Ironic, tragic look at love and marriage

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The Behavior of Love by Virginia Reeves

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Dr. Edward Molinowski has become a workaholic.  He’s the superintendent of a mental institution that needs every second he can give it.  His patients and his work take almost all of his time, leaving little for his artist wife, Laura.  Laura feels that Ed just doesn’t see her anymore.  Plus, he talks far too much about one of his patients – a young, beautiful teenager named Penelope.  Penelope is an epileptic who calls her doctor “Dr. Ed” and who is obviously falling in love with him.  When Laura starts to give art classes at the institution with Penelope as one of her students, the situation begins to heat up.

It took me awhile to get involved in this book but once I did, I was completely immersed in it.  The author is adept at rendering her characters very believable and true to life.  I cared for each of the main characters, although I felt a lot of anger at Ed throughout the book but that turned around to great sympathy.  There are some truly touching moments in this book and those moments are what makes this a recommended book for me.  The author has given her readers some wonderful insights into how love ebbs and flows and can last through so much.  The several ironic events were mind blowing and will remain with me for a long time.

I was very impressed by the author’s first book, “Work Like Any Other”, so I know I went into this second book with great expectations.  Not all of those expectations were met but if I don’t compare her two books in my mind, I can say that this one was very good.  There are two scenes towards the end of the book, one between Ed and Laura and the other between Ed and Penelope, that were very repetitive and not to my liking.  I also think the book cover will not do the book any favors as I feel it looks too light hearted for this very complex book.  But overall, I found this author’s newest effort to be very compelling and gripping.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Elegantly told tale based on life of Stalin’s daughter

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The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Svetlana Alliluyeva is the only daughter of the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin.  Stalin was a brutal leader and millions of his own people died during his horrific reign.  He was a cold, insensitive man.  But he loved his little girl and called her “my little housekeeper”.  Then Svetlana grew up and fell in love with a young man who her father didn’t like.  He cruelly had the man arrested and deported to Siberia.  Thus began the estrangement between Svetlana and her father.

In 1967, Svetlana decided to defect to the United States.  She left behind her two children, I believe the daughter was 16 and the son was 22, if I remember correctly.  The CIA sent a young lawyer, Peter Horvath, to smuggle her out of Russia.  This was a huge and stressful decision on her part and led to much publicity here in the US and complete alienation by her children.  All Svetlana wants is a peaceful American life away from her father’s evil name.  She attempt to find that life in Princeton, NJ.  When an invitation by the widow of architect Frank Lloyd Wright comes, she decides to see what Taliesin West is all about.  She’s pulled into the cultist community there and exchanges one dictator in her life to another, the controlling Olgivana Lloyd Wright, who believes Svetlana has money that the community could use.

The book slightly covers Svetlana’s younger years but mostly concentrates on the time after her defection to America.  Interestingly, the author’s father is the young lawyer who accompanied Svetlana to America.  The author is given his father’s private papers to use so there are parts of actual letters in this book.  However, the author departs from accurate history in several respects.  I find it very odd that he chooses to invent a romantic interest between Svetlana and her lawyer, especially since that lawyer was Schwartz’s own father and the love triangle would have involved his mother.  I can see that from a literary sense it was a good choice but I much prefer a historical novel more based on fact than fiction; otherwise, I would have given this sensitive novel 5 stars.  It does seem that most of the book is factual, other than the change of some names and the switching of the sex of some children mentioned and of course the romantic relationship between Svetlana and Peter.

Svetlana’s life was certainly a tragic one and she’s a very sympathetic character.  She struggles for so many years with her abandonment of her two oldest children.  She’s a broken woman in many ways and my heart bled for her situation and her confusion.  It’s a heart breaking, engrossing story and this author, being a very talented one, brings Svetlana back to life.  I’ve always been very interested in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright and found that part of the book fascinating.  Based on what I know of how Taliesin West was run after his death, I found all of that to be very believable.  This historical novel has inspired me to read Svetlana’s own memoirs that have been published or possibly some biographies on her fascinating life.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Dark, tragic story of war-torn Syria

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City of Jasmine by Olga Grjasnowa

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

War-torn Syria is an extremely hard place to be.  Hammoudi escaped Syria.  He was working in Paris as a surgeon and was very much in love and happy with his fiancé, Claire.  When his passport was about to expire, he must return to Syria to have it renewed.  However, once he returns, he’s told he can’t leave.  The best way he knows to fight the regime is to act as a surgeon in an underground hospital for the resistance fighters.  But with little medicine or supplies available, the body count piles up.

Amal is a young actress who joins protests against the government.  When she learns of her father’s betrayal and when her name becomes too well known to authorities, she and her boyfriend Youssef try to get to Europe to start a new life.  Their travels are extremely treacherous and even when they finally get to Germany, they can’t get away from their refugee status.

