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The Supreme Macaroni Company

The Supreme Macaroni Company (Valentine Trilogy #3)
Adriana Trigiani

Valentine, the Italian-American heroine of Very Valentine and Brava Valentine returns in this heart-warming story of love, family, shoes, and of course food. Valentine has revitalized her grandfather’s shoe business, making bespoke wedding shoes and launching a line for upscale department stores. She has also finally found love with a man she met in Italy, Gianluca. But nothing is perfect, and Valentine faces plenty of challenges.
First, of course, there is the massive Italian family wedding. Trigiani’s writing is especially fun and descriptive as she writes about food and dresses in a way that makes the scenes come alive. For Valentine, the wedding is not nearly so hard as the marriage. Long a single woman, she is used to being independent and strong, and has no idea how to really work in a partnership with Gianluca. The cultural and age differences between them only make the problem worse.
Valentine faces professional challenges too, and has to decide what the future of her manufactured shoe line will be.
And of course, Valentine’s family drama never stops. Her brothers and sisters and their spouses are not always supportive of her, altho she tries to help them. But her parents are a solid example of what love and partnership can look like in a marriage, even after many years.
I don’t give away story endings, but The Supreme Macaroni Company does have an unexpected plot development. Its enough to make  you wonder about Valentine’s happily ever after- but then Trigiani shows us that happiness takes many forms and can be found in many places. Valentine was never totally a typical rom-com heroine so why should her story have a typicsl ending? But all the things that made this story great are there in the end: Valentine’s stength, her family, and of course love.
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The Mountain of Light

The Mountain of Light
Indu Sundaresan

The Kohinoor diamond today is part of the British crown jewels. But hundreds of years ago, it belonged to rulers of India, Persia and Afghanistan. It was taken as kingdoms were conquered, and given in ransom and tribute. The name “Koh-i-noor” means “mountain of light” and refers to the diamond’s unusual brilliance.

Sundaresan has written a beautiful account of almost 100 years in the life of the Kohinoor diamond, during the British conquest of India. The story traces real events and features some historical characters, although many of the details are fictional.
Sundaresan opts to move the story along through a sort of chain of narrators, each one linking to the next. I found each narration break a bit confusing, as it always took me a little while to figure out the connection to the previous segment. However, this unique style brought a wide range of perspectives to the story (male and female; British and Indian; royal, military and civilian.)
The segment I enjoyed the most was also the saddest one: at the end when the last heir of the Punjab empire, Dalip Singh, has followed the Kohinoor to England.  His life there is in sharp contrast to the stories of his predecessors in India just a few decades before.

Sundaresan excels at descriptions: lush gardens, vivid colors and sparkling mirrors form the backdrop for the story of the Kohinoor diamond. The contrast between Indian and British cultures is especially sharp.  This is a part of history I don’t know much about, but Mountain of Light brought the stories of the past alive.
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You might like: The Namesake, Lahiri. The Blood of Flowers, Amirrezvani. The World We Found, Umrigar.

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The Aftermath

The Aftermath
Rhidian Brook

In the aftermath of World War 2, victorious allied forces occupied Germany. They were simultaneously trying to rebuild a shattered country and prosecute Nazi war criminals. The British housed their officers in the homes of wealthy Germans, evicting the occupants to shoddy camp housing. This is the historically true framework for this novel.

