A lookery at “A Place We Knew Well” by Susan Carol McCarthy

A Place We Knew well

A Place We Knew Well

Susan Carol McCarthy

Bantam

September 29, 2015

272 pages

$27.00

It is mid-October, 1963. Homecoming Week in the sleepy town of College Park, Florida. Unbeknownst to the locals, it is also the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy drops the reader into the middle of the terrifying events that held the nation captive for weeks.

Wes Avery is a veteran of World War II, and has seen firsthand the complete devastation wrought by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He owns a Texaco gas station on the main road in and out of town. Not far from the location of his business is the McCoy Air Force Base, which is suddenly much more active than usual.

Charlotte, Wes’ shy, intelligent, Titian-tressed daughter has just been informed that she will be on the high school’s Homecoming Court. Meanwhile, her mother Sarah is frantically trying to cope with the pressure of putting on a bomb shelter display for the local Civil Defense show. And the micro-managing Women’s Club president is driving her crazy with the task.

Emilio Alvarez is one of the Cuban “Pedro Pans” — a program sponsored by the Catholic Church to get youngsters out of Castro’s Cuba. Emilio works for Wes at the Texaco station and attends the local parochial high school.

President Kennedy defines the crisis for the entire country on television and radio. Bordering the Orlando Strategic Air Command Base, all of the Cape Canaveral area is especially anxious and alert. The local residents are either fleeing the area, stockpiling supplies or trying to maintain an atmosphere of normalcy as College Park prepares for the Homecoming festivities and the Civil Defense show. Romances blossom, marriages are strained, others can’t handle the intense pressure of the crisis and other events, and a deep, dark, secret raises its ugly head to threaten the delicate peace of the Avery family.

The author lets us in on the townies’ efforts to remain normal in exceptionally abnormal circumstances. The terror of the time is evident, and McCarthy exposes the emotions of her characters’ strife, trust, camaraderie, fear, anxiety and frayed nerves. Life in the quiet town continues as it brings out the best and the worst qualities of its citizens. During a national emergency, Susan Carol McCarthy shows how human strengths and frailties exist and struggle side by side. Gifts of generosity are evident, as well as selfish, self-serving acts.

In A Place We Knew Well human nature is put to the test by extraordinary circumstances. Susan Carol McCarthy uses this small community to give readers a glimpse of just how frightening these few weeks were for the entire country. Her novel shows the big picture of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the story of a small town in the midst of the stand-off. McCarthy’s talent lies in her ability to bring to life just how heroic and flawed we can be during dangerous times. I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Place We Knew Well, and highly recommend this insightful novel to all with little or great knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

With thanks to NetGalley and Bantam for an advance copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

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A lookery at Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s “We Never Asked for Wings”

We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Ballantine Books

August 18, 2015

320 pages

$27.00

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From Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the best-selling author of The Language of Flowers comes a new novel, We Never Asked for Wings. It is a marvelous story in which Diffenbaugh takes on the challenges of today’s society. While weaving an absorbing tale of a family at risk, the author grapples with parenthood as well as the multi-generational connection between children, their parents and grandparents. She explores various styles of family units, young love and young love revisited, complicated adult relationships, the struggles of undocumented immigrants and the daily fight for a better future.

As the story opens, Letty is in a panic. Her mother has followed Letty’s father to the family home in Mexico. Letty has no idea how to care for her own children, Alex, nearly fifteen, and Luna, six. Grandmother Maria Elena raised the children while Letty held down several jobs to support the entire family. She is desperate for help.

So what choice does Letty have but to sneak out after the kids are asleep in their San Francisco Bay area apartment in the neglected Bayshore wetlands and drive to her father’s home deep in Mexico?

Alex awakens to find his mother and grandmother gone and determines that he and Luna should be okay on their own for a week until the women return. But the week stretches on, and it is getting harder for Alex to manage headstrong Luna and feed the both of them. He is much more interested in his blossoming relationship with his pretty neighbor Yesenia than playing babysitter. The young teen also has questions about his absent father.

When Letty returns home without her mother, she takes bold steps to improve her family’s position and future. Alex also takes a chance on bettering life for Yesenia. Trouble brews for the teens, and it is at this point that the support of family and friends becomes essential.

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is an extraordinary novel of relationships, love, hope and personal discovery. It is poignant, delving deep into the hearts, souls and minds of each of the individuals in the story. The author guides her characters with grace through their struggles, creating a realistic and strong story line that is believable and touches the reader. We Never Asked for Wings is destined for best-seller lists everywhere (and if you haven’t already done so, read her novel The Language of Flowers for further proof of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s talent as a writer and storyteller).

