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American War: A Novel

American War : A Novel

by Omar El Akkao

Knopf | 2017
Hardcover: 352 pages
ISBN: 978-0-451-49358-3
Genre: Dystopian Fiction

ARC e-book from Netgalley and publisher in exchange for review

★★★★☆

Omar El Akkad is an Egyptian-born Canadian journalist who has reported on the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring uprising, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

NPR Author Interview

Contemporary American Political Climate

In the current American political climate, split between two extremes for the most part, much of the book will seem prescient. This is a reminder that the book is a novel; a story; not alternative facts. It is not an easy book to read, and for some readers, the topic too emotional or draining to handle at this time. I would recommend reading this with an open and questioning mind

Novel’s Background

It’s 2075. America is beset by flooding linked to climate change and the coastal states have lost significant if not all of their landmass. Washington D.C. was devastated by flooding and the northern capital is now in Columbus, Ohio. World wide temperatures have soared and the continental US experiences unbearable heat. Coastal states have water supplies polluted with salt water and irrigation and agriculture has disappeared.

The US Congress passed a bill prohibiting the use of fossil fuels “in response to decades of adverse climate effects, the waning economic importance of fossil fuels”. The southern states rebelled  to protect the waning coal mining industry and to preserve their southern traditions. The protests led to violence and the assassination of the President.

South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi seceded from the Union in 2074 and formed The Free Southern States (FSS) with it’s capital in Atlanta.

Millions of displaced citizens, some from the ravages of nature and others victims of partisan militias, have been forced into refugee camps. The south, now unable to resupply from the north and western states, is reliant on foreign assistance for food and goods. A rabid civil war, using biological and conventional weapons, raged for the next 20 years.

Story’s Focus

Amid this cacophony of war, we follow the Chestnut family through the nightmare. We meet the twins, Sarat and Dana; polar opposites. Dana, beautiful and admired -ever the family princess is contrasted with Sarat, inquisitive, introverted, furious and observant- over-sized in both body and mind. Simon, the typical teenage boy, is caught up in gangs and searching for his place in this war of against humanity. When their father attempts to take the family north for a better life, he is murdered. The children and their mother are forced into Camp Patience, a misnomer if there ever was one.

At this point the story focuses on Sarat in a story that starts out like Katniss in the Hunger Games as she stalks the edges of mental and physical confinement and ends in unimaginable horror. As we follow Sarat through the years at Camp Patience, we meet evil in the person of Albert Gaines. Gaines slowly and carefully uses Sarat’s anger and fury at the cruel deaths and injuries inflicted on her family to mold her into the perfect weapon for his cause.

Sarat’s radicalization should scare the bejesus out of the reader. If you think your child could resist the pressures of a crafty weasel posing as the answer to their mental confusion about the world- think again. And as Sarat carries out her final mission, the truth of how easy it would be to find this same horror in our own time will rock your world.

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE

by Gail Honeyman

Pamela Dorman Bks  | 2017
Hardcover: 327 pages
ISBN: 9780735220683
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss

★★★★☆

When people ask me what I do…I tell them I work in an office. [I work] for a graphic design company…Bob, the owner [must have felt sorry for me]. I had a degree in Classics and no work experience…I showed up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.

First thing before I write another word…you are going to love Eleanor Oliphant. She’s had a rough life but there’s something very special lurking inside her and she has a quirky personality that makes her endearing.

Pity isn’t a word Eleanor would use about herself. She’s pretty straightforward about everything – one of the first thing you will notice about her is her lack of a mental filter. She is a recluse but when she bumps up against the world she has a way of expressing herself that is unique and sometimes seen as abrasive.

In her first 30 years Eleanor has learned that the world is a cruel place. She only has to look in a mirror to see that half her face was burned in a fire but she has only limited memory of how it happened. She has grown up  in foster homes; passed around like a white elephant gift. It was easier to pack her up and shove her into a new spot than to address why she doesn’t seem to fit into a normal family life.

Yet despite all of life’s misfortunes, Eleanor is perfectly happy just as she is…she sees the world as out-of-step and strange.

I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor…I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life…I am a self-contained entity.

Then two things happen that crack open her self-contained world.

She wins tickets to a rock concert and is star struck by one of the musicians.  This immediate infatuation sends her on a mission to upgrade her image and is convinced that he marry her.

Next, her company computer breaks and she meets a disheveled computer repairman with a gentle spirit and a kind heart. Raymond is the only person in the office that sees her as a person not an object for ridicule and scorn. They begin a routine of lunch hour trips and in time form a social relationship that expands Eleanor’s world.

Eleanor crashes and burns when she learns that her rock star is a jerk. All of her hidden memories of childhood flood back. Her protective shell cracks as she deems herself undeserving of happiness and love. Reaching rock bottom in her life, Eleanor finds the strength to step on that last rung and begin to climb into a brighter and happier future.

As rough as this story sounds, it is not a maudlin book. It reminded me, in a way, of my favorite character in the recent bestseller, Man Called Ove. I was sorry when the book ended but I was cheering and calling out to Eleanor- you go girl! You deserve your new life.

Highly recommended.

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Girl In Snow

GIRL IN SNOW

by DANYA KUKAFKA

Simon & Schuster | 2017
Hardcover: 368 pages
ISBN: 978-1501144370
Genre: Suspense
Review Source: ARC from S & S through Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

Tragedy struck in northern Colorado this morning, where the body of a fifteen-year-old girl was discovered on a [snowy] elementary school playground. The victim has been identified as Lucinda Hayes, a ninth-grade student at Jefferson High School.

Lucinda’s death and the subsequent three-day murder investigation sets forth a firestorm of memories, self-reflection and introspection through three primary protagonists and a host of secondary characters. The three main characters alternate chapters offering different perspectives on the murder and Lucinda’s brief life where Cameron and Russ are told in the third person and we hear directly from Jade.

Fifteen-year-old Cameron Whitley’s first thoughts after learning of Lucinda’s death were that “her shoulder blades framed her naked spine like a pair of static lungs”.  He spends his nights standing still in the dark outside homes watching his neighbors’ candid movements and activities. Lucinda Hayes is his primary interest and over time has become his compulsion. He began his nightly stalking after taking an art class and became curious to people’s lives in candid moments. The community is aware of Cameron’s habits and peculiar behavior; he was considered annoying and presumed as an innocent…until the murder. When stressed, Cameron devolves into a state he refers to as “tangled” and becomes erratic and performs dangerous actions like stealing his mother’s gun for a shooting spree in the woods.

Cameron had started playing Statue Nights when he was twelve years old. The summer after sixth grade, he realized he could pop out the screen in his bedroom window…

Seventeen-year-old Jade Dixon-Burns learned about Lucinda’s death over breakfast and “felt only a foreign lightness: like someone sucked the weight from her legs, taken the terrible thoughts out of her head, softened some sharpness jabbing at her ribs”.  Jade, seen as an outcast and oddball, hated the beautiful, popular and alluring Lucinda. Her hate centers on the fact that Lucinda, just by being attractive, is loved, valued, and appreciated.

We learn the most about Lucinda through Jade’s story. Jade displays a sarcastic and aloof side to the world but we see that she has great strength of character just below the surface. She lives with an abusive mother and sees herself as unlovable.  Her relief valve is her need to write scripts that help clarify her thoughts and feelings.

And she shares Cameron’s need to observe others…she is always aware and watching. She knows things about the murder. She is my favorite character.

Jade Dixon-Burns hates Lucinda. Lucinda took everything from Jade: her babysitting job, and her best friend. The worst part was Lucinda’s blissful ignorance to the damage she’d wrought.

Police Officer Russ Fletcher is stunned. Serving nearly 20 years on the force, this is his first body – his first murder victim. When Russ learns that Cameron is a suspect, he is flung back to an earlier time in his career when he patrolled with Lee Whitley, Cameron’s father, and a promise he made to his old partner to watch over his delicate son. Russ has his own secrets and when revealed, will leave you feeling sad for him.

Officer Russ Fletcher doesn’t know Lucinda, but he knows the kid everyone is talking about, the boy who may have killed her…Cameron Whitley.

Cameron, Jade and Russ lead us to others that play pivotal roles in their lives and we witness the reactions and suspicions of a small town rocked by violence; judgments are made about people and events based on our preconceived ideas and observations that can lead away from the truth.

As a final note, since we are dealing with budding adults with raging hormones, there’s strong references to sexual inquisitiveness and experiences.

In total, it is a complex and twisted story but well crafted. As a debut work, it has pulled together many elements of a true mystery with a flair to the dramatic. There are weak spots in the conclusion and the resolution of the crime but overall a worthy read.

I would definitely read another book by this author.

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The Other Einstein

Rated: 3/5 stars 

Author’s Quote

I confess to beginning this book with only the most commonplace understanding of Albert Einstein and hardly and knowledge of his first wife, Mileva Marić. In fact, I had never even heard of [her] until I helped my son…with a report on…Albert Einstein and it mentioned briefly that…his first wife was also a physicist. I became intrigued.

Marie Benedict’s research about Mileva, her education and scientific promise, and her marriage to the Albert Einstein led her to create a fictionalized account of her life. In telling her story, she has revealed the cultural schism alive and well in the 1900’s world between women defined as breeders and caregivers and men as providers and authority. The author stipulates “whenever possible, in the overarching arc of the story – the dates, the places, the people – I attempted to stay as close to the facts as possible, taking necessary liberties for fictional purposes.”

Mileva Marić  was born December 19, 1875 in what is now Serbia. Much to her parents chagrin, Mileva was born with two handicaps that would make her future difficult – a strong independent spirit and a deformed hip causing her to noticeably limp. From her mother’s perspective, her superior intelligence and headstrong ways coupled with an unappealing physical deformity precluded marriage and children- the only options for women at the time. Her father saw that her precocious mind and unlikely marriageability could lead her to pursue a meaningful life in the scientific world; if they would let her in the all-boys club world.

Mileva’s sheltered life with her parents did not prepare her for socializing with others in a more sophisticated setting. She was quickly manipulated by a narcissist classmate, Albert Einstein, who took advantage of her brilliance and naivete. Albert, flagrantly violated social norms of student behavior, skipping class and defying authority. Discriminated and isolated by her male classmates and professors, Mileva was vulnerable to Albert’s attentions and charms. Trapping her in his web, Albert drew on her strengths to finish his education- leaving Mileva, a shell of lost potential, pregnant and without a degree.

Mileva and Albert were passionately in love in their early marriage and reveled as partners in scientific discovery. Mileva openly shared her thoughts and revelations on topics such as relativity; only to see Alfred positing them for himself and singularly receiving awards and accolades. After graduation, Albert’s slipshod work ethic and laissez-faire attitude in college led to poor recommendations and employment rejections. Mileva, during this time, struggled to hold her marriage together.

Over time, Albert’s charm offensive disintegrated as his ambitions were stymied, his flagrant infidelity was discovered by Mileva, his cruel mental abuses and repeated betrayal of  Mileva’s intellectual contributions finally reached a tipping point in a violent physical attack that led Mileva to find the strength to regain control of her own future despite the stigma of divorce and raising children outside of a “normal male dominated household”.

There were moments in reading the book where I just had to get up and do something constructive around the house. My frustration and anger at the meekness she demonstrated and the continued subordinate way she submitted to Albert made me want to reach into the pages and slap her silly. Wake up woman! After dedicating years of her life to scientific study, mere steps from cracking the glass ceiling, she allows Albert to distract and destroy her future.

Mileva Maric Einstein died alone and unknown in a Zurich clinic in 1948.

It was hard to see how many times Albert destroyed her self esteem and self worth. It became a burden to walk in Mileva’s shoes. In the end, we are left without a clear awareness of the impact she left in the scientific world. However, on the plus side, books like The Other Einstein have done much to restore Mileva’s talents and impact on the gender discrimination and scientific contributions. Young women today should read this book to understand what it took to give them the freedoms they enjoy today.

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AND THEN SHE WAS GONE: a detective jack stratton novel

and then she was gone cover.jpg

AND THEN SHE WAS GONE

by Christopher Greyson

Greyson Media | 2016blood-splatter4-md
Paperback: 328 pages
ISBN: 9781683990024
Genre: Murder Mystery
Prequel to Jack Stratton Series

#1 Girl Jacked
#2 Jack Knifed
#3 Jacks Are Wild
#4 Jack and The Giant Killer
#5 Data Jack

Review Source: ARC ebook from Netgalley and Greyson Media Associates in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★☆☆

Excerpt  From Publisher’s  Blurb….

A hometown hero with a heart of gold, Jack Stratton was raised in a whorehouse by his prostitute mother. Jack seemed destined to become another statistic, but now his life has taken a turn for the better. Determined to escape his past, he’s headed for a career in law enforcement. When his foster mother asks him to look into the girl’s disappearance, Jack quickly gets drawn into a baffling mystery. As Jack digs deeper, everyone becomes a suspect—including himself. Caught between the criminals and the cops, can Jack discover the truth in time to save the girl? Or will he become the next victim?

I am at a disadvantage beginning my exposure to the Jack Stratton mystery series with this prequel. Having said that, I did do a little scouting about the books and learned that Jack, as an adult, obviously achieved his dream of becoming an ace detective.  His path to detective, however, appears strewn with tragedy and emotional baggage that began in childhood and followed him into his future. And Then She Was Gone scours the character list of the other books and gives a back story to those playing integral roles in Jack’s life and career.

We meet Jack Statton shortly before his eighteen birthday. Jack and his best friend, Cameron, have decided to enlist in the military after graduation in order to become eligible for the GI bill. For Jack, the military will be used as a stepping stone toward becoming a police detective. Unfortunately, Jack can’t seem to remember to stay out of trouble. He is fixated on trying to solve the world’s problems and not heeding the advice of the adults in his life.

Like a bloodhound on a scent, Jack plunges recklessly after clues to a recent murder. Tasked by his foster mother in clearing one of her children as a suspect,  Jack gets in over his head and nearly derails the police investigation. He tramples crime scenes. confronts gang members in dark alleys, defies  authorities, ignores his parents advice…in other words…acts like any normal teenager. Immortal and invincible and always right.

My overall feeling started as confusion. Was the series aimed at a young adult audience? There was something in the dialogue that sounded forced. An author trying to make an adult character become a teenager but not quite getting there. The adults, including the police, the murderer and the victim felt like characters in a Charley Brown cartoon going waa waa waa in the background.  Additionally, the author tossed in the kitchen sink covering everything from prostitution to drugs; racial relations to adolescent hormonal overload; homelessness to bullying… a few less hot topics and deeper character and story development would have improved things.

It just seemed to lack that special magic that makes you flip the pages so fast you lose yourself in the story.  Just rated …okay.

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Dimestore: A Writer’s Life

DIMESTORE: A WRITER’S LIFE

by Lee Smith

Algonquin | 2016
Hardcover: 224 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61620-502-7
Genre:  Memoir
Review Source: Personal copy

★★★★☆

I was born in a rugged ring of mountains in southwest Virginia- mountains so high, so straight up and down, that the sun didn’t even hit our yard until about eleven o’clock. My Uncle…used to predict the weather by sticking his head out the window and hollering back inside, ‘Sun on the mountaintop’!  – Lee Smith

Author Lee Smith extends an offer to join her on the porch swing to share intimate details of her life growing up in the heart of coal-country of southwest Virginia. Known for her fictional down-home Appalachian characters in popular fiction such as Fair and Tender Ladies, Dimestore: A Writer’s Story is her first work of nonfiction. Smith lets us know right away that Dimestore is more than a memoir. As the sub-title tells us, it is a writer’s story.

She begins by leading us by the hand into the mountains, down the side trails to hollers and into town where we share her love of the mountain music and the old time religion steeped into the souls of the people. She introduces us to, later famous, musicians that she knew as just “local talent”. It’s not long before you want to be adopted into the larger extended family… a family that accepts you warts and all.

We step inside her father’s Five and Ten Cent Variety Store and peer with her through the one-way window as she sees life in its most candid moments.

Upstairs in my father’s office…[I stood] observing the whole floor of the dimestore through the one-way glass…Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator…it was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.

 We chuckle with her at her mother’s desperate attempts to tame the tomboy and provide instruction on lady-like behavior..often involving extended trips to genteel family members …[Mom would send] me down to Alabama every summer for Lady lessons.

And I will admit that the lengthy list of southern cooking treats prized by Mama and her bridge club made me hungry.

But there is a darker side to her life that will surprise you. Both of her parents suffered from mentally debilitating illnesses. Smith turned to intense reading, writing and usually a dog when her parent’s frailties would leave her lonely and dislodged while they were away at local hospitals.

About midway through the book, Smith shifts away from anecdotal stories and introduces the teachers and mentors, not the least of these being the author, Eudora Welty, that help her develop as a narrator of characters gleaned from her own cultural background.

I will admit that I enjoyed the first half of the book more… it is rich with life stories and portraits of small town life that resonated with my own small town past. But for aspiring writers or those curious about what draws some people to a life of imagination and storytelling, this book will perhaps tickle a budding idea that will lead to your own short story or the next great novel.

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Beartown

BEARTOWN

by Fredrik Backman

Atria Books|2017
Hardcover: 432 pages
ISBN: 978-1501160769
Genre: Fiction

ARC ebook from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★

Where are our better Angels at such times/ As these? sweet Virgin, breathe awhile!——

William D’avenant, The Unfortunate Lovers
(licensed April 1638, printed 1643)

Late of evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there…………

Fredrik Backman, in hockey terms, hit me with a “check to the head”. His previous books feature curmudgeonly old men and quirky women that leave you warm and fuzzy inside. This newest book spins 180° toward the dark side. A small dying town, whose residents are obsessed with ice hockey, pin their hopes of economic revival on the backs of a junior hockey team as they head into a championship game. A town that has lost so much over the years needs a win – no matter the cost.

I ran into a group of friends the other day all excited to tell me that they had just finished Backman’s book, The Man Call Ove and wanted to know if he had any new books. As I looked into their eager faces, I told them about Beartown and I watched their faces deflate. Their reaction, I realized, was my initial reaction when I finished the book…disappointment. But I have had a change of heart.

I expected the author to give me another “bear-hug” book. A warm fuzzy hometown story resembling the 1950’s sitcom with “life is beautiful all of the time” Ozzie and Harriet Nelson nuclear families. Instead, Backman shows us that behind the painted-on-smiles and nothing-to-see here attitudes lies complex characters with flaws and less than lovable qualities. Not everyone ends each day with kiss goodnight and a promise of a bright tomorrow.

Tiny Beartown, isolated physically from the world-at large by dense forests and mountain terrain, resembles a tiny village inside a snow-globe. As long as no one shakes things up, the town turns a blind-eye to anything “unpleasant”; things look peaceful from the outside. When something “unpleasant” does happen, they feel it best to act like it didn’t happen. Don’t make waves. Look away!