Captain Lewis Morgan is relieved that the war is over. When he finds out his housing will displace an upper-class German named Herr Lubert and his daughter Freda, Captain Morgan proposes an unorthodox solution: he and his family could share the house, moving the Luberts into the servant quarters. This descision will have an unexpected impact on all of them.
Captain Morgan dreams of a happy reunion with his wife Rachael and son Edmund, having not seen them since the funeral for his older son, Michael, who was killed in the bombings. He badly underestimates his wife’s depression and son’s lonliness. He does his best to care for them, but official duties keep him busy, and Rachael and Edmund are left largely to their own devices.
Herr Lubert and Freda are dealing with their own grief;  Mrs. Lubert was also killed in the bombings. Now their country has been defeated and their home taken over.
At first, the two families hardly speak to one another. Their communication is complicated and difficult, with each person taking their own approach to the situation. In time the inevitable happens, and they begin to see one another not as enemies or occupiers, but as people. For Herr Lubert and Rachael, left together in the house, that turns out to be a more dangerous thing.
While the Morgan and Lubert families live in relative comfort, thousands of Germans live on the street, literally starving and freezing to death. Ozi is a young boy, leading a band of even younger feral children. He meets Edmund and convinces him to share some of the cigarettes which Captain Morgan recieves as part of his stipend, and which can be spent like cash on the streets.

In The Aftermath, Brooks does an excellent job of telling a big story on a small scale. He is able to portray a wide variety of experiences and responses in wartime through the eyes of just a few characters. He also accurately shows many different ways that people grieve.
One of the central issues of the book is the question of how the Germans, post-war, should be viewed. Many of Captain Morgan’s fellow officers still see them as an enemy, and as complicit with the Nazi regime. Captain Morgan feels that feeding the German people is more important that judging them, and that rebulding the nation will take more understanding. Edmund might have the best perspective of all: he arrives in Germany hating the Germans, with the “us vs them” mindset that war engenders. But he finds that, once you get to know people and speak their language, they are not so different.
I do feel, though, that the author glossed over German support for the Nazis. For example, Herr Lubert says that he only participated in things like sending Freda to join the Hitler Youth because it was mandatory. To me, that sounds like the concentration camp guards who said they were only following orders.
None of the history  or issues in The Aftermath are easy. Against that background, Brooks brings his characters to life. He has woven together a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page

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Identical

Identical
Scott Turow

25 years ago, Cass plead guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, Dita. Now, he is almost finished serving his prison sentance. His identical twin brother, Paul, has meanwhile climbed the political ladder and is now a state senator running for mayor. Dita’s brother, Hal, has never been quite convinced that Paul was not involved in the murder. Hal is now a sucessful real estate tycoon, who retains the services of Evon, a former FBI agent. He directs her to research Dita’s murder with the help of Tim, a very old private investigator who was  on the case 25 years ago.

In Identical Turow brings the courtroom drama for which his novels are famous. He includes complicated details about doing DNA and fingerprint analysis on identical twins. He switches back and for from the present drama between Cass, Paul and Hal- and what happened 25 years ago. He writes a nice backstory for Evon, including her complicated relationship with her current girlfriend.
Turow writes all of those things well, but he is most famous for (and I like him best for) his plot twists. Identical certainly has plot twists! I feel like there were 3 major ones in this novel; I did guess one (primarily because I was looking for it) but was happily blindsided by the other 2. I will say just this- its not an accident that the characters in Identical are Greek, and their names allude to more than one myth.

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You might like: Defending Jacob, Landay. The Prestige (movie)

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The Book of Someday

The Book of Someday
Dianne Dixon

Olivia grew up with a father who wqs physically present but emotionally and mentally checked out. Her stepmother was physically, emotionally and verbally abusive. Now an adult,  Olivia has turned her experiences into a novel that is selling well. But she still anticipates that everyone she meets will hurt and reject her.
When she meets Andrew at a party, she is charmed by the handsome stranger. He wins her over with romantic trips and expensive gifts. But is he too good to be true? Has Olivia found the love of her or just another man that will leave her?

Micah is an artist, world-renowned for her photography. But her photos never have any people in them. When she receives a serious medical diagnosis, she wonders if it is punishment for things she has done. Instead of getting medical treatment, she begins to travel around the country trying to get in touch with people she has wronged. Can Micah have a second chance? Or does she have to die to pay for what she has done?

