and dirty dealing, as nasty as anything out of House of Cards. It’s also a story about love and loyalty, including broken loyalties and broken hearts, and the particularly messy space occupied by women who love women in a time and social class when everyone must be married and produce heirs. This is a multi-layered film, and dismissing it as a sex comedy with good costumes (although the costumes are exceptional) is a great disservice.

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

BookWe all want what is best for our children. Often the center of our world, we want to believe that our children are perfect, little versions of ourselves. We see them as reflections of ourselves, and thus, their behavior reveals a great deal about us and our parenting. One of the many joys of parenthood is reliving some of the happiest moments of our own childhood, but this time through their eyes. What happens, however, when our seemingly innocent children resent and plot against us?!

Hanna adores her father, who only knows and sees her sweet and angelic side. While he is away at work, Hanna unleashes a strategic, vengeful side that is out to make her mother disappear, quite literally. Suzette loves her daughter, but after falling victim to a number of Hanna’s malicious tricks, suspects that there is something grievously wrong, questioning her daughter’s sanity and her own.

With alternating chapters from Hanna and Suzette’s perspectives, readers get a taste of what goes through the mind of each, as the actions that strain this unnerving mother-daughter relationship. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage is a suspenseful, psychological thriller that make you question what people are truly capable of. Readers will find this gripping read difficult, wrangling with themes of child psychopathology, family dynamics, and unconditional love. 

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

Book – Kyle Murchison Booth is an archivist at the Samuel Mathers Parrington Museum, and it causes him no end of trouble. He would very much like to be left alone with his books and his artifacts, but there are…things that won’t leave him alone. Things like an old school friend with a passion for necromancy, a necklace that carries more than memories of its old owner with it and a hidden tomb in his very own museum basement. Even a vacation won’t save him, if the hotel he winds up at is any indication.

Booth is the kind of character who really needs a hug, except if you did hug him he’d probably end up shaking from the trauma for days. He’s an immensely Lovecraftian character, more so than anyone else in these stories; in fact, I think he’s the only character who knows what kind of universe he’s in. Monette does a stellar job of building eerie tension without resorting to graphic violence or shock tactics — these are classy ghost stories.

As horror, the first few stories in this collection didn’t work so well for me, but the last two or three did. (Oooh, that hotel. *shudder*) As a modern take on Lovecraft, M.R. James and the early twentieth century ghost story, they’re all quite good. And as stories about Kyle Murchison Booth, they’re fantastic.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Book – Sylvie and her family are taking a holiday to live as ancient Britons. Her father is obsessed with ancient ways of life, from traditional knowledge like hunting and foraging to ancient religion and the bodies found in the bogs. (Sylvie is named after an ancient goddess.) They’re joining a class of experimental archaeologists, students who are much less committed to the reenactment than Sylvie’s father. The longer the trip goes on, the further the students are drawn in to the environment of the Iron Age – just as Sylvie, inspired by the students’ stories, begins to dream of a different future for herself. And then the professor suggests that they build a ghost wall – a barricade topped with skulls the Iron Age Britons used to use in war – and things begin to get very serious very quickly.

Ghost Wall packs a hefty punch in less than 150 pages. Sylvie isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator (she knows perfectly well that her father is obsessive and abusive) but the things she accepts without question make for a very particular point of view. Her father’s obsession with a “pure” British history raises questions of immigration and identity, and the directions he takes his obsession raise even more questions about what virtues there are in knowing your own history.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Book– Do not let the book’s thickness fool you. Knowing that I gravitate towards historical fiction novels, a dear friend of mine recommended All the Light We Cannot See and I could not put it down!

Doerr uses succinct, alternating chapters narrated by a blind French girl and a German boy, illustrating different perspectives of World War II from a child’s point of view. Although the Holocaust, Russian sieges, invasion of Paris, and the Allied Invasion of France are acknowledged, it is worth noting that the author assumes readers have some background on World War II, as the novel’s focus is on how the character’s development is shaped by war conflict.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who works at the Museum of Natural History. The museum is rumored to hold The Sea of Flames, a jewel whose beholder becomes immortal at the expense of all their loved ones fatal suffering. At six years old, Marie-Laure’s vision deteriorates and she eventually loses her eyesight completely. Despite Marie-Laure’s visual impairment, her father makes it his mission that she learn to navigate on her own. He builds a miniature model of the town so she can tactilely memorize her way about the neighborhood. Fast-forward six years to Nazi-occupied Paris. Seeking refuge, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo and stay with her agoraphobic great-uncle, and with them, they carry the most valuable and dangerous stone, The Sea of Flames.

Werner is an orphan boy who lives in a mining town in Germany. Fond of applied mathematics and science, he is fully enticed with the processes behind operating and maintaining devices, so much so that he becomes the town’s go-to person for fixing various radios. After another successful repair, Werner is recruited to an academy for Hitler’s Youth, where his talents will be put to use. Werner is kept in the dark regarding the implications of his special assignments to track the resistance. At first, he creates triangles and finds points on a map, and only later comes to realize the destruction caused by his seemingly innocuous actions. Torn between doing what is expected and understanding what is moral, Werner questions his loyalties when he and Marie-Laure’s paths converge in their attempts to survive Saint-Malo’s bombings.

All the Light We Cannot See poses compelling questions about fate, free will, and making the right choice in a time when the pressures of political forces meet moral ambiguities. It is available in book, audiobook on CD, and e-audiobook via OverDrive formats.