You never want to get away from home as much as you do when you’re fifteen…It’s like her mom usually say when…her patience [has worn thin]. You can’t live in this town, Maya, you can only survive it.

As the all important hockey championship match draws near, the atmospheric pressure climbs for the town’s residents. It is now that the author has chosen to rock the town to its roots. Over-involved sports parents with their entitled children, down-on-their-luck townsfolk and greedy power-hungry men have chosen to live life vicariously through the talented young hockey team. The fate of Beartown is placed on the backs of children.

If tensions were high enough, the hockey team’s star player, son of a wealthy and powerful businessman, hosts a raucous party when his parents are out of town. The callous young man targets the daughter of the general manager of the local hockey club and makes a bet with his friends that he can get her to have sex with him. He invites her to the party and she goes, knowing that her parents would not approve, but never suspecting the danger. New to the party scene, the girl becomes drunk and charmed into going upstairs with the boy. Alone… he rapes her.

From that moment the future of everyone in Beartown changes. Some find their better angels and others succumb to their baser natures. New friendships are forged, old friendships are tested and other relationships are severed. Loyalty and love are tested. Marriages flounder, tempers flare, mobs form and unexpected heroes shine. The snow globe has been cracked and the residents of Beartown must look introspectively and make decisions to stay and heal the open wounds or to turn their backs on Beartown.

Recommended as a thought provoking book club selection.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry / The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey

Harold and queenie Collage

St. Bernadine’s Hospice
Berwick-upon Tweed
Monday, 11 April

Dear Harold,

This may come to you as some surprise. I know it is a long time since we last met, but recently I have been thinking about the past. Last year I had an operation on a tumor, but the cancer has spread and there is nothing left to be done. I am at peace, and comfortable, but I would like to thank you for the friendship you showed me all those years ago. Please send my regards to your wife. I still think of David with fondness.

With my best wishes,
Queenie Hennessy

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, published in 2012 in the US, quickly reached international success. Harold Fry, a dapper Brit from a tiny town of Kingsbridge, finds himself unable to post a letter to a dying friend. Each time he reached a post box, he walked on to another, until he found himself on an unintended walk across England. As he walked on, Harold believed that as long as he walked, Queenie would stay alive waiting for him.

Twenty years earlier, Harold and Maureen Fry were rocked by the suicide of their only child, David. The Fry marriage, already on fragile ground as David slipped further from them emotionally, became a shadow relationship after his death. Maureen became caustic and unlovable.  Harold, unable to express his grief, put his life on remote control, living each day as a robot.

As Harold walked on in his yachting shoes, inadequate footwear for a 600+ mile trek,  he meets many side characters that provide levity, sorrow, inspiration and friendship. Memories of better times become loosened from a locked place his mind and by the time he reaches St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon Tweed he has learned much about himself and has hope for his future. 

After finishing Henry Fry’s pilgrimage,  I wanted more! What was Queenie Hennessy’s backstory? More details please! I wanted to hear things from Queenie’s point of view.

So, I was thrilled when the author deftly crafted Queenie’s story in 2014. This second book, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, is written from Queenie’s perspective as Harold walks across England. It is the perfect companion book.

When my book club chose The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy for our March (2017) selection, I thought I would skim The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry to refresh my memory. In the end I found myself re-reading both books in quick succession.

Both books begin with Queenie’s letter to Harold; Love Song includes the entire text of the letter while Pilgrimage hits the high points. It has been 20 years since Queenie suddenly left her job at the brewery. Her recent letter catches Harold off-guard as she writes that she has terminal cancer and wants to tell him, ” Thank you for the friendship you showed me all those years ago.”

As Queenie learns that Harold is walking across England to see her, she is encouraged to write a letter about her life. We learn her side of their relationship through these letters.

Queenie’s unrequited love for Harold, a secret social relationship with Harold’s son, David, and her willingness to sacrifice herself for Harold drove her to leave Kingsbridge in sorrow and grief. With no destination in mind, she simply heads away until she reaches the end of land and faces the ocean. As she walks into the water to drown herself, she stops herself when she discovers the mysterious life beneath the water. She finds an abandoned house on the shore and begins creating a massive sea garden with representations of persons and events from her past. Along the way she finds she is able to make friendships and to live a simple quiet life.

Like the first book, Queenie’s story is filled with hospice patients that show all of us that life isn’t over until the last breath.

As much as I loved Harold’s book, I think seeing their story through Queenie’s eyes was a deeper and richer experience. Describing Queenie’s hospice life and her interactions with the staff and fellow residents is heartwarming and heart wrenching at the same time.

If I go into more detail about either book, I will spoil it for the reader! The stories touched my heart strings. Please do the author the honor of reading both of these books. I highly recommend them.

Sources:
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (personal copy)

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (Advance e-book provided by the publisher and Netgalley in exchange of my honest review.)

 

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I’ll Push You

ill-push-you-cover
camino-collage

★★★★

I’LL PUSH YOU :

a journey of 500 miles, two best friends, and one wheelchair.

by PATRICK GRAY and JUSTIN SKEESUCK

Tyndale House | June 2017
Hardcover: 272 pages
ISBN: 978-1496421692
Genre: Personal Memoir
ARC e-book from edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.

Every once in a while a book jumps off the shelf into your consciousness and you realize it will change your life in ways you never expected!

Two best friends, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck, headed to Spain in 2014 to hike the El Camino de Santiago (also known as The Way of St. James). There was print and video press coverage of their journey but I don’t watch much TV and frankly I missed it all. When I saw this book offered as an advance read, I eagerly checked out the synopsis and investigated clips of the video coverage on You-Tube. I was hooked.

It all began in 2012 when Justin watched a travel program featuring the El  Camino and became inspired to hike it. He shared the taped program along with his desire to do the trail with his best friend, Patrick. Without hesitation, Patrick responded, I’ll  push you.”justin

Why do you ask would he need to push Justin? Justin has a rare progressive autoimmune/neuromuscular disease that has left him unable to move his upper and lower limbs.

The friends realized that this was going to require extraordinary effort on both of them to pull this off.  Justin’s daily medical and personal care would have to be undertaken by Patrick. That full time job would be accomplished after grueling day pushing, tugging, lugging, and carrying Justin through mud holes and over steep mountain terrain.

Two years later, on June 3, 2014 this awesome twosome set on their life altering 34 days journey.

This deeply personal memoir interlaces the arduous hike with personal vignettes of their shared childhoods, personal struggles with addiction, marriages, spiritual growth – and most importantly their love and loyalty to each other. Their relationship defines the meaning of friendship.

As a long distance hiker myself, I acknowledge the bonds and community of fellow pilgrims that develop in the intimacy of a long walk. The reader will be amazed at the selflessness of others to slow their own Camino experience to lend a hand when needed. I personally wasn’t surprised when complete strangers were willing to discuss their reasons for hiking, often exposing their life warts, and to share their difficult internal journey toward personal peace. It happens on the trail but it will probably come as a surprise to the non-hiking community.

Recommended.

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Dodgers: a novel

dodgers-cover

DODGblood-splatter4-mdERS

by Bill Beverly

gang-kids-sketched

Crown Publishing | Apr 2016
Hardcover: 304 pages
ISBN: 9781101903735
Fiction/Crime/Coming-of-Age

Review Source: ARC trade paperback from First To Read and Crown Publishers in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★ easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR

Morning dawns over a Los Angeles suburb known as the “Boxes”. As the early sunlight focuses on the front door of a local drug house, the night U[sers] begin to straggle out of the building. They pass the young street urchins hired as “watchers”. Their only job is to stay alert, awake, and ready to call in an alarm if they observe anything happening in the vicinity of the drug house that seems out of the ordinary. These small gangsters know their jobs and know the rules. Watch everything and everyone! Report anything suspicious or out of place immediately! To mess up was dangerous to their health if not their lives.12930883391149431275blood-scarlet-red-splash-md

As 15 year-old, East, lead watcher, stands guard in front of the building, he hears the sound of rapidly approaching vehicles just as his street scout’s radio squawks wordlessly. Something is wrong and there’s little time to warn anyone inside. Those able, scatter.  The police arrive and mercilessly destroy the house in a hail of bullets; killing an innocent neighborhood child in the melee.

Gang members in charge of the drug house gather for a face-to-face accounting with the drug lord and East’s uncle, Fin.

Fin sat waiting…When he spoke, it was with an ominous softness. What happened? After listening to a report from those inside the house he makes a decision to temporarily close all of his drug houses. Fin dismisses everyone to set that order in motion -except East.

Get up and lock that door. I don’t want nobody walking in on us, what happens next…You wonder what comes next?
There is something you might do for me. You can say yes or no. But its quiet. We won’t talk about it…You keep it till you die.

I want you to go on a drive. At the end of that drive, I want you to do something…murder a man.

East drew in his shoulder and carefully dried his mouth on it… I’m in.
I know you are, said Fin…then shook his head twice, a long shudder…

ramirez-99East’s companions on this delicate mission are his 14 year-old gun-crazed estranged half-brother, Ty, the 20 year-old happy go-lucky devil-may-care, rule flaunting, up-and-comer, Michael Wilson, and the mysterious “pumpkin-shaped” 17 year-old computer geek, Walter. This motley crew of land pirates was hand selected by Fin and as they stand around awaiting their travel orders, it is obvious from the get-go that there is no love lost among the group.

As Ty, Michael, and Walter grouse about giving up their weapons, cell phones and bank cards and receiving new identities, East stands alone processing why he was made part of this group. The group has been told to “blend in”.  Do nothing that would draw attention to themselves and the mission. Stay below the radar at all times. They are “family” headed to a family reunion in Wisconsin dressed in clearance rack Dodger baseball t-shirts.

In [East’s] mind he was boiling it down: Drive the roads. Meet up for guns. But there was nothing to see. Only these boys. Kill a man? More like keep them from killing each other, these three boys, for two thousand miles in this ugly van. That was what they’d brought him in for…

When all you know is the city, “The Boxes” – When you haven’t seen, let alone spoken to more than a handful of whites in your life and suddenly you stand out like black beans in white rice – When you are suspicious of every strange glance or conversation – When you have lived a life where you face danger 24/7…What could possibly go wrong? Answer- Everything.

Reviewer’s Thoughts

Some books are just hard to know where to put your finger on what’s holding you back from expressing your thoughts and Dodgers fits that bill this time around.  The book opens in a housing project where scared little boys find themselves “boxed” into a life determined for them in advance. We meet East and learn straight off that in a world with little hope for the future, East is an oddball out.

East blended in, didn’t talk much…but he watched and listened to people. What he heard he remembered. Unlike the [other boys], East slept alone, somewhere no one knew. He was no fun, and they respected him, for though he was young, he had none in him of what they most hated in themselves: their childishness. He had never been a child. Not that they had seen.

Throughout the cross-country trip to Wisconsin, East stands out as different. Although known for his observation skills, East doesn’t seem to grasp the reason that the other passengers in the car resent him and the mission. Not going to toss a spoiler with more information.

Testosterone and tensions build in the van. In the end, the group fractures. East finds himself alone, freezing, in the middle of a country as foreign to him as the moon.  With little life experience, East doesn’t expect the world to give him a chance, so when he finds a job at a paintball store, he is satisfied to have a cardboard box mat in a warm building at night. He, again, fails to understand that he is entitled to so much more in life. Although East clearly has a criminal history, there is a part of his soul that is good. I ached for him and hoped that he would learn that he was free to grow and step outside the confines of his past life.

The good stuff? Watching East as he sees the beauty of America first hand.  The author, in this debut work, has the American landscape so vividly described, you feel the depressed small villages, the heat in the desert, and the night sky giving way to dawn.

All East’s life the mountains had been a jagged base for the northern sky…He’d never seen them broken into what they were, single peaks dotted with plant scrub and rock litter, and the open distances between.  He couldn’t stop looking…

The suspense and tension rises and falls in the story pulling the reader along. At times it bogs down, but it kept my attention. The violent scenes are tough and real.

One final observation. Boxes. Time and time again, East finds that no matter where you are in this world, people find themselves boxed by life. And he learns that no matter how far you try to outrun your past, it can find you.

Good reading and a good first book. I certainly look forward to future works by this author.

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Himself


himself-cover

HIMSELF : a novel

by Jess Kidd4-leaf-clover

Atria Books |US edition 2017
Hardcover: 384 pages
ISBN:978-1501145179
Genre: Fiction/Irish Mystery

ARC ebook from Netgalley in exchange
for an unbiased review.

★★★easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR

 “So what brought you here?”abandoned-irish-cottage
I wanted a bit of peace and quiet.
Do you know on the map there’s nothing at all around you?
“It’s the arse end of beyond you’re after then?”
Mahony looks thoughtful.
Do you know? I think it is.

“Well, you found it.”

Hang on to the book tightly. Orla Sweeney’s murder in the prologue will tear your heart out. In May of 1950, an Irish teenage mother from the tiny village of Mulderrig, anxiously waits in the woods for the father of her newborn son to arrive. She hopes to obtain emotional and financial support but when he arrives, she receives a death sentence.

His first blow: the girl made no noise, her dark eyes widened. She reeled a little as she bent and put the baby down. The man stood waiting…when she was still…he wrapped her in sackcloth…He laid her in a well-made grave…He remembered that he must also claim their child or his work would not be done. [While he had dispatched the mother] the forest had hidden the infant. Great ferns had unfurled all around the child, tree roots had surrounded him, and ivy had sprung up to cloak him..[s]o that…he could not find the child, however hard he searched.

The child was discovered in the woods and someone from the village mysteriously drove to Dublin, placing him at the front door of the St. Anthony Orphanage cocooned in a basket like baby Moses. His life at St. Anthony’s was smeared by the stigma of his illegitimate birth. Sister Veronica, the bane of his existence, made sure he realized that he was a stain on humanity. He was given the name of Mahony.

There was one ray of sunshine in his life – Sister Mary Margaret. This kindly nun confided to him the true nature of his arrival including the fact that there was a letter with him in the basket; a fact that Sister Veronica rebuked. Sadly, Sister Mary Margaret died when he was 7.  When she appeared before him holding her deadly cancerous tumor in her hands, he would forever have one foot in the world of the living and the dead. This ability to see the dead as they go about their non-corporeal lives plays an important part in Mahony’s life.

Mahony, now 26 years old, is seated at a Dublin pub knocking back a pint when he is approached by a local priest. Sister Veronica has died and a letter in her possession is addressed to Mahoney. “For when the child is grown.” 

Inside the envelope was a picture of a girl with a half-smile holding a blurred bundle, high and awkwardly, like found treasure

Your name is Francis Sweeney. Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. This is a picture of yourself with her. For your information she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.

Pocketing the letter, Mahony heads to Mulderrig to learn what happened to his mother. What made her the curse of the town? Where did they take her?  Who brought him to the Dublin orphanage? Who is this ally that warns him about the town?

When the local bus pulls up to a stop in the sleepy-eyed stillness of Mulderrig, its lone passenger, a rakishly handsome Mahony, steps down from the past to turn Mulderrig upside down. His search will shake out long buried secrets, bring threats on his life and endanger those helping him to uncover the truth. Mahony’s complicated search is alternated with a third-person narrator giving the reader Orla Sweeney’s short life story. We learn things that Mahony/Francis will never know.

Prominent characters include – the town constable, Sergeant Jack Brophy, a “strong square wall of a man…[who has a soothing affect] on the mad, the bad and the imaginative…whether off duty or on” – Tadhg Kerrigan, owner of Kerrigan’s pub, the first to greet Mahony and the first to suspect that his visit has something to do with Orla Sweeney – Mrs. Cauley, “an aging actress and brash anarchist” who arrived at the local inn, the Rathmore House, over 20 years ago and never left.  She spends her final days harassing the local denizens, and Father Quinn, the local corrupt priest, in particular. She bonds with Mahony and they begin a systematic investigation to determine who was his father! And who was responsible for Orla’s fate.

My favorite character is Mrs. Cauley. She holds her head high despite rapidly declining health and failing looks. There’s a fiery spirit inside the broken body that refuses to give up. She seems to have some paranormal powers. Although she can’t see the spirits, she can sense their presence. She lives to twist the knickers on all the hypocritical and devious residents responsible for making Orla’s life so miserable and turned their backs on her in her time of need.

And as we have seen earlier, the spirits long dead float around Mahony, day and night, like long strands of gossamer. Some engage him directly and others just take up space in the story. There’s Miss Mulhearne, “a picture of respectable Irish womanhood” haunting her old school room and is surprised when she realizes that Mahony can see her.  When he learns that she misses what she remembers as poetry, he finds time to join her in the closet and read some to her.  Father Jim, the town’s priest and  a sympathetic friend of Orla Sweeney, died mysteriously, and now haunts Mrs. Cauley’s commode.  And perhaps the most important spirit, the little girl named Ida who witnessed Orla’s burial and was killed as she fled. Her appearances to Mahony provide clues to his mother’s demise.

Lest I have given the impression that the story is leprechauns and scatter brained ghosts, the author has created a malevolent atmosphere throughout the book and there are several scenes of violence and brutality. Woman’s rights advocates will gnash their teeth. Life was pretty rough for women in the 1970s. I know.  I was there. But women in this little village suffered a religion and moral backlash that was horrible.

Jess Kidd, as a debut author, has undoubtedly a highly developed creative mind.  The story is stuffed with unique characters both living and dead. I can’t shake the image of Mrs. Cauley’s ghostly suitor “drop[ping] his underwear and hopscotch[ing] down the garden path, his bare arse winking in the early morning light.

Without question Kidd knows County Mayo intimately and her writing style lifts the Irish brogue off the page. When Mahony first walks into Kerrigan’s pub, Tadhg greets him with “All right so?” And Mahony answers, “I’m grand.”  She’s a “right eejit altogether.” A word of warning to the delicate, words that are most certainly profane in our culture are natural part of local discourse. Their favorite adjective is f***. Here’s a tamer use of that word with a twist. When Mahony asks the ghostly seven year-old Ida her name, she responds with “how the feck should I know?”

There’s something wobbly about the way the story is crafted. The story feels forced or directed by the author, not dictated by the characters. At times, strangely placed vignettes intrude into an important story line. In one instance, Mahony learns important facts about his mother and while fleshing out the details, the author has Johnnie, Mrs. Cauley’s ghostly womanizer, sitting naked next to him. That was strange enough but the author then has Johnnie stands and “saunters to the nearby flower bed scratching his flute“. The juxtaposition of Johnnies’ itchy flute and Orla’s murdered body was downright weird.

All said, I enjoyed the book. It was grand!  Hopefully future works will reduce the number of side stories and useless characters concentrating on deeper coverage of the prime themes. Looking forward to the next book.