AnnaLee is a young married woman who loves her husband, Jack, and daughter, Bella. But she struggles because Jack doesn’t work hard and provide for the family. Their lives are thrown into disarray when Jack’s teenage neice (who wants to be called Persephone) comes to stay with them for the summer. AnnaLee struggles to love the unhappy wild girl the same way she loves Bella. Can Jack man up for his wife and child? Can AnnaLee’s love and patience win over Persephone? Or is it too late- have their choices already gone too far?

The stories of these three women- Olivia, Micah and AnnaLee- are of course linked. The author does an excellent job, tho, of drawing the stories together gradually; so that the reader starts to put the puzzke together but is still a little surprised when the last piece clicks into place.

The Book of Someday is a beautiful story, and the characters have a lot of depth. Each of them grows throughout the story in ways I didn’t anticipate when I opened the book.
The one criticism that I have of the book is that perfect strangers tended to share well-articulated insights into their innermost selves upon first meeting people. I understand why the author did this- she was trying to show not tell- but it struck an unrealistic note.
Can I just mention that the cover was exceptional? The “notecard” image was raised with textured edges. That was what first drew me to this book.

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You might like: The Language of Flowers, Diffenbaugh.

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White Fire

White Fire
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Can I just say, this book caused a lot of happy squealing on my end? First when Preston personally (!) sent me an Advanced Reader Copy (!!) Then when I saw the first page of the book, and again when I finished it. I have been a huge fan of Preston and Child’s Special Agent Pendergast for about 10 years now. Having finished their latest sub-trilogy in the series, they decided to explore new ground with Pendergast. And by new ground, I mean going way back in the past to the ground at the root of all detective stories: Sherlock Holmes.
I have long held that Pendegast is the most Sherlockian of detectives currently being written. So one of my squeals came when I opened White Fire to see a note that the character of Sherlock Holmes was used in this novel by permission of the Conan Doyle estate! Of course, how one of the greatest detectives in fiction got mixed up with Sherlock Holmes is a (typically, delightfully) twisted story.

Special Agent Pendergast’s protege, Corrie Swanson, is looking for the perfect research project to advance her studies at the College of Criminal Justice. She stumbles upon accounts of a man-eating bear in a Colorado mining town in the 1870s. Corri pours all of her resources into research, but powerful families in the town (now a high-class ski resort) are uncomfortable with what she unearths. While she digs around in the past, houses in the town are being burned to the ground. Corri makes some impetuous descisions, and this is where Pendergast has to come riding in to bail her out.
Pendergast’s take on the man- eating bear is wildly different, colored by an old Sherlock Holmes tale (invented in this book by Preston and Child. They do a remarkable job of alluding to Conan Doyle’s style but still writing in a manner recognizably their own.) Pendegast must call on all of his resources to not only solve the case but keep Corrie alive (and out of jail.) He leverages all of his connections and explores all his fields of obscure knowledge before bringing all his impressive powers of thought and deduction to bear and, of course, solving the case! All this while attired in only the finest of bespoke black menswear (the detailed descriptions of his Colorado snow gear were pretty funny.)

If you had merely said to me the words “Pendergast and Holmes” I would’ve been excited. Happily, this book was everything I hoped it would be- and more. Lincoln and Child do not disappoint. Fans of Pendergast will be happy to encounter him in this unique adventure. Readers new to the series will find this book an excellent place to start.

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The other top (altho not quite as good) Sherlockian detectives currently being written are J. Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme and J. Nesbo’s Harry Hole.

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Y

Y, Marjorie Celona

This is one of those novels that caught me off-guard: a debut novel, no recommendation to sway me, but the cover caught my eye, and once I read the inside flap, I knew I had to read the book. From the first paragraph, I was hooked, and I read Y in two days.

