Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)

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Our former first lady’s autobiography tells about her experiences from childhood through the present, sharing both triumphs and missteps and imparting the wisdom she has acquired alone the way. Her intelligence, humor, dedication to public service, and love of family shine through on every page. (An added bonus: the book also doubles a love story of epic proportions!) If you did not already love her, you will be smitten when you finish Becoming. It was a delight to read, and I finished it in awe of the amazing woman Michelle Obama is, a true American treasure. Becoming paints the picture of an ordinary American who took the opportunities she had been given and used them to accomplished extraordinary things.

Her story, while utterly unique, has elements of relatablity that surprised me. She discusses her heartbreaking struggles with infertility; the vulnerability she felt parenting two daughters with a husband who traveled extensively, and her professional crises of self-confidence that anyone can identify with. I felt deeply for the new mother, tired and overwhelmed, who desperately wanted a husband who came home to help with dinner and bedtime — but who had to share the man she loved with his then 200,000 constituents. (She points out this number would seem laughable later, when he answered to more than 300 million Americans as President.) In the end, she knew her husband could make the lives of the people who elected him better, make the country better, and who was she to stand in his way? As her husband is famous for saying, “Do we settle for the world as is is, or do we work for the world as it should be?” (118)

Her staunch feminist beliefs underlie many of her stories: her refusal to take on certain roles simply because she is a woman, standing up at work to be paid what she is worth and demanding that her child-care arrangements be accommodated, and refusing to be judged based on how she looks or how likeable people found her. In one powerful example, she relates that her campaign events were largely ignored by Barack’s staff until she made a small misstep and suddenly she was reprimanded and scrutinized. She stood up for herself, telling staff that if they want her at campaign events at all they would provide her with technical and logistical support she needed to be effective. She also let the experience teach her that she would no longer wait to be told what to do…she would hire her own staff and decide that for herself. “The lesson being that in life you control what you can.” (33)

The most interesting elements, I found, were her detailed descriptions of life in the White House and the almost other-worldly experience of being the First Family. The stories are a wonderful peek behind the curtain at the rules, formalities, and opulence provided to them, but also strain they felt living under such restrictions. (She had to consult political advisors before she could have her hair cut into bangs!) “My job was to hold steady and get myself through.”

While chronicling her journey from South Side to the White House, she also offers straightforward, thoughtful and practical advice about navigating a world that is can be unexpectedly complicated and unwelcoming. And about how, when you love a person, you embrace the things that make unique, even if they make your life complicated. “The answer is probably the best and most sustaining answer to nearly every question arising inside a marriage, no matter who you are or what the issue is: you find ways to adapt. If you are in it forever, there’s really no choice.” (171)

I was struck by the knowledge that Michelle Obama’s upbringing could be the story of nearly every young girl who lives in my neighborhood or who sits in the classroom with my children. What an amazing thought that, nurtured and supported, nearly any young woman could grow up to be Michelle Obama!

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Look Alive Twenty-Five by Janet Evanovich (2018)

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I hate to admit it, but Stephanie Plum is showing her age. Twenty-four years* after her debut in Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money, not much has changed for our well-meaning but inept bounty hunter. She still lives paycheck to paycheck, she still bungles most of the jobs she takes on, and she still in relationships with two men (who show exquisite patience in her stringing them both along.) That said, I did read Twenty-five \all the way through and found a few things to chuckle about along the way and I still root for Stephanie and Lula to get it right this time: solve the case, catch the bad guys, and make the money.

Installment twenty-five finds Stephanie the unwilling manager of a deli that has been the scene of three mysterious disappearances. She agrees to both work in the deli and act as bait for whoever is kidnapping employees. When she is not hoping to get snatched by a lunatic, she and her side-kick Lula are searching for criminals who have skipped out on court appearances…always poorly and mostly unsuccessfully.

In Twenty-Five, Stephanie seems to be fatigued to still be living this dead-end life. She longs, wistfully, for days that do not involve criminals or dead bodies. More so than in past books in this series, Stephanie’s lethargy and unhappiness clearly resonate.

Reading this book, I cannot help but feel that it is time for Evanovich to change the formula of the series and for Stephanie to change the formula of her life. It would be invigorating for our heroine to chose to do her job better. Why not have Steph hit the gym, get buff, and start kicking ass on her own? Why not have her learn to take down the bad guys without relying on men to do it for her?

