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Love Saves the Day

Love Saves the Day
Gwen Cooper

When Prudence’s human, Sarah, doesn’t come home, the little tabby cat starts to worry. Before too long, Sarah’s daughter Laura and her husband Josh come to pack up all Sarah’s things, and take Prudence and the boxes to their own apartment. Laura and Josh don’t understand the most basic things about cat care (like introducing yourself properly, or how and when to feed a cat.) Prudence finds refuge in the room filled with Sarah’s boxes. The things she digs out of the boxes draw the humans in; Josh is fascinated by Sarah’s musical past, while Laura uncovers photos and memories she thought were long gone.
Eventually, Laura relates the story of the first cat she loved- a neighbor’s cat called Honey. Josh and Laura are able to find common ground in the Sarah boxes. And Prudence realizes shes been lucky to find a loving home not once but twice.

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Its not common to read novels narrated by feline characters. Dogs, yes; cats, no. But I read and loved Cooper’s first book Homers Oddessy about her blind kitten (and other feline babies) and I knew if anyone could write a cat’s voice, it would be her.
Love Saves The Day is a sad book; I won’t lie. A lot of it deals with how it feels to lose someone we love. But it also illustrates what it means to love someone,  and what it means to be a family. Best of all, the character of Prudence is every bit the perfect cat
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You might like: Homers Odyssey, Cooper. Feline Mystique, Simon. Telegraph Avenue, Chabon.

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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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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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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.