Y is a story about what family means. Who is your family? Is it the people who gave birth to you, who passed their genes to you, and whom you look like? Or is family the people that raised you, that love you no matter what, and are there for you when no one else is?
For Shannon, these are more than academic concepts- they are the story of her life. Shannon was left on the steps of a YMCA when she was just a few hours old. She spent her early years in foster homes (some worse than others) until she was adopted by Miranda, whose biological daughter Lydia-Rose is close in age to Shannon. Miranda is not rich but works hard to give her girls a good life. She treats them both fairly with love and discipline.
As Shannon gets older, she begins to founder. She becomes jealous of the biological relationship between her adoptive mother and sister. She tunes out in school. It doesn’t help that she is odd-looking: very short, with no figure, a blind lazy eye, and a wild crown of white blonde curls.
Shannon drifts towards the things that attract troubled teens: sex, smoking, drugs, skipping school, and eventually running away from home. She seems determined to test the limits of Miranda’s and Lydia-Rose’s love for her. Finally she gets the courage to begin looking for her biological family, to find out more about who she is and why she was abandoned as a baby.
Interspersed with the story of Shannon’s life is the story of her mother, Yula. Its a sad and somewhat sparse tale that explains how a mother could come to think that abandoning her baby was the best choice for both of them, and the only hope for her daughter to have a good life.

I won’t give away the ending of the book. Our human nature is to want a happy ending, with all the loose ends tied up. The reality (especially for people like Shannon) is that sometimes there are no answers to your questions, and sometimes its better not to know. I felt like the author did a good job with an ending that balanced these two elements.
Y was a surprise book, that turned into an unexpected gift. It was short, but deeply impactful. I have a feeling I’ll pick it up, to revisit these characters, again.

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You might like: The Language of Flowers, Diffenbaugh. The Story of Beautiful Girl,  Simon. The Condition, Haigh.

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The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement
Amy Tan

Violet is the biracial daughter of Lulu Mintern, a white woman who runs a courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 1900s. As a very young girl, she is already exposed to the business of seduction. She is curious about the identity of her father, and jealous that Lulu does not pay enough attention to her.
When Violet is only 14, one of her mother’s schemeing ex-lovers separates mother and daughter and manages to get Violet sold as a courtesan. Luckily for Violet, the new courtesan house where she now works is also home to one of her mother’s former courtesans, Magic Gourd. Thanks to Magic Gourd’s training and protection, Violet (now going by ViVi) becomes a sucessful courtesan.
ViVi’s career has its challenges and its pleasures. She has a daughter, names her Flora, and then ends up losing her in a complicated inheritance struggle. She makes a very bad choice in marriage, leading to years of suffering for herself and Magic Gourd.
In the end, Vivi’s story does come full circle, and she gets answers to her questions about Lulu and Flora. Amy Tan’s stories are always, at their core, about mothers and daughters. There are generations of very complicated female relationships in Valley of Amazement, but the relationship at the heart of it ends up being between the two women who aren’t related at all: ViVi and Magic Gourd.

I am normally a huge fan of Amy Tan, and was very excited when she (finally) wrote another book. Unfortunately, I didn’t love Valley of Amazement as much as I wanted to. I had a hard time buying into the historically innacurate idea that China in the 1900s had a class of “courtesans” equivalent to Japan’s geishas, but still prostitutes. I also felt like Lulu’s story, when it was finally told, was at an odd place in the book (I would’ve put it a little later or much earlier.)
Finally, the thing I disliked most about this book was all the sex. Of course, in a book about a courtesan (or glorified prostitute), one expects some sex. But this book has graphic, gratuitious, and repeated sex scenes. Its coached in some language that is meant to seem both old-fashioned and Chinese, but I don’t think its accurate on either count. Perhaps the worst part about them is that the sex in question largely paid (not really consensual) sex with an underage prostitute.

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You might like: Memoirs of A Geisha, Golden. Mandarin and Dynasty, Elegant.
Books I prefer by Amy Tan: Saving Fish From Drowning or Joy Luck Club.

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Bellman and Black

Bellman and Black
Diane Setterfield

Setterfield’s first book, Thirteenth Tale, was a wonderful story that I love and recommend but find hard to explain. With Bellman and Black,  she’s done it again. The cover describes it as “a ghost story”, but I’d have a hard time explaining exactly who is haunting whom.