The subject matter of this book is not an easy one to read.  The author pulls no punches when relating the horrors that the Syrian people endured.  There were times it was almost too much to comprehend.  But I was so captured by the plight of these three young people that I had to keep going.   One thing that I am constantly on the lookout for is a book that touches my heart and this one touched it deeply.  It’s a dark, tragic story with the resilient light of humanity shining through it.  The author grabs your attention and won’t let you look away, even when the going gets rough.

Since I read an ARC of this book, the following quote may well be changed in the final edition, but I do hope the editor keeps it exactly as it is because it truly spoke to my soul.  “The world has invented a new race – the race of refugees…”

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publicist in return for an honest review.

 

Brave, innovative author

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Trust Exercise by Susan Choi\

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Susan and David are students at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA).  This school is a highly competitive school, teaching music, Shakespeare, movement and acting.  Susan and David are passionately in love and consummate their love during the summer.  However, when they return to school in the fall, their relationship falls apart.  Their struggle becomes much more public when Mr. Kingsley makes them the cruel focus during his trust exercises.

I really don’t want to say much about the plot of this book.  Suffice it to say that everything in the first half of the book is turned upside down during the second half and then again in the short coda.  It’s the type of book that must be read to be appreciated.  What I loved about it is its unique structure.  It’s a searing observation of memory and the telling of stories.  I read so many books that I’m sometimes bogged down by the same old type of stories and am constantly on the hunt of those completely distinctive, one-of-a-kind books.  I found it in this one.  When I put a book down and later think of picking it up again, there’s a second of remembering exactly what book I’m reading.  I think “Oh, THAT book” or “OH, that book?” but with this book I thought “Oh, that BOOK!”  (Those that have read this book will understand though I doubt if I did it as well as the author did.) The author is a master at pulling her readers into some very unsettling and uncomfortable scenes and letting them squirm along with her characters.  Everything is not outlined in black and white with this author and I loved that.  On the hunt now for more of the works of this brave, innovative author.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Powerful Russian saga

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Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star review

Zuleikha lives with her abusive husband, Murtaza, and her mother-in-law (whom she thinks of as the Vampire Hag) in Soviet Russia in 1930.  Her life with them is a very hard one.  When communist soldiers come to take over their farm, her husband is killed and she’s sent to Siberia.  It takes them many difficult months on a train to get there, with many dying along the way.  The other survivors include a painter, a mind sickened doctor and the man who killed her husband, Commander Ignatov.  Together they begin to build a new life for themselves.

This is a powerful Russian saga, giving an immense overview of life under communist rule.  It covers such a wide range of political and religious issues.  This author is a master at painting an image of the world as it was then in Russia for dekukalized peasants.  I felt like I was watching a movie on a huge screen as I read this book.  The author is also a filmmaker so that may well be why the book has such a cinematic feel to it.  She doesn’t hold back on how brutal their lives were and there are some scenes that are horrific.  The only reason that I’m not giving this book a full 5 stars is that there were times when it dragged a bit for me and at times when the plot seemed to be a bit contrived.  But overall, it’s a wonderful read.  The characters were deeply portrayed and Zuleikha’s life is a heart wrenching one.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publicist in return for an honest review.

 

Exquisite, poetical and utterly unique

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The White Book by Han Kang

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

The narrator of this book doesn’t have a name in the book, although it’s no secret that this is an autobiographical work by this author and is a love letter to her long deceased older sister.  The book starts with a list of white items, including swaddling bands, newborn gown, snow, ice and shroud.  This book is a series of very short chapters consisting of meditation-like bursts of thoughts.  Running through these thoughts is the story of the author’s young mother whose first child died only a couple of hours after birth.  Throughout the years, the author has often thought of her sister and the grief that has never ended for her family.

The author not only writes about her sister’s death and the subsequent grief that death imposed upon her family but also writes in such beautiful detail of her sister’s two hours of life.  I think one of the most touching parts of the book is when the author speaks directly to her sister, telling her how much she would have loved having a big sister.

This book has been short listed for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and I can certainly understand why.  Ms. Kang never fails to impress with the uniqueness of her work.  “The Vegetarian” and “Human Acts” are both books that I will never forget and wrench my heart just thinking about them.  I know that her newest book will be one that I will pick up again and will open randomly just to enjoy reading one of these lovely ruminations.   I read a review that referred to the author’s short chapters as prayers and I think that is totally appropriate.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Mesmerizing historical novel revealing the layered life of Hedy Lamarr

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The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star review

Hedwig Kiesler is a young wealthy Jewish girl living in Vienna.  She longs to be a famous actress but also is interested in science.  Her father encourages her to pursue both.  She is just gaining respect as an actress when she meets her biggest fan, Fritz Mandl.  Mandl has quite a reputation with women and as an Austrian arms dealer.  But Hedwig’s parents are concerned about the developing hatred for Jews and believes a marriage between Hedwig and Fritz will save them all.  Once Hedwig marries Fritz, she realizes she made a terrible mistake and is imprisoned and abused by her controlling husband.  She begins to listen in on conversations at their dinner parties and learns military secrets that she passes on to her husband, hoping to use those secrets to escape from him.  Those secrets lead her to become an inventor of a unique radio-communication devise that may help win the war.

