Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

life after life

 

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson is a breathtaking (literally) book that chronicles the many versions of life experienced by Ursula Todd and anyone in her orbit. Born in the midst of snowstorm in 1910, Ursula almost dies at birth–and then she does die many more times over the decades that follow. I don’t think I’m giving away anything by telling you that Ursula has to try a lot of different paths before we can get to the end of things.

Ursula’s lives cover some of the more interesting and traumatizing moments in history, but Atkinson does a terrific job of showing that it’s the more everyday happenings–family vacations and sixteenth birthdays, for example–that change the course(s) of Ursula’s life (after life).

When I asked my sister what she thought about the book, she said that she really liked it–until the end. And I have to agree with that simple breakdown of LIFE AFTER LIFE. This is a book worth reading. The writing will cause you to catch your breath, sit on the edge of your seat, and flip pages quickly to see what comes next. And even if the ending disappoints you (and I agree with Sherry’s assessment–it did disappoint me), I doubt you’ll regret reading the 450 pages that come before that ending. LIFE AFTER LIFE is brilliant in so many ways, and Ursula is a character I enjoyed, admired, and loved. I’ll think about her a lot, and I’ll consider the potential of all of our lives as we navigate crossroads that seem both big and small as we make our choices.

This book was exhausting in the best way. I can’t wait to talk about it in person with my sister, and anyone else who would like to discuss it with me.

Castro’s Curveball, by Tim Wendel

castros curveball

 

“It’s not the people who’ve never fallen or lost that are worthy of our admiration. It’s what you do after you fall that’s the surest test of a hero.”

Playing winter baseball in Cuba is the only path left to the major leagues for Billy Bryan in 1947, and the deep-thinking catcher knows that he doesn’t have many chances left to stand out to the people who decide who makes it and who doesn’t. Cuba is at a similar crossroads as young revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro are working to usurp the country’s government and instill a new way of life for its people.

Billy and Fidel’s lives intersect on the baseball diamond one night as Castro leads a group of radicals onto the playing field during a game, and Billy offers young Fidel a chance to throw a few pitches. That interaction sets Billy off in an unexpected direction, and he finds himself in the middle of a revolution and falling in love with Malena Fonseca, the photographer tasked with documenting it.

Malena’s photographs are why, more than 40 years after leaving Cuba, Billy finds himself on a plane headed back there with his adult daughter and a host of memories of baseball, Castro, Cuba, and the woman Billy left behind.

CASTRO’S CURVEBALL by Tim Wendel combines sports, history, and personal relationships in a wonderful amalgam with a terrific plot and characters that make you care deeply about them. The story alternates between modern day(ish) and Billy’s final days in Cuba in the 40s.

Full disclosure so you know how biased I am–I love Billy Bryan, and not just because “aging catcher” is my favorite baseball character in both literature and film. Billy has more depth than the typical sports protagonist, he has an old school sense of honor, and his story is set in a fascinating time. I haven’t studied nor read much about Cuba in the late 40s, but after reading CASTRO’S CURVEBALL, I’m going to have to remedy that.

But since I do love baseball so much (baseball was the first game I learned to play with any level of nuance), let’s talk about the baseball scenes for a minute. Those sections are incredibly well written, and I could almost feel the grit from the infield and hear the crack of a bat every time the book’s action took me to the ballpark. That said, when reading a book that revolves around a sport, I’m often sad when the plot takes me anywhere other than on the field, but that wasn’t the case with CASTRO’S CURVEBALL. I was thrilled to find that the action outside of the diamond was just as engrossing as the games in which Billy played.

CASTRO’S CURVEBALL is a great book of historical fiction, it’s a fantastic sports book, and the relationships between the covers are just as intriguing as the play between the foul lines. I regret that my dad isn’t alive so that I can share the book with him and get his take on it–I’d love to talk about this novel with someone else who is a fan of baseball, history, and politics. If you’re that person, read the book and hit me up. I’d love to chat!