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A lookery at “Circling the Sun: A Novel” by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun: A Novel

Paula McLain

Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine

July 28, 2015

384 pages

$28.00

Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun: A Novel is the fictionalized memoir of Beryl Clutterbuck Purves Markham, a woman ahead of her time. This novel of Beryl Markham’s youth takes you deep into the soul of this unusual and unconventional woman.

Abandoned by her mother before the age of five, Beryl is a maverick from the get-go, spending most of her childhood in the bush with her toto friend, Kibii, learning the skills of a young Kipsigis boy. Alongside her father “Clutt”, she learns how to assess, raise and train thoroughbred racehorses.

Beryl could not be tamed by Emma, the housekeeper her father brought into the home, nor by a governess, nor by a boarding school in Nairobi that expelled her after two and a half years.

When Clutt’s farm fails in her mid-teens, Beryl marries neighboring farmer Jock Purves, but is quickly disillusioned. She leaves her husband, who won’t grant her a divorce, determined to make her way as a trainer of thoroughbreds. Guided by a family friend with a vast stable, she is allowed to prepare for a license as an English Trainer; the first woman in Africa to do so. At the age of nineteen Beryl becomes the first licensed female racehorse trainer on the continent.

But Beryl is not schooled in the unique and unwritten social standards of the 1920’s colonial ex-pat community of the British East Africa Protectorate (eventually, Kenya). Her affairs, including an on-going secret relationship with Denys Finch Hatton — the lover of the Baroness Karen Blixen, who would later pen Out of Africa as Isaak Dinesen — become scandalous even in this loose society. She flees to England to escape the disgraceful reputation she has created.

She returns to Kenya with a sponsor, and begins to repair her status as a young woman of society and as a trainer. Eventually, Jock divorces Beryl, and she later marries Mansfield Markham.

A trail blazer, Beryl breaks barriers for women in the world of horse training, and later as the first professional female pilot in Africa. She has a deep love of the lush country she lives in — its wilderness as well as the natives who live on the land and who remain her lifelong friends.

Paula McLain shows us the beauty of the wild country as Beryl experienced it, and we feel Beryl’s passion for all things wild and untamed, much like Beryl herself. Beryl channels her energy into her love for the land and into challenging boundaries. The author’s storytelling in Circling the Sun: A Novel is as remarkable as the woman she writes about. Deeply visual, visceral, entrancing and exciting, Circling the Sun: A Novel is one of the best novels I’ve read in quite some time. As an author, McLain is a true thoroughbred.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher Random House Group – Ballantine for a preview copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at “The Flying Circus” by Susan Crandall

The Flying Circus

The Flying Circus

Susan Crandall

Gallery Books

July 7, 2015

368 pages

$26.00

Author Susan Crandall first caught my attention with her recent novel Whistling Past the Graveyard, which I always recommend to readers looking for a wonderful title. Her newest novel, The Flying Circus is likewise excellent.

Set in the Midwest shortly after the Great War, a trio of misfits come together by accident to form an aeroplane and motorcycle barnstorming act. Meet Henry Schuler Jefferson, on the run from his Indiana foster home and in great fear of being arrested for a heinous crime; Cora Rose Haviland, a tomboy of a socialite who escapes on her brother’s motorcycle the stultifying life as a marriageable debutante; and Charles “Gil” Gilcrest, a daredevil pilot and veteran of World War I — with a past, a secret and a death wish — who flies from town to town earning his living as a barnstormer. The new act, Mercury’s Daredevils, features Gil as the pilot, Cora as the racing motorcyclist with a mutt, and Henry, who acts as the show’s mechanic. The little group has modest success with their act until they encounter Hoffman’s Flying Circus — a professional air show featuring several pilots with shiny new planes.

It becomes obvious to the three friends that they must join the larger group in order to survive as an act and to keep flying. Cora has learned to fly, becoming a rare female pilot. She also has a strong desire to pursue daring stunts in the air. Henry signs on as part of the mechanical crew and a stunt coordinator and is thrilled to be on the move farther away from Indiana. Gil begrudgingly joins the Flying Circus too, moody as always with his secret past hidden at the bottom of a bottle.

When winter arrives, Hoffman’s Flying Circus goes on hiatus. Gil returns to his home while Cora and Henry strike out for Santa Monica, California. There, Cora hopes to find a career in films as a stunt pilot. What Henry and Cora find in California astonishes them and brings unwanted pain and attention to the fugitive and the debutante.

Each character is hiding a secret. As they return to their base camp, secrets and lies begin to unravel. Crandall slowly, teasingly, offers up bits of information on each intricately designed character. By the time all three of the show people are back together, it is uncertain how Henry, Gil and Cora are going to fare. The three of them are caught in their lies as their lives fall apart just in time for an air race in Miami with a big cash prize.

