Friday Book Whimsy: The Nature of Fragile Things

San Francisco has a history of earthquakes, but perhaps the most famous of all happened in 1906, before building codes and a scientific understanding of the San Andreas Fault. The 1906 earthquake was one of the worst to hit northern Colorado, and it destroyed 80 percent of the city of San Francisco, and killed some-3,000 people.

The earthquake and its destructive aftermath is the stage for much of Susan Meissner’s interesting novel, The Nature of Fragile Things. The story starts off mysteriously, with what is clearly a hearing in which the main character, Sophie Whalen, is testifying.

Sophie left Ireland under mysterious circumstances, and lands in a New York City tenement where she is surrounded by filth and crime, hunger and loneliness. She is so desperate to escape her circumstances that she answers an ad placed in one of the NYC newspapers from a San Francisco man seeking a wife and mother for his 5-year-old child. The arrangement is made, and Sophie makes the long trip to San Francisco, knowing virtually nothing about her soon-to-husband.

He meets her at the station, and they immediately go to the justice of the peace to be married. He then takes her home to meet his little girl, Kat, who hasn’t spoken since her mother died. While Sophie wants to make her new arrangement work, it is clear that things aren’t what they should be. Martin Hocking is handsome and generous, and has bought a beautiful home in which the three can live. He travels extensively for his job, being gone weeks at a time. When he’s home, he has little to do with either his wife or his child.

Sophie comes to love Kat like she is her own child, and intends to make the best of things. That is, until one day, while Martin is out of town, Sophie gets a surprise visitor that changes everything. It so happens that is the day before the earthquake hits.

Sophie, Kat, and her visitor are left homeless following the earthquake, and struggle to make their way to someplace safe. They watch the city crumble around them and begin to burn. They fight to find safety.

The Nature of Fragile Things is a story about courage and resilience and friendship. The author offers realistic descriptions of a city under great duress, and the kindness — and lack of kindness — displayed by others in crisis.

The story took many twists and turns, leading to a surprise ending.

I enjoyed The Nature of Fragile Things very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Louisiana Longshot

After reading a series of violent thrillers and intricate mysteries, I was ready to read a lighthearted mystery that didn’t require me to think too much, blush too much at the sex scenes, and laugh out loud. Louisiana Longshot, by Jana Deleon, proved to be just what I was looking for.

Fortune Redding is a CIA agent who risks her life without giving it a second thought. This time, she risked her life enough that she will soon have a price on her head. Her boss doesn’t want to risk his operative’s life, but he knows he has to place her somewhere where no one will expect her to be.

This is how Fortune ends up in Sinful, Louisiana, where she poses as a former southern beauty queen turned librarian who has inherited her recently-deceased aunt’s house. The rightful heir has agreed to let Fortune play the part as she is sent on a worldwide tour until things settle down. Totally out of her element, Fortune reluctantly prepares to play her role as a demure southern belle.

Unfortunately, within hours, the dog which she has also inherited digs up human bones and drops them at Fortune’s feet. Before she can say cajun country, Fortune is thrust in the middle of a murder mystery. Her co-conspirators are two elderly women (friends of her supposed deceased aunt) who not only immediately know whose body is being dug up, but suspect the killer is one of their friends who happens to be the wife of the man they suspect as being murdered.

These two women, seemingly harmless, are part of a senior women’s group that practically runs the town. They are the Golden Girls with the minds of Miss Marple. They, together with their new friend Fortune, tackle the mystery with guns a’blazin. Literally.

Throw in the beginnings of a blooming romance between Fortune and the sheriff, and you have a very funny and quirky mystery served southern style. Bring on the red beans and rice.

Louisiana Longshot is book one of a series.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Damage

Rape is a horrific crime, and there are many mysteries and thrillers with a woman’s rape at the core of the story. The Damage, by Caitlin Wahrer, is the first book I’ve come across in which the rape victim is a man — a gay man. That twist alone made for an interesting story.

Tony and Nick are half brothers. Tony is considerably older than Nick, old enough, in fact, to be his father. The two brothers are very close, and in fact, Tony has played the role of father to Nick for Nick’s entire life. Their own parents, though living, have not been fit to parent for the brothers’ entire lives.