At the very least, it seems time for our heroine to be bold: chose a new job, pick a man, and make some permanent decisions that allow the series to grow and change. I doubt she can survive another stale retelling of essentially the same story.

*Note to readers: Stephanie has not aged twenty-four years in the story-line, but rather closer to ten years.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (2018)

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One of my favorite book characters of all time, Armand Gamache, is back for his fourteenth  adventure in and around the picturesque Quebec village of Three Pines. The novel opens with Gamache answering a mysterious letter that asks him to travel to a nearby home to meet at notary public. Curious what the man could need, Gamache braves a winter storm to travel to the meeting place — a condemned house. Once there he is shocked to learn Myrna Landers, a fellow Three Pines villager, has been summoned as well.  It seems that they have been named executors of a will of a elderly woman who they have never met.

Before they can decide whether to accept the responsibility, the snow storm blows into a blizzard and they must make a dangerous drive to Three Pines to hunker down for the duration. Out of the cold, the notary explains that the will is extremely unusual. Beyond naming strangers to carry out her wishes, it seems the deceased woman —  a cleaning woman before her death — claims to be an Austrian Baroness who has millions and owns property across Europe.

Intrigued, they agree to handle the will and begin their own investigation into the life of the Baroness; including interviewing her children and examining Austrian history. Their search into the woman’s past starts as a simple curiosity, but takes a serious turn when the woman’s oldest son is found dead.

Gamache remains on suspension following the violent and deadly end of a drug war take down in Glass Houses https://wp.me/p6N6mT-36v , which means bringing in Jean Guy Beauvoir and his Sûreté du Québec officers to assist.

While trying to untangle the complexities of the will and related the murder, Gamache is also witnessing the down-fall of a young woman he had mentored through the police academy. After being caught selling drugs, she is expelled and returns to the streets, letting Gamache down spectacularly.  She begins to push drugs on her fellow addicts: not just any drug, but carfentanyl, which is by far the most deadly opioid to ever enter North America.

As winter rages on, Gamache and his fellow neighbors and officers explore both of these complicated cases: one that takes them into the darkest corners of Montreal and the other to the pre-WWI Austria and a family feud that is still reverberating 130 years later.

Winter in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand (2018)

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Russ, Irene, Cash, and Baker Steele are living quiet, if unhappy, lives at the start of  2019. Russ in, per his usual, traveling for work; Irene is quietly troubled that she has been demoted from her dream job; Cash has just learned a business his father helped him start is bankrupt; and Baker’s rocky marriage has just gotten another shock. One phone call renders those worries moot.

Irene learns her husband has died in a helicopter crash in St. John Virgin Islands, thousands of miles away from where she thought he was on business. And that is just the start of the mysteries that the phone call unravels. It turns out Russ was not a traveling salesman but engaged in some shady business transactions. He also owns a home in St John that none of his family knew existed, one worth as much as $15 million dollars. Finally, he died alongside a woman who was his long-time mistress.

Irene is unsure how in the world she is supposed to process her husband’s death and his unimaginable deceit; so she decides to fly to St John to learn in person what has taken place and just what her husband was engaged in. Her sons, while shocked to lose their father, both welcome joining their mother in the islands, if only to escape their crumbling home lives.

Upon arrival, they find “St John” Russ is a man none of them recognize. Gone is the humble, gentle businessman from Iowa: here Russ made a part-time home in a multi-million mansion, engaged in a years-long relationship with his mistress, and hiding enough secrets that a local man was charged with destroying all of his possessions in the event of his death.

Unsure how one processes events such as these, the family begins personal investigations of the the mistress, the home, Russ’s business, in an attempt to piece together why Russ told such lies and what those lies mean for them going forward.

Although the book is much like her others, the new locale brings a new energy to her standard story choices. I would have liked to see the story written in past-tense, as the  present-tense writing detracted from the overall tone of the book.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018)

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In the lead up to Great Britain entering WWII, eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong is conscripted to work for the government on “war work.” Hoping for a bit of adventure or maybe just a life that does not involve being a chambermaid, she accepts a job working for the Intelligence Service.

