Girls’ Night Out by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

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My Review:

In Girls’ Night Out, the thrilling summer read by authors Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke, Ashley invited her old friends Natalie and Lauren to go on a girls’ vacation in Tulum, Mexico… but it is not the easygoing carefree celebratory trip they had wanted.  Ashley and Natalie are best friends that work together and they are in  disagreement about whether or not to sell the company they own.  For personal reasons they have not shared with each other, neither are willing to budge.  Lauren, typically the third wheel in this longtime friendship, had lost her husband the prior year and had a falling out with Ashley at his funeral.  Both were hoping to repair their fractured friendship, but bad feelings run deep.

The ladies plan to spend some quality time together hoping they can mend some fences, but their issues are not exactly fixable with a few cocktails far away from home…despite the beautiful setting and casual atmosphere, problems esclate when a charming local insinuates himself in the midst of their relationships and their planned girl time.  This fast paced thriller will keep your attention as everyone’s secrets are slowly revealed and at the same time physical danger ensues…your pulse will increase as you race to the finish…another fun page-turner by writing team Liz Kenton and Lisa Steinke!

Girls’ Night Out is a perfect summer thriller…a girlfriends trip to Mexico….secrets and tragedy….a fun escape!

Goodreads Summary

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About Liz and Lisa:

Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke are the authors of  Girls’ Night Out and the Amazon Charts bestselling novel, The Good Widow.

Liz and Lisa have been best friends for 30 years.  They have also published three women’s fiction novels with Simon & Schuster/Atria Books. Your Perfect Life is a hilarious and heartwarming story of two childhood best friends who switch bodies at their twenty-year high school reunion. The Status of All Things, is a cautionary tale of a woman who realizes she can change the course of her entire life by what she writes in her Facebook status. And The Year We Turned Forty follows three women who get the chance to relive the year they turned forty, a year they each made decisions that altered the course of their lives.  But a lot happened before their first publishing deal…

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Song of a Captive Bird by Jazmin Darznik

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My Review:

The beautiful cover of this powerful debut caught my eye and after perusing the summary on the book jacket I was compelled to read and recommend this to one of my book groups.  We wanted to focus on strong women and Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik fits the bill!

This story, based on the life of Forugh Farrokhzad, focuses on a young Iranian girl who as a child pushed the envelope when it came to respectable, traditional, female behavior.  She had an interest in poetry, writing at eleven years old to get the attention of her strict father.   She was lucky enough to find a friend she connected with who enjoyed the written word as well and she and this young boy secretly met and he exposed her to different writers, but the Iranian culture forbid them to socialize. Her parents locked her in small spaces as a punishment and due to her questionable behavior, they forced her to undergo a virginity test.   At sixteen years old her father orchestrated an arranged marriage and the relationship suffered due to unsurmountable challenges.  Forugh became a teenage mother, began a clandestine romantic relationship with a powerful man in the publishing business, ran away from her stifling marriage and toward freedom and self fulfillment.

Forugh’s passion was to write, and when her provocative, expressive poetry was published, scandalous and smart written words by a woman… it caused a huge uproar.  Her marriage had been damaged beyond repair, her parental rights were impacted, her love affair was not all she had hoped it would be, but her quest for independence and creative freedom remained her priority as she changed the world of poetry in Iran and became an icon for feminism.

The title, Song of a Captive Bird, refers to Forugh; her poetry is her song and she endures feelings of being trapped by society and the rules preventing women to express themselves, as well as her marriage, relationship with her parents and her lovers, during the 1970s political resistance leading up to the revolution.  But in some ways all the characters are like captive birds, trying to conform to societal rules in a suppressed society and being challenged by each other, yet also finding comfort in the confines of what is acceptable.  Forugh gave up her marriage and family to find success as a poet, because in Iran she could not have it all.