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My Name Is Lucy Barton

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My Name Lucy Barton

Author: Elizabeth Stout
Random House
Literary Fiction       ★★★★☆

Jan 12, 2016 | 193 Pages
ISBN 9781400067695

  Ingram Best of the Best
  Indie Next
  LibraryReads
 Kirkus Starred Review
  Booklist Starred Review

ARC e-reader provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW REDUX
A year ago I posted a review of My Name is Lucy Barton. My book club will be reading it next month and I decided to re-read the book and to take a look at my last posting. What a sorry self-centered post! The book flushed out some submerged emotions from my own childhood and I responded with a pity party posting. Here’s the review I should have written the first time!

There was a time,and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks…To begin with, it was a simple story:rocking-chair-penciled I had gone into the hospital to have my appendix out…And then a fever arrived…About three weeks after I was admitted… I found my mother sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed…I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her…….

Lucy grew up in the tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois; one of those eyesore communities where homes were visibly decaying and their yards reflected their barren lives. In this hardscrabble community, Lucy’s family stood on the bottom rung of poverty.

Lucy’s childhood was lost in the tension and silence of a family struggling to survive.  Each face etched with hopelessness, just breathing to stay alive in the present, struggling with the past and praying to survive what ever the future would bring. The Bartons lived for many years in a garage with the barest of essentials; starving for physical and emotional warmth. The three Barton children suffered daily, facing harsh discipline while living in dire conditions.

Telling a lie and wasting food were always things to be punished for. Otherwise, on occasion and without warning my parents – and it was usually my mother and usually in the presence of our father – struck us impulsively and vigorously.

Lucy’s father harbored demons brought home from WWII and in unpredictable moments would release the Kraken in a moment of bizarre and uncontrollable behavior that Lucy named the “Thing”. Her mother, a lost soul herself, unable to express love, was torn between her marriage and her children.

Bullied by peers, alone in every imaginable way, Lucy sought refuge in the few books available at her small school. These books took her places she couldn’t have dreamed existed and in the end proved to be her ticket into the larger world. Lucy, without real friends, sought recognition through achievement and excellence at school. Yet at home, Lucy’s academic accomplishments were unacknowledged by her parents – preferring to ignore them in deference to her two siblings who showed no interest in education.

There were moments of kindness in her childhood – a friendly janitor who looked the other way as Lucy stayed late in her warm classroom to do her homework, the teacher who recognized Lucy’s hunger for reading and encouraged her, and a guidance counselor who helped Lucy obtain a full scholarship to college.

She guardedly made friends, flourished in her love of words, and astonished herself when she fell in love… with her husband, William. William, the son of a German prisoner-of-war, had been living on the East coast snared in the clutches of his needy widowed mother. He sought escape in a college in the Midwest. Buoyed by love and promises of a bright future, William and Lucy headed to meet Lucy’s parents with their happy plans to marry and move to New York City.

[My father] looked at William…I saw in my father’s face great contortions, the kind that preceded what as a child I had called..the Thing…My father becoming very anxious and not in control of himself.

My mother said, ‘Your father has a lot of trouble with German people. You should have told us’.

I know Daddy was in the war,,,but he never talked about any of that.

‘Your father doesn’t [talk about it]’

Why is that?

‘Because it wouldn’t be decent. Who in God’s name brought you up?’

Lucy and William did marry and moved to New York City.  They became the parents to two daughters who never knew their grandparents.

Lucy’s parents never came to the wedding and she never saw either of them again…until years later…Lucy went into the hospital with appendicitis. What should have been routine surgery left Lucy hospitalized for nine weeks with a fever of unknown origin. Her husband, terrified of hospitals, stayed home with the girls and worked at shutting out his wife’s needs.  After three lonely weeks, Lucy awoke from a nap to discover her mother seated in a chair by her bed. She stayed by Lucy’s side for five days in her hospital room.

Years after her mother’s visit to the hospital, Lucy attended a writer’s workshop. A prominent author leading the workshop encouraged  Lucy to write her story- warts and all.  She found that opening that door to her past was necessary to finding her way in the future. Central to her life’s story are those five precious days with her mother at the hospital.

As I re-read the book , I found myself reading it more slowly – savoring the words not spoken. The first time through, affected personally by own memories, I had missed what made those five days so memorable to Lucy. There’s a heavy air of loneliness and insecurity in Lucy’s life. But in the end, she has matured, grown, reflected and shed some of her emotional baggage in her efforts to find peace in her heart and in her life. Not everyone will agree with her decisions…but don’t we all have to reach for our true north to find our way?

The first time I read the following words, I missed the point. I saw only a mother who could not express her love to her daughter.  The second time, I felt the love in the silence and between the unspoken words.  This mother and daughter never grew close, shared words of love, or interacted in each other’s lives after the hospital visit. But there was solace in knowing her mother loved her.  As Lucy tells us…She was loved. Imperfectly.  And that was enough.

“Mommy, do you love me?
My mother shook her head. Wizzle, stop.
“Come on, Mom, tell me.” I began to laugh, and she began to laugh too.
Wizzle, for heaven’s sake.”
I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands.
“Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”
Silly girl…You silly, silly girl.
I lay back down and closed my eyes…”Mom, my eyes are closed.”
Lucy, you stop now. I heard the mirth in her voice.
There was a silence for a while. I was happy.
“Mom?”
When your eyes are closed, she said.
“You love me when my eyes are closed?”
When your eyes are closed, she said.
And we stopped the game, but I was so happy.

Highly recommended. Would make a very good book club selection.

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Normal

normal-cover-modified

NORMAL

by Warren Ellis 

FSG Originals | 2016black-bug
Paperback: 148 pages
ISBN: 9780374534974
Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopia
Review Source: ARC e-galley

black-bug

ARC ebook from edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★spider-linespider

“ Any time you pick up something by Warren Ellis, you know it’s going to be weird and wild and awesome. The same is true for his new novel, Normal, a techno-thriller about two groups of strategists taking on the challenge of the impending end of civilization.” Quoted from Book Riot Community, Goodreads, Nov 16, 2016)

This was my first foray into Dystopian Science Fiction. I’m trying to broaden my reading horizon and dipping into an area that I felt uncomfortable reading and definitely felt awkward reviewing due to my superior lack of imagination.

I’m going to admit that I didn’t have a clue what was going on in the story until I popped into Goodreads and read a few reviews from fans of Warren Ellis. I saw the movie, Red, roughly based on Ellis’ short work with the same name. I never read the book, Red, but I sure loved the movie and was inspired to read Normal when I came across the title in Netgalley.

Thus, sci-fi enlightened, I started the book over again and decided that I enjoyed it…but like goat cheese…once was enough.

“Hand over the entire internet now and nobody gets hurt,” she said, aiming the toothbrush at the nurse like an evil magic wand.” Thus, speaks a patient at a secret facility located amid the coastal wilds of Oregon known as Normal Head.

The world is rapidly moving toward annihilation. Most of mankind slogs along totally uninterested in anything beyond self-starting cars, smart phones or the Internet. The world has become totally reliant on technology. But for those professionals whose careers force them to deal with the strain of facing that mankind is causing their own demise becomes too much and they lose their minds. The purpose of the site is to remove these overwrought professionals from the burdens of technology and placing them in a setting where they can be treated without interference from the outside world, and when recovering from their depression and mental strain, moved into an outer area known as Staging. Those in Staging are in line to return to society after a period of acclimation.

Just like our currently divided political climate, the professionals housed in Normal Head are divided into two camps of thought- foresight strategists (futurists) and strategic forecasters.

“Professional demarcation, “[Lela] said. “Foresight strategists [futurists] on this side. Nonprofits, charitable institutions, universities, design companies, the civil stuff. On the other side? Strategic forecasters. Global security groups, corporate think tanks, spook stuff.”

Adam Dearden, the newest patient, a futurist, arrives at Normal Head, afflicted with a bad case of “abyss gaze”.  Adam had been involved with a worldwide surveillance system whose purpose to was to take the pulse of the world thereby avoiding financial catastrophe before the cataclysm arrives.

Everything is going along smoothly much like One Flew Over The Cockoo’s Nest until one morning, a patient, Mr. Mansfield, goes missing from inside his locked room.  His disappearance is made even more alarming as his bed is filled with writhing black bugs.

The game is on as the building and grounds go on lockdown in the search for Mr. Mansfield.  The social dynamics of Normal Head undergoes an unforeseen upheaval and the conclusion presents thoughts for our own future.

Reviewer’s Thoughts

Once educated to unclear dystopian and non-standard terminology I enjoyed the book. My advice for other sci-fi novitiates, read reviews of any book you are planning to read. Familiarize yourself with the personalities and the synopsis as presented by the publisher and author.

I am rating it ★★★ as I am in no position to compare this dystopian world to the chaos now enveloping our own world. I think it is safe to say that as things stand in reality, I am fast approaching “abyss gaze”.

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Frontier Grit

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 FRONTIER GRIT

THE UNLIKELY TRUE STORIES OF DARING PIONEER WOMEN

Author | Marianne Monson
Shadow Mountain | 2016
Hardcover: 208 pages
ISBN: 978-1629722276
Genre: US History/Biography/Pioneer Women

ARC e-book from Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review

★★★★☆

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“What constitutes a frontier?…To me, a frontier is simply a place where your people have not gone before…it might be an unexplored theological issue, …a newly invented technology, or an insight irreconcilable with current social norms.”Marianne Monson, Frontier Grit

As a young girl I was in love with Calamity Jane. Well, actually Doris Day’s version. Whip, crack, away! A gusty woman in a man’s world.

Marianne Monson has scoured American history and selected twelve very special women who left their mark, improved the lives of others and truly reflect the pioneer spirit. Their names may be unfamiliar to you now, but after you read their stories you will never forget them.

Each chapter features one of these remarkable women. All of these women were migrants or immigrants from other countries or other regions of America. But in the end, where they came from wasn’t as important as who they became and how they created a new life for themselves, often in defiance to social norms. Their lives, as a rule, faced unimaginable obstacles and hardships but each refused to be defined by their gender and social roles. And when faced with superhuman odds, they never stayed down for the count when knocked off their feet.

After you meet these incredible women, you might look at your own life and recognize how their sacrifices and courage affected your life today. We owe a lot to the past generations of women willing to take a chance, push social limits and to take a stand. These stories are intended to inspire you; to help you pick yourself up and dust yourself off when you get knocked down.

The author encourages you to read more about each woman by conveniently placing a bibliography at the end of each chapter.

I already knew something of Nellie Cashman, gold prospector, as her story coincides with a branch in my family tree. Indulge me as I give you some personal information that places Nellie Cashman in Dawson City.

In 2005, I was gifted a copy of a book by the authors, Ed and Star Jones entitled, All That Glitters: The Life and Times of Joe Ladue, Founder of Dawson City. Joe Ladue was one of the earliest pioneers in the Yukon and my Great-Grand Uncle. “Uncle Joe” filed his application for a 160-acre town site on July 27, 1896. As luck would have it, a major gold discovery was made in Bonanza Creek, a little more than a mile from the new town site shortly after he filed.

As the Jones’ wrote, “Cashman might be considered the feminine counterpart of Joe Ladue. A petite, pretty woman with jet black hair and dark eyes, she was gifted with a stamina and toughness denied most men.”All That Glitters, pg 45.

nellie-cashmanWhen news of the Klondike strike reached Nellie Cashman in 1897, ” she put together a $5000 grubstake” and hot footed to the Chilkoot Trail. “Arriving in Dawson, City, she opened a store in the basement of the Hotel Donovan and a restaurant called Delmonico….She acquired No. 19 Below Discovery on Bonanza Creek and it proved a prudent investment. All That Glitters, pg 46

SO….You want to know more about Nellie?  And remember!  She is just one of twelve stories! You’ll have to get a copy of Frontier Grit.  The Yukon story is just a piece of this incredible woman’s life.

Recommended for all young girls, women and enlightened men.

  

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My Girl

my-girl-cover

My Girl

Author | Jack Jordan
JJP | 2016
Paperback: 226 pages
ISBN: 1532815387
Fiction / Suspense

Source: ARC e-book via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

★★☆☆☆scared-woman

I’m not going mad. Someone is taunting me.
I’m not doing this. I would remember.
I’m not losing my mind.

Paige Dawson’s life has spiraled out-of-control. Preferring to drown her grief and hide from reality, Paige has relinquished her self-respect and dignity to remain in a drug laden and alcohol stupor.

For the first few seconds after she woke, Paige Dawson lived in a world where her husband Ryan was snoring lightly beside her, and her daughter Chloe was sleeping peacefully in the next room. When reality slowly trickled in…[she] reached in the dark [for] the tray of tablets…and picked up the half-empty wine bottle and took a swig.

Ten years ago, her only daughter, Chloe, 14 at the time of her abduction, was murdered savagely. After an exhaustive search, Chloe’s dismembered arm was found frozen in a nearby river, fingertips reaching to the sky for recognition. Her husband, Ryan, had tried to rescue Paige from her despair but at some point lost his own will to live. Two months ago, he slashed his wrists in the bathtub forever scarring what was left of Paige’s sanity with the image of his lifeless body.

Ryan’s mother, Paige’s father and her cleric brother, Maxim offer support and counsel but nothing seems to stop her from her self-destructive path. Her repeated social misconduct during her blackouts only further alienates her from help when she begins to question strange encounters and disturbances in her home.  No one believes her when she reports someone has been in her house and removed items, cut her husband’s face out of every photo album, and cleared her daughter’s room of memorabilia.

As the story gains steam, I was ready for intrigue and some intense suspense. But it wasn’t long before I felt like I was in a train wreck that just wouldn’t end. Wild and crazy things happened that showed great imagination but they seemed to come out of no-where. One twist caught me by surprise but after the shock of discovery, I was disappointed that we weren’t given background on the reason for the character’s behavior.

The author has great potential and unquestioningly has writing talent. Hopefully, as his literary career matures, he will better develop his characters lives and avoid repetitive actions intended to create suspense but serve only to dull the story. Keep writing, Jack Jordan. I will look for your next book to see where you have strengthened your focus. You’ve got what it takes, kiddo. Keep trying.

Jack Jordan is the bestselling British author of two novels: Anything for Her (2015) and My Girl (2016). He describes himself as introvert disguised as an extrovert, an intelligent person who can say very unintelligent things, and a jack-jordan-authorself-confessed bibliomaniac with more books than sense.

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The Heart of Henry Quantum

The Heart of Henry Quantum.jpg

The Heart of Henry Quantum: A Novel

Autbroken-hearthor: Pepper Harding
Gallery Books| 2016
Hardcover: 288 pages
ISBN: 978-1-5011-2680-2
Genre: Fiction/Relationships

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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In the bestselling tradition of A Man Called Ove and the beloved film Love Actually, a quirky, socially awkward man goes on a quest to find his wife a last-minute Christmas gift and encounters several distractions—including bumping into his ex-girlfriend who was the one who got away. http://www.simonandschuster.com/row-of-hearts

Having read A Man Called Ove, I was so excited to find another quirky novel that promised to bring me some much needed lighter reading. I have tended toward heavy social issues recently.

The book is arranged in four parts featuring Henry, Henry’s wife, Margaret, and Daisy (Henry’s brief affair).

An unknown friend of Henry narrates what transpired for each of these three people in the same 24-hour period. It is December 23. Christmas is fast approaching and Henry awakens at 7:35 am and remembers that he has nothing for his wife, Margaret, for Christmas. Margaret impatiently waits for Henry to leave for work, occasionally sniping at him on general principle. Finally he leaves at 9:15 am and Margaret dresses to meet her lover, Peter.  At 2:24, Daisy bumps into Henry out shopping for Channel #5 for his wife and sparking memories.

So far so good, huh? Well let’s back up to Henry at 7:35 am and I am sorry but I have to put you inside his mindstream to grasp where I am headed next in this review. As I read the following run-on sentence I found myself feeling short of breath.

However, when he reached for the soap his hand froze mid-grab because the water bouncing off his shoulders made him think about the miraculous impermeability of his own skin, and this made him think of the wonder of nature, which, when he thought about it, included the entire cosmos, and thus the Hubble telescope came into his mind and the pictures of the galaxies he had seen at the NASA booth at the Sausalito Art Festival back in September, particularly whirling-dervishthe Sombrero Galaxy, which actually did look like a sombrero, and this led him to recall something that had been drilled into his head since junior high school, namely that life travels at 186,000 miles per second, and when you look at a distant object, say, the Sombrero Galaxy, what you are actually seeing is how the object appeared millions of years ago (in the case of the Sombrero Galaxy, thirty million years ago) and not how it is now; in fact, who could say what it looks like now?

I seriously toyed with the idea of not finishing the book but I had to see where it was going so I kept my inhaler handy and moved into Margaret’s day in Part Two.

I assumed that Henry was the only character that would have his own galaxy inside his head, but our narrator felt we needed to watch Margaret dress for her adulterous rendezvous. I’ll spare you the details but, trust me, it rivals Henry’s shower scene for the world’s longest run-on sentence. Margaret turns out to be a heartless narcissistic *itch revealing itself when stuck in traffic near the Golden Gate Bridge. Someone is threatening to jump and traffic is tied up back to infinity.

Anything happening yet? she asked. I don’t know [answered another motorist].
It seems to me if you want to kill yourself, go ahead….
If the person is going to jump they should get on with it!
She bolted from the car, vaulted over the traffic barrier, bulldozed her way through the bleating crowd…leaned out as far as she could over the icy waters…and screamed at the top of her lungs, Let the f***ing *itch jump!

Daisy’s a mess and a little more likable.  Maybe because she is not speaking in run-on sentences. Nevertheless if you have stayed with the book thus far, you are now subjected to the histrionics of woman looking back at the whata-coulda-shoulda’s of a brief affair.

Overall I just couldn’t see any meaningful plot and I was overwhelmed by drifting off into topics that made no sense to the story. The publisher, Simon and Shuster, tells us that the author, Pepper Harding, is a pen name of an author that has written books on totally different subject matters. This book, to me, felt contrived, as though the author was delving into a subject matter she wasn’t comfortable describing.  Having written my feelings and sense of the book, I must say there have been others that have written glowing reviews, so if you feel inclined, please pick up a copy and see what you think for yourself.

I don’t like to leave a book with a rough review without finding something positive. Having lived near San Francisco myself for a while, I enjoyed the tour of the city. Almost made me want to hop a plane and go back for a visit.

I want to thank Galley Books (imprint of S & S) for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for my honest review.