Tony is called to the hospital when his brother is brutally raped by another man, badly beaten, and left for dead in a hotel room. Nick will survive the ordeal, but he claims to have no memory of anything that happened after the man he met in a bar and with whom he left voluntarily entered a motel room. He was hit from behind, and when he regained consciousness, he was alone and had been brutally attacked.

Tony’s protective instinct kicks in, and he is determined to find out who did this terrible thing to his beloved brother, and make him pay. Tony’s wife Julia loves Nick as much as does Tony, but her reaction is a bit calmer. She is more apt to let the justice system play out, even after the police catch the rapist. He proclaims that the sex was consensual, and that Nick asked to be handled roughly.

While the story moved a bit slowly, and parts seemed unrealistic, I liked the bond that the people in this story had with each other. However, the author’s portrayal of Nick, battered both physically and emotionally, is poignant and seems like an accurate portrayal of a rape victim trying to move on with his life. I also liked that the portrayal of the police officer showed a deep sympathy for and understanding of the victim instead of the more cliched idea that men can’t be raped.

The ending was a surprise that the author cleverly left to nearly the last page of the novel.

The Damage wasn’t one of the best books of the year, but I nevertheless enjoyed it.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Survive the Night

It is such a great idea for a plot. A young college film student gets a ride from a stranger as she makes her way home, and realizes that her driver might very well be the serial killer about whom everyone has been warned. If she can survive the night, she will be safe.

Unfortunately, Riley Sager’s novel Survive the Night falls short — way short — of being an edge of your seat, chew your nails to the nub novel.

College student Charlie Jordan is reeling from the death of her roommate at the hands of a serial killer who has murdered a number of women at her college. She feels responsible for her friend’s death, and is so distraught that she leaves school before the end of the semester. Unfortunately, she is completely narcissistic and her obsession with movies is almost ridiculous.

Looking for a ride home, she agrees to drive with a stranger named Josh Baxter (maybe or maybe not), with whom she connects on a ride share board. It isn’t long into their drive before Charlie starts catching Josh in lies and she begins suspecting him of being the man who killed her roommate and other college women.

This has so much creepy potential, but the plot is ruined by the self-absorbed Charlie, who continues to feel sorry for herself and take responsibility for her friend’s death though her reasoning is ridiculous. Charlie has opportunity after opportunity to escape, but doesn’t. It happens so often that it became nearly comical. Her excuse for not escaping is that she has a mental illness that causes her to think she is in a movie on occasion. She can’t tell when she is imagining and when it is real. So she keeps getting back into the car and telling police officers that everything is swell.

There is a twist at the end of the book that caught me by surprise and could have been interesting if it hadn’t been so unrealistic.

I really had a hard time liking the book. I don’t like to pan novels because I know that people put their hearts and souls into writing them. Unfortunately, Survive the Night was a waste of time and paper.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Blind Side

I know. I know. You are all thinking that you can’t believe I’m doing a review on a book published 15 years ago. Or maybe you think I’m doing a movie review of a film older than many of my grandkids. Never fear. It’s football season and watching the games reminded me of the book I first read shortly after it was published. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis was one of my favorite books when I first read it, and I liked it just as well when I re-read it recently.

It’s complete title is The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. The game, of course, is professional football, and Lewis gives readers a lesson on how the game evolved from a mostly running game — power football, not that much different than traditional college football — to a the more finessed game that we watch every Sunday.

Everyone knows the story of Michael Oher, the homeless, nearly illiterate young man whom a wealthy, football-loving Memphis family took under their wing, giving him a fresh new life. The Blind Side movie will always be one of my favorite movies of all time. Two words: Sandra Bullock.

,Lewis’s book definitely uses Oher to demonstrate the real point of the book, which is how power football became the passing football we are all used to these days. And as the passing game increased in popularity, thanks largely to San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh and his then-renaissance “West Coast offense,” the game of professional football was permanently altered. He and Joe Montana changed the game of football.

Once the quarterback began dropping back to pass more frequently, having someone to protect the QB’s blind side — namely, the left tackle in most cases — he became the second most important player on the team as evidenced by salaries. What was a fairly nondescript position suddenly was critical to the game. Keeping the QB safe was top of everyone’s minds

Lewis is a wonderful writer, turning nonfiction into readable stories that are understandable to those unfamiliar with his topic, as evidenced by some of his other books such as Moneyball and The Big Short (both which interestly also became movies).