I hear that there’s a sequel of the book coming out soon, and I’m excited to read that one, too. Kudos to Tim Wendel for creating characters and a story that will stay with me for a while.

The Operator, by Gretchen Berg

the operator

 

Vivian Dalton is a switchboard operator in 1950s Wooster, Ohio. She and the other operators at Bell aren’t *supposed* to listen in on calls, but how were people supposed to fill their days before reality TV?! Unfortunately for Vivian, she taps into a call that completely upends her uneventful middle American world, and all of Wooster ends up shaken as a result.

THE OPERATOR by Gretchen Berg is a terrific book. It’s a commentary on small town life in the 1950s and an examination of family relationships and dynamics. Although I don’t expect character-driven novels to have a lot of action, this one delivered in that, too. I also loved the historical aspects of Vivian’s story—especially the moments spent at the switchboard. My mom was a switchboard operator in Michigan in the 1950s, and I worked at an answering service that had the last functioning cord switchboard in that state during my college years (yes, I’m old), so every time Vivian walked into work, I had a glimpse into my mom’s past while revisiting my own.

You don’t have to have a background that matches the storyline to appreciate this book. Gretchen Berg writes wonderfully well, and there is enough humor and action to keep you turning pages even if you can’t get invested in the characters—though it would be hard not to find someone in the book with whom you can relate. Vera, Vivian’s older sister, is consumed by jealousy for her prettier sister, and their younger sister, Violet, is just trying to keep the peace. Vivian also has a teenage daughter who is alternately mortified and mystified by her mother, and the men in the story—while taking a back seat to the women—add color, depth, and necessary detail to the plot.

I really hope that Gretchen Berg has more books in mind. If she’s taking requests, I want to hear more from Charlotte, Vivian’s daughter, and I need to know what happens to that “four flusher” Betty Miller! In the meantime, I’ll share the book with lots of people so that I can talk about the people of Wooster, Ohio for a while longer.

My thanks to Book No Further bookstore in Roanoke, Virginia and the publisher for a copy of an ARC of the book in exchange for my unbiased review.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

magicians

Quentin is a genius, and he’s pretty depressed. Life lacks color for him, and he immerses himself in a children’s book series about Fillory, a land filled with magic, as a form of escape. Imagine Quentin’s delight when he finds out that magic is real, there are colleges that teach it, and he’s been accepted into one … but disillusionment isn’t far behind no matter how many dreams come true for Quentin. The Magicians has been described as a mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books, but for adult audiences, and the author does not hide the fact that he’s borrowing heavily from those two series.

I first read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians a couple of years after it came out, and I came away from it feeling pretty grumpy. I wasn’t sure why it had that impact on me. At first, I thought it was the general ickiness of most of the cast, but I’ve enjoyed plenty of books without likeable characters. I had lunch with a friend who also disliked the book, and we talked about it for a bit, but I never reached a satisfying resolution to my lack of appreciation for a story recommended by people whose book opinions I value (including my sister).

A couple of months ago, a group of friends and I decided to start a book club, and as I tried to come up with a good first book that would have some appeal to a wide range of people, I suggested The Magicians—in part because I thought that I should give it a second chance. My first reading of it was at an unsettled time in my life, and I’ve had more than a few instances where I’ve enjoyed a book more after a second reading.

The verdict after this reading? Yes, I enjoyed it more this time, in part because I was able to adjust my expectations away from a universe as magical as the ones found in the Harry Potter and Narnia series. This second go also gave me the opportunity to zero in on what was so off-putting the first time around, and the problem is largely with me. One of the reasons I read books from the fantasy genre is to be entranced by a whole new world—or an interesting new riff on the world in which we’re living. Because it borrows so blatantly and unapologetically from previously established worlds, The Magicians didn’t offer me the level of escape and diversion that other fantasy novels do. Every storyline is a distorted view of worlds I already know thoroughly and love, and it was jarring the first time I read it. (For the record, I also didn’t enjoy the Bizarro World storylines that DC put out, so at least I’m consistent.)