I loved this book along with all the others in my book group.  Forugh was a strong, feisty woman living in the 1970s in Iran who was determined to share her creativity  with the world, despite the backlash and outrage her poetry stirred up.  Although throughout her short life she she didn’t conform to rules for females, cooking and motherhood were not her strong suits, she endured some horrible psychological and physical tortures, suffered unbearable heartbreaks, and many aspects of her life seemed like colossal failures, Forugh persevered and set the bar high when it came to freedom of expression, independence and rights for women.

This book is historical fiction based on the incredible poetry and varied life experiences of controversial poet Forugh Farrokhzad whose life tragically ended at age 32.  Author Jasmin Darznik draws you in from the very beginning and consistently shocks and amazes you with details of this extraordinary woman’s life, giving you incentive to do some googling!  Fantastic debut novel!

 

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Jasmin Darznik is the author of the debut novel Song of a Captive Bird, a fictional account of Iran’s trailblazing woman poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, as well as the New York Times bestseller The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life. Her books have been published or are forthcoming in sixteen countries.

Jasmin received her MFA from Bennington College and PhD in English from Princeton. She is a professor of English and creative writing at California College of the Arts and is now at work on a novel set in 1920s San Francisco.

Improvement by Joan Silber

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My Review:

Connecting 1970s Turkey and New York today, 72 year old author Joan Silber, winner of the 2018 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction weaves a tapestry of interpersonal connections and shows how relationships bind us together and decisions have widespread impact across countries and over time in her latest novel, Improvement.

Reyna is a single mother living in Harlem and standing by her not so perfect boyfriend, Boyd, as she visits him during his 3 month incarceration at Riker’s. Her Aunt Kiki lives in the Village after spending some time in Turkey and traveling the world in her younger days.  Kiki worries about Reyna and her young son Oliver and is unaware of the illegal activities Boyd, Reyna and their friends are involved with.  When Reyna is asked to drive the car in a cigarette smuggling heist, she makes a crucial decision to remover herself from the dangerous antics and that sets off a series of events with a ripple effect that pervades countries and time, affecting people they know and strangers alike.

The book was written in three parts; a novel but with a feel of linked stories; parts 1 and 3 told in first person, and the middle was narrative necessary to fill in all the holes with description and stories of the past, colorfully adding to the context and connecting further the characters and situations.  Joan Silber expertly intertwines the complexities of people’s lives as they each make decisions to try and improve their existence.

Very enjoyable read.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Joan Silber is the author of six previous works of fiction. Among many awards and honors, she has won a PEN/Hemingway Award and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

 

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My Review:

I missed this stunner from 2013 and was thrilled to backtrack and read Anthony Marra’s debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena set during wartime in Chechnya over the time span of 10 years.  Eight year old Havaa’s father is taken away in the night by the Russian army and her house is set on fire.   The family friend and neighbor, Akhmed, finds her hiding in the backyard with a suitcase she had prepared months before under her father’s advise and he leaves his ailing wife for the day while he brings the young girl to a nearby bombed out hospital for safety.  He puts Havaa in the care of the only remaining doctor, Sonia, who agrees to harbor the child, now a target of the Russian military, and he also volunteers to help out at the understaffed medical facility.

There are four pairs of characters that are intertwined in this story…the young child Havaa and her abducted father Dokka, neighbor Akhmed and his sick wife Ula, physician Sonia and her missing drug-addicted sister Natasha, Khasssam, Akhmed’s friend and scholar and his estranged informant son, Ramzan.  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena alternates time periods from 1994 – 2004 and the story tells what each of these characters endured during this time of war.  From sex trafficking and drug addition, to torture and mutilation, from births and deaths, to promises kept and secrets told, each and every part of this powerful story is a crucial piece of the puzzle and may warrant re-reading so nothing is missed.  The Russian names added to the complexity for me, but reviewing sections lead me to unforgettable revelations and made the book even more rich and colorful despite the bleak setting.

As we learn of the characters’ histories throughout the chapters, author Anthony Marra has them unleashing memories that provide us with incite and understanding, and binds them together to form the intricate mosaic of deep relationships.  These damaged people of Chechnya try to recover from their violent pasts as they search to find meaning in their experiences and purpose in the now. This is a most vivid storytelling of a profound and unforgettable story.  If you haven’t read it, you should.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

ANTHONY MARRA is the winner of a Whiting Award, Pushcart Prize, and the Narrative Prize. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, as well as the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a shortlist selection for the Flaherty-Dunnan first novel prize. In addition, his work has been anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.

The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall

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My Review:

It is not often where I pick up a book that has everything I’m looking for at that moment and The Subways Girls by Susie Orman Schnall delivered.  I started out in my early 20s in NYC at an ad agency so this book was a real treat for me as I was immediately drawn in and wanting to read more.  The urge to google and learn something new is always a good sign when I am reading a book, and the Miss Subways ad campaign sparked my interest.  Well developed, relatable characters that had me rooting for them and invested in them so much to pull at my heart strings and cause me to shed some tears, two separate and equally intriguing stories that perfectly connect, and just enough information or a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter to spur me made this a winner for me.

In her novel, Susie Orman Schnall explores some of the challenges women faced in the 1940s and some that still exist today.  In 1949 Charlotte wants to graduate college and work in advertising, yet the ad agencies only seems to have women working in the typing pool.  She has an opportunity to be in ad campaign that essentially is a beauty contest where the winner’s photo will be up in the subway cars, a lovely and successful boyfriend who wants to marry her and start a family, but her desire is to be educated and become a working woman, not a beauty queen or a wife and mother.  Her father demands she drop out of school, work at the family business and not participate in the Miss Subways contest.  After being rejected from all the jobs she applied to, feeling rebellious and going against her father’s wishes, and initially not being in favor of becoming an object of beauty, she decides to apply for Miss Subways anyway – with nothing to lose, she thinks it could help her father’s business by getting some publicity should she win.  Her supportive boyfriend stands by her, although some of his decisions reflect questionable judgement.  (No spoilers!)

Seventy years later, successful ad executive Olivia has to come up with an advertising idea for the MTA.  She has a complicated relationship with her boss, who has power over her financially and emotionally.  Her male coworker is not a fan of women and has no problem stealing her ideas and presenting them as his own.   Feeling despair, alone and her job on the line, Olivia has to make some decisions. Her strength and perseverance, despite the odds being against her, lead her to research the old Miss Subways campaign.   Through heartbreak, a new love and a surprising connection right next door, Olivia’s future begins to look bright.

Striking a balance for women is often challenging; a constant juggling between works and family….wanting it all.  Happiness is fluid and different things may be more important at different times.  I found myself rooting for both Charlotte and Olivia, a champion for the women, no matter what they wanted in order to be happy – the job, the beauty contest, the attention from the guy, the winning campaign…I thoroughly enjoyed this book!

To learn more about The Subway Girls read this fascinating Harper’s Bazaar article written by the author.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

I am the author of the novels THE SUBWAY GIRLS, THE BALANCE PROJECT, and ON GRACE. I grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. My writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, POPSUGAR, Writer’s Digest, and Glamour. In addition, I have spoken extensively on work-life balance and I’m the founder of The Balance Project interview series. I live in Purchase, NY, with my husband and our three sons. For more about me, please visit www.susieschnall.com or follow me at:

Instagram: @SusieOrmanSchnall
Facebook: SusieOrmanSchnall
Twitter: @SusieSchnall

 

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

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My Review:

The Weight Of Ink tells the story of Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who becomes a scribe for a blind rabbi in London in the 1600s right before the plague.  At the same time we learn about Helen Watt, a close to retiring British historian who is working on translations of some 17th century documents signed by scribe “Aleph”.  Even though these women lived-in different centuries, both were strong and determined to pursue their interests and fight to be heard, and choosing a life to satisfy the mind and sacrifice the heart.

Ester is a product of the Portuguese Inquisition and although displaced with little family, what feels like home for her is her job a a scribe for the rabbi, where her love of learning is nourished.  She turns down marriage offers as she prefers to work for the rabbi in order to continue her scholarly pursuits.  She has an open mind and longs to converse with philosophers and educated men, and although it is not acceptable for women to engage in these types of discussion, she creates unorthodox opportunities to be heard.

Helen has a love of Jewish history and as she and her American graduate student assistant Aaron Levy investigate the many pages of letters written to and from the London based rabbi to determine the identity of the scribe, it is a race against time as Helen’s physical health is failing, she is approaching retirement, and another team of historians are working on the same project.

We also learn about Aaron Levy, the Jewish assistant, who is interested in a relationship with a girl who is living in Israel on a Kibbutz and is pushing him away.  And then there are Ian and Brigette Easton, the couple who live in the 17th century house where the documents were found.  This is a complex story; a mystery and rich with history and well developed characters.

Author Rachel Kadish provides extensive depth: Jewish theology and philosophy, interfaith relationships and lost love, 17th century history, the Portuguese inquisition, the plague and so much more…no skimping on research here, but for me a bit too wordy, complex and long.  The Weight of Ink is powerful, intricate and the well deserved winner of the National Jewish Book Award.  Although this is not an easy book, if you love historical fiction and Jewish history and set aside a big chunk of time to conquer it, you will be rewarded with the beauty of memorable storytelling.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

I often begin writing when something is bothering me. Years ago, I was thinking about Virginia Woolf’s question: what if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister?
Woolf’s answer: She died without writing a word.
What, I wondered, would it take for a woman of that era, with that kind of capacious intelligence, not to die without writing a word?
For one thing, she’d have to be a genius at breaking rules.
My novel The Weight of Ink reaches back in time to ask the question: what does it take for a woman not to be defeated when everything around her is telling her to sit down and mind her manners? I started writing with two characters in mind, both women who don’t mind their manners: a contemporary historian named Helen Watt and a seventeenth century Inquisition refugee named Ester Velasquez. It’s been a delight working on their story.
The Weight of Ink is my third novel, but I’ve also written two other novels and one novella, plus a few dozen essays and stories. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I put words to paper because it’s my way of metabolizing life. To paraphrase Henry James: I don’t really know what I think until I see what I say.
Thanks for your interest in books.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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My Review:

In An American Marriage, circumstances put loyalty to the test.  After just a year of marriage, Celestial and Roy find themselves in an undesirable situation and Roy is sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. How does a new relationship endure such a setback? During Roy’s incarceration, the couple grows apart; they exchange letters about their feelings and family, but is it enough to keep them together?  Ultimately Celestial’s prison visits dwindle to nothing and Celestial turns to her old friend Andre for support.  Roy is continually hopeful he and his wife will pick up where they left off when he is released but is naive when it comes to her true feelings.

This uniquely written character driven novel let’s us in on the struggles of an incarcerated man, an independent woman and their marriage during a 12 year sentence.  Through the exchange of letters we learn of their past, their families and their desires, yet their communications are cause for misunderstandings.  Celestial’s family hires a lawyer to fight for justice and after a long time working on the case and five years served, Roy is set free.  He hopes to return to his previous live, but time has moved on and even though Celestial has stood by him in his innocence, she has mixed feelings about his release as she has changed direction in her personal life.

I enjoyed this book although the consensus of my bookclub was that even though it was well written and worthwhile to read, the characters were not likable.  Celestial and Roy’s choices and behaviors are fodder for good discussion:  Should she visit Roy in jail?  Divorce Roy?  Should Roy give Celestial permission to leave him?  Should he act upon his jealousy?  Are they clear with each other about their desires regarding a family?  Did their role models in life effect the way they behave and think?

Race and the justice system are undercurrent themes in this story of love, marriage, commitment and the pursuit of the American Dream, and I recommend it, especially for book groups.

Goodreads summary

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About the Author:

Tayari Jones is the author of the novels Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and An American Marriage (Algonquin Books, February 2018). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, The New York Times, and Callaloo. A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, she has also been a recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, United States Artist Fellowship, NEA Fellowship and Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship. Silver Sparrow was named a #1 Indie Next Pick by booksellers in 2011, and the NEA added it to its Big Read Library of classics in 2016. Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is currently an Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University.