Susan Crandall brings to life both the post World War I prejudices as well as the flashy and phony life of early Hollywood. Her characters are flawed but genuine human beings, who have banded together to form a family. The awe-inspiring world of early aviation is explored in detail, illuminating the glory, the wonder and the disasters of flight.

The Flying Circus gives a glimpse into the current and future states of aviation. It also exposes the effects of war and narrow-mindedness in both the upper echelon of society and the working class. Susan Crandall’s novel shows her readers that everyone has a past and secrets that bring out the best and the worst in people. It also depicts the importance of family and friendship, which make us better human beings. One of the most anticipated releases of the summer, The Flying Circus will entertain readers on every page. And once you’ve finished The Flying Circus, read Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard, too. Neither novel will disappoint.

With thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for a preview copy of this novel in return for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at “Inside the O’Briens” by Lisa Genova

Inside the O'Briens

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Gallery Books

April 7, 2015

352 pages

$26.00

A preview copy of this novel was provided by NetGalley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Prepare yourself for an emotional wild ride when reading Lisa Genova’s novel about a family coping with the devastating affects of Huntington’s Disease in Inside the O’Briens.

Joe O’Brien is an officer on the Boston PD, a third generation Irish “Townie” of the Charlestown neighborhood in Boston, and a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan. Fearing that he will end up like his mother Ruth, who was rumored to have driven herself to drink and the nuthouse, and who died when Joe was only twelve years old, Joe never allows himself more than two beers. Except, of course, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Joe and his wife Rosie have four children in their twenties. All of the children live in the family home — a “triple decker” — with three separate units. Katie and Meghan occupy the top floor as roommates, JJ and his wife Colleen live in the middle, and Patrick still has a room in his parents’ home on the first floor. The close-knit Catholic family gathers in Joe and Rosie’s kitchen each week for Sunday night dinners.

As a police officer, Joe is always “on”; aware of his surroundings, activity in the home and Charlestown, and always in control of his emotions. Very slowly, Joe seems to be losing some of that control. He begins to misplace items, including his service firearm, finds it difficult to write reports at work, becomes confused and clumsy, and experiences involuntary body movements that he doesn’t notice. He begins to make mistakes at work, and loses his temper at home.

Finally, he agrees to see a doctor about his symptoms, and is referred to a specialist in movement disorders. Joe’s diagnosis is devastating. Joe O’Brien has Huntington’s Disease. Inherited from a parent, Huntington’s Disease is a rare illness that usually starts in the prime of life, slowly killing a person by their mid-fifties. The worst news — each of Joe and Rosie’s children have a fifty percent chance of already having the disease.

Genova’s novel delves into each of the family members’ reactions to the diagnosis of their father, and their individual struggles whether or not to be tested for the presence of the disease in themselves.

JJ is a firefighter and his wife is expecting their first baby. Is he affected, and if so, what about his unborn child? Patrick is a bartender, and still trying to find his way in life. A positive diagnosis for Meghan, a dancer with the Boston Ballet, could end her dream career, and yoga instructor Katie has just fallen in love.

Even the most hardened of readers will have a difficult time not tearing up or outright sobbing at the challenges and decisions the family members face. Genova’s ability to evoke such strong emotions in her readers is masterful. Inside the O’Briens not only tells the story of a family, but deftly and simply educates the reader about Huntington’s Disease. Lisa Genova’s novel is a fantastic book and is exceptional on all levels. She has definitely hit a grand slam with this book.

A Lookery at: Laura Moriarty’s “The Chaperone”

The Chaperone

Laura Moriarty

Penguin Books (2012)

$26.95

The Chaperone, written by Laura Moriarty, is billed by many sources as one of this summer’s “must-reads”. This title was high on my reading list, so when it was featured as a Kindle Daily Deal at a fraction of the price of a hardback, I snatched it up and downloaded it immediately.

Setting off on an adventure of a lifetime, Cora Carlisle agrees to chaperone teenager Louise Brooks on a six week visit to New York City, where Louise intends to study dance with the famed Denishawn Dance Company. Thirty-six-year-old Cora is a well-regarded woman in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. She is married, the mother of twin boys bound for college in the fall.

Louise Brooks is fifteen, beautiful, arrogant and sexually precocious, and is anxious to leave the cultural confines of the Midwest. Louise sees no need for a chaperone, and defies convention from the moment she and Cora step foot in the Wichita train station. Her seductive nature and actions become even more pronounced as the women travel further east.