Deflated at first to learn that her work is really just typing and filing, she none-the-less finds herself happy with the energy around her and the purpose of her work. Something about Juliet, however, has been noticed by her superiors and soon she is selected — by whom and using what criteria she has no idea — to work on a highly sensitive case for Military Intelligence.

Whisked away from bustling offices to a quite apartment block in London, Juliet learns she is to be a part of a small team whose goal it is to infiltrate pro-German social circles. Leading the group is an undercover operative — Mr. Godfrey — who has convinced a group of Nazi sympathizers that he reports directly to the Third Reich. The informants deliver their intel to him, he conveys it to Hitler, and they all can “do they bit” to help Germany prevail. Juliet and her team have two goals: to track exactly what information these sympathizers have collected about British military activities and prevent them from reporting it to a real SS agent.

While at first her work is simply more typing — or more accurately transcribing hours of recordings of Mr. Godfrey meeting with his informants — she is soon drawn further into the undercover operation. She is tasked with befriending and spying on a wealthy woman believed to have lists of known pro-Nazi British citizens. Quickly, Juliet must learn to gather evidence, search homes, avoid evasion, and lie convincingly…and, of course, not get caught.

The unforeseen consequence of her new role as spy means that Juliet is being trusted with more and more sensitive information and therefore under intense scrutiny regarding who she tells what. Soon, she is being asked to report to several different departments, spy on her colleagues, and collect information about men she thought worked for the government. Who should be trusted, she begins to wonder? And with what information?

Everyone suddenly seems capable of lying and everyone seems to have an agenda that is unclear to Juliet. She is such a young, inexperienced woman and she works tirelessly to keep up with her her new roles and responsibilities, all while hoping her own instincts regarding who are the “good guys” and who are they “bad guys” are correct.

While Atkinson has written a novel that seems to have all of the elements of a great, historical, spy thriller is falls flat on almost every level, which is a huge disappointment as I really wanted to love this book. The main characters are unlikable and feel incompletely drawn; she introduces far too many secondary characters that never develop and only detract from the story; her pacing is uneven; and the story– which sounds intriguing in theory — never becomes suspenseful enough to be thoroughly engaging. In my opinion, Jacqueline Winspear does a far better job with her most recent Maisie Dobbs books, especially Journey To Munich, reviewed here https://wp.me/p6N6mT-iH

 

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

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Nine Perfect Strangers is Liane Moriarty at her best: writing an intriguing, fast-paced, character-driven story about a group of — as the title suggests — strangers who find themselves in the middle of a most extraordinary experience. Even though what happens is shocking, the group find themselves transformed at the end of it.

Each of the story’s nine characters is a guest at Tranquility House, an upscale health resort and spa that caters to men and women who need to “detoxify”, “unplug,” and “re-balance themselves.” Outwardly, these guests are all seeking rest and relaxation, but under the bland exteriors they display for their fellow guests and the spa’s staff, each of them is managing darker, more serious problems.

Frances is a romance novelist whose career might be coming to an end, at just the same time as she is dealing with the humiliation of a complicated breakup. Her stresses have manifested as physical symptoms and she is seeks to escape her problems for a few days in the hopes that massages and healthy food can heal her.

Lars is a divorce attorney who admits to being a health resort junkie, insisting he only comes to balance out his excesses at home. What he is refusing to address is that his relationship to a lovely man may be ending because Lars refuses to start a family. Looking at the problem too closely might mean light, breezy, “no problem” Lars has to look back at his own difficult childhood.

Tony is a man whose depression has crept up slowly and is threatening to swallow him. He has abandoned all the things and people he once loved and is self-medicating with food, beer, and television. He chooses Tranquility House hoping to shock himself out of his downward spiral.

Carmel is a mother of four little girls, who was blindsided by her husband’s decision that he no longer loved her and was divorcing her. Stunned, Carmel has suppressed all her anger and fear over the divorce and buried herself in busyness to keep the pain at bay. The only feelings she has allowed herself to feel is self-hatred toward her aging body. She tells everyone she is simply there to lose weight, but deep down knows she is going to have to address her self-loathing and rage in order to heal.

Ben and Jessica are a young married couple for whom winning the lottery has ruined their lives. The money has estranged them from family and friends, left them with too much free time and no rules, and meant that the faults in their marriage that they once blamed on having no money can no longer be ignored.