What did I like this time? Well, I appreciated Lev Grossman’s willingness to do a deeper character study than is often found in this genre. Although some members of Quentin’s crew are teen movie stereotypes (and icky), Quentin is more than just the typical brooding, brilliant teen/young adult. And I liked the shy-but-strong Alice quite a bit. It’s also a positive that Lev Grossman can write well, of course, though I was often bored during the action scenes.

The Magicians ends where I’m sure book 2 begins, and it left me intrigued enough to be tempted to continue the series. However, this may end up being an instance where I watch the tv show instead.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

AGIM

Well, friends, here we have another instance where my sister told me to read a book, gave me a copy of the book, and I waited a year or so to do what she said. I should know better. Since she has already posted a review of A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles. go ahead and read that here: https://thesisterhoodofbooks.com/2018/08/18/a-gentleman-in-moscow-by-amor-towles/. She has covered it all pretty well.

When I texted Sherry to tell her that I had read the book, I said this: “… I finished A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW and holy cow. What a phenomenal book. Yes. You were right again.” I followed up with “I’ll do a review of GENTLEMAN, but it might just be sighs and staring off into the distance in remembrance of the stunning prose and terrific plot.”

So I’ve decided that that’s almost all you get for my review. However, I will note that Sherry’s review states that the bouillabaisse project in GENTLEMAN is a little “too cute.” I disagree on that point. I think it was an indication of the dedication of the triumvirate to a perfect dish–which was key to their personalities and their connection to one another.

Although I agree with Sherry’s assessment that the depiction of Stalinist Russia is a little too “jaunty,” I also think that since the main character’s view is the focus of the book, it’s perfectly in keeping with the Count’s understanding of the time for that time period to be portrayed as it is.

So. I think A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW may be a perfect book. However, Sherry and I haven’t talked about it in person. We’ll post a follow-up to our reviews when we’ve had that opportunity. In the meantime, I suggest you read the book. Perfect or not, it’s absolutely charming and a complete delight.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman

ove

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman should come with a warning label. I listened to the book during a two-day, nine-hundred-mile drive, and I’m sure I looked like a lunatic to my fellow motorists as I alternately laughed and wept my way across three states and back again.

Yes, I know. I may be the last person in the world to get around to “reading” A MAN CALLED OVE. My sister ordered me to read it a couple of years ago when she found out I hadn’t done so yet, and she even provided me a copy with strict instructions to return the book to her when I was done with it. This was unusual–not the part where Sherry ordered me around, of course, but the part where she requested a book be returned after reading. I was intrigued, but life got in the way of me meeting up with OVE. Until now.

With an Audible credit ready to be spent, and a 15-hour drive planned, I finally downloaded the audiobook and started it up with my teenage son in the car during a lull in our road trip.

A MAN CALLED OVE is the completely charming/hilarious/heartbreaking story of a very taciturn/steady/grouchy man named (of course) Ove. He loves his wife, Sonja, and he loves his Saab(s), and that’s about it. The rest of the world is either worthy of bemused tolerance or complete disgust (sometimes thinly veiled, but often not). Through chapters that reveal both Ove’s formative years and his current state, the book tells the story of an ordinary man who lives an extraordinary life over the course of his 60+ years. The author draws Ove and his supporting cast with amazing attention to the subtle details that help pull a reader firmly into a story, and the narrator of the audiobook, George Newbern, offers a spot-on portrayal of the many characters.

I don’t often offer written reviews of audiobooks because they rarely hold my attention in the same way as the written word, but that was not a problem with A MAN CALLED OVE. In fact, I had twenty minutes left on the book when I pulled into my driveway, and I finished the book as soon as I could after settling in at home after my trip. My teenage son was so enthralled by the first half of the book (and wasn’t with me to listen to the second half of it) that I got him a copy of the book to read … though he’ll need to give me that copy when he’s done with it so I can have it on my shelf to loan to anyone who hasn’t been fortunate enough to meet Ove yet.

My thanks to my wise sister for insisting I dive into this book. I loved spending time with Ove and his neighbors, and I look forward to revisiting them when I read the book again–because this is definitely one that will need to be re-read.

And yes, Sherry, I’ll be returning your book the next time we get to hang out.

Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna

two girls down

In TWO GIRLS DOWN by Louisa Luna, Bailey and Kylie Brandt, ages 8 and 10, disappeared when their mom dashed into a store to pick up a birthday gift for the party of one of Kylie’s friends. The local police in Denville, PA are short staffed and unable to cope with the level of manpower needed to track down leads, so the great-aunt of the two missing girls hires a private investigator to find them. Alice Vega is ridiculously successful at finding missing kids: she’s had 18 cases, and she has found all of them–and most of them have been alive. Working in an unknown town means that Vega decides to tap into the resources and connections of a local private investigator. Max Caplan resigned in disgrace from the Denville police department a few years ago, and he’s been making his living by collecting information on cheating spouses. When Vega approaches him to help her locate the girls, he initially shies away from the case; however, his precocious sixteen-year-old daughter, Nell, talks him into it.

Alice Vega and Max “Cap” Caplan are fantastic characters. Alice is a complete badass, and although she isn’t good at dealing with people, she has trained herself in how to behave in social situations. She also has a sharp mind, is incredibly resourceful, and she can kick anyone’s heinie if she can catch them by surprise. Cap is a pretty typical literary ex-cop. He drinks a little too much, but most people really like him, they want to talk to him and tell him their secrets, and he’s good at piecing puzzles together. I really liked both of them, and Vega’s shadowy assistant, The Bastard, is so intriguing that I’d love for him to get a book of his own.

Louisa Luna is a good writer who writes tight action scenes while stringing words together in a sometimes lyrical manner. Her characters are well constructed, and the mystery surrounding the missing girls is a good one. The ending was actually a surprise to me!

I really hope that Cap and Vega team up in future novels, because now that I’ve spent some time with them, I don’t want to let them go. Plus, it’s rare that a thriller keeps me guessing until the end, but TWO GIRLS DOWN did! My thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

The Goldfish Boy, by Lisa Thompson

goldfish boy

Twelve-year-old Matthew is reluctant to leave his house due to his fear of illness and germs, so he watches and records the happenings in his neighborhood from the upstairs windows. Through those windows he’s learned a lot about his neighbors, and as he observes the happenings around him, we learn a lot about Matthew. When a young boy disappears from the cul-de-sac, Matthew is the last one to see him, and the neighborhood is in turmoil as everyone tries to figure out where the boy could be.

THE GOLDFISH BOY by Lisa Thompson is a middle grade novel with an intriguing story line. The disappearance of Teddy is what drives the plot, but Matthew’s struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder are what give it heart. Matthew is a frustratingly wonderful main character, and the book’s supporting cast is fleshed out admirably through Matthew’s observations and the bits of back-story that he provides through his memories.

The ending to THE GOLDFISH BOY wraps up nicely while still offering readers the opportunity to go out and explore the themes and topics discussed–perfect for the age group to which it’s geared.

My thanks to the publisher and YA Books Central for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

The Story Collector, by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb

story collector

Once upon a time, Viviani Fedeler lived in the New York Public Library with her family, and she dreamed of having an exciting story of her own to tell. In THE STORY COLLECTOR, Kristin O’Donnell Tubb does that for her as she takes components of the real life of Viviani and weaves them into a wonderful tale filled with pre-teen friend drama, family relationships, a ghost story, and a mystery–all in the awesome setting of the New York Public Library of the 1920s.

I love historical fiction, and I am always happy when I find an author I can trust to be historically accurate while relaying a good story. I’ve read Tubb’s other books, and the thing that shines in all of them (including this one) is her attention to detail when dealing with a setting. Tubb researches the heck out of things, and it shows. I felt I was wandering through the NYPL with Viviani and company throughout THE STORY COLLECTOR, and as is the case with all the best books, I desperately envied the main character … and Viviani is a wonderful character. She’s sweet, funny, smart, and flawed–because perfect characters are annoying. She’s also a good friend, daughter, and sibling. Her love of a good story is her strongest trait; it’s the one that gets her in and out of trouble, and it’s what propels the plot.

As should be the case in a book about a wordsmith, there’s beauty in many of the quotes from THE STORY COLLECTOR, too. I wish I had marked the pages so that I could reference all of them, but “courage is simply fear stuffed with hope” is definitely one of my favorites, and that sums up Viviani and her adventures pretty well.

One aspect of the plot that I particularly liked was the debate on stories vs. lies. Viviani is, of course, a storyteller, and Merit, the new girl at school, challenges Viviani by saying that her stories are actually lies. The tension this causes is something that every middle school student will understand.

I was sad to finish THE STORY COLLECTOR because I really enjoyed my time with Viviani, her friends and family, and in the New York Public Library setting. Those who know me will be shocked to hear that I’ve never visited the building, but this book makes me want to get there soon. I just wish I could hang out with Viviani when I do visit.

My thanks to the author for a copy of the book. I won it during an Instagram giveaway, and in entering into the contest, I was invited to reflect on my favorite library. So, I’d like to give a shout out to Willard Library in Battle Creek, Michigan. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of walking downtown to get a stack of books (hopefully enough to last a week so I wouldn’t have to annoy my sister by digging through her books to find something to read), and it’s where I had my first real job as a Reference Page to the best librarian I’ve ever met, Jo Emerson.

 

 

Hey There, Dumpling!: 100 Recipes for Dumplings, Buns, Noodles, and Other Asian Treats, by Kenny Lao

hey there dumpling.jpg

 

 

In case there’s anyone out there looking for cookbook recommendations …

I love cooking, and I LOVE cookbooks. Fortunately, I have an understanding partner (Dan) who loves both things as much as I do. Therefore, when I signed up to review this book for NetGalley, we took our job seriously. I downloaded the cookbook, and we set out to cook as many of the recipes as possible. Dan and I have been cooking dumplings for years, so we were pretty sure there wasn’t anything we could learn from this book beyond a few new filling recipes.

Boy, were we wrong.

First, we learned the importance of a good wrapper and the differences between the different styles of wrappers. Although the author offers a recommendation for his preferred wrapper, we tried a few different styles and thicknesses (because, as I said, we took our job seriously!) and came up with the best wrapper available in our area–and it wasn’t the one recommended by the cookbook. If you have a chance, and if you aren’t going to make your own, pick up the PF Select Shanghai-style wrappers for all of your dumplings. You won’t be disappointed. If you can’t find PF Select, the author’s suggestion of Grand Marquis Shanghai-style will do, but they’re a bit more doughy.

Second, we learned new folding styles for dumplings beyond the traditional half-moon.

Third, Kenny Lao has a method for cooking dumplings that is absolutely fantastic. In the past, we’ve fried them, and we’ve steamed them, but his treatment gives you a potsticker that is the best of both worlds and is oh-so-easy. It’s also a great method for making dumplings for a crowd.

Fourth, we were skeptical of Lao’s assertion that freezing the dumplings using his method would yield excellent results. After freezing dumplings based on Lao’s instructions, we have taken to making and freezing dumplings once a month, and we will never return to frozen grocery store dumplings again. There is absolutely no comparison.

Finally, there are the recipes. We tried four different recipes for fillings, two different soups, many of the dipping sauces, and three of the side dishes. All were quite tasty, and we definitely have our favorites.

Overall, this is a great cookbook. The layout is not overwhelming, the recipes are great, and the “how to” sections are clear. Plus, it has a variety of recipes that will appeal to cooks of all skill levels.

We have a lot of detailed notes about specific recipes, but that might be going a bit overboard for this review. Hit me up if you’re interested!

We’ll be buying a copy of this cookbook for ourselves, and we’ll be getting additional copies for friends. We definitely enjoyed our first attempt at cookbook reviewing, and we hope to do many more!

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the ebook in exchange for my honest review.