I was completely riveted by this book and found it fascinating.  I well remember the actress Hedy Lamarr, having watched many of her old movies on TV when I was young.  I also knew that this beautiful actress was also the inventor of a radio guidance system that was eventually used in the development of Bluetooth and Wi-fi.  But this book opened up her world to me in such a mesmerizing way.  The author has a talent for bringing her characters to life.  Parts of this book read like a suspenseful thriller and I couldn’t put it down.  Most impressive was the focus the author gave to the difficulties Hedy encountered when she presented her invention to the navy and it was refused simply because they said it would be hard for them to sell their soldiers and sailors on a weapons system created by a woman and that they weren’t even going to try.  And this was decided when they had a faulty torpedo system in place.  She was told that she would do better selling war bonds.  I was so glad to read in a postscript that many years later, in the 1990’s, she was finally given recognition and awards for her invention.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Powerful, emotional read with a shaky start

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School of Velocity by Eric Beck Rubin

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Jan and Dirk are teenage boys when they meet in the Netherlands.  Jan is studying the piano and dreams of a musical career.  Dirk has already had a career as a child actor.  Jan is a quiet boy, while Dirk is flamboyant and outgoing.  Jan soon is obsessed with Dirk and follows him everywhere.  To his surprise, Dirk seems to want to be with him and they soon become fast friends, with sleepovers where they watch porn.  They lose touch when Dirk goes to America to find his way to stardom and Jan stays in the Netherlands to go to music school.  They don’t see each other again until Jan becomes ill and reaches out to Dirk.

OK, I have to admit that I was turned off by the beginning of this book.  Dirk’s language and topics of conversation were sometimes a bit offensive and while young boys may think of only one thing – sex – it isn’t my preferred reading material.  Dirk’s character seemed to go quite a bit over board with his rebellious spirit although the adults unbelievably took it all in stride.  But I’m very glad I stuck with this book.  It really turned around after they each went off to pursue their adult lives and I became engrossed in the book.  It’s a beautifully written story about male friendship and quite sad.  I also enjoyed the author’s description of a musician’s life and the total absorption in the music.  The book leaves open quite a few questions and that’s fine with me.  I didn’t need this type of book wrapped up nicely.  It’s a powerful, emotional read and I don’t even want to start another book yet as I want to give this one some more thought for a while.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

Intelligent and profound

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The Dependents by Katharine Dion

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Gene and his wife Maida and Ed and his wife Gayle have been close friends since college.   They raised their children together and took vacations at Ed and Gayle’s beach house.  When Maida dies, Gene re-lives their marriage and fears that it was not all that he had thought it was.  He has never been very close to his daughter Dary and now they seem even further apart.  He begins to doubt all of their relationships and a horrible suspicion begins to take root in his mind.  Things are further complicated when his daughter convinces him to hire a caretaker whom he’s drawn to.

The characters in this book quickly found a place in my heart.  This is a slow burning, deeply thought provoking, intelligently written book.  This author is a fearless one, ready to take on issues such as how well we know our loved ones, where does our happiness come from, how to deal with the loss of a loved one, how well we remember the past.   She uses great tact and caring in each sentence.   This author is a force to be reckoned with and I have great hopes for her future in the literary field with such an auspicious debut.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

An engrossing political fairy tale

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The Melody by Jim Crace

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Alfred Busi is better known in his town as Mister Al, the singer/pianist.  But his venues aren’t as large as they once were and he’s in mourning for his much beloved wife.  He’s not keeping up his home very well and it’s getting a bit worn down.  He’s often awakened in the night by animals raiding the garbage cans in his courtyard.  One night upon hearing the noises in the courtyard, he ventures down to set things right.  He’s suddenly attacked – scratched and bitten – and he’s sure it wasn’t an animal but had the sense that it was a naked wild boy.  The report of the attack sets off a series of rumors of what’s living in the nearby woods and ignites fear and discord throughout the town.

This is a beautifully written tale of love and age and grief and reputation.  It’s slow moving but very compelling and unusual and poetic in nature.  It’s almost like a fairy tale or a dream that just carried me along in its flow.  For all its poetry, it’s also political and makes a strong statement against the prejudices that many of those who are more fortunate have against the homeless and poor.  The author is a past winner of the Man Booker Prize and I had read that he had retired from writing but then came out with this book.  I’m glad he did and am looking forward to reading more of his work.  This one will long remain in my memory due to its distinctiveness.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.