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The Bone Sparrow

the-bone-sparrow-cover-with-frame

The Bone Sparrow

Author: Zana Fraillon
Disney (Hyperion)| 2016
240 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4847-8151-7
Genre: Fiction/Refugee Families
Audience: 9-12 yrs /Grades 3-7

Rated: ★★★★☆

TRUE FACTS about Australian Detention Camps

Exerpt from theguardian.com

Sunday 24 July 2016
Authors Ben Doherty and Patrick Kingsleybaxter-detention-sign

…[P]eople who arrive in Australia by boat without a visa seeking asylum are sent to either Nauru or Manus Island, where most are held in indefinite, arbitrary detention. They are told they will “not, under any circumstances, be settling in Australia”, but there are no other viable resettlement options for them…

The United Nations has found that Australia’s immigration detention regime breaches international law, amountidetention-fenceng to arbitrary and indefinite detention, and that men, women
and children are held in violent and dangerous conditions.

One asylum seeker was murdered by guards on Manus Island, while another died because there were no appropriate antibiotics to treat infection.

 simple-bar-line

Book Review

When you see photographs of this beautiful planet from space, it is hard to imagine how the inhabitants of such a wonder can be so cruel and heartless toward one another. You have to ask yourself…Why? Why does it happen? Why does the world allow it to continue? Why does the world look away? Much like Boy in a Striped Pajamas by John Boyne where a privileged boy learns about life on the inside a concentration camp, Bone Sparrow includes a view of life from the inside of a detention camp by a young girl, Jimmie, living on the outside.

Bone Sparrow is a work of fiction aimed at a young audience and narrated by a ten-year old Rohingya boy born in an Australian detention camp. Subhi has never seen what life is like outside the chainmail fence. His known world is a canvas tent, wind-borne desert sand, extreme heat, little water, deplorable food, scarce medical attention, no schooling and abuse. He has never met his ba (father) who was imprisoned in Myanmar (Burma) for the crime of being an ethnic minority. His pregnant Maá (mother) and sister, Noor (Queeny) were forcefully removed from Myanmar and floated up to Australia in a refugee boat hoping for security and a new life. Instead, they found themselves permanently erased from a world that refused to accept them, living in an hellish limbo filled with danger and violence.

When we first meet, Subhi, after ten long years of hardship and despair, his Maá has retreated into a catatonic state. His older sister, Queeny, having known the real world, is often querulous and difficult, snapping at Subhi as she struggles to accept her fate as a non-person. Yet, we see a softer Queeny serving as a protector and educator to her little brother. One of her great gifts to Subhi was teaching him to read and write. Subhi has seen pictures of the outside world in old magazines strewn around camp but he has no sense of what he is viewing.

Subhi is an intelligent, perceptive, kind, and loving child with a wild imagination that keeps hopes smallest ember alive as he refuses to let his mind turn to “mush”. He listens in rapt attention to traditional stories of the Rohingya people shared by his mother, sister and fellow refugees. These stories fill his nights with vibrant dreams of a magical Night Sea that brings him gifts and visits from sea creatures.

As his mother mentally and physically slipped into a world of her own, Subhi longs to hear her voice once again enchanting him with these traditional stories and stories about his ba. He despairs when the stories begin to fade from his memory. He feels that he will not recognize his ba whenever he shows up at the camp, something he tells anyone that will listen.

One night, in a semi-wakeful state, Subhi thinks he sees a strange young girl standing in his tent. The girl turns out to be real. This young motherless girl from a poor neighborhood near the detention camp, intrigued by stories of how wonderful life is for the refugees inside the camp, sneaks under a weak spot in the wire fence to check things out for herself. In time, Jimmie and Subhi form a close and endearing friendship. Jimmie appalled by the reality of camp life brings Subhi hot chocolate and treats on her fairly frequent visits. The reader will never forget when Subhi tastes hot chocolate for the first time!

Subhi closest friend, Eli, an older boy, involves him in a prohibited intra-camp supply exchange that provides excitement and danger. When Eli’s behavior and exchange system has tested the “Jackets” to their limit, despite being underage, Eli is moved into the dangerous adults-only zone. In time, Eli and others develop plans to let the world know of their existence and plight, leading to some deeply disturbing retribution by the “Jackets”.

As the novel concludes, Subhi has survived the unimaginable.  The camp has been discovered by the outside world and there is reason to hope that at some time in the future, life will improve. He is compelled to carry on the legacy of those who have lost their earthly lives in this genocide of the Rohingya by creating a new story that will be passed along to future generations.

I find my notebook and pencil and I start to write. The letters flow from deep inside me… And my head fills with memories and stories from so long ago that fences weren’t even invented yet… All those stories swirl through my head, but… I tell them to wait. Because first I have to write the most important story of them all. The story which isn’t even a story. The story that has to be told, no matter how hard it is to tell.

Subhi, ten-year Rohingya boy
Australian Detention Camp

I was deeply moved by this small YA novel. It has a message for the world at-large and should be read by readers of all ages. Personally, I have been sheltered in my comfortable life. When the news of the world becomes overbearing, I flip a switch and it goes away.  We owe it to the forgotten and neglected in this world, to recognize their plight and in what ever way possible to provide hope.

Highly recommended reading.

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Wilderness: A Novel

olympic-mountainswilderness-cover

Wilderness

Author | Lance Weller          easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR
Bloomsbury USA| 2012
Hardcover: 304 pages
ISBN: 9781608199372
Genre: Historical Fiction
Review Source: Personal Copycivil-war-quote
Rating: ★★★★☆
old-hunter-and-dog-circle

 


The old man began to tremble, though the wind was still mild and the rain still warm. He could not help but see, once again, war’s sights and hear war’s sounds and know, once more, war’s hard gifts that are so difficult to live with after the war.

After Lee surrendered in 1865, Abel Truman raced westward hoping to outrun the memory of the sights and sounds of war. When he found himself as far west as possible on the beach of the Pacific Ocean, he built a driftwood shack. For many lonely years he lived surrounded by the memories of the now long dead from his previous life.  His sole companion was an old dog that wandered into his life and they loved each other unconditionally.

On what would be his last morning in that idyllic setting, while scouring his beach for washed up treasures, Abel came across a blue door that triggered a tsunami of emotion and loss that drove him to the edge of despair. As casually as picking a flower, Abel burned his home and began to walk without purpose or forethought into an unknown future, dragging with him his heavy past.

“A fire burned from the little stone-lined pit…the night before he left…The old man did not yet know that he was going but he felt something inside him shift. The dog sensed his despair and knew what the old man did not… that he would soon try a thing and fail…The dog also knew that they would not return.” 

Abel’s story is complicated and must be savored slowly to capture the author’s true purpose. The story is so much more than the Civil War. Yes, the Civil War scenes are severe but hidden in the carnage is the individual humanity of each soldier. The reader is made to lie down in the dirt, crawl inside the mind of each character, and become a witness to history. When Abel’s torturous nightmares flare, it is as though you are remembering with him. We find in the heat of battle that each man reveals his true nature. Here’s a snippet from a battle scene with the battle-hardened Abel and David Abernathy, a young man, facing his first fight.

David’s knuckles were white upon his rifle, barrel and stock. His eyes stung with sweat…He was distantly aware [that] his spectacles had slid down the long thin line of his nose until he eyed the coming battle over their moon-round tops. A spattering of bullets sent sprays of dirt over him…[Abel] reached out one grimy finger and gently pushed David’s spectacles back up his nose, then patted his shoulder with an air of the paternal…Abel, good-naturedly nodding toward the field said, ‘When you do fire, point it thataway.’

Let’s head back to Abel’s last journey as he encounters others for the first time in many years. He finds that mankind hasn’t changed. The world is still a dangerous place and his body, scarred from war, is repeatedly mauled by miscreants, tossed aside like a broken doll. But he also finds good Samaritans willing to nurse him back to health often jeopardizing their own safety.

As Abel fights his aging body and the elements, he too, exhibits his strength and courage – his ability to spit in the eye of death. And as often as he has been dragged back to the land of the living, he offers the same care to others.

Weller has crafted each secondary character so well that you smell their fear, recognize their intentions and applaud their courage and sacrifice. As Abel faces winter’s wrath, keep a sweater handy as you will feel the frigid elements to your core.The story is riddled with loyalty, caring, brutal savagery, racism, pain, redemption, and finally, peace.

Lovers of the movie and/or the book, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, will be drawn to Wilderness.  I forgave the author for challenging this old man and his dog with so many perils. At times, it did seem so over the top, but I will admit to a few tears and flushes of frustration, anger and futility as I struggled to embrace Abel and offer comfort and friendship.

Highly recommended for those willing to take on life’s roughest edges head-on.

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Help Me Pick A Book For January Poll Winner is…

Underground Railroadthe-other-einstein-cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TIED
The Other Einstein and The Underground Railroad

So using the scientifically approved method for selection,
I flipped a coin.

The Winner:

THE OTHER EINSTEIN

thank-you-clipart

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Orphans of the Carnival

orphans-of-the-carnival

Orphans of the Carnival

Author | Carol Birch
Doubleday | November 2016
Hardcover: 352 pages
ISBN: 9780385541527
Genre: Historical Fiction/Entertainers
Review source: Advance Reader E-book

★★☆☆☆

Where do you begin when you leave a book in an emotional trash heap?

I fell in love with the cover immediately and still think it is one of the best I’ve seen this year.  And certainly the flashy promise in the press blurb worked its magic on me. I leapt at the chance to read the book.

The dazzling new novel, evoking the strange and thrilling world of the Victorian carnival, from the Man Booker-shortlisted author of Jamrach’s Menagerie.

Let’s start with some true facts. The protagonist in the novel, Orphans of the Carnival, was a real person. In 1834, a native Indian woman living in western Mexico gave birth to a child so fiercely abnormal the mother feared her daughter was the result of supernatural interference and fled with the child into the mountains. Upon discovery two years later, the child, covered from head to foot with dark black hair and an ape-like face was abandoned by her mother and placed in an orphanage. The child was found to be highly intelligent and blessed with a sweet disposition. A local governor adopted the child tojulia-flyer serve as a maid, caretaker to an elderly family member, and an in-house oddity. In 1854, upon the death of her charge, the child left to return to her native tribe. Somewhere in that journey, she was discovered by an American showman and was convinced to join him for a life in the world of human curiosities thus enabling her to fulfill her dreams of seeing the world outside her small village.

The child’s name was Julia Pastrana and in her short lifetime became one of the world’s best known curiosities.

The author has done her research. The major facts known about Julia Pastrana are in the novel. I know this because I was affected enough to learn more about the real Julia. Believe me, Julia’s life story coated with the fictional embellishments will rip your heart out.

I was appalled at the horrors and mental cruelty she suffered at the hands of greedy carnival men and “respected” medical authorities that repeatedly reported that she was a hybrid human. There’s no doubt that this fiction represents Julia’s reality.

julia-pastranaIn the real world, one well-known New York medical authority examined her and declared she was a half-breed of human and orangutan origin. This wasn’t a new idea. Two hundred years earlier a Dutch doctor stated that orangutans were born “from the lust of Indian women, who mix with apes and monkeys with detestable sensuality”.

Each time Julia stepped on a stage and faced the hordes of gawkers ostensibly interested in her singing voice and her talented dance routines, she knew, and you, the reader knows they are just there to stare at her face. Her greatest desire in life was to be loved and for people to see her, to see beyond the hairy body and the “world’s ugliest face”. Her single most need was the answer to a simple question…Am I Human?

Julia’s final manager, Theo Lent (and husband) must have been a real son-of-a-bleep.  The author presents him from two sides- the face of the carnival barker who lived to make money off his “precious possession” and the lonely friendless leech marrying to force Julia to remain with him. When tragedy strikes, Lent shows his true colors and they are not pretty.

A misfit modern day junk collector finds a discarded broken doll and her fictional story reveals itself to have links to Julia. Overall, this added story was a distraction to the emotional turmoil surrounding Julia and her unfortunate life. I believe that sticking to Julia and the other poor unfortunate souls in this macabre world of entertainment would been better. In my advance reader copy,  Rose’s story breaks into Julia’s story making it difficult to keep track of the narrative. Having said that, the ending of the book was a complete surprise to me.

I wanted to give this book a 3 star. In so many ways, it probably deserves it. The first half of the book had me flipping pages. The story just repeated itself over and over. New city, new show, same old cruel taunts and jeers. Midway I found myself ignoring Rose’s story and just reading to finish the book. As much as I flinched at every cruel word flung at the unfortunates, I never felt a depth to the characters themselves.

I do want to thank Netgalley and Doubleday for the advanced readers copy. This review reflects my own personal views and reaction to the novel.

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Notorious R. B. G. : The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Notorious R. B. G. :notorious-rbg-with-frame

The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

AUTHORS  |  Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
PUBLISHER  |  Dey St (Wm Morrow) | 2015
Hardcover: 227 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-241583-7
Memoir / Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Review Source: Personal Copy

★★★★☆

 truth

During the February, 2016 memorial coverage of Justice Antonin Scalia, I found myself drawn to a photograph taken in India in 1994 of Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg together lumbering along waving from atop an elephant.scalia-ginsburg-elephant It stopped me in my tracks as I knew they represented the yin and yang of the American Justice System. Was it conceivable that they were friends outside their hallowed chambers? What was my little 5 ft tall Jewish icon of Women’s Rights doing hanging around the man that declared that the constitution didn’t bar sex discrimination?

That question rattled around in my brain and prompted me to look into her biography. I needed to know more about Ruth as a person, not just a Supreme Court Justice with fancy collars and a fiery pen. There are some great choices available, including books written by Justice Ginsberg herself, but I fell in love with Carmon and Knizhnik’s Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

This glossy picture strewn work brings RBG to life in short but thorough stories of her progression from Kiki, the baton twirling teen, deeply in love with the adventurous and independent Nancy Drew books to present day, a strong and resilient Supreme Court Justice not afraid to stand up and fight for human rights.

RBG, born in 1933, began her steady growth toward gender independence fighting as she states, with three strikes against her, “[I was] a woman, a mother and a Jew.” But as she fought for her own survival and career, she wasn’t as yet a strong advocate for feminism. As a college professor, Ruth, inspired by student activism, joined a national movement that has steadily over tme moved toward not just women’s rights but equal rights for all regardless of gender, race, or social status.

Ruth began to fight her way into a “man’s world” pulling all women along with her. She knew the importance of staying focused and educated on issues. She formed her own style. Pick your battles. Fight hard but not loudly or brash. Permanent change must be achieved through baby steps, carefully. When you have something to say, say it with a steady hand and carefully chosen words. Your voice will be heard over the din.

format_quoteAnger, resentment, indulgence in recriminations waste time and sap energy.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg

As much as I was fascinated by all the legal briefs and dissents that Ruth presented, the most important message I got from the book is best said by the two people perched on top of that elephant so many years ago.

“Call us the odd couple,” Scalia said. “She likes opera, and she’s a very nice person. What’s not to like — Except her views on the law.”

[Likewise, Ginsburg could acknowledge her differences with her good friend Nino while still admiring his peppery prose.] “I disagreed with most of what he said, but I loved the way he said it,”

George Washington University event, 2015

These two people, at odds in their legal lives, can also see the human side of each other and share the richness of friendship and love.  In our current political climate, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have shown the importance of civility, respect and friendship.

I am going to jump in here with a diversion from the book and a personal comment.  As we head into a new world in America, my best guess istrump-ginsburg-rant that Justice Ginsburg will not be deterred by tweets or taunts. She will stand with her principles and continue to represent all of us to the best of her ability.  Highly recommend reading.

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Dead Wake

dead-wake

Dead Wake: 

The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Author | Erik Larson
Crown Publishing Group | 2015
Hardcover: 448 pages
ISBN: 978-0307408860
Genre: Non-Fiction/World War, 1914-1918

★★★★☆

 

nyt-lusitania“THE ADMIRALTY’S focus was elsewhere, on a different ship that it deemed far more valuable.” 

Erik Larson, Dead Wake

Who wasn’t moved by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the bow of the Titanic, arms spread, leaning into the wind? That heartbreaking love story of mismatched social class lovers and the tragic maritime disaster moved me to read a more serious work from that same time-period, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

I thought I knew the basics about the sinking of the Lusitania. It was torpedoed by a German submarine, Americans traveling aboard the liner were killed, and angry America joined the war. Those facts are true but they are not as they seem.

Erik Larson writes in a Note to Readers in Dead Wake:

I first started reading about the Lusitania on a whim…What I learned both charmed and horrified me. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the incident, but, as so often happens when I do deep research on a subject, I quickly realized how wrong I was.

Sifting and digging through countless documents, records, pictures, letters, interviews and memoirs, Larson has brought this tragedy to life and in doing so has revealed how little we really knew of that fateful day. One historical event that has been reduced in time to a sentence or two in most history books, now comes alive (without embellishment) using only the facts and words of the people intrinsic to this event. The author says, I’ve really tried to strip my writing of as many adjectives and adverbs as I possibly can. Each new fact or story is presented like a detailed slideshow slipping around in time -before, during and after- the sinking. There were so many intricate details unearthed it was a difficult book to review!

Larson sets the stage by placing the Lusitania majestically docked bow-first at Cunard Steam Ship Company’s Pier 54,  in Manhattan with Captain William Thomas Turner proudly standing at attention on the bridge. While the ship loads pacaptain-turnerssengers and supplies, Larson reveals the life of the Lusitania from inspiration to shipwreck.

The Cunard Steam Ship Company, based in Liverpool England, proudly promoted the gem of their fleet, the Lusitania, reputed by many to be the epitome of all that man knows or has discovered or invented up to this moment of time.” Like the Titanic, three years earlier, was considered unsinkable. The Titanic disaster did highlight the need for additional lifeboats and safety gear and these and other modifications were made to the Lusitania allaying any fears the passengers had about a maritime incident.

Dead Wake steps back and forth in time bringing the reader up to speed on the political climate and causes of the First World War that began on July 28, 1914 when Austria declared war on Serbia. Other European nations, bound by treaties and alliances, lined up to form a divided Europe recognized as the Allied Forces (France, the United Kingdom and Russia) against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Suspense was created as Larson describes the delicate timeline for the United States entry into the fray for the Allied Forces.

While the First World War is better known as a brutal killing land-war fought in the trenches, Germany’s development of submarine warfare threatened to destroy a key ally – Great Britain.  As an island nation Britain relied on seaborne commerce for everything and as the war pressed on into 1915, British military and civilians vessels were lost with increasing numbers. Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, was determined to save Britain with the help of the United States by any means necessary and for as long as it would take to convince them of Britain’s need.  President Woodrow Wilson, knee-deep in grief and depression over the loss of his wife, and the American public were equally determined to keep the United States out of the war.

On February 4, 1915, Germany stepped up their maritime action by issuing a proclamation designating the waters around the British Isles an ‘area of war‘ in which all enemy ships would be subject to attack without warning. Thus far, passenger liners, had escaped unscathed.

On that beautiful morning of May 1, 1915, as the Lusitania was poised to leave Manhattan, the German Embassy in Washington ramped things up in the Atlantic by posting a notice on the shipping pages of the New York newspapers cautioning that vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction and travels sailing on such ships do so at their own risk. 