Just as I enjoyed the movie, I enjoyed the story of Michael Oher that was written within the pages of the book very much. But The Blind Side is so much more than the story of Oher. As much as I love football, so much about the game always has eluded me. Lewis’s descriptions of football plays and football players added texture and interest to this already readable book. And I learned so much about the game of football.

I can’t recommend it enough, especially for football fans.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Finding Dorothy

When I was a little girl growing up in Nebraska, every year around Thanksgiving, one of the television stations would present The Wizard of Oz. Our whole family watched that movie, likely with varying degrees of enthusiasm. As for me, I was in wonderment throughout the film. When the movie went from the dreary black and white of Kansas to the technicolor splendor of Oz, well, I knew I wasn’t in Nebraska anymore.

I never got around to reading L. Frank Baum’s book because the movie provided all of the excitement that I needed to take the journey to Oz along with Dorothy and her friends. Perhaps it’s one of the books I should read before I die. But, so many books, so little time. Sigh.

I enjoyed reading Elizabeth Lett’s historical novel about the making of The Wizard of Oz, some years following Baum’s death. The only person left who remembers the wonderment and excitement and magic of the book when it was first written is Baum’s 77-year-old widow, Maud Gage Baum. Once she learns that this movie is to be made, she takes it upon herself to make sure that MGM captures the whimsy that her husband envisioned.

She maneuvers her way into the MGM studio just in time to hear the young actress selected to play Dorothy sing the iconic Over the Rainbow. She realizes that the character of Dorothy is in good hands. But what concerns her more is whether Judy Garland is in good hands.

The book looks back at Maud’s own life. She is the daughter of a well-known suffragette whose upbringing is very different from that of other Victorian-aged young women. Plenty of time is spent talking about her relationship with her husband, who never could quite find his niche in life until he used his vivid imagination to write one of the most well-known books of all time.

The author seems to take great liberties with the historical part of the book, especially when it comes to the period of time during the making of the movie. It is true, however, that Maud Baum spent some time with Judy Garland while the movie was being made…..

Judy Garland looking at the book with Maud Baum at MGM studios during the making of the movie.

Nonetheless, I found Finding Dorothy entirely enjoyable and interesting. Garland was a very talented woman who lived a very tragic life. Finding Dorothy gives the reader some insight into Garland’s sad journey.

I recommend the book very highly.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Tin Camp Road

Laurel Hill has lived in the upper peninsula of Michigan her whole life, and wants her daughter Skye to have the same sorts of experiences as she did growing up in this desolate but compelling part of the state. In fact, the two live in the very same town where she grew up, in a cozy house they both love. They are very happy despite the fact that Laurel has to scrape and save to take care of her child. The precocious Skye learns more from spending time with her mother than she does in her classroom of four children.

But then the landlord unexpectedly explains that he is turning them out so that he can fix up the home and offer it as a vacation rental, a move that will make him lots more money, but leave Laurel and her daughter homeless.

Laurel does everything she can to continue making life normal for her daughter, but it becomes increasingly difficult as money diminishes and it becomes more difficult to find a place to live. Laurel can spend less time as a mother because she has to hold down several jobs. They are walking a tightrope until the rope breaks, almost bringing disaster.

Tin Camp Road’s author Ellen Airgood grew up and lives in Michigan herself, and clearly has a love for the area. Her descriptions of the landscape and the lake are so distinct and believable that the reader can almost see the sparkling Lake Superior and feel the need to put on a coat to prevent a chill. I can’t imagine living in such a place, but after reading the book, I can certainly see how it holds appeal to some.

The story is told with such love, and the relationship between mother and daughter is bound to make readers smile. I loved Laurel and Skye, and envied the way they interacted with each other.

Tin Camp Road is a story of the strength that comes from love and feeling a part of community. I enjoyed the book very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Razorblade Tears

It’s clear that author S.A. Cosby isn’t afraid to tackle the difficult issues of the day. His 2020 novel Blacktop Wasteland made many readers like me squirm while looking at what it’s like to be poor and black in America, especially the south. The protagonist in that book wanted so much to escape his life of crime, but didn’t know where to go. That novel was one of my favorite reads of 2020.

Razorblade Tears will be one of my favorite reads of 2021. The protagonists this time are the unlikely combination of a white father and a black father whose gay sons were killed. The police haven’t found the killers, and Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee are pretty sure nobody is trying too hard.