Cora has her own secrets and motives for visiting New York in the summer of 1922, known only to her husband. She explores both the vibrant city and her past – hidden from the conservative citizens of Kansas – while Louise practices with the dance company. But while Cora tries to keep Louise’s wild and artistic personality in check fearing that the young girl might sully her reputation, Cora’s eyes are opened to new possibilities for leading a more liberating life when she returns home.

After training for several weeks, Louise earns a spot in the Denishawn Dance Company before eventually heading to Hollywood. There she becomes a film star known for her beauty, her modern bobbed hair and her sex appeal.

Although it is Louise who moves on to great fame as a screen actress, it is Cora’s life that the reader explores in greater depth. Firm beliefs about hemlines, hairstyles, birth control (believe it or not, a well-known household disinfectant advertised itself as a prophylactic in the twenties), and racism are all tested while in NYC. Before returning to the Midwest, Cora makes a life-changing decision. She alters her outlook on the myriad of cultural possibilities taking place in American society. Louise is a flash-in-the-pan success in the film industry, while Cora seizes new opportunities. A respected woman in Wichita, Cora works to influence her community to embrace the progressive transformations emerging in more metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles.

Laura Moriarty has meticulously researched the material used in her novel The Chaperone. A bibliography illustrates how the author incorporates the tiniest of details into the fictional life of Cora, while staying true to the story of real-life film actress Louise Brooks. But rather than create a biography of Louise and her crash and burn career, Professor Moriarty shows how an average woman in the guise of Cora Carlisle – a mere chaperone – can change her life and that of others by an experience which exposes her to a life she might have never known as a privileged homemaker in America’s breadbasket.

An interesting look at the changes in society during the 20th century (particularly those concerning women), The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty has earned four eyes from thebooklookery. The bohemian life led by Louise seems more believable than the duplicitous life that Cora creates after her visit to the Big Apple, however; the overview of women’s history during the 20th century is excellent.

A Lookery at: The Book Club Voyage

An article I read recently, stated that today’s book clubs and reading groups are populated by bourgeois middle-class women, looking to improve their minds. While this may be true, every book club has its own unique personality. Finding one to fit you might take a lot of thought. Or it’s possible that a group will be spontaneously generated by moms in your playgroup or friends in your bunko club. I spent several years envying friends who participated in reading clubs, but searched long and hard for a particular group that met my specific requirements. I’m happy to say that I am thrilled with the book club that I joined, and it was worth the wait to find exactly what I wanted.

Perhaps you, too, are interested in starting or looking for a book club. Finding a group can be as simple as joining one at the local library or may take more research. IMHO, there are several factors to take into consideration when joining a reading club.

For example, when does the club meet? Are you interested in getting together with others in the daytime, nighttime, or on a weekday or weekend? How often do you want to commit to attending a get-together?  How far are you willing to travel to share your reading experiences, and where are the meetings held? Bookstores or libraries? Private home, restaurant or community room; park, playground or church?

Many times just locating a club of fellow bibliophiles can be difficult. Bookstores, libraries and schools are all good places to start your search, but don’t rule out searching online, publishers’ websites, friends and family, checking notice boards, facebook or using a website such as meetup.com for availability.

A lookery at how the group is hosted is important. Some groups randomly trade off hosting duties while others limit their membership to a certain number so that a strict hosting rotation calendar can be kept. Or perhaps one person is designated the leader on a permanent basis, such as a librarian, instructor of some sort, or the owner of a bookstore. How are the books to be read chosen for each gathering? How much responsibility for hosting, leading and maybe even choosing the reading material do you want to shoulder?

Consider subjects such as genre. Do you want to read only classics, sci-fi, faith-based literature or non-fiction, for example? If you select a group with a miscellaneous category selection, you need to have an open mind toward exploring books that you might not otherwise pursue.

Reading clubs can often have demographic parameters. Gender, age, couples, mother/daughter, religion – any number of membership requirements exist. Look for a group made up of people with whom you will enjoy reading, examining and discussing books. Being comfortable with expressing your point of view in a meeting is of paramount importance.

And lastly, but very importantly, how social or serious do you want the book club you join to be? Will discussing the book under review as well as other topics over a glass of sauvignon blanc satisfy your needs, or do you want to stick to a strictly academic consideration of the current selection? Would you like to maintain a relationship with other members outside the confines of the book club?

Most of these questions were on my mind as I waited to find what I was beginning to think was an impossible match for me and a book club. But in time, and with the help of many of the suggestions above, I found a fabulous group to belong to! Best wishes for finding a literary home yourself, and remember the line from Emily Dickinson‘s poem “There is no frigate like a book…”. Make sure the voyage and your fellow passengers in this journey promise fair weather and smooth sailing!