Random Reviews: August

Back to short reviews: Here are a few of the books I’ve read over the last few weeks, in no particular order. I’ll be back with more in a few days.

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Sonali Dev’s A Distant Heart is a follow up to her previous novel, A Change of Heart, not quite as dark, but continuing the story of the organ theft ring which figured in that book. A A Distant HeartDistant Heart, set in contemporary Mumbai, tells the story of Kimi Patil, a heart transplant recipient, and Rahul Savant, a police officer working on the organ ring case. Kimi and Rahul met as children, and the novel switches back and forth between their growing friendship in the past (“a long time ago”) and current events (“present day”). The novel includes elements of romance and suspense, but remains mainstream at heart, beautifully written but rather slowly paced.

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I downloaded up Joseph Egan’s The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s because I enjoy early Hollywood tales, not because I know much about Mary Astor (I think I’ve only seen her in The Maltese Falcon), and I didn’t know much about her The Purple Diariesdiaries or her custody battle. Not much from the notorious “Purple Diaries” is reprinted in this book, and most of what was printed at the time was forged, but the story is interesting and kept me reading. It’s fascinating to see how the testimony at the custody hearing became wilder and wilder, and rose to the level of a national newspaper obsession for a few weeks in 1936. The writing is repetitious at times, and the proofreading mediocre, but I found the book entertaining.

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I picked up Hoax: A History of Deception, by Ian Tattersall and Peter Nevraumont, at my local Half Price Book store. Broken into 50 chapters, the book covers everything from harmless and amusing exploits to wild conspiracy theories to the downright dangerous (such as homeopathy and anti-vaccine Hoaxhysteria, two bits of nonsense I find very disturbing). Faked photographs, faked deaths, successful and unsuccessful forgeries, scams and con games, flat and hollow earth ideas, military trickery and so on all pop up in the book. In this age of “fake news” and apparent willingness to believe Big Lies, there’s a lot to be learned from hoaxes of the past.

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Very little is known about the life of Kate Warne, the first female operative with the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, but Greer MacAllister has done an impressive job of giving her a story in Girl in Disguise. The novel begins with Kate applying for the job,Girl in Disguise answering a newspaper ad that no one, least of all Allen Pinkerton, expected a woman to respond to. Earning the trust and respect of her male colleagues is no easy feat, but Kate perseveres, working on cases of all sorts, until the Civil War turns her into a spy. Along the way she meets characters both fictional and real (including Abraham Lincoln), contemplates the moral lines she may or may not be crossing, and confronts ghosts from her past. MacAllister draws a fascinating picture of the mid-nineteenth century, of the Pinkerton headquarters in Chicago, and of Washington society during the Civil War.

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I actually downloaded Girl in Disguise over a year ago and promptly lost track of it among the hundreds of books in my Amazon cloud. Now and then I open the Kindle app on my computer, which gives me a wide screen, full color view of my electronic library, and browse. The cover of Girl in Disguise caught my eye, and I’m glad it did. I will, however, never catch up.

 

Sonali Dev: A Change of Heart

A Change of Heart is Sonali Dev’s third novel, and it is far darker than her previous novels, A Bollywood Affair and The Bollywood Bride. It tells the story of two terribly damaged people with a faint but real change of overcoming pain and deception to heal each other.

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Dr. Nikhil Joshi (whom we met in Bollywood Bride) has spent the past two years as medical officer on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, wallowing in grief, guilt, and Jack A Change of HeartDaniels since the death of his wife, Jen, who was brutally murdered on the street in Mumbai. One night on the ship he sees a woman who resembles Jen. Her name is Jess, and she tells him that Jen’s heart is beating in her chest; she has the scar to prove it.

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Unlike Nik, who grew up in a comfortable and loving Indian American family in Chicago, Jess has moved from Kathmandu to Calcutta to Mumbai, fleeing poverty and violence, not always successfully. Now she has a decent job as a chorus dancer in Bollywood films, a seven-year-old son who must never know how he was conceived, and a mission to find the evidence of an organ theft ring that Jen had gathered and died for, no matter what it takes.

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Nik and Jess’ relationship, from the cruise ship to their search for the missing evidence among Jen’s belongings in Chicago, is painful and hard. The novel depicts violence against women as well as the organized organ theft Jen had discovered.

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A Change of Heart is a far darker book than I usually enjoy, but it is deeply emotional and beautifully written, and I couldn’t put it down until all its mysteries were untangled.

Random Reviews

The cover of Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun caught my eye, so I took it home, stuck it on my TBR-soon shelf (alas, some books only stay there until they get demoted to the TBR-eventually shelves—I can’t keep Girl Waits With Gunup), but didn’t read it until a friend raved about it on Facebook. I had picked it up expecting a mystery, but this is actually a rather slow-paced novel about the three Kopp sisters (who were real people, as were many of the supporting characters and the situation), told in first person by the eldest, Constance. The three sisters are delightfully distinct, and rather eccentric, characters, whose adventures over a year or so in 1914 New Jersey swing from terrifying to exhilarating. A well-written, imaginative, and thoroughly enjoyable look at the lives of three unusual women a century ago.

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Ria Parkar, the heroine of Sonali Dev’s second book, The Bollywood Bride, is a woman with one foot in Bollywood–and one in Chicago. In India she’s a movie star; in Chicago she’s one member of a large, loving Indian-American family, gathering to celebrate a wedding. But Ria has secrets she has guarded since she was a little girl, secrets that tore her away from the man she still loves, Vikram Jathar.

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By the middle of the book I was growing a little impatient with Ria’s insistence on keeping her secrets to The Bollywood Brideprotect other people, never giving them, and Vikram in particular, a chance to make their own decisions, but then I got caught up in her past and sat up way too late reading the second half of the book straight through.

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Aside from the rekindling romance between Ria and Vikram, Dev paints a fascinating picture of Indian culture joyously preserved in the suburbs of Chicago. I want to go eat in Uma’s kitchen!

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I really loved Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, the story of Maggie I Still Dream About YouFortenberry, former Miss Alabama (forty years or so ago), one-time model, never married, now a real estate agent in an office that seems to be sliding down hill. Maggie has decided that it’s time to leave this life on her own terms (but this is NOT a depressing book, far from it) and has devised a detailed (complete with to-do lists) suicide plan. But Maggie is so responsible and conscientious, socially and financially, that her obligations keep getting in the way. She can’t bear to leave a bill unpaid, an account unsettled, or a friend in need.

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This is a delightful book about a woman of a certain age finding unexpected meaning in life and in the future, and coming to terms with the past. It’s full of quirky characters, the history and culture of Birmingham, Alabama, and even an entertaining historical mystery involving a steamer trunk and a skeleton. Alternately hilarious and touching, this is a wonderful novel. Highly recommended.

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Fair Play, Deeanne Gist’s second book set at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (following It Happened at the Fair) follows Dr. Billy Jack Tate, a female physician who finds herself working at the Women’s Building atFair Play the Fair, where she meets (and treats) Hunter Scott, a Texas Ranger spending six months as a Columbian Guard. When Hunter finds an abandoned baby on the Fair grounds, the two of them team up to find the baby a refuge at Hull House, where they learn of the terrible conditions of tenement living and the sad fate of so many children. Their desire to help the children brings them together, but will Billy’s career drive them apart? Another sweet romance from Gist, tempered with heartbreaking descriptions of life in the late 19th century slums of Chicago.

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