Like the protagonist in Blacktop Wasteland, Ike served his time and has kept a clean record since being released from prison. Buddy served time too, but he isn’t too worried about staying out of trouble because he is poor and uneducated and has very little to lose. Each man suffers acutely from the memory of how he reacted to learning their son was gay.

They intend to make up for their sins by finding out who murdered their boys, leaving a daughter behind.

The story is told in measured tones. The author paints such a wonderful picture of the anguish felt by each man for the way they treated their sons, and how they intend to make up for their shortcomings, no matter what it takes, no matter how much they have to lose.

Razorblade Tears is not a cheerful book, but it is a rewarding read. I loved watching the two men develop throughout the story. The ending, while not what I would call lighthearted, was entirely appropriate and satisfying.

Don’t miss this wonderful book, and this amazing writer.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Godmothers

You probably remember the movie Godfather II in which Michael Corleone tells his brother Fredo, “Nobody goes against the family,” and then has him killed because he had gone against the family. Now imagine four godmothers instead of a godfather, and you are ready to sit down and enjoy The Godmothers, a novel by Camille Aubray.

Filomena, Amie, and Lucy are three very different women with secrets of their own. The three women are strangers to one another, but fall in love with three brothers who, unbeknownst to them, have ties to the New York City mob. Throw in Petrina, their sister-in-law, and you have what amounts to a fearless foursome. They become friends and are godmothers to one another’s children. They live in the same house together, cook meals, take care of each others’ kids, and try to find their place in their new opulent and powerful world.

And just when things are going pretty well, World War II hits America. It becomes incumbent upon the four women to handle mobsters like Lucky Luciano and other real-life mafia bosses, keeping their families safe and trying to successfully get out of a business that most people are unable to escape.

I loved these feisty women, who, despite the wealth and power held by their families, are determined to hold everything together by themselves, and figure out a way to become free of mafia ties. In a world where the word feminism had never been heard, these four women were feminists of sorts.

While I’m not familiar with the ways of the Mob, I’m pretty sure that in real life, these women wouldn’t have survived some of the situations in which they found themselves. However, those situations, and the women’s responses, made for a fun and exciting read. The author threw in some real-life NYC mobsters, and that made the book even more interesting.

This book gets a thumbs up.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Malibu Rising

From its title, Malibu Rising sounds a bit like a beach read. I have nothing against beach reads, but I haven’t even been in the vicinity of a beach this summer. In fact, aside from a trip to Vermont, I mostly haven’t been outside of my back yard. Still, author Taylor Jenkins Reid wrote two of my favorite books of all time: Daisy Jones & the Six, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I was ready to give this book a try.

What I like best about this author is that she doesn’t tackle books in a traditional way. Daisy Jones & the Six is presented as an oral history, making it unique and extremely readable. I hoped for the best from Malibu Rising, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

Every year, Nina and her siblings (Jay, Hud, and Kit) hold a summer-ending party. Nineteen eighty-three was no exception. Except this party changed many lives completely.

These four are the children of a famous singer who knows how to entertain but doesn’t know how to be a faithful husband or a good father. He leaves his family when the children are young. His wife tries her best, but sadness and the stress of raising four kids alone drives her to drink herself to death when Nina — the eldest — is only 16 years old. She reaches out to her father, but doesn’t hear back from him. She quits high school to take care of her siblings the best that she can.

While the bulk of the story takes place in a single day, flashbacks tell the story of how the four cope with their unusual family situation. Once she turns 18, Nina takes over the restaurant that her mother’s family always ran. Jay becomes a professional surfer, while the youngest — Kit — tries to figure out where she fits into the family.

They author’s description of the party are vivid and crazy. There are no invitations, if you hear about the party, you can come. Alcohol and drugs are plentiful. Famous people mix with blue-collar workers. Nina’s siblings look forward to the party every year. This year, Nina — in the midst of getting a divorce from her famous husband — is not as enthusiastic.

Normally back-and-forth stories are troublesome to me. I sometimes find them confusing. The author’s telling of this story is, however, seamless. The characters are interesting and realistic. Most important, though they could be obnoxious, they are likable. Well, at least the main characters are likable.

Malibu Rising is a story of survival and figuring out who you are amidst chaos and confusion. The ending was satisfying, except for the fact that I wasn’t ready to be done reading. Yes, it was that good.

Here is a link to the book.