Finally, we have Heather and Napoleon, parents to the ninth guest, twenty-year old Zoe. The family is hoping the spa will offer a healing distraction from the third anniversary of Zoe’s brother’s death. None of they expected the shocking secrets they have been hiding from each other that they will be forced to reveal.

Take nine wounded, grieving strangers who are trying to plaster a temporary bandage on their messy lives subtract all of the things they generally use to distract themselves — food, phones, booze, even talking — and add in a slightly unstable spa director and you have a recipe for chaos.  The harder the challenges the guests face, the more their real problems surface, and the more unstable the entire group grows.

Things come to a wild and shocking crescendo when (after days of fasting) the group is forced into a situation that moves from unpleasant to shocking to downright terrifying very quickly. Whether they want to or not, the group must start revealing their real selves in order to keep the situation from getting dire.

As always, Moriarty has given readers an exciting page-tuner with just the right balance of tears, laughs, surprises, and happy endings. So fun!

This Thanksgiving I am Thankful for…

…this is a writing prompt that each of my three children has had to answer in school at least once. My youngest son came home this week with a construction paper turkey that labeled some of the things he was thankful for, including “his brothers playing with him,” “his dad teaching him to skateboard,” and his “mom loving and supporting him.”

It occurred to me that I should reflect on some of the things I am grateful for this year. Of course I am deeply grateful for my amazing 18-year marriage to my husband, for the continued health and happiness of my family, and all of our good fortunes. I am also grateful for many things which relate to reading, books, or even this blog.

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Here is my reading-related gratitude list for 2018…

  • Great authors – Is there anything better than opening the newest book from your favorite author? This year Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) released the fourth book, Lethal White https://wp.me/p6N6mT-36B , in the amazing Cormoran Strike series. Swoon! Next up, the newest Louise Penny book, Kingdom of the Blind, I have it on hold at the library!
  • The Library — my family visits the public library at least twice a week and we bring home stacks of books, movies, magazines each time! Every single bedside table (and coffee table and kitchen table) has at least 3 library books on it. Having access to free materials about every imaginable subject is magical…there is nothing we cannot learn as long as we have our library cards.
  • Audiobooks — I spend a lot of time alone each day working, but also cleaning, gardening, and driving. Audiobooks keep me company as I go about my to-do list, they make chores something I look forward to doing! My favorites this year were Ralph Cosham narrating the Louise Penny books; Orlagh Cassidy reading Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books; and Susan Denaker reading the children’s book series (a family favorite!) The Penderwicks. Of course, the best audiobooks of all time are Jim Dale’s narration of the Harry Potter series. If you need a place to try out audiobooks, start with Jim Dale and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
  • Book Clubs – since college I have been part of dozens and dozens of book clubs of all shapes and sizes! I have read the same book as everyone at work and been part of large group discussions; I have read parenting books along with the parents of my children’s classmates; I have been in book clubs with people I do not know and with my closest friends; and once, my son and I arranged for a family book club where everyone in our family and neighbor’s family read and discussed The Revenant https://wp.me/p6N6mT-4J over dinner. Every single one of these groups has brought happiness into my life because I LOVE to talk about books with other bibliophiles.
  • AP Literature – This year, my high school son is taking AP Lit in school. The class demands that he read an enormous stack of books for class and he is encouraged to read even more classics on his own in preparation for the test in May. I am amazed at his enthusiasm for this class and how much fun it has brought him, my husband and I. Just this week, we all sat around discussing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at length…something we would not have done without the class. It has been surprisingly fun to compare The Scarlett Letter, Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Handmaid’s Tale! Hooray for school!
  • Still having a child little enough to read holiday themed books – My seven year old is a super-reader and he can easily read himself chapter books. Therefore, sitting down with his mom to read a stack of holiday-themed picture books is something he could scoff at, but he readily agrees! My twelve year old is even known to join us to hear his favorites. I love these books so much that I consider them an integral part of my holidays and I would be heart-broken to have no one to share them with. Here’s to one more year of holiday picture books!
  • This website — writing about the books I read makes them more vibrant and dynamic, I remember much more about them after I reflect and review them. That alone brings me great happiness! But it is all the better when readers let me know that they liked a piece of my writing or they loved a book I suggested…its heavenly! Thanks to you all!