Wednesday, April 24, 2019

PURPLE HIBISCUS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Kambili is a teenage girl growing up in Nigeria, but this book is not so much a novel about Nigeria as it is about an abusive childhood.  Kambili’s family is extremely wealthy, but her “Christian” father is vicious and physically abusive toward Kambili, her brother Jaja, and their mother.  The brutality that Kambili and Jaja suffer at the hands of their devout father is almost too disturbing to read.  He also does not allow any family contact with his father whose traditional ways he considers heathen.  He finally allows Kambili and Jaja to spend a week with their Aunty Ifeoma and her three children, who do not enjoy the affluent lifestyle to which Kambili and Jaja are accustomed.  Aunty’s problem is not so much lack of money as it is scarcity of resources, such as fuel for the car, electricity for her home, and drinking water in the area where she lives.  However, the freedom and joy in Aunty Ifeoma’s household is an improvement that Jaja embraces, while Kambili struggles to overcome the guilt and fear she feels from betraying her father’s strict rules.  Her father is a study in contrasts, lending numerous points of irony to this novel.  For one thing, he is enormously generous with his money despite being a nasty taskmaster and stingy with real affection.  Another irony is that he expects Kambili and her brother to be first in their class, but their real education takes place at Aunty Ifeoma’s, where they find out how constrained their lives really are.  Finally, although Kambili’s father strikes down the least insubordination on the part of his children with cruel punishment, he publishes a newspaper that routinely criticizes the Nigerian government.  I never figured out if he was just basically mean or if his violent temper sometimes got the better of him.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA by Chanel Cleeton

This book swept me away to Cuba and the parallel love stories of grandmother and granddaughter.  In 1959 nineteen-year-old Elisa and her family enjoy a carefree life of affluence in Havana, until Castro’s rebellion against Batista’s corrupt regime gets underway.  She meets a young revolutionary at a party, and they fall madly in love.  Decades later, her granddaughter Marisol, raised in the Miami area, goes to Cuba to scatter Elisa’s ashes.  Fidel has passed power on to Raul Castro, and most of the country remains in poverty, struggling to survive on scarce rations or capitalizing on the tourism industry.  Marisol meets a young man also, who may already be under Castro’s scrutiny for his blog’s criticism of the government.  Both women find themselves conflicted about their place in Cuba.  Elisa and her family become exiles, but they quickly rebuild their sugar business and prosper.  However, she and Marisol both have to grapple with the fact that most Cubans have not been so fortunate.  Both love stories are breathtaking, but the backdrop of Cuban history tends to take center stage.  Unfortunately, although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it probably would not appeal to men, because of the romantic angle.  There is sort of a Gone With the Wind feel to it, with the spoiled heroines and their courageous men who refuse to abandon their principles.  There are a couple of surprises, one of which I anticipated and one that I did not.  This book was not on my radar until my book club chose it, and I’m glad they did.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz

I love thrillers, but this is more of a murder mystery set in a quaint English town in 1955.  And it’s actually a murder mystery within a murder mystery, but you won’t realize that until you are deep into the book.  The outer story is that of editor Susan Ryeland, who presents us with the ninth installment in Alan Conway’s whodunit series, starring private detective Atticus Pünd.  In Conway’s novel, when wealthy aristocrat Magnus Pye is beheaded, Atticus has to reevaluate the death of Pye’s housekeeper, Mary Blakiston, whose death was originally deemed accidental.  Magnus was not well-liked and was about to sell the town’s beloved Dingle Dell to a developer.  Needless to say, almost everyone in town has a motive for murdering him, so that Pünd has a slew of suspects to interrogate, including the vicar, the vicar’s wife, the groundskeeper, Pye’s sister, Pye’s wife, Pye’s wife’s boyfriend, Mary’s son and his girlfriend, Mary’s estranged husband, a shady antiques dealer and his wife, and Pye’s neighbor.  And I’ve probably left out a few.  I enjoyed all aspects of this book, including the writing, and the outer story even has pretty good character development, as everyone in Susan’s orbit becomes a suspect in another murder, with her as the bumbling amateur detective.  What makes this book special is the nesting of the two stories, which I thought the author handled very skillfully.  This is a beach read that will keep you guessing.  It’s also very entertaining without a single stitch of obvious humor, but the mashup of two murder mysteries is clever and fun without exactly being funny.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019


The characters in this novel are so vivid and haunting that I could not get them out of my mind.  The novel follows two related stories, one in 1985 and one in 2015.  Yale, a young gay man in Chicago trying to navigate the AIDS epidemic, is the main character in the 1985 story, and, for me, his sections are the most riveting.  Fiona is the star of the 2015 sections, but she appears as a 21-year-old in the earlier storyline as well.  Her parents disowned her gay brother Nico who later died of AIDS, and she became good friends with both his partner and many of his friends, including Yale.  After mothering many of these young men through their dying days, she fails her own daughter, Claire.  Thirty years later Fiona is in Paris attempting to reconnect with Claire, who now has a daughter of her own.  Yale’s story, though, is more gripping.  Fiona’s twenty-first century storyline at times seemed a welcome distraction, but I still wanted to race through those sections so that I could get back to Yale’s troubles, which were so much more weighty and at times devastating.  Not only are his friends becoming infected, but he endures the stress of worrying about his own health, as well as a work project involving millions of dollars’ worth of previously undiscovered art.  This is just a terrific novel and not so much sad as moving.  The author does a tremendous job of delineating all the characters so that there’s never any confusion as to who’s who.  Also, I found it unusual that she made the male characters, almost all of whom are gay, so much more relatable than the women.  I thoroughly adored Yale, despite some really horrific lapses of judgment whose consequences the reader can see coming like a runaway train.  My biggest question at the end of the novel is “What happened to Roman?”