Cunard responded to the warning by issuing the statement that the Lusitania was the safest boat on the sea…too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.

As the Lusitania begins her fated crossing, we are given a slideshow tour of the ship itself from 1st Class cabins down to the boiler room. The slideshow takes us through the passenger list peering openly into the lives of famous passengers and the travel plans of the not-so famous. We learn why, in the heart of a vicious war, they felt the need to leave the safety of America. We watch laughing children play hop-scotch, observe a traveler’s gaze as the crew practices hoisting life-boats into position, smile as Dwight Harris fingers the engagement ring in his pocket he dreams of presenting to his beloved, sit in the bleak quarantined room with a worried mother concerned for her sick child, listen to mothers sharing stories about relatives and friends waiting for them to arrive…….

For the first time, we ride shot-gun with a U-Boat 20 Captain and his crew as he navigates around Britain to reach his place in infamy. We sit in the ultra-secret Room 40 where the British Admiralty use confiscated German code books to decipher submarine wireless transmissions and track them right up to the hull of the Lusitania. We question why they repeatedly fail to warn Captain Turner of the danger. We watch in horror as the the U-Boat 20 Captain disturbed by what he has done, turns his sub away from the Lusitania, unable to witness further, the catastrophe through his periscope.

We see Captain Turner miraculous tossed into the sea and returned to land to face a grueling trial. Those trial proceedings will make you grit your teeth.

One of my little pet peeves? I didn’t need to know quite so much about President Wilson’s grief and the burgeoning love life he discovered on the other side.

In the end, the reader will be left with a shocked sense of what really happened. My opinion of some players changed radically; some for the good and others disgustingly. I will admit I shed a few tears for the families and friends trying to locate their missing loved ones; and in that search, Larson gives us some good news as well. I guarantee at least one story will make you chuckle.

The people we meet have now achieved immortality, lifted from the pages of history as more than a footnote. Highly recommended for history buffs and readers interested in life in the 1900s. The descriptions of the period costumes and opulence of the Lusitania alone make this a worthy read.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Crown Publishing for the Advance E-reader copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion and review.

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Second Mrs. Hockaday


The Sesecond-mrs-hockaday-covercond Mrs. Hockaday

Author | Susan Rivers
Algonquin | January 2017
Hardcover: 272 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61620-581-2
Genre: Historical Fiction/Civil War

confederate-flagbook-lists-starred-review

★★★☆☆

August 19, 1865

Dearest Mildred, Of all the misgivings to which we women are prone, none is more pernicious than the suspicion that we were too easily won.civil-war-woman

Much like Fair and Tender Ladies (Lee Smith) or the Color Purple (Alice Walker), The Second Mrs. Hockaday is told in letters, diaries and correspondence. The book is loosely based on fact.

The book opens with a letter written by Placidia Fincher Hockaday from the Holland County, South Carolina jail dated July 20, 1865. The letter is addressed to her cousin, Mildred. The details of her incarceration are left out of the letter.

She reminisces in that letter about the memorable April day she first met her husband, Major Gryffth Hockaday, when she was 17. “On my deathbed I shall remember that April day if I remember anything at all…”

She had spent most of the memorable day riding a spirited horse and arrived back at her father’s farm, sweaty, dirty and wild-haired. She discovers her father talking to a mysterious Confederate officer, taller and thinner [than father] with a wind-burned face as craggy as a shagbark stump.

The Major stays with the Fincher family overnight to attend Placidia’s step-sister’s wedding. We learn that Major Hockaday’s first wife, Janet, died recently leaving a child, Charles. The morning after the wedding, Placidia’s surprised father tells her the Major has made an offer of marriage. Placidia’s relationship with her step-mother and step-siblings is strained and her father is dying. Believing a better future lies with the Major she accepts the offer of marriage despite only meeting him hours before.

The newlyweds arrive at the Major’s farm and it is not the vision Placidia expected.  The farm is failing, rundown, and too few slaves to work it properly.  Two days after they arrive, the Major is called back to war service leaving the 17 year old bride alone in this new strange world to tend an infant and manage the affairs of a failing Southern farm.

Two years pass before the Hockadays reunite. The Major, headstrong and trigger-tempered arrives to discover that his wife has born a child in his absence. The child died. His immediate reaction was fury and he accuses Placidia of murder. He presses charges and she is arrested.

Placidia’s life and that of the Major’s over those two years of separation are told in correspondence that flips back and forth in time between wartime and their lives after the war, producing a somewhat disjointed story line. The truth behind Placidia’s accused crime isn’t revealed until near the end and is as heartbreaking and ruthless as you imagine it must have been.

As a reflection of the times, the story poignantly describes the plight of the slaves, the horrors of war and the struggles of all Southern families to survive during and after the war. Their stories are heartbreaking. There are secondary characters that will turn your stomach. There are moments that will leave you filled with hope for the future. I found the final chapters had the most meat and were worth the long tease to what really happened to Placidia. The “crime” would prove to be a dark personally held secret that percolated behind the ether of daily life through three generations.  In the end, the reader is left to wonder if Placidia’s final decision was wise.

My overall opinion was very positive. The violent scenes were handled carefully; accurate enough to be honest but not extreme enough to be overly graphic. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in historical fiction.

I would like to thank Netgalley.com and the publisher, Algonquin Books/Algonquin Young Readers, for the ARC e-reader in exchange for my unbiased review.

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Looking For Alaska

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# 1 Challenged Book In 2015

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Looking For Alaska

Author | John Green
Dutton Bks | 2005
Hardcover: 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-245660-1

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Genre: Fiction/Interpersonal Relations
Audience: High School

PRESS RELEASE – 2005

Before.
Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . .
After. Nothing is ever the same.

Challenge History
Looking for Alaska, first published in 2005, was John Green’s debut young adult novel. The American Library Association awarded the book the  Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2006. Visit the link Awards and Challenges for more information about this book and book challenges in general.

The first challenge to the book occurred in 2008 when the book was used as course material in an 11th-grade English class in a high school near Buffalo, N.Y. Some parents challenged its usage in class because of its liberal portrayal of students drinking, smoking, using explicit language and having sex. The school board ultimately voted to keep the book in the school curriculum

Following the phenomenal success of John Green’s A Fault In Our Stars in 2012, Looking for Alaska received a second look by many and soon appeared on the NYT children’s paperback bestseller list at #10.

The American Library Association received  270+ different titles challenged in 2015 but the most challenged book was Looking for Alaska. The ALA has summarized the challenges as offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. Other challenges to the book focused on religious objections.

John Green’s Youtube defense of challenges

My Review

First off I was disappointed (tongue-in-cheek) to learn that the story wasn’t about the cold northern state, Alaska; I had hoped. Alaska is a “gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating classmate” (according to the publisher) not an Alaskan musher.

Having gotten over my disappointment, I looked at the bones of the book. Unlike most novels, the book is uniquely arranged in one continuous story-line. No separate chapters.  Breaks in the timeline are spliced into the story by bold headlines – a countdown to some unknown event beginning with one hundred thirty-six days before. This layout did keep me reading page after page always looking for clues, ever aware that something significant is going to happen. A very useful tactic if encouraging a reluctant reader.

My overall impression was positive. I thought the book was age-appropriate for senior high school students. Parents of younger children should probably read the book in advance and make their own decision if their child is mature enough or prepared for some of the themes. The sex scenes and underage drinking reflect the mind of the intended audience as they transition from youth toward adulthood; even if as a parent, you would like to keep your child innocent and close to home. It is my opinion the book could provide a medium through which a parent and child can discuss sensitive topics at a time when it is hard to talk about anything with your child without sulking or surly rebellion.

I particularly liked that Miles’ father, an alumnus of Culver Creek, having been a mischief make himself, advises Miles, “Don’t do anything stupid…No drugs, No drinking, No cigarettes.” While Miles had no initial interest in these activities he was so anxious to belong that he was willing to suspend his better judgement at times.

The heaviest topic, suicide, threads through the story, often disguised as bluster and bravado. Again, with teenage suicides the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, the book provides an avenue for discussion about the symptoms and signals of teenage depression.

I was struck by the deliberate absence of parental contact and limited supervision by school staff during the school year; parents and teachers for the most part seemed to speak in the Peanuts cartoon “wah wah wah” voice as background noise. The “Eagle”, Mr. Starnes, dean of students, appears as a nocturnal guard against late night mischief with little interest in the life of students exhibiting social problems.

By and large, one of the best themes of the book was the world religions class. Miles was not raised in a deeply religious setting but he is intrigued by the metaphysical nature of the class. It speaks to why he reads biographies to learn people’s last words and to his reason for attending this school- searching for the Great Perhaps. The topic of death and the meaning of life is central to the story. As Miles “Pudge” Halter absorbs his thoughts about the meaning of life, the reader follows Alaska’s personal torments toward tragedy.

Mr. Hyde posts Simón Bolívar’s last words, often quoted by Alaska, on the chalkboard as a source for class discussion and reflection.

“Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”

The author places each character in a myriad of labyrinths. Each labyrinth, whether Miles’ efforts at developing friendships, Chips disapproval of the wealthy day students, or Alaska’s deep history of family tragedy and sorrow, lends itself to self-reflection and/or shared dialogue.

When the unexpected event happens and “the before” ends and “the after” begins, life is altered for each character. As in life itself, the characters learn how tenuous the future really is and their self-discovery in response to the “event” casts a bright light on friendship, loyalty, trust, love, religion and reality.

Despite the dark overtones, the book has many positive messages.

The world religion class receives their final exam question two months in advance and the characters’ reflections and discussions on the topic are thought provoking.

What is the most important question human beings must answer?
Choose your answer wisely, and then examine how “Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it.

Pudge’s final exam begins…

Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend it doesn’t exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in the back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home. But that only led to a lonely life accompanied by the last words of the already-dead, so I came here looking for the Great Perhaps, for real friends and a more-than-minor life.

And ends with…

Thomas Edison’s last words were: ‘It’s very beautiful over there.’ I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”

I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing what has turned out to be a lengthy discussion of this “banned book.” If this book has such a lasting impression on me personally, I hope it is helpful and enlightening to others as well.

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The Lost Girls

 

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The Lost Girls

by Heather Young

WM Morrow | 2016
Hardcover: 352 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-245660-1
Genre: Fiction/Suspense

Hardcover ARC won from LibraryThing/Early Readers and  ARC e-reader from Edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★★

Wow!

It has been a long time since I picked up a book that I read straight through the night and I was invested in the characters deeply enough to cry at the end. And to think this was the author’s first book!

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I found this notebook in the desk yesterday…It was as though it had lain in wait…until now … sixty-four years [later]. Since Lilith’s passing…the story of that summer has been mine alone, to keep or to share. I am the last…I hold secrets that don’t belong to me…Better to let it be, I tell myself…But this notebook reminds me that it’s not so simple as that…So I will write my family’s story, here in this book … I will tell it as fully as I can, even the parts that grieve me…Lucy Evans

Lucy Evans’ great-grandfather, leaving the coal mines of Wales, arrived in America, and improved his status eventually co-founding Williamsburg, Minnesota. The Lost Girls covers five generations of women in this prominent family. Lucy’s family, along with six other Williamsburg families, owned a summer retreat on a remote lake. A local mixed-race family owned a restaurant and lodge that was central to the social life of the lake residents. In the fall of 1935, as the temporary residents on the lake prepare to head back to town in advance of the harsh Minnesota winter, Lucy’s six-year old sister, Emily, disappears in the dead of night. Lucy’s distraught and overprotective mother never returns to Williamsburg and she, along with the two remaining sisters, stay at the lake- always leaving the light on for Emily.

Sixty-four years later, Lucy, the last of the Thomas Evans family still lives at the lake, and knowing she will soon be gone, decides it’s time to tell her family’s story…warts and all.  Lucy leaves the Evans estate to her grandniece, Justine, along with the notebook revealing all the family’s dirty secrets.

The book alternates from Lucy’s first person narration with the third person narrator focusing on the life of Lucy’s grandniece, Justine after Lucy’s death.  As Lucy shares her story we begin to see how the sins of the past generations have deeply scarred Justine’s life in the present.

Lucy’s story is so compelling that Justine’s story seems weak at first but as the book progresses Justine’s family issues become as important as the search for the truth about Emily’s disappearance. As the two stories converge, putting the book down is nearly impossible!

The novel is emotionally hard at times. The isolation, loneliness and emotional distress of each character is palpable. Both Lucy and Justine’s family secrets are slowly revealed but you can still feel them viscerally just below the surface from beginning to end. Would the story have changed if each succeeding generation not borne only girls? What draws each of the girls to a toxic spouse? Is there a way to save Justine and her girls?

The book is so well written that it is hard to believe it’s the author’s first work of fiction! The descriptions of the lake and the woods make you feel as though you are witnessing things through three-D glasses. Lucy’s penchant for writing children’s books about Emily are works of art in themselves. There are so many layers to this book but the reader never gets lost in the story; just hungry to know more…Love, loyalty, friendship and family bonds are tested and the conclusion of the book will leave you stunned.

Highly recommended.

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Clancys of Queens

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by Tara Clancy

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Hardcover: 256 pages
Crown Publishing | 2016
ISBN: 978-1-101-90311-7
Genre: Personal Memoir

★★★★☆

Print ARC won via LibraryThing/Early Readers and e-copy via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased honest review.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Recipe For Self-Deprecating
Coming-Of-Age Memoir

Take one five-year old Irish-Italian school girl from New York City (Queens) with the energy of the “Roadrunner” and the mischievous bent of “Wile E. Coyote”; a self identified whirling dervish with a penchant for mayhem.

Pass her around Queens like an invitation to a “progressive dinner”.

Start her out weekdays in the care of her Italian grandparents, Rosalie and “Ricky” Riccobono and their geriatric relatives and neighbors on 251st Street in Bellerose, Queens. Indulge her free spirit and fill her days with love and a generous dose of Rosalie’s Italian salty invectives.

[I enter the kitchen and sneak up on Grandma as she is about to tell me to do something.] I’m a few feet below Grandma’s sight line…her head slowly swiveling left, then right, then left again with a fixed, fuming gaze, looking like a cyborg in a housedress. Right before her eyes start pulsing red and she turns real-life Terminator, her head tilts down and there I am, standing at her heels and choking down a laugh…[She starts her instructions as she always does with her favorite opening cussword. She means nothing by it, it’s just her catch-all punctuation.]

Weekday evenings hand her over to her loving and patient mother for the quiet solitude of each other’s company. As quiet as life can be with a dervish in the house.

Two weekends a month gift her to her caring father, a dirt-poor Irish-American police officer and his pull out sofa bed in his one-room converted boat shed near Jamaica Bay. Saturday evenings, the two sit high above the crowd in the Crow’s Nest at Gregory’s Bar and Restaurant in Broad Channel, Queens collecting treats and high fives from the regulars.

ps133-logoThe other two weekends place her in the back of a stretch limo, alone, to arrive at the luxurious Bridgehampton estate of her mother’s boyfriend. Incongruously parked at the formal entrance of the main house is her plastic electric Power Wheels pickup charged and ready for her first tour of the estate grounds.

Stir together blending all characters into one big extended family that protects, loves and supports our little dervish as she crashes and blasts her way through grade school, middle school and into high school. Tara goes through schools like Imelda Marcos does shoes.

Tara tells her story as if she is riding the subway sharing anecdotes over time to a seatmate. Each story awash in a fresh memory that exposes more of herself not deeply but openly and often with humor. Along the way we learn a lot about Queens and meet some wonderful people with colorful nicknames such Uncle Jelly, Mumbling Joe and Jimmy the Hat. (Wait until you meet Rosemary. Sorry no hints. Won’t spoil the surprise.)

The story is not all fun and games. She openly shares her darker issues such as alcohol abuse and the struggle for sexual identity but she always finds a way to tell it with tongue-in-cheek humor. In true New York style everything and everyone feels larger than life but the overall emotion that rings through the clatter and clutter is unconditional love. Tara has a way of expressing her love for her parents, grandparents and extended family in all her stories that makes you want to head to Grandma Rosalie’s for Christmas dinner.

Believe me you are in for a surprise when you read what turns her life around at the end!

Recommended.

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Night Watch

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NIGHT WATCH

 by Iris and Roy Johansenblood-splatter4-md

St. Martin’s Press 2016
Hardcover: 352 pgs
978-1250075970
Kendra Michaels #4


★★★☆☆

 

ARC e-book from publisher via edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

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format_quoteAbduction?…I have to let them find me…If I can’t talk you out of this, I’m going to go over possibilities you might fact in captivity…I learned a lot while I was being held by the Taliban…Kendra sat down opposite her at the table. I’m listening…

Iris Johansen started her literary career with straight up romance fiction evolving into the historical romance vein; I am allergic to the romance genre so I avoid them preferring something more rough and tumble. When I read the synopsis of Night Watch, I learned Johansen had turned her talents to crime fiction. I was happy to receive an advanced reader e-book from the publisher via Edelweiss so I could preview this genre change for myself.

Night Watch is the fourth book in the Kendra Michaels series and I was concerned it would leave me at a disadvantage in Kendra’s back history. It turns out this newest book has flashbacks, including details about Kendra’s blindness and the miracle experimental surgery that restored her sight, that makes this book a stand alone work. During her sightless years, Kendra developed extraordinary abilities of smell and hearing. Born with an insatiable curiosity, she uses the miracle of sight along with her overly developed senses to see the world more intimately and acutely than Sherlock Holmes. Her observational and cognitive skills are often used by law enforcement in crime scene investigations.

This newest mystery centers on the disappearance of the doctor that restored the teenage Kendra’s vision. Kendra, ever grateful and loyal to a fault, makes the search for the missing doctor her life’s mission.  As the story picks up steam some very quirky characters including a young former military female private investigator and a sexy and wealthy former FBI agent help her in the search. The obligatory bad guys are really bad and you just know they are going to get their comeuppance in the end.

The first half of the story was kind of ho-hum to me but when things did start to develop I couldn’t put the book down.  Yet in the end, I am not sure I liked Kendra. I couldn’t see what the playboy FBI agent saw in her to make him fly around the world to help her. Just because something is fictional and suspends belief doesn’t mean they have to come across like Flat Stanley; they could have a little more character development.

It was a comfortable read on a night where I needed a quick read that didn’t strain the brain. I will admit that I read well past my bedtime to finish it.  So I guess in the end I would recommend it as a place filler between a heavy non-fiction and your next epic novel.

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News Of The World

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NEWS OF THE WORLD

by Paulette Jiles

Harper Collins | 2016
Hardcover: 224 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-240920-1
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: ARC E-book from edelweiss

★★★★cowboy

 

There has always been a soft spot in my heart for stories best read around a campfire. I have shared time in the woods, fire crackling, sipping hot cowboy coffee with the Virginian, Rooster Cogburn, and now Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd.

It’s 1870, the late, great War of Northern Aggression or Civil War, depending on your allegiance has ended. The Captain, now 70, like most of the men of his era, having survived the war, must now find a way to endure the hardships of postwar life. In his younger years he had been a printer but the war had taken this life from him. These days, he finds the alluring smell of printer’s ink on his hands on papers printed by someone else. His wife, long dead, his children now grown, he makes his living drifting through Texas frontier towns reading the news of the day to news hungry townsfolk willing to pay 10¢ to escape Texas for an hour.

Known to be a man of honor and respectability, Captain was approached at one of his readings in northern Texas about returning a recently recovered orphan, captured 4 years earlier by Indians, 400 miles south to her family near San Antonio.

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Johanna Leonberger was six years old when she was taken captive by the Kiowa after witnessing the savage murder of her parents. Now four years later and fully assimilated into tribal customs, Johanna has been torn from her loving Kiowa mother, and ransomed for fifteen woolen blankets and a set of silver dinnerware to the US Army. This blond haired blue-eyed ten year old having locked all memory of her first life in that dark place in the mind where horrors hide finds herself alone in a strange world where people sleep with roofs over their heads and wear shoes.

Agreeing to deliver the young girl to her Aunt and Uncle’s care, Captain Kidd begins the three-week trip with the challenge of harnessing Johanna’s trust. The arduous journey through flash floods and hostile territory is filled with marauding bandits of all stripes. Along the way, the limits of loyalty, friendship, bravery and honesty are tested. Many endearing side characters will warm your heart and a few bad men get western justice along the ride. Pure Western with heroes and heroines that will leave you smiling You might even learn something new in the news of the world.

Recommended!

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The Book of Harlan

 

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The Book of Harlan

by Bernice L. McFadden

Akashic | 2016
Paperback: 400 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61775-446-3
Genre: Historical Fiction

Review Source: ARC from publisher for unbiased opinion.

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★★★★☆

Harlan Elliott arrived on Christmas Eve, right there on the parlor floor between the piano and the Christmas tree [1917]…
[He] kept his eyes closed for two whole months…Considering how his life would turn out, perhaps Harlan knew, even in infancy, just what the universe had in store for him.

I have struggled for days over this review.  Not that I didn’t like the book or had any trouble finishing it; the pages seem to turn themselves. I loved it. The chapters were short (and presented in the third person).  The difficulty arises because there is so much to discuss! The book’s timeline spans everything from the end of slavery to the moon landing. There were so many themes! Blues/Jazz, Racial discrimination, Abandonment, Drugs, Cultural Identity, War/Holocaust et al.
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Harlan’s life is sprinkled through world events like one of those children’s popup books. Each time he pops up, it’s been years since we last heard about him. Harlan repeatedly faces life altering challenges, mostly brought on by himself and a few hoisted on him by society. As he plows through other people’s lives in his devil-may-care attitude, he leaves heartbreak and sorrow in his wake. There were times I would like to have reached through the page and played wack-a-mole to get him to grow up.

A number of interesting characters intersect Harlan’s path. Gwen, a naive girl, misunderstanding that sex is not love. Lizard, lost in his cultural identity but tied to Harlan through their mutual love of music. Lucille, his mother’s best friend whose living large life plays an important role in so many ways. His “Banty rooster” mother, Emma and his hardworking father, Sam, desperate to help Harlan overcome his demons. John Smith, a childhood friend, who Harlan loves like a brother from another mother. And my favorite, Louis Armstrong, whose heart and soul makes everyone’s day beautiful.

colored-only-sign[The Harlam band bus arrived in Augusta, Georgia and discovered all the colored-only hotels full. As the band prepared to settle in their bus seats for the night, Harlan sleepily says…]

“We passed a hotel not a mile down the road with a vacancy sign!  Boy, this ain’t Harlem…This here is Jim Crow territory…That sign is for white-folks only.”

Storyline
Harlan’s grandfather, The Reverend T.M. Robinson of the Cotton Way Baptist Church in Macon, GA had come a long way from his slavery days in Charleston.  The Reverend had hitched his star to Jesus and in no time his successful ministry provided a high quality life for his wife and children in the “highfalutin” colored section of town.

The Robinson’s youngest child, Emma, a gifted pianist, enjoyed the niceties provided by her father’s success but somewhere in the mystery of conception had picked up some stray gene that drove her to sample the seamier side of life.  When her biological timer went off in her teen years, she began a secret relationship with Sam Elliott, a local carpenter. The lovebirds kept their tryst going right up until she blew her father’s mind with the news she would need a shotgun wedding.

The teenage newlyweds weren’t ready for adulthood let alone parenting. Emma’s itch to leave Macon was stronger than her need to care for her new child. They had no clue where they were headed but it had to be out of Georgia and that meant leaving little Harlan to be raised in the same environment she was escaping.

Harlan, much like his mother, enjoyed a carefree life in the Robinson home. He learned early on that he liked getting his own way and to hell with everyone else’s feelings. His grandparent’s failure to hold him accountable for his behavior or to develop empathy and compassion would haunt all his future relationships. He achieved his happiness by modeling his grandfather’s self-important behavior. (This self-aggrandized manner would later drag friends into situations they would most likely never do otherwise.) When he was 11, his beloved grandfather died.  This death and the unexpected decision by his grieving grandmother to hand him over to his parents care marked the first of many times he would be forced to forge “a new life.”

Sam, Emma and Harlan moved to the epicenter for Negro jazz and blues music, Harlem. Emma had big dreams of emulating her best friend,  Lucille, a popular Negro recording singer, making her mark in the heady world of the Harlem Renaissance.

jazzmenWhile living in Harlem, Harlan discovered his inherited music talent following in love with the guitar. When he dropped out of school at 16 to pursue a musical career, Lucille took him on band tours through the United States. With little supervision and poor adult role models, Harlan found drugs, alcohol and sex. These new vices drew him deeper and deeper in their grasp until he no longer was reliable to the band. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you; Lucille fired him.

While nursing a grudge, Harlan befriends another musician named Lizard and in time the two form the Harlem World Band.  In 1940, the band headlines at a cabaret in France. The group is shocked to see that Paris is colorblind with no whites-only barriers. But there is the unsettling concern among the French citizenry that the marauding Nazis might choose to invade France. Harlen sees the music still playing and the booze flowing and believes he will be long gone before trouble arrives.

When trouble arrives shockingly quick, the Nazi flag and soldiers fill the streets, Harlan refuses to take it seriously. He has a ticket booked on a steamer for New York in a couple of days. Harlan sweet talks his terrified friends into partying heartily right up until the time to leave. Heading back to the hotel after a crazy night of partying, a man steps from the shadows and asks for a light. The rest of the group recognizes the Nazi uniform and senses the danger but Harlan, as usual, has to pull the tiger’s tail. In the may-lei, the women race away but Harlan and Lizard are beaten and taken captive.

Harlan and Lizard are sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp where they encounter the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, the wife of the Commandant. Ilse Koch loves to torture and she does it so well. This portion of the book is heavy and hard to read. Harlan survives five years of torture before the Allies rescue him.

The feisty Harlan has been replaced by a shell of man finding it safer to bury the horror. To talk about it would be reliving it. His parents and friends do what they can to try to reach him but he has retracted into a world none of them can comprehend.

The ending is bittersweet with a twist of revenge and shred of hope.

Highly recommended.

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The Life We Bury

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format_quoteI remember being pestered by a sense of dread as I walked to my car that day, pressed down by a wave of foreboding that swirled around my head…If I had known how that drive would change so many things- would I have taken a safer path?

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by Allen Eskins

Seventh Street Books | 2014
Paperback  | 300 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61614-998-7
Genre: Fiction/Murder Mystery
Review Source: Personal Copy

★★★★  4/5 stars

blue-ridge-readersThe first time I water-skied (and stayed upright) I remember the exhilarating thrill of being pulled up rapidly onto the surface of the water and the feeling of flying out of control in the wake of the boat.

The opening paragraph of The Life We Bury left me feeling that I was up on my skis and heading into one hell of a story, as it too, careened out of control. Allen Eskins’ debut novel measures right up there with the best for suspense and drama. Things start out small and build and build until you are holding your breath as the plot reaches its climax. And the final chapters bring you back to a soft landing with a real feel good ending.

What makes this book so special to me are the well crafted parallel story lines.  The hardships of a self-funded college program are difficult enough but Eskens has tossed Joey other battles such as abuse of the disabled, parental alcoholism, mental illness, caregiver stress and the emotional struggles of dealing with an out of control bi-polar mother.  Other topics that certainly were explosive and thought provoking include vivid descriptions of Vietnam service and religious fundamentalism.

Joey Talbert, 20, recently left home in the dead of night, not to join the circus he says, but to avoid the heated argument certain to occur if he told his mother he was leaving to attend college. The hard part was leaving behind his beloved severely autistic brother, Jeremy Naylor. His wildly erratic alcoholic mother, Kathy Nelson would have pitched a fit if she had had a chance to stop him.

His decision to attend the University of Minnesota was so last minute that his class choices were limited and he had to fulfill his English language requirement with Biography English.  His term project was to interview an elderly person to “tell about the struggles and forks in the road that made them who they are.”  Without living grandparents he needed to find an elderly person pronto so the obvious place was a nursing home. Hillview Manor had more than its share of elderly but only one resident still had all his marbles, Carl Iverson.

Carl Iverson had arrived at Hillview Manor straight from Stillwater Correctional Facility where he served 30 years of a life sentence for the horrific rape and murder of a teenage cheerleader. Carl’s life sentence would end soon as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. With little choice, Joey reflected that at least his biography project of the life and times of a deranged murderer would be unique. While he waited to see if Carl would agree to be interviewed, Joey did research on the murder.

“I found a picture [of Carl Iverson] in the bowels of the University of Minnesota’s Wilson Library… The archive room had the feel of a tabernacle, with millions of souls packed away on microfilm like incense in tiny jars, waiting for someone to free their essence to be felt, tasted, inhaled again, if only for a moment.”

The moment they meet sparks fly. In a scene somewhat less traumatic than Clarice and Hannibal Lector, Carl and Joey agree to answer each other’s questions honestly – quid pro quo.  And thus begins a hair-raising experience that nearly costs Joey his life. Carl’s biography evolves into much more than a college project and as the suspense builds you want to hold Joey back… don’t go there!

Threaded through the main arc of the story is a tender friendship that eventually leads to a deepening love relationship between Joey and his neighbor, Lila.  And I just had to save mentioning my favorite part until the end – the deep love between brothers. Jeremy’s story brought tears to my eyes.

Highly recommended.  Fabulous book club selection!

AWARDS

Winner—Rosebud Award, Best First Mystery Novel
Finalist—Edgar® Award, Best First Novel
Finalist—Anthony Award, Best First Novel
Finalist—Minnesota Book Award, Best Genre Fiction
Finalist—Barry Award, Best Paperback Original Novel
Finalist—Thriller Award, Best First Novel
Best Books of 2014 (debut), Suspense Magazine
Best Debut Novel of 2014, MysteryPeople
A LibraryReads pick, October 2014
Library Journal Editor’s Pick, fall 2014
Amazon Editor’s Pick, “Books We Loved” 2014

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The Invoice

The invoice

The Invoice

by Jonas Karlsson

Hogarth/Crown| July 2016
Hardcover: 208 pages
ISBN: 978-1-101-90514-2
Genre: Fiction/Humor/Satire

ARC Paperback from LibraryThing/Early Readers in exchange for an unbiased review.

Published as “Fakturan” in the short story collection Spelrelerna by Wahlstrom & Widstrand (2011)

★★★☆☆

Having read several emotionally draining books recently I went on a search through my to-be-read books and decided it was time to read something lighter and fluffier. I picked up the tiny book, The Invoice, and read the book synopsis I had printed out when I received it from the publisher.  The blurb described the book as hilarious, profound, and achingly true-to-life- Jonas Karlsson’s new novel explores the true nature of happiness through the eyes of hero you won’t soon forget.

Sounded perfect to me!  So let me get it off my chest right away. I didn’t find it hilarious and profound. In some respects it felt achingly true-to-life. My overall impression was that it should have been left as a short story.

Now with all that negative bluster let me tell you what I did like about the book.

Description
The unnamed Swedish protagonist lives a very simple life. By day he works part-time at Jugges Flicks spending most of his time staring out the window or re-watching classic films. By night he dines on take-outs from the same restaurants, favors the same ice cream parlor and reminisces over good times with a lost love and old friends that have married and moved on. He loves his low-rent apartment with the crushed cushion couch.

A strange letter appears in his mail one day that, at first, seemed a joke. The letter was an invoice from some outfit called WRD and claimed he owed 5.7 million kronor for EH. The figure was so outrageous and the abstract nature of the invoice had to be a joke or at best a mistake so he tossed it aside. But soon a second invoice arrived with added interest for late payment from a debt collection agency and he was rattled to his core.

Calling the help line for WRD resulted in an experience familiar to anyone calling a major customer service number...your expected wait time is..…..  “What can I do for you?” Must have been a mistake. “No mistake.” I didn’t order anything. “Don’t you read the papers, watch television or keep up the news?”  I had to admit I didn’t. “Well“, she said. “It’s time to pay up.”…What am I supposed to be paying for? “Everything.” What do you mean…everything? “Look around you..” I see clouds, people, children playing, trees… “What do you feel?”  Happy.  “What do you smell?” Something cooking, garbage, flowers… “Do you imagine all that is free? I thought so. “Being alive costs.

The remainder of the book describes his thoughts, telephone conversations with the customer service clerk named Maud, and his interactions with the honchos at WRD.

Just so you won’t go crazy trying to find the meaning of WRD and EH I will tell you. WRD is World Resources Distribution and EH is Experienced Happiness. Every human has been sliced and diced through some complicated system that evaluates their life from birth to present resulting in the cost of acquiring their EH.

My thoughts and feelings
As I said earlier, I didn’t find the satire hysterically funny. But then, I don’t usually read satire. I did find the time he spent as a young man with his girlfriend, Sunita, lovely but immature. His siphoning friend, Roger, needs to get a job and his own life. Our Swede misses his mother and has buried his grief. And the story has a happy ending. No need for a tissue or regret.

So in the end I did have to admit that I had some deep personal thoughts about happiness and what is “true” happiness. As I live a life somewhat remote and hermit-like myself, I did question whether I was happy (I think so) or am I keeping conflict away and outside.

So here’s what I concluded. If you are taking a flight, riding shotgun on a long trip, or basking in the sun and want an easy read this book is for you. It took about 4 hours to read. I read slowly. It won’t offend you and it might cause you to reevaluate your place in the world.

P.S. I hate anonymous characters so I decided to call him Olaf in my mind.

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Managing Bubbie

hot bubbie

Bubbies book

 

Managing Bubbie

by Russel Lazega

Managing Bubbie netgalley

CreateSpace| 2015
Hardcover: 244 pages
ISBN: 978-1499126297
Genre: Memoir/Jewish Culture/Holocaust

ARC  E-book from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★★ 5/5

Winner of 20 Book Awards!

“I vant you should make this book.”

Shortly after Lea Lezega’s grandson, Russel, finished college, his Bubbie tells him, again she might add, he must write about her life. It would make them all millionaires! She is certain! Years pass before Russel grabs a pen and starts researching truth from fiction in Bubba’s stories. Ten long years of interviews and document searches confirm that Bubbie indeed led one hell of a life.

And tell the story her eynikl, Russel Lazega has done!  Bubbie would be very proud! Hang on to your reading glasses… As Bubbie says,My life – oy! my life is full of crazy stories.”

Lea Lazega, the ultimate Jewish Bubbie to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is straight out of a Neil Simon play with over-sized tortoise-shell glasses and that instantly recognizable Yiddish accent percolating invectives at one or more family members.  The book opens in Miami in 1987 with Bubbie telling Cousin Leon some far-fetched theory that Ronald Reagan is her long-lost half brother. Trying to follow Lea’s logic feels like running headlong through a corn maze blindfolded.

Nearing the end of her “golden years”, Bubbie finds her body failing her unrivaled spunk and she is as offended by its physical weakness as she was by the murderous Nazis. Despite her better interests she struggles to be the manager of the situation, not the managed. Her family struggles to keep her out of trouble. She has always done what she wants regardless of the rules of civilized and uncivilized society. It is a battle of wits and Bubbie, as she has done throughout her life, wins!

No assisted living facility in Florida will accept her …She’s worn out 6 already…2 in one month! She’s been blacklisted. “She just won’t follow the rules!” Yet in the midst of trying to make her final years comfortable and hitting brick walls,  the younger family members see the strong amazing woman that towed her young family threw hell and back to outwit the Nazis as they muscled their way through Europe.

Lea was born in 1911 in a small desolate Polish village, a child of a skirt-chasing flirt determined to become a world famous entertainer and an iron-willed mother striving to turn her man into a husband. Her parents had just returned to Poland following a five year stint in America; one of Isaac’s misguided efforts to become rich and famous gone horribly awry. There was one good thing that did happen in America. Esther gave birth to Lea’s sister, Evelyn making Evelyn a US citizen and at the first opportunity she returned. Lea, growing up in Poland, a young victim of anti-Semitic bullying and discrimination vowed to follow her sister. I promise mineself then that I’m going to America- No matter vat, I’m going to follow my sister to the greatest country in the world- America.

Lea’s first chance at a new life took her to Brussels, Belgium where her menial sewing factory job didn’t improve her living conditions but it did provide her freedom from her battling parents and the bullies. Soon after, she married a timid tailor and life was rosy with Lea in charge. When rumors of German mistreatment of Jews in far off European countries sifted into everyday conversation in Belgium, Bubbie’s radar told her she needed to leave Europe and head to America.

With one ear to the ground for safety for her family, Lea haunted the halls of governments from Belgium through France and into Spain to obtain those all important documents needed to reach America. Bombs crushed cities, Nazis prowled the streets and countries fell but Lea never lost sight of her goal. So many close calls but always outwitting the enemy. Hunger and abhorrent living conditions never slowed her drive. As always, rules never applied to Lea. Line up, sign up, hands up…not Lea. Her winter passage on foot through the deadly Pyrenees mountains into Spain with her babies was awe-inspiring. And in the end, Lea planted her flag- in America.

Russel has done a phenomenal job of telling Bubbie’s life scattering humorous moments in America with her life during the Holocaust. I guarantee you will cheer her victories and huddle with her in those terror filled moments-just inches from death. He vividly describes Lea and the children cowering behind a large rock in the Pyrenees too afraid to build a fire for warmth against Bubbie’s fury at Ed McMahon for telling her falsely she had won $10 million dollars. Sue him Russel, sue him for me!

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Highly recommended for book clubs.

I conclude with one more story from Bubbie. Listening to President Reagan on TV visiting a War Memorial in Europe. Reagan: For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow…Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation…Bubbie with a tearful eye and a broken smile answers, “Oy, Brother you don’t know the half of it.”

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The Sunlight Pilgrims

Sunlight PilgrimsThe Sunlight Pilgrims

by Jenni Fagan

Hogarth/Crown | 2016
Hardcover: 288 pages
ISBN: 978-0-553-41887-3
Genre: Fiction/Survivalism/Dystopias

ARC Hardcover from Blogging for Books and E-copy from edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★☆

format_quoteThere are three suns in the sky and it is the last day of autumn-perhaps forever…Parhelia...Some say it is the end of times…Icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks, or the long bony finger of winter herself… Penitents. B-blizzardmaninsnow.jpglin’-drift. Owerblaw…Snowflakes cartwheel out of the sky……..

Sunlight Pilgrims-
Prologue

The melting of the polar ice has reached its most extreme. Worldwide temperatures are plummeting rapidly. Winter has arrived early and getting worse every day without any uptick. Experts say it might never leave. Temperatures dropping as winter advances -15°F… -30°F … -70°F. Sea water contaminated with fresh water and frozen as far from shore as can be seen with the naked eye. Snowfall depths are unprecedented worldwide. Many believe a new Ice Age has begun.

A setting this catastrophic would seem to be the focal point of the story when in reality it is only the set dressing; choosing to focus instead on the minutia of humanity and three individuals specifically amid the uncertain future of the planet.

quoteDylan McRae, 38, mourns the recent deaths of his mother and grandmother. If his heavy grief wasn’t burden enough, he learns their home and source of family income, an old London movie theater named Babylon, has gone into bankruptcy. His mother’s will contained surprising news of a caravan he now owns in a small Scottish caravan park in the middle of God knows where.  She asked that he spread both women’s ashes in a remote Scottish village, his grandmother’s birth place. Gathering up what belongings he could fit into his mother’s old suitcase including Grandmother Gunn in an ice cream container and Mum in a sandwich box he heads north facing the rapidly approaching deep winter. His plans are to sell the caravan after fulfilling his mother’s last request and head back south to some where warm like Vietnam or Cambodia.

Upon arriving at caravan #7 on Ash Lane he briefly spots a young girl in the window next door. Later in the night he is awakened to a strange noise and discovers a sleepwalking woman hoovering up the street before entering the caravan next door. Reentering the street with a dust-cloth she reaches up and polishes the moon.

The young girl next door is 12 year old Stella Fairbairn. Precocious, bold, foul mouthed and outspoken, Stella arrives on his doorstep to quiz Dylan about his arrival and relationship to the last visitor to that caravan; Vivienne- his mother. Stella has been a girl for the past thirteen months.  Previously she was a boy named Cael. Stella has always felt she was a girl. No doubts. She is bullied at school and obsessed about the changes puberty will bring locking her inside a male body forever.

Constance Fairbairn, Stella’s mother and the moon polisher, is a free spirit and a survivalist answering to no one.  Stella believes she knows just about everything and should go back to teaching. Was she a teacher? We don’t learn if she was but she does have a great deal of trivial knowledge. Constance earns her living removing furniture from the homes of the dead and scouring the town dump for items to be re-purposed.  Her life style and romantic choices have made her the central focus of town gossip primarily for maintaining two on-going and simultaneous 20 year affairs… the result of which yielded young Stella…or as her father prefers Cael.

Constance’s story is more obscure as she has pretty much found her own voice and is happy with her life. We learn what we know about her past from the conversations between Dylan, Stella and other minor (but very interesting) characters. Dylan finds a sketch book left by his mother and discovers family secrets that shake his world and the reason his mother bought that particular caravan. Stella begins to shed false friends unable to support her transgender status at the same time yearns for love and acceptance often daydreaming of a normal life as a wife and mother.

As Dylan, Constance and Stella’s lives are revealed in the light of day, winter shrinks their days and threatens their very survival. When they venture outside, we learn that amidst the approaching apocalypse there is sublime beauty only nature can provide.

Thoughts

  • Transgender coverage was very real and will perhaps give many readers a different perspective and hopefully more compassion and empathy. For me personally, I guess I never realized how brave and courageous someone would have to be to present themselves openly and honestly to the world.
  • Grief has no time limits. Dylan’s story dragged on and on just as it does in real life often stressing friendships and relationships.
  • Love.  Many unique perspectives of love.
  • Survival. Are any of us ready to face a new Ice Age. How would you behave trying to feed your family or keep them warm temperatures at -70°F and with over 10 feet of snow trapped.  The world is trapped. Would you survive?

In the end I was glad that I had done some research on the book before I read it.  It helped to know that the pace of the book would be very slow. As I expected in a true tragic situation, simple life goes on amid life altering outside influences.

Recommended.

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Entwined:

entwined cover
Entwined-

Joyce Wallace Scott

Beacon Press
2016
215 pages

978-0-8070-5140-5
Memoir/Twins

ARC: Hardcover copy from Library Thing’s Early Readers in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★★

Few times in my life can I claim to be speechless and really mean it! joyce and judyThis is one of those times. The lives of these two remarkable women will affect you forever.

Joyce Wallace Scott wrote this heart-wrenching memoir to honor her beloved twin sister, Judith. Judy was born with Down’s Syndrome and developed Scarlet Fever as an infant that left her with undiagnosed deafness. Judy, unable to respond to verbal test questions, was thought to be severely retarded with an IQ of 30 and without the ability to live a meaningful life. At 7 years old, under the advice of doctors, she was made a ward of the State of Ohio and discarded like a factory reject. Judy was taken away in the dead of night without any warning to her twin, Joyce, and warehoused for 35 years in the most inhumane circumstances.

The first seven years of their childhood, Judy and Joyce were bonded in a voiceless communion. Too young to understand the cold and seemingly heartless parenting of their mother, Joyce became more than a twin by accepting the role of guardian and caregiver to Judy. With the abrupt severing of their union, Joyce, over the next 35 years, struggled with the ever present loss of “her other self”. As young child, Joyce’s visits to Judy are heartbreaking as she has to continuously beg an adult to take her.

In her search for a way to fill the void, Joyce makes several bad personal decisions, one that results in abandonment by her mother at a time in her life she needed her most. Despite all of her own pain, Joyce never loses sight of Judy’s loveless circumstances.

As an adult, Joyce takes action to become Judith’s guardian welding the two hearts together again. In seeking the best board and care arrangement for Judy, Joyce also learns about Creative Growth Art Center, where adults with disabilities are given free reign to express themselves in the arts. Judy slow rolled into the program but when she found her artistic medium she ignited.

In the last 18 years of her life, this lovely little woman found her voice using fiber art. No one understood Judy’s language or what inspired her work but everyone can feel the message emotionally and visually. Although Judy died in 2005, her silent art can be heard in museums all over the world long after her death.

I find it impossible to describe the resilience and strength these twins revealed throughout their lives.  I highly recommend this memoir be added to every library collection and would make a superb book club choice.

 

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Smooth Operator

smooth operator

Smooth Operator

by Stuart Woods and Parnell Hall

G.P. Putnam’s Sons| August 2016
Series: Teddy Faye #1 (with Stone Barrington)
Hardcover: 339 pages
ISBN: 9780399185267
Genre: Fiction/Suspense/Private Investigators

ARC: E-book from First To Read in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★☆☆

Galloping Galoshes! Why haven’t I gotten back to Stuart Woods’ books sooner? They always entertain and take you on a suspenseful run through the underworld. Over time I drifted away from my tried and true favorite authors to sample debut authors and different genres. Thanks to First To Read and Penguin Random House I was offered a chance to read Smooth Operator prior to publication.

It felt like I had run into an old friend at the supermarket! The kind of friend where it may have been years since you saw each other but you just pick up conversation like it was yesterday.

Smooth Operator begins a new series featuring Stone Barrington’s friend, Teddy Faye. Much like Clancy’s Jack Ryan or Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Teddy Faye is a master at lethal force and one man wrecking ball.  A former CIA agent, Faye “could disguise himself as anyone” and appear as a distinguished head of state or a bumbling investigator like Colombo.  Before leaving the CIA, he eliminated any trace of his existence. “For all intents and purposes, Teddy Faye had ceased to exist.” And he preferred it that way.

When the college-aged daughter of the Speaker of the House is kidnapped, Faye’s status as a phantom agent makes him the perfect person to unravel this unfathomable mystery. As he threads his way through the waste waters of the criminal world to save the girl, the mystery deepens, the US Congress is threatened and bullets fly.

What can you say about a good cheesy story that has you flipping pages?  There are weaknesses. If you haven’t read previous Stuart Woods books you might not understand the much beloved friendships between fan favorite characters appearing here to help introduce Teddy Faye to the world of “secret agent man”.  Personally I am willing to suspend judgement on the somewhat thin plot lines and the tendency for the story to bog down in places.  Can’t wait for the next book! Just met the guy. Have to give him a chance to get up to speed.

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There Will Be Stars

There-Will-Be-Stars

There Will Be Stars

by Billy Coffey

Thomas Nelson |May 2016
Hardcover: 416 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7180-2682-0
Genre: Fiction/Death

ARC: E-book from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★☆black hole

Bobby Barnes is known by the good citizens of Mattingly, VA as the town drunk. His community feels it’s a matter of time before they scrape Bobby off the pavement or find he has killed an innocent person on one of his drunken high speed road trips. Bobby has that predicted tragic night. As he speeds around the tight mountain curve he is blinded by headlights followed by the unearthly sound of crushing metal and splintering glass. He sinks into a blackness with a curious final thought…there will be stars.

The next morning dawns to Bobby Barnes flopped in the alley outside his service station. Awakening to the sounds of a rat scurrying through garbage near his head, he’s baffled how he could have survived that crash let alone get back home.  Thus begins a strange Twilight Zone-like daily loop that begins with Bobby in the alley and ends each night with the horrifying mountain crash.

Bobby ventures out to Timmy’s store for beer where the dim-witted violent Junior picks a fight when Bobby seems to read Junior’s mind. Junior forces the blitzed Bobby to go with him to meet someone. They arrive at Widow Dorothea Cash’s house where he discovers others from his community that he recognizes – Dorothea, Junior, Tommy, Laura Beth, Juliet and George. This disparate group, unlikely to break bread together “before”, are sharing a lively and loving evening meal together.  Why are they here…together?

Bobby, known by all as a drunken derelict, upsets Dorothea by his unbidden appearance in her house. Eventually she tells him he is now in Heaven and asks that he call her “Mama”.  He learns that in this version of Heaven, Mama Dorothea has direct contact with the Lord through typed letters. With the help of those letters, she guides her flock.

He is told he is now “free” each day without his previous worries for eternity! Every day will start as his last day and every night will end the same as his last night. No exceptions. The group calls each repeat day the “Turn”. Bobby’s first Turn was the hardest, reliving the horrible car crash, but waking the next morning and discovering that all 22 cans of beer he drank the day before were back in the refrigerator made Heaven look pretty sweet!

It’s been a very long time since anyone new arrived in their Heaven and Mama Dorothea knows that Bobby was introduced to the group prematurely. Junior jumped the gun by bringing an unprepared Bobby into their harmonious family setting. As Bobby learns his way around this new “world”, Mama begins to feel her control over her “family” is in jeopardy. He questions every thing; refuses to accept her word as gospel. As he persists in his quest to learn why he is there, others begin to question discrepancies in Mama’s vision.  Mama was right to believe that Bobby’s entrance into their “perfect” Heaven brings a much feared imbalance to their way of life.

My thoughts:
I started this book on the perfect reading day curled up with a cup of coffee in hand. This story immediately pulled me inside and I read faster and faster holding my breath totally in a zone. Somewhere about half-way I found myself easily distracted, surfacing and hoping the story would move on

The imagery was interesting and there were several characters that will leave you wondering about after you finish the book. This type of book is not my usual fare so it is hard to rate it against other books like it. In the end I liked it enough to share it with some friends right away.

I found the dialogue had to follow at times as there would be two voices talking at once and it was difficult to discern who was who…In fairness I was reviewing the unfinished book and that may have been corrected in the final edition.

The overall message was excellent and accentuates that man has been given the gift of free will and we have the freedom to turn to the light or turn to the dark. For those readers expecting a heavy dose of religious fervor, not there. However, there’s a lot of meat on the bone for those hoping that second chances are possible.

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Miss Jane

Miss Jane

Miss Jane: A Novel

by Brad Watson

[The doctor] snipped the cord and took a good look at the child…

A little girl, I believe.
You believe? [said her father]

[She] was born into that time and place…when there was no possibility of doing anything to alleviate her condition. It was something to be accepted, grim-faced…

dogtrot house b-w

Pinterest by Michelle Donham
On Things For My Wall

 

ARC: E-book from edelweiss
in exchange for an unbiased review.

W. W. Norton
July 12,2016

Hardcover: 288 pages
ISBN:978-0393241730
Historical Fiction/Physical Disability

★★★★☆

Miss Jane is loosely based on the author’s great-aunt, Mary Ellis (Jane) Clay. The”real” Jane had an unknown abnormality that left her incontinent and made her an oddity in a time when women had few opportunities to forge a life outside of marriage and family. The author’s goal, unlike his previous more heady works, was to fashion a more natural work following one character from conception through her death.

Ida and Sylvester Chisolm led a hard knock life on their subsistence farm in Mercury, Mississippi in the early 20th century. WWI had just ended and the Great Depression was on the doorstep waiting to further challenge poor farm families. Ida having birthed five children and buried two of them by the time she was 39 was glad to have reached the end of that part of her life. Sylvester and Ida were “disposed to darkness of spirit” and they both dealt with the harsh realities in their own negative way. Sly turned to drink and the comfort of his woodland still. Ida turned to laudanum to calm her nerves and when provoked to anger manically chopping wood to match sticks.

Jane was conceived one night when Sly was so drunk he mistook his wife for  “two-dollar” whore and Ida was drugged to unconsciousness. Weeks later, Ida, unaware of the event, was stunned to learn that she was pregnant. She worried that her anger at her husband would somehow doom her unwanted unborn child.

Jane entered this weary world with a congenital defect that was the result of incomplete genital, urinary and bowel development in the womb.  Jane’s dealing with all the challenges incontinence throws at her is the heart of the novel.

I will start right off the bat telling you that I had difficulty rating this book when I finished. So I did what I usually do when I need time to think things through. Pulled weeds and let my mind ramble for a while. As usual, given time, I find my answer. There were many contradictory themes- sexuality/abstinence, hate/love, anger/patience, poverty/wealth, community/isolation, male/female, self-sacrifice/abandonment to name a few to mull over.

Other pivotal characters in Jane’s development were the loving family doctor, her older sister, Grace, and Jane’s one chance at true love (doomed from the beginning). Jane’s uplifting spirit strives and yearns for wholeness; normalcy as known by the rest of the world with the freedom to live openly and without pity. In her quest she discovers her freedom in nature where she knows that she is normal- normal for Jane and is at peace with that knowledge.

Recommended reading for those days you need something quieter.  Sharing the woodlands and trails with Jane will calm your soul.

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Before The Fall

Before the Fall cover

Before The Fall

by Noah Hawley

Grand Central Publishing | May 2016

Paperback: 391 pages (978–1-4555-6178-0)
Genre: Fiction/Mystery

ARC: E-book from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★☆ 

 

A luxury private aircraft lifts off from Martha’s Vineyard heading to New York City.

Eighteen minutes later, having passed all pre-flight inspections and BA-Learjet_45_XR_in_flight_5found in tip-top shape, it spirals nose down into the Atlantic.

What happened…Before The Fall?
Who dunnit?  Why?

The writer and producer of the TV series Fargo, Noah Hawley, takes his profound writing skills into his fifth novel.  The story opens with the crew and passengers boarding the nine-seat OSPRY 45XR for the short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to the NYC area. Hawley teases the reader with weather possibilities for the crash such as heavy fog but these teases are obvious and distracting.

The narrator cryptically sets the opening scene much like an old Twilight Zone episode.

“Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made.
How two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery.”

The ground crew refuels the plane, the pilot and copilot go through their pre-flight check lists, and the first of the passengers arrive. The flight attendant, Emma Lightner, an employee of Gullwing Air, knows precisely how to make the rich and famous comfortable. Her job is to serve without being seen; an invisible servant of the air.

David Bateman, a highly successful and extremely wealthy executive in the faux news industry, has chartered the plane to return his family to New York City. His wife, Maggie and two children have spent the previous month on Martha’s Vineyard. Gathering his sleeping young son, J.J. in his arms from the backseat of the Range Rover, David escorts his daughter, Rachel, and his wife, Maggie up the stairway into the plane. Gil, David’s body guard, takes care of loading their luggage. David’s cell phone has been ringing non-stop through the boarding process much to Maggie’s dismay.  She turns to the flight attendant and asks, ” Has Scott arrived yet?

Next to arrive are Ben and Sarah Kipling, more friends to David than Maggie. Ben is a partner at one of the largest Wall Street firms and arrives very anxious to speak privately to David. “I need to talk to you.” David indicates that he is on an important call. Scowling as he concludes his call, David turns to hear what Ben has to say so urgently; the on-board TV in the background blaring something significant happening in the baseball game.

With the two families on-board, the agitated Ben glances at the cockpit and asks if they are waiting for anyone else. David tells Ben that Maggie has invited a friend needing to travel to NYC, a artist, to join them. Annoyed that this friend is late, David tells the flight attendant to give him “five more minutes and he’ll have to catch the ferry like everyone else.”

The British pilot, James Melody and first officer, Charlie Busch finalize their instruments check. David receives one more call, feeling edgy, he directs the flight attendant to close the main cabin door, the pilot starts the engines and at the last minute a man yells, WAIT!

Maggie’s friend, Scott Burroughs, bursts through the door hoisting a dirty green duffel bag over his shoulder. He is directed to a seat and when the flight attendant asks to store his bag for him, startled,  Scott replies, “No. I got it.”

The pilot’s voice appears over their casual conversations to let everyone know they should be buckled into their seats for take-off. Everything is routine and the plane lifts upward through the fog to arrive in the calm peace of a dark night sky. There is no hint that a brief eighteen minutes later the plane will spiral into the Atlantic.

Amazingly, Scott Burroughs and four-year old J.J. Bateman survive the crash. Their survival story is dramatic and improbable in a real world but necessary to tie all the strings together in this mystery. I have to admit I was about as exhausted as Scott by the time he finally made it to shore with J.J.

From this point forward, Hawley spins parallel stories of each passenger filling in their personal stories and leaving out just enough to keep the mystery of what brought the plane down going to the end. We are introduced to the characters that will sift and weave through each of the victims lives looking for the cause of the crash.

The alphabet soup of authorities that always gather after a plane crash-NTSB, FAA, the aircraft manufacturer, the FBI and for some reason, the SEC, crush into Scott’s hospital room. There are good cop-bad cop stereotypes in this group. They grill him for information but he has no memory of the last minutes of the accident.

David’s news channel’s on-air anchorman, Bill Cunningham, best described as Rush Limbaugh on steroids, is very annoying and bombastic. Cunningham’s sleazy informants provide enough fodder for him to generate an escalating slimy theory presented as fact about Scott, the lone adult survivor.

To further fill out the story, the in-laws and out-laws of each family play their parts in the aftermath. And finally the background and histories of each of the flight crew are revealed putting them under the microscope.

My favorite parts were the children. They felt real and well described. Images of the recovery of the bodies from this crash brought back memories of the news coverage of the recovery of young JFK, Jr and his plane. I felt sympathy for Maggie Bateman’s sister as grappled with the permanent changes to her life with the loss of her sister and the arrival of her nephew, J.J. into her household. Scott’s story line was contrived at times.  Who has a “Paris Hilton” ready to hide you in her home? At other times, you couldn’t help feel sympathy for the way he was maligned by just about everyone.  I liked, what I have decided to call vignettes, that propel each person’s story forward to a point where they all connect in those final eighteen minutes.

But I am not sure I liked it when I arrived at that all important moment in the book where the mystery was solved, I thought, WHAT? Really?

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They Left Us Everything

they left us everything cover

They Left Us Everything: A Memoir

by Plum Johnson

First publication: Penguin Canada 2014

award

2015 RBC TAYLOR PRIZE
Excellence in the field of literary non-fiction.

G.P. Putnam’s Sons | July 26 2016
Hardback: 288 pages
ISBN: US edition 978-0399184093
Genre: Non-fiction/Memoir

★★★★☆

ARC: E-book from First-To Read in exchange for an unbiased review.

Garden gate porch

Photo courtesy of Plum Johnson

Point O’ View

Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.

This award winning Canadian memoir of the death of aging parents will be available in the US in July of 2016. If this topic scares you, don’t go away! Her family will amaze you with its rich history! If you or anyone in your family has become a caregiver, you will find that you are not alone in your feelings.  Johnson has handled this story with grace and dignity.

Plum Johnson’s Toronto message machine blasts her cantankerous 92 year-old Mum’s voice. “Promise you’ll drive out first thing tomorrow! Damn this machine call me!”

For “First Daughter” Plum Johnson the death of her 92 year old mother marks the end of a tumultuous and emotionally painful 20 years as caregiver that has left her painfully stranded between who she was before, who she has become and what she will be next. As she opens the garden gate and leads us inside the family home, she shares the emotional turmoil in the intimate corners of herself. The physical tour of the house and its belongings taken in step with the inventory of her feelings and self reflection will stir up sadness, joy, amazement, anger and love.

The wartime marriage of a British Naval officer and an American Red Cross Director endured and left a legacy of treasures measured in 5 children, memories and 23 rooms filled with mementos, artifacts and yes, junk. After their deaths, the children discover incredible personal mysteries hidden in the home and answers to questions they wish they knew to ask while they are alive.

Divorced, self-employed and an empty nester, Plum was the obvious choice to serve as caregiver to her parents.  For 13 long years she cared for her father as she watched his retreat from life into Alzheimer’s deep fog. Three years after his death, Plum is still in life limbo caring for her mother. But her mother’s ever growing cantankerous disposition and demanding nature have eroded any remaining compassion or patience. All encounters become jousting matches that leave no winners.

Friends of mine who lost their mother’s early kept telling me, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are… I’d  give anything to have my mother back for just one minute.’All I wanted was my freedom. I looked into the future and thought, will I ever get my life back?’

Grief has no expiration date.  It has no parameters. It can’t be exchanged or coerced.  This heartfelt story of one person’s experience expressed honestly and candidly.  In the end, she and her siblings learn one of life’s greatest lessons.  Parents are people with their own dreams, ambitions, faults, and tragedies. When we stop seeing Mom as mother and we stop seeing ourselves as a wronged child, it is possible to love Plum as Plum and Anne as Anne. And with that knowledge a person regains compassion, understanding and the freedom to move on….

Reviewers  note:

There are references to other non-fiction books about members of this family. I encourage others to read the gripping tale of her father’s escape from a Japanese POW camp. I was, at first, very angry at her father’s harsh disciplinary style but as I learned more about him personally I came to see that he was doing his best with what he knew from his own experience. It doesn’t excuse his actions but shows that he is at heart a deeply loving father.

Plum Johnson’s childhood is far from average and goes to show that you can not make assumptions about another’s life. As stated above, Grief knows no bounds and we are all more than one dimensional beings.

I want to thank the author for permission to use her personal photo in my review.  I also want to thank her for reminding me of things in my life that I discovered when we cleaned out the closets and basement of my family home.

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The Never-Open Desert Diner

Never-Open-Desert Diner3

The Never-Open Desert Diner

by James Anderson

(originally published by Caravel Books in 2015)

Crown | March 2016
Paperback: 304 pages (978–1-101-90652-1)
Genre: Fiction/Utah/

ARC: Blogging for Books in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★☆

desert road polaroidThe highway ahead lolled in sunlight.

rte 117It was mine and it made me happy. It didn’t bother me that it was mine because no one else wanted it.

Ben Jones
Ben’s Desert Moon Delivery Service

This gem has been sitting on my to-read shelf and from the minute I opened the cover and read the first few pages I couldn’t stop reading.

Ben Jones, a 38-year old independent truck driver, is our narrator and he begins his story on the road from the cab of his sixteen wheeler. Ben’s delivery route is on Hwy 117, a remote 100 mile stretch of high desert that dead-ends against a mesa just outside of an old coal mining town. Like the road itself, the inhabitants of Hwy 117 have dead-ended there by choice burrowing into a solitary existence with no desire for interference or contact with the outside world. Like a high-stakes poker game they keep the reasons they are there to themselves and repel interference from the barrel end of a gun.

I knew everyone of them, though the sum total of every word ever exchanged between us might not equal what could be squeezed on the back of a drugstore postcard…Conversation in the high desert was parceled out like water and often with less enthusiasm, each drop cherished for the life it represented.

There’s the side characters that make you smile at there comments and cringe at their lives.  Meet John the Preach and owner of the True Value and the First Church of the Desert Cross. Spring through fall, John walks up and down Hwy 117 carrying a heavy 10 foot tall wooden cross. There’s the Lacey brothers, Fergus and Duncan, living in two sand-scoured red railroad boxcars mysteriously set in the desert sand. There’s the pregnant homeless teenage waitress, Ginny, determined to dig herself out of an undeserved tragic life.

Ben’s life is no less isolated than the misfits, lonely cattle ranchers and hermits on Hwy 117; the only difference is his life is on wheels and the others hide in the sagebrush and gullies. Abandoned on an Indian Reservation wrapped in an old red Indian blanket, shuffled through foster homes until finally adopted by an elderly couple. The search for his birth parents ended on the porch of the health clinic when a former nurses aide remembered seeing a young Jewish social worker from a local mental health facility there the morning he was found.  Being a Jewish Indian lent to a lonely and bullied life growing up. A brief rough patch with alcohol and violence led him to the desert to escape further digression into a wasted life.

Finding his calling on Hwy 117 as friend and trucker made him happier than any other time in his life. Sadly, his life on the road is threatened as so many of his customers owe him money that he now faces the loss of his truck through bankruptcy. As he stresses over his money woes, Ben’s personal life changes overnight with a discovery and an unexpected chance at true love.

We ride shotgun with Ben and our first stop is a delivery behind the Oasis Diner, long closed and now known to locals as the Never-Open Desert Diner. Young Walt and Bernice Butterfield ran a very successful diner right up until the day Walt was away and Bernice was assaulted by four men. Bernice never recovered from the assault and spent her days sitting at the same table in the corner staring into the distance at her lost future.  After Bernice died Walt closed the diner to the public but keeps it alive inside and out- spit polished and shiny. Walt, now 79 years-old is still strong and sturdy. Known for his take-no-prisoners attitude, violent temper and his sledge hammer fists solution to perceived slights now spends his days in a Quonset hut with his vast motorcycle collection. Walt figures prominently in Ben’s story.

Stopping to relieve himself along the highway, Ben discovers an old road he has never spotted before. Seeking privacy he wanders down the road to discover one abandoned house in a maze of lots and roads from an undeveloped housing project. He wanders over and relieves himself on the house as he peers curiously into a window. A woman’s face is peering out at him startling him.  He makes a hasty retreat.

Unable to forget her face, Ben chances a second visit to the abandoned house to find the woman and apologize for watering her wall. Peering in a window to see if she is still there, Ben spots a naked Claire Tichnor playing a stringless and bowless cello with intense concentration. This time he is greeted on the porch by a gun barrel and snarl. Over time these two form a complicated love relationship. Clair is hiding from her husband and harbors a dark secret.

Mysterious encounters with strangers befall Ben that ultimately involve Clair and Walt Butterfield and lead Ben into potential legal trouble with the local police. And along the way, Ben takes his sixteen wheeler into areas of rough desert that no truck has gone before.

My thoughts
I was surprised to learn the book was highly praised in major review sources such as the Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Review when it first appeared in 2015 but received tepid marketing by the original publisher.  Crown Publishing has given it a second chance at success in 2016 .

Some book reviews from sources such as Goodreads.com have disliked the stark style of writing reminiscent of Robert Parker’s character Spenser. Personally I loved it. It felt true to the desert setting. In a land of dry sand and blistering heat you wouldn’t want to waste your breath trying to explain yourself.

The prose was so well done that I felt I could taste the blowing sand and feel the scorching sun blinding me.  The heavy rains and flooding arroyos reminded me vividly of my flooded home in west Texas years ago.

In conclusion, I would recommend the book highly.  I’ll leave you with part of the author’s dedication.  If you like the following authors grab a copy of this book for your next vacation or business trip.

Dedicated in memoriam to the following authors for creating characters who became some of the best friends I’ve ever had, real or imaginary:

John D. MacDonald for Travis McGee
Robert B. Parker for Spenser
Stephen J. Cannell for James Rockford.

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This Too Shall Pass

this too shall pass cover

This Too Shall Pass

by Milena Busquets

Hogarth | May 2016
Paperback: 176 pages (978-1101903704)
Genre: Women’s Fiction/ Family Life

ARC: EDELWEISS in exchange for an unbiased review.
Also won an ARC from LibraryThing/Early Readers

★★★★

PicMonkey cadaques

 For some strange reason, I never considered what it would be like to be forty…And yet here I am. It’s my mother’s funeral, and if that’s not enough, I’m forty…Illness evicted her from her throne so cruelly in the end, it completely destroyed her kingdom, and pretty much screwed us all up one way or another.

cadaques..

Cadaqués, a remote Spanish village, buffeted by savage winds, isolated by mountains, breathtaking sunrises and only accessible by a “hellish” road.

Bianca and her larger-than-life mother shared 40 years of love, laughter and fun; a life together that Bianca thought would never end. Throughout the years, they shared this zany life with a cadre of poets and free spirits drawn to her mother like a moth to the flame. These adults lived life to its fullest with her effervescent mother as the center of their world. And yet when the insidious creeping disease (Parkinson’s) showed up progressively dimming her mind and froze her smile, the friends that couldn’t live outside her shadow were nowhere to be found.

Most people go through the grieving process by reaching out for support from others or keeping themselves so busy there is no time for deep reflection.  Some go to the opposite extreme by withdrawing from loved ones and friends; avoiding places that remind them of their lost loved one. And some act-out by engaging in what most people would consider dangerous or socially unacceptable behavior.

We find Bianca floundering in her grief.  She is no longer someone’s daughter.  She doesn’t know who her mother was in the end.  Will she face the same fate? Question upon question fills her mind. She tries to mute her pain and confusion through frequent sex. Sex is “the only thing that momentarily alleviates the sting of death-and life-…is sex. It only lasts a few seconds, though…”  (Some readers may be offended by the occasional use of the word f*** or the many references to her sexual escapades.)

She leaves Barcelona to return to her mother’s house in Cadaqués on the Mediterranean.  Cadaqués, a remote Spanish village, buffeted by savage winds, isolated by mountains, breathtaking sunrises and only accessible by a “hellish” road but to the adventurous and brave…paradise.  Accompanying her are her two sons, two ex-husbands, and two best friends…and a married lover who sneaks in from time to time.

Surrounded by those that love her, she progresses through her bereavement..first numb and stunned then moving deeper through memories and reflection until finally she comes out the other side at peace.  She comes to know that it is okay for her to become an adult without needing her mother’s approval or guidance.

The last memory of her mother that she shares with us is perhaps the most poignant.

I still occasionally tell myself the story you told me once, when you [were] consoling me after my father died…A very powerful emperor gathered all his wise men and… said to them, “I want a short sentence, that serves all possible circumstances.” [Following] months of contemplation…”We have the phrase, sire.  This too shall pass.”

My personal thoughts? It was a great read on a rainy day. It is only 169 pages long. The descriptions of Spain and Cadaqués make me want to pack my travel bags. And I must admit it brought back some personally difficult moments as I sat by my mother’s death bed; and it is true…This too shall pass.  But it is never forgotten.

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Wangs vs. The World

wangs vs. the world netgalley

WANGS vs. The World

by Jade Chang

Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt | Oct 2016
Paperback: 368 pages (978-0544734098)
Genre: Fiction/Asian American/Humor/Coming of Age

ARC: NETGALLEY in exchange for an unbiased review. 

 ★★★★

Charles Wang has always felt gypped.  Years ago the Communists confiscated his family’s ancestral lands and Charles lives with the belief that he was robbed of his birthright as a landed aristocrat.  His family was forced to join hordes of Chinese escapees to the island of Taiwan where his fmercedes sketchather built a grim little factory that supplied urea to fertilizer manufacturers.  His disgraced father had been reduced to a dealing in pee.  “Not even real honest piss – artificial piss.  Faux pee.  A nitrogen-carrying ammonia substitute…

Sure that he could regain his family’s fortune and status, Charles headed to the United States to sell faux pee to American fertilizer manufacturers.  Airsick and relegated to the in-flight restroom, Charles practices his English reading the label of a mini-bar of soap and makes a monumental discovery…urea is an ingredient in this sweet smelling soap.

And with that discovery Charles was able to turn “Shit into Shinola” citing one of his favorite American movie phrases.  In fact he made two hundred million dollars worth of Shinola and became an American cosmetics tycoon.

Living the good life in sunny California set his initial purpose of restoring the family lands in China way back in a dusty corner of his mind. He had the money but he was having too much fun with it. So much fun that he let it distract his best business sense and when turned down for a loan to start a new cosmetic line he put his his entire fortune up as collateral… the Bel Aire house, the cigarette boat, the children’s trust funds.  Everything.

The new cosmetics line failed and at the same time America crashed headlong into the Great Recession of 2008. Overnight Charles lost it all.  And by extension his three children and his wife lost everything too.  And he did all this in secret from his family.

After shocking his spoiled and pampered wife, Barbra, with the news Charles packs a confused Barbra and his childhood nanny, Ama, into the only car available to him…the powder-blue 1980 Mercedes station wagon long ago sold to Ama.   Lights off on the old car they roll down the long driveway in the dead of night to avoid the embarrassment of discovery by their neighbors to begin a long arduous journey across the US to move in with their oldest daughter in her old farm house in rural New York State.

Along the way they will pick up the other two children both away at school. The children discover abruptly that their own world just collapsed; their lives reduced to fast food restaurants and sleazy hotel rooms as they travel cross country.

And this is where the story gets crazy. Anyone who has ever taken a family vacation stuffed in a station wagon with all their squabbles and perceived injustices can relate. As the reality of their sudden drop in social standing hits them, they all work their way through the emotions of loss and the realization that their future will be far different from their recent past.

Bumping along in the old car, we watch, look and listen as we are taken back to Taiwan, disco lounge or college dorm flipping around the past and present of each character.  Slowly each character changes, often subtly, until this family discovers the heart is the true source of riches.

The book was hyped as hysterically funny.  Nada.  But I did smile often and found it entertaining.  Sometimes I wanted to reach over and step on the gas to speed things up a bit. At times Charles was so shallow and narcissistic I was turned off.  Barbra, playing the role of the unloved step-mother, discovers her softer side.

When an unexpected event turns the road trip into something much more serious, I was surprised. Talk about a knock up side of the head to realign your priorities. And the final chapters were very engaging leaving me sad and hopeful at the same time.

I couldn’t help but think that this was a nice read but would make a great movie.  So read the book, it will be out in October 2016.  I am willing to bet you will see it screen soon after that!

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Friendship: A True Story of Adventure, Goodwill and Endurance

Friendship coverForeword for Friendship.jpg


by Francis Mandewah

★★★★☆

Telemachus Press
March 2016
Trade Paperback: 368 pages
978-0062277022
Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir/Spirituality

ARC: NETGALLEY in exchange for an unbiased review. The author provided a trade paperback copy as well.

Francis Mandewah was born just before rice farming season in 1961 in the small impoverished village of Punduru in Sierra Leone. His early years were spent in a loving environment with his widowed mother and sisters scratching out a life on their subsistence farm.  Although English is the official language of Sierra Leone, the residents of Punduru speak the regional language of Mende.  The United Methodist Church established a missionary school and church in the community with the mission of converting the children and adults to Christianity as well as providing access to primary school education for the children.

Young Konomueh Mandewah despite the poverty and dire living conditions enjoyed the harmony of life in his small community and was thrilled for the opportunity to attend primary school when he was 8 years-old. The many changes to his life began with his first steps toward formal education; his introduction to English, the assignment of his Christian name…Francis, and perhaps of more lasting import, the development of his relationship with God as his confidant and source of strength.

As a young child, Francis had a reoccurring dream that would prove prescient in his search for purpose and meaning throughout his early years and well into adulthood.

In the dream I have passed a test and my reward is a journey. “Where are you going, my son?” I can hear my mother say.  I become nervous about not having an answer for her.  I go around the room frantically trying to find someone who will tell me my future.  No one answers…the door…opens.  I walk…through the door. I … awaken with the urge to know where I am going.

After completing his primary school education, Francis reached a pivotal moment in his life. In order to further his education and life experience, something he desired almost deliriously, he would need to leave the comfort of his known world and go to another town to attend secondary school.  And he would need room, board, and the cost of tuition. His loving mother unable to provide the money needed to help Francis reached out to a distant cousin for assistance.

Francis did receive his secondary education but at great cost to him physically, mentally and spiritually. His first encounter with abuse and violence was so well crafted in the memoir that I cringed each time his cousin lifted the electric cord to strike him.  And I warn the reader that you will cringe many more times throughout this amazing story as an almost unbelievable number of times Francis lifts himself up from life’s blows buoyed by his unfailing confidence that through prayer, God would provide.

In the midst of the harsh living conditions in his cousin’s home and bowed by abject despair and loneliness, Francis found an answer to his reