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Song of Willow Frost

Songs of Willow Frost
Jamie Ford

Ford’s first book, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was on my Top 10 list the year I read it. I did not like Willow Frost as much. Its a good book, and an enjoyable read- I just wasn’t able to connect with it as much.

William is the only Chinese boy in a San Francisco orphanage in 1934. On their one outing a year, he sees a beautiful Chinese movie star on the big screen, and becomes convinced she is his long-lost mother. This is the story of William’s search for Willow Frost. It is also the story of Willow herself- how she went from being the daughter of a penniless widow to being a movie star.

Both stories are well-drawn. They incorporate the historical climate of racism, war, and one of film’s golden eras. Through their eyes, the past comes alive in colorful- if oten sad- detail.

I felt like William’s story was strongest regarding his friends at the orphanage who became his partners in his search for Willow Frost. Sunny, another boy at the orphanage, is marginalized like William because he is Native American. Charlotte is a blind girl who still seems to have the clearest glimpse of William’s dreams for the future.

The strongest part of Willow’s story was the few chapters when she was happily in love- in between yeats of humiliation and abuse by her stepfather, and years of suffering and sacrifice as a single mother.

What made me most sad- and even angry- was not the people who outright abused the less powerful in this story- minorities,  women, children, single moms, and the disabled- but those who saw the abuse and did nothing.  For me, in the end, that’s what came through the strongest. Oh, it was a story about family, and love, and heritage. It was a story about what people will do for the people they love. But it also felt like a cautionary tale, about what can happen when we turn a blind eye to those in need around us.

Did William find his mom, and was she Willow Frost? I’ll let you read the book to find out. But William discovers that he was always loved- by his friends, his mother, and even the nuns at the orphanage. Willow discovers her own capacity for strength,  beauty and love.

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You might like: Bonesetters Daughter, Amy Tan.

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Stage Daughter

Stage Daughter
Sheryl Sorrentino

The author of this book sent me a copy for review. I was hesitant, because I could see it was a small press or self-published book, but the plot seemed interesting, so I agreed. I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed this book. The story, writing and editing were better quality than I anticipated.

Razia is a girl on the edge of adolescence, the bi-racial daughter of a single mother, Sonya. Razia is attending an arts school because her mom wants to see her dreams of being an actress lived out in her daughter, but all Razia wants to do is draw. Sonya is a strong, feisty woman with a big inferiority complex stemming from being the adopted bi-racial daughter of a Jewish family. Her tough life as a single mom has only made her more independent, prickly, and resistant to help or love.
The drama rachets up when Razia insists on meeting her Kuwaiti father Aziz, an unfortunate one night stand whom Sonya refers to as merely a sperm donor. Aziz struggles to explain Razia to his wife and children. His efforts to introduce Razia to his Muslim faith don’t go over well with either Razia or Sonya.
Razia’s struggles with her family and identity lead her to make risky choices with boys and drugs. Sonya’s habitual fierce independence causes problems in her family, her relationship with Aziz, and her friendship (or could it be more?) with another art school single mom named Nanette. If only the two of them could open their hearts to change, acceptance and, most importantly, each other.

The strongest part of this book is the female characters, in all their different forms. Curly hair and dark skin; hijab-covered hair and gold skin; even short hair and white skin are all celebrated as beautiful. Sonya, while limited by her own needs, is well-intentioned. Razia, while disobedient, wants to do what’s right.
The ending is short, but I felt like it got to a good place. Everyone in the story was able to grow and accept something that they initially resisted. I felt hopeful that all of them- Razia, Sonya, Aziz-  could have loving relationships with one another and the other people who mattered most to them.

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Alex

Alex
Pierre Lemaitre

Alex was an excellent detective thriller, with more than one suprising plot twist. In fact, I’m having a hard time writing a review with no spoilers because the plot twists are so major. I’ll do my best, but trust me, the book is better than my review makes it sound.

There are three major crime segments in Alex. Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven is the driving force in investigating all of them. First of all, a young woman named Alex is kidnapped, jammed into a wooden crate so small she cannot stretch or lie down, and suspended from a rope in an abandoned warehouse. When Commandant Camille does manage to find her kidnapper, he dies before telling police anything; leaving Alex with no food or water, at the mercy of the rats.
Next, Commandant Camille is trying to solve a series of murders where victims were killed by having acid poured down their throats. He feels the killings are of a sexual nature, but others are skeptical; and when a woman turns up among the victims, it seems Camille is wrong.
Finally, there is a suicide, which might just be a murder. Commandant Camille finally uncovers the original crime at the root of all these deaths and unravels the twisted thread tying all these horrible crimes together.

The crimes, the murders, the plot twists- those are enough to make this book a page-turner. But Commandant Camille Verhoeven is the real stand-out of the story. A short man with a big ego and a kitten named Doudouche, Camille is neurotic and briliant as we expect our best fictional detectives to be. He is understandably reluctant to take on the Alex case, having lost his own wife and unborn child in a kidnapping gone wrong. Solving the case requires confronting his own inner demons.
If Lemaitre had just stopped at Commandant Camille, this would have been a good enough detective thriller. But he goes on to surround Camille with a cast of characters that are compelling on their own. Louis is Camille’s former partner, reunited with him to solve this crime. The two of them communicate in a way that only long-term coworkers can. Le Guen is Camille’s boss, who forces him to take the Alex case. The author describes them as being like an old married couple- they fight but understand each other perfectly. Armand is another coworker, who initially provides comic relief for desciptions of what a miser he is. But it turns out maybe he has a generous heart. Together, these police officers form a team with depth and color around Commandant Camille.

Alex is being sold as the first book in the Commandant Camille Verhoeven trilogy. I hope they hurry up and translate the others from French,  because I can’t wait to read them. I want another detectice thriller with this kind of fast-paces writing and unexpected twists. I also want to read more about Commandant Camille and his team!

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You might like: The Bat, Nesbo. The Abomination, Holt. Any of the Deleware/Sturgis novels by Kellerman.

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Cat Sense

Cat Sense
John Bradshaw

I love cats, especially my own three boys, and will read any book that attempts to make sense of their behavior. As any cat owner knows, making sense of our furry companions sometimes seems impossible, but Bradshaw does a pretty good job. He is a scientist of some kind, so his observations deal with two main aspects of cats: genetics, and observable behavior. However he does a good job of expressing complicated science in readily accessible language. It also becomes apparent that, science aside, Bradshaw is someone who has had close and loving relationships with cats. After all, its not every day you read a book in which a scientist moves from discussion of domininant genes expressed in coat coloration to the personalities of individual cats. 
There were two sections I found most interesting in Cat Sense. For starters, the history of the cat pre-Egypt (Egyptian cat worship being possibly one of cats’ more famous roles.) Although there are species of wild cats all over the world, domestic cats every where are in fact descended from one particular race of cats which originated in north Africa and the Middle East. As we all know, as humans moved from hunter/gatherers to agricultural societies, cats were attracted to higher concentrations of rodents that fed on human grain stores. At some point, people recognized that cats were useful not only for pest control but also for companionship, entertainment and possibly warm fert on cold nights. But this was not a simultaneous discovery around the world- rather, cats were domesticated in one place over a period of time, and then those tame cats were carried by trading ships around the world.
The second most interesting section addressed cat communication, including purring, grooming and especially meowing. Adult feral cats (domestic species living in the wild) rarely meow; its a behavior primarily used between mother cats and kittens. Yet it was familiar enough to Egyptians that their word for cat was “miw” (which oddly became a popular girls name too) and still today, Chinese people call cats “mao-mi.” Bradshaw suggests that cats do not use meows to communicate so much as to secure the attention of humans, and then to communicate by their actions and body language.

Cat Sense is geared towards cat owners (who else is going to buy it?!) and so includes many useful insights for understanding your pets and keeping them happy. Bradshaw points out that we have bred dogs over the centuries for various skills (hunting, herding, guarding, etc) but not so much with cats. All humans have ever really asked of cats is that they display their natural hunting behaviors, and keep us company. That is, perhaps, why cats always seem so much like wild-albeit tiny- animals in our homes: because they really are. Cat Sense does its best to make sense- in a loving, scientific way- of these pets.

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You might like: Feline Mystique,  Clea Simon. Homers Odyssey, Gwen Cooper.

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Three Squares

Three Squares
Abigail Caroll

The modern demise of the family dinner is much bemoaned these days.  But how long has this really been a tradition? When did it start? Why did it happen? These and other questions are answered in fascinating detail in Three Squares.
Caroll takes a historical view of thr American meal, beginning with  pilgrim pottages and moving thru Victorian dinner parties and factory lunch pails to TV dinners and our current dinner habits. She draws on first-hand accounts of recipes and menus for a glimpse into what was considered acceptable dining across centuries of American gastronomic history.
This book gives a broad view of dinner’s development, illustrated with many interesting details. For example, did you know most pilgrims would’ve subsisted largely on one-pot meals of grain, suet and greens all boiled together (sounds awful!) Or that Thomas Jefferson was considered a bit odd for the variety of fruits and vegetables he grew at Monticello? Victorians threw elaborate dinner parties as measures of class and wealth but believed enjoying food too much was a moral weakness. Up until 100 years ago, steak was a popular breakfast food. All of these facts and more fit into an informative big picture story.
Along the way, Caroll also writes about the roles of women/housewives towards food preparation. Our ideal of Mom making dinner for Dad when he comes home from work and the kids when they come home from school is actually a relatively recent concept, albeit a logical conclusion of the past 300 years of eating habits in America.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes food or books about food- or is just curious and wanting to learn something new. I certainly learned a lot, and enjoyed myself in the process.  Now let me make myself a snack….

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You might like: Omnivores Dilemma, Michael Pollan. At Home, Bill Bryson.

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The Abomination

The Abomination
Jonathon Holt

The cover of this book caught my eye, so I opened the flap and read a description that included these words: murder, intrigue, conspiracy, Venice, CIA, Catholic Church. That was all it took! And I was not disappointed. This debut novel was great!

Daniele is a reclusive computer genius who created an online virtual Venice, known as Carnivia. He is facing charges for his refusal to turn over Carnivia secrets to the Italian government.
Holly is a military brat turned Army officer stationed for the first time in Italy, where she grew up. Her post as a community liason sounds boring- until a journalist shows up with a request for information relating to the Bosnian conflict. The files keep happening to get moved, or lost, or shredded, driving Holly to her father’s old friends for help.
Kat is an Italian Carabinieri recently promoted to the murder squard. She is assigned to a case involving a dead woman dressed as a Catholic priest. The investigation involves an old (possibly haunted) island and occult symbols. All the while, Kat’s feelings for her older male mentor are getting more complicated.

Holt does an excellent job of establishing each of the charaters and their individual stories, and then gradually weaving them together like a spiderweb reaching its center. He throws in plenty of  interesting elements, like human trafficking, Catholic controversies,  and of course the promised CIA conspiracies.
I felt that Holt also did a good job of writing his two female leads. Male thriller writes don’t typically do that well.

I was not disappointed in The Abomination. But I didn’t realize how good it was until the book was over- then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I kept wanting to go back to the worlds Holt had created- both Venice and the virtual Carnivia. Thank goodness this is just the first book of a trilogy! I hope Holt writes the next ones quickly, because I can’t wait to read them!

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You might like: Daemon, Daniel Suarez. Street Dreams, Faye Kellerman.

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Lookaway, Lookaway

Lookaway, Lookaway.
Wilton Barnhardt

Lookaway, Lookaway is the book that Jonathon Franzen wouldve written if he decided to not write about dysfunctional privileged Northern families and decided to write about dysfunctional privileged Southern families instead. This novel is complex and well-written, insightful and also sad.

Jerene is a Charlotte society woman who spends her time worrying about her family’s reputation, her children, what china pattern to use, and her volunteer work at the Mint Museum. Her husband Duke is a lawyer who no longer works, focusing on his hobby of Civil War reenactment, particularly on a small piece of land that was the site of “The Skirmish at the Trestle.”
Their children are disappointments, of course. Annie was too plump to be accepted in debutante circles and had a string of failed marriages, altho she has gained some success as a real estate agent. Bo is a Presbyterian minister who can’t escape his narrow views on class and race to really minister to anyone, and often clashes with his wife Kate over these ideas. Joshua is gay, and lives with a black lesbian named Dorrie (the standout of the supporting cast) and has little ambition. Jerilyn is the baby of the family, and her mother’s best hope for a proper debut and good marriage- if Jerilyn can avoid sabotaging herself.
The extended family is equally varied and damaged. The most notable of them is Uncle Gaston, a rich alcoholic who authors a series of antebellum bestsellers which he loathes. Dorrie, altho not family, is tightly tied into this story too. Her perspective as a black lesbian shines a revealing, very uncomfortable light on many of the family’s proudest moments.

As a reader, you pick up a book like Lookaway, Lookaway knowing its going to be the story of a disaster, and the author does not disappoint. You don’t even make it past the first chapter before getting a glimpse of how bad things are behind the facade of money and class. There is a fantastically awful Christmas dinner scene halfway through the book- the sort where you’re cringing, but can’t stop reading. Ultimately, of course, the whole charade implodes in a very fitting way.
Barnhardt has a lot of insight in to human nature. The characters are well-drawn and complex, even while they are a wreck. There is pretty pointed social commentary, aimed at issues like race, class, abortion and being gay.

I started the review by saying this book reminded me a lot of Jonathon Franzen. With Franzen, you keep reading even tho his characters are awful because his use of the English language is just so good. Barnhardt has not quite reached that level of virtuouso writing, but he does something that may be harder- he makes you care for his characters. They are stupid and selfish and terminally lacking in self-awareness, but when they suffer the inevitable consequences of their bad choices, you feel for them.

Lookaway, Lookaway takes its title from the old song “Dixieland.” Its very much a story about old Southern, upper-class pretentions that remain to this day. But its also a story about what happens when people refuse to take an honest look at their lives, their family and the world around them- and instead decide to look away.

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You might like: Corrections, Jonathon Franzen. Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld.