“Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan

crazyrichasiansCrazy Rich Asians is the Cinderella story of Rachel Chu, a 28-year-old economics professor at New York University, who has been happily dating Nick Young, a 32-year-old History professor at NYU, for the past two years. Nick tells Rachel that his childhood best friend is getting married over the summer, he plans on flying back home to Singapore for the wedding, and he wants her to accompany him. But, this raises questions. Does an international trip to meet family mean something serious for the relationship? Rachel is a bit anxious, but ultimately agrees. As an economist, Rachel knows Singapore has one of the highest concentrations of wealth in the world, and she is excited to see the island up close with Nick as her guide. Rachel knows nothing about Nick’s family and is nervous about what to expect. As Rachel fishes for details about them, Nick clams up.

Rachel is shocked to learn that not only is the wedding the upper-crust social event of the year, but Nick is Singapore’s most eligible bachelor.  Nick’s mother, Eleanor, expects Nick to return to Singapore and marry a woman from his own milieu. As the potential heir to a massive fortune—and a member of one of most mysterious, wealthy, and powerful families in Asia—Nick should only be dating women in their social circle. That is, he should absolutely not be dating some unheard-of woman from New York. Despite knowing nothing about Rachel, Eleanor is certain Nick’s girlfriend is a gold digger after Nick’s fortune. Eleanor decides to take matters into her own hands, hiring a private investigator to conduct a full background check on Rachel and her family and enlisting her best friends and their daughters to help sabotage her son’s relationship.  This, from the book, sums it up:  “To Eleanor, every single person occupied a specific space in the elaborately constructed social universe in her mind. Like most of the women in her crowd, Eleanor could meet another Asian anywhere in the world…and within thirty seconds of learning their name and where they lived, she would implement her social algorithm and calculate precisely where they stood in her constellation based on who their family was, who else they were related to, what their approximate net worth might be, how the fortune was derived, and what family scandals might have occurred within the past fifty years.”

The genre is a romantic comedy with colorful characters and humorous situations.  Rachel is mostly trying to survive the competitive, judgmental, and entitled women that orbit the social circle.  It’s a clash of snobbish Old World tradition and socially fluid American individualism.  The book is now a movie of the same name.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, October 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 3 to discuss Crazy Rich Asians at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Midnight at the Great Ideas Bookstore” by Matthew Sullivan

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I love bookstores so any book about a bookstore gets my attention.  The Bright Ideas Bookstore is a fictional bookstore in Denver loosely based on the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver’s historic LoDo district where the author used to work.

The central character is 30-year-old Lydia Smith who loves her job at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – the employees and regular customers bond to form a loose family.  The community is shaken when one of the regular customers, Joey Molina, hangs himself with a belt among the stacks at the store at midnight without a suicide note.  Even more disturbing is that he bequeathed his meager belongings to Lydia.  She is led to unravel the puzzle of his last days when she discovers Joey has left coded messages to her in pages of his books.  And why did Joey have a picture in his pocket of Lydia’s 10th birthday party?

When a childhood friend, Raj Patel, reappears in Lydia’s life she revisits an unsolved 20-year-old tragedy.  Causing a media frenzy at the time, the Hammerman, who, while Lydia was on a sleepover as a child, brutally killed her friend and her friend’s family with a hammer, leaving Lydia alive, hiding under the sink. The Hammerman was never caught, and Lydia seeks answers from the now-retired detective who handled the case, but she may not want to hear what he has to say. Turns out he always suspected her father was the killer but was stopped from pursuing that path, even in the face of some compelling evidence, and he’s never let go of his suspicion. After all, why did the killer let Lydia live after killing a 10-year-old girl and her parents?

 

The book is filled with quirky characters and the descriptions of the store and surroundings are vivid. The plot is full of surprises and the final resolution to the story is packed with coincidences that strain credulity, but this creative and intricately plotted mystery still largely satisfies.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, September 6.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, September 5 to discuss Midnight at the Great Ideas Bookstore at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly

LilacGirls

LILAC GIRLS, Martha Hall Kelly

Review by Carol J. Biedrzycki

Lilac Girls is the story of strong women whose lives were driven by World War II.  Two are real life historic figures.  Caroline Ferriday was a generous American humanitarian who worked tirelessly to help those being oppressed in Europe during the war.  Herta Oberheuser was a German doctor who pledged loyalty to the Nazi party to gain economic security and prestige.  Kasia Kuzmerick, one of the victims of medical experimentation at Ravensbrück, is a composite character who suffered physical and emotional abuse.  Ms. Ferriday was responsible for bringing them together.  Lilac Girls is their story.

The personal backgrounds and motives of the Lilac Girls are a unique snapshot of the much written about Nazi occupation of Europe.  The stories of the three women are told through the eyes of Caroline, Herta and Kasia.  Each of the narrators has a unique voice that took me on a voyage with ports-of-call in the United States, Germany, and Poland.

Society’s expectations for women in 1939 were stereotypical and narrow.  A woman married and stayed at home to look after the children while her husband worked and brought in a weekly wage. A single woman was pitied and she usually did work which involved some form of service such as working as a waitress, cooking, and housekeeping.  No matter how well or how hard they worked, a man was always the boss.  Women did as they were told.

Societal norms in Nazi-occupied Europe didn’t budge when it came to giving women a fair chance.   Women were targets for sexual abuse and discrimination with no recourse short of suicide.  None of the Lilac Girls could live within society’s expectations and be happy.   Because they were women they had to take risks to survive and fulfill their personal goals.

I am of Polish decent.  I have deceased relatives who were political prisoners in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Besides learning about the difficulties experienced by Europeans trying to immigrate to the United States I was entrenched in the details of the plight of the Polish people who were much like my relatives who never talked about their experiences.

I bought Lilac Girls because I liked the cover photo.  It jumped into my hands and turned out to be a profound reading experience.  Martha Hall Kelly spent ten years researching this book and it shows.  When I started reading it I couldn’t put it down.  When I finished reading it I had to share it with my reading friends.  Everyone has thanked me for letting them know about Lilac Girls.

Carol Biedrzycki, an avid life-long reader, is a recently retired Executive Director of a non-profit in Austin.  She is spending the summer in Montague working at the Book Nook.

Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 6.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Trick” by Emanuel Bergmann

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The Trick employs dual story lines.  The first is about Max Cohn, a 10-year-old boy growing up in Los Angeles, who momentarily wishes his father would go away when he is asked to clean the bunny cage instead of going to the movies.  A few weeks later, his parents announce they are getting divorced, and Max feels guilty that his fleeting wish came true.  He is determined to make things right.  While looking through his father’s things, he finds an old LP labeled: ZABBATINI: HIS GREATEST TRICKS, which among other things, contains the spell of “eternaaaaal loooooove!” – this, he believes, is what is needed to save his parents marriage.  Unfortunately, when he plays the track, it has a scratch and won’t play.  Undeterred, he goes about searching for the famed magician.  He climbs out the window, jumps on a bus, and heads to the Hollywood Magic Shop, where he incredibly receives some help on tracking down Zabbatini, now an old man.

In alternating chapters, we learn the the story of Moshe Goldenhirsch. In the early days of the 20th century in Prague, Rabbi Laibl Goldenhirsch and his wife, Rifka, desperately long for a child, but their efforts are in vain. Laibl gets called to serve in World War I. Upon his return, Rifka is pregnant. “It’s a miracle,” she says. “Immaculate conception.” (The locksmith upstairs may have been an agent to the miracle.)  Because the rabbi loves his wife, and because they want the child so much, he accepts her words (and he has secrets of his own). But little Moshe is a gift, and he is loved – postwar life is happy for a while. Later, Rifka’s health deteriorates, and Moshe is left to the care of now an abusive, depressed, and drunk rabbi of a father.

This all changes when a neighbor takes Moshe to the circus.  It is love at first sight – not just the excitement of the circus, the animals, the magician – but Julia, the magician’s assistant.  Like Max’s determination, Moshe is single-minded in his efforts to join the troupe and pursue his interest in Julia. Under the tutelage of the magician, he creates his own persona and craft, becoming “The Great Zabbatini.” Just when hitting his stride in Berlin, the Nazis come to power along with growing anti-Semitism.   Moshe learns that neighbors are your friends until they aren’t. Villagers accept money to keep secrets until there’s no more money, and they get paid elsewhere. Moshe is sent to a concentration camp.  In a chapter called “Scheherazade’s Last Tale,” Zabbatini performs a new trick every night for the camp commandant, until he finally gets bored and throws Moshe in with the rest of the prisoners.

Emanuel Bergman has written a charming, yet haunting, tale of love, betrayal, redemption, and the power of determination. It also asks if there is room for miracles and magic in our lives or is it just a trick?

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 2.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, July 3 to discuss “The Trick” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly

all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance

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Hillbilly Elegy is not only a memoir and hero’s journey of the author, it is a critical look inside hillbilly culture still strong in some parts of rural and middle America.  Vance’s deep family roots are in Appalachia, namely Jackson, Kentucky.  There are two elements of hillbilly culture that Vance explicitly depicts as a framework through which the reader

can understand his narrative. The first is an internal code of justice, independent from the traditional legal system. This code is primarily based on the concept of honor: one’s reputation and that of one’s family is paramount. This is most clearly demonstrated through the Blanton men, Vance’s great uncles, who had committed various violent acts, mostly in response to perceived slights. Rather than being viewed as criminal or violent, their actions were necessary and applauded in their community. A second, related aspect of this culture is an almost paranoid privacy and strong suspicion of outsiders.

From an early age, the author learned to value loyalty, honor, and toughness. His grandmother (he refers to as “Mamaw”) taught him how to win a fist fight, while implying that he should never start a fight, only respond when necessary to protect his honor.

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randparents, like many of their peers, were enticed by manufacturing companies (in this case Armco Steel) to move to industrial towns of the Midwest (in this case Middletown, OH).  Vance was raised in Middletown, but because of the deep family roots and summer visits, considered Jackson, Kentucky, his real hometown.   Hillbilly transplants took their hillbilly values with them.  While transplanted families generally enjoyed higher rates of economic success than their counterparts who remained, they faced backlash from their Northern white neighbors. The blunt, honor-based hillbilly culture conflicted sharply with communities that placed a higher importance on politeness and formal authority. The author describes a specific incident in which Mamaw and Papaw destroyed items in a pharmacy and accosted the clerk for telling their young son, Vance’s Uncle Jimmy, not to play with an expensive toy. A reaction that seemed normal and expected for Mamaw and Papaw shocked those around them.

Mamaw was the most influential adult in Vance’s early life – she stressed the importance of education and was a solid emotional rock compared to his mother who went through numerous boyfriends and husbands and was addicted to narcotics.  The last straw was when his Mom asked J.D. for a jar of clean urine, admitting that she could not pass a drug test to keep her nursing license. At Mamaw’s urging, J.D. reluctantly complied. However, from this point forward, J.D., with his mother’s agreement, lived solely with Mamaw.

Vance’s first break away from hillbilly culture was his enrollment in the Marine Corps.  Prior, throughout his youth, the author claims he was plagued by a sense of self-doubt, something common among people in his community. Through boot camp and life in the Marines generally, he acquired a sense of confidence and discipline. He compared his new resolve and ability to tackle challenges to the learned helplessness endemic to his society.

Aft

er he finished his service, Vance attended Ohio University where he used his intense work ethic to complete his degree in 23 months while working 3 jobs and keeping up his exercise routine. He then attended Yale law school.

Although feeling like an outsider at Yale, he learned from his girlfriend (later wife) and a mentoring professor, that success not only came from hard work and good grades, but relied on social skills and networking.

Vance is critical of hillbilly society and its talk of hard work, yet laziness and helplessness at heart, and the tendency to blame their economic circumstances on the government (especial

ly at the time Barack Obama).

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, June 4

.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, June 6 to discuss “Hillbilly Elegy” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

Two back-to-back surprising deaths send shockwaves to a sleepy community in a quaint English town.  A quirky old detective with a heavy accent and a sidekick enter the scene with numerous suspects holding many secrets.  Sound familiar?  No, it’s not Agatha

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Christie – it’s Anthony Horowitz and his book “Magpie Murders.”  It is a traditional whodunit where all the clues are presented throughout the story and the reader is challenged to tie them together to solve the crime before the genius sleuth does the final reveal.  The twist here is that Mr. Horowitz has taken the genre to a new level:  it’s a whodunit within a whodunit.

For the set up, “Magpie Murders” is the new book by fictional megastar mystery writer Alan Conway, creator of the hit Atticus Pünd detective series. Alan writes in the style of Agatha Christie and uses many of her gimmicks, including basing the title and names of chapters on a nursery rhyme – in this case, the old nursery rhyme about magpies: One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told…. The editor, Susan Ryeland, has just received the draft of the book and has hunkered down with a glass of wine to read through it over the

weekend.  For the next six chapters we are reading “Magpie Murders” along with Susan.  The reader becomes engrossed in the story of two mysterious deaths at the old Pye Mansion in the fictional town of Saxon-on-Avon in the 1950s.  The idiosyncratic detective Atticus Pünd is Jewish, of half German and half Greek lineage, who survived the concentration camps during World War II.  He is known for being the best as he has solved many high-profile crimes. As he moves about the village interviewing the inhabitants, he uncovers many festering secrets, some that have been buried for years.

The Magpie Murders story is suddenly interrupted, and we are back with Susan who learns of an unexpected death in her world.  It is ruled a suicide, but Susan has her suspicions. Using techniques she gleaned from editing the Atticus Pünd mysteries, she takes on solving the mystery.

After many red herrings in their respective stories, both mysteries are neatly solved.  For mystery lovers, it’s a “two-fer” in one book.

Both mysteries take place in small towns; it appears Horowitz is making a statement about the people that inhabit them.  Upon first look, it would appear that a country village is a tranquil place to live. Susan remarks that she “soon discovered that every time I made one friend I made three enemies and that arguments about such issues as car parking, the church bells, dog waste, and hanging flower baskets dominated daily life to such an extent that everyone was permanently at each other’s throats.”  And, later: “Emotions which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city fester around the

village square, driving people to psychosis and violence.” She reasons that, because people are so close to each other day after day, they tend to get on one another’s nerves more quickly.  She reasons also that, because people know everyone else in a small village, they are more likely to be suspicious of each other. “Cities are anonymous but in a small, rural community everyone knows everyone, making it so much easier to create suspects and, for that matter, people to suspect them.”  She suggests that these close-knit comm

unities create a web of suspicions, sometimes based more on gossip than hard fact.

W

atch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on

Monday, May 7.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, May 2 to discu

ss “Magpie Murders” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katrina Bivald

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Two friends meet online over their mutual love of books: Amy, an elderly woman in Broken Wheel, Iowa; and Sara, a young bookseller in Sweden. Although they met online, they begin a pre-internet practice of writing letters to each other about their respective reading lists and events going on in their lives. Through their correspondence, Sara learns of the varied characters that live in Broken Wheel, and Amy learns of the goings on at the bookstore. Amy repeatedly invites Sara to visit Iowa. When Sara loses her job due to the bookstore’s going out of business, she decides there is nothing stopping her from making the trip.

Upon arrival, Sara learns that, while in in route, Amy succumbed to a long terminal illness – the funeral was just letting out. She had travelled half way around the world to stay with her friend, and now her friend is dead. The town, not quite sure what to do with her, takes Sara in and insists she stay in Amy’s house for as long as she wants.

It’s clear to Sara: Broken Wheel’s best days were many years ago. Most of the main street is boarded up, save a diner and a hardware/grocery. As is typical of most rural areas, the agrarian economy was wiped out when big commercial farms took over the industry and made it difficult for family farms to compete. As one resident, John, summed up the dying town: “If there aren’t any jobs then the young people and the families won’t stay, and if the families don’t stay then there aren’t any new young people, and there’s no town without young people.”

When Sara learns that one of the boarded storefronts in town belonged to Amy (her husband ran a competing hardware store) she decides what the town needs most is a bookstore! The odds are stacked against her. Her bookstore in Sweden closed in the heart of a thriving town – it’s a tough business even in the best of circumstances. Worse, there are virtually no readers in Broken Wheel – who would be her customers? Undeterred, Sara starts to refurbish the store. Immediately the town pitches in. Caroline, the local church lady, takes up a collection of used furniture and shelves. George, a down-and-out who struggles with alcohol, helps with cleaning and painting the store. For inventory they start out with Amy’s large collection of books. It is the most exciting thing to happen in Broken Wheel in decades.

The main themes are rebirth and the power of books to transform lives. The bookstore revives main street – it gives new life not only to the town, but to the individuals who start to read. George now has a purpose and gives up alcohol. Prim and proper Caroline gives up shame from the past and finds love with a younger man. Grumpy Grace (owner of the diner), starts to try out something she read in a book: “If you have a talent or skill, it is your responsibility to give of your gift to those with less ability.” She begins to use her talent to bake cakes for Caroline’s church bake sale. And lonely Tom (Amy’s only relative and nephew) and Sara form a relationship.

Will it all come to an end when the Immigration Investigator comes to town just before Sara’s Visa expires? You’ll have to read the book.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 4 to discuss The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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