William Bellman is a young man when his uncle takes him under his wing and begins grooming him to take over the family cloth mill. Thanks to skill, a little luck, and incredibly hard work, Bellman expands and eventually inherits the business. His personal life is likewise sucessful, until one day tragedy strikes.
Mourning at the grave of his dearest loved one, Bellman meets a mysterious man named Black, who offers him an opportunity. Inspired, Bellman envisions a new business, which he names Bellman and Black. His business is successful beyond his wildest dreams- until one day, after years it suddenly isn’t. On the downward slope from a peak of success, Bellman begins to wonder who exactly his invisible business partner is, and what kind of deal he has made.

Rooks figure largely in this story (if there is any specific ghost, it is a rook.) Death is part of life in this story. Color and the many shades of black are also a focal point.

Summed up, it Bellman and Black doesn’t sound wildly compelling. Oh but it is! This is one of those books where the power of the story (and the beauty of the writing) is greater than the basic plot. Its true gothic Victorian-style horror- chilling exactly because so much is left implied.
The descriptions of color, cloth and materials are especially lush. I lost myself thoroughly in the pages of description for Bellman’s business.

If you want a story that is compelling, frightening, and gorgeous all at once, pick up Bellman and Black when it goes on sale this week. Maybe, in the end, its the story that haunts you….

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You might like: Tiger’s Wife, Obrect. Bookman’s Tale, Lovett. Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield.

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The Returned

The Returned
Jason Mott

The Bible talks about a Rapture, where some people are suddenly taken to Heaven while others are left behind. But what if the opppsite happened- what if the dead started randomly returning? Not as ghosts or zombies, but the same way (and age) they were before they died?
Harold and Lucille lost their son Jacob in a drowning accident decades ago, and they have lomg since resigned themselves to being childless in their old age. When Jacob returns to them as a 7 year old boy, he upends not their lives, their marriage, and their assumptions about the growing global phenomena of “the Returned.” While some people welcome their lost loved ones with open arms, others view them with suspicion or even hatred. The government, faced with a sudden population boom, does what governments generally do, and forces the Returned into internment camps. When the town where Harold and Lucille live turns into one big camp, Harold opts to move into the camp with Jason. Lucille does what she can for Returned who have managed to elude capture. In the camp, Harold forms an odd friendship with Agent Bellamy, a government liason running the camp. Its clear Bellamy sees himself as just carrying out orders but doing what he can to make life bearable for the Returned.
Inevitably this story builds to a confrontation between the government, the faction known as the “True Living”, and the Returned, with Harold, Lucille and Jacob right in the center of it. Its pretty much what you would expect, given the sudden apparance of a population that may or may not be fully human who are treated as second class citizens, and the clash between those who want to accept them and those who want to eliminate them.  But I didn’t find it particularly satifying.

I was drawn to The Returned because the premise is fascinating, but Mott leaves more questions than answers. Why are people returning? Is everyone coming back, or just (it seems) those who died in the last 60 years or so? Why do some people return to their homes while others show up halfway around the globe? Will the Returned stay or all disappear just like they appeared?
In the end, The Returned was what I think of as a “small story”- one in which not much action happens, when people don’t go anywhere different or do anything notable but life just unfolds. Sometimes a small story is the best story, because it provides so much opportunity for character development. Unfortunately, I neber felt like these characters reached their full potential. The strongest characters were the mismstched pair of Harold and Agent Bellamy. Its clear Harold and Lucille had a strong, loving relationship; but they spend most of the book separated. Jacob, the boy at the center of it all, remains as much a mystery at the end of the book as he was when he first reappeared.
I guess ultimately I’m not disappointed the book wasn’t good; it was good- it had a very creative premise and a variety of interesting characters. I’m disappointed that the book wasn’t great; because it could’ve been, but it wasn’t quite. I hope Mott writes another book, because I’d like to see what else he can do.

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You might like: The Leftovers, Perotta. The Time Travelers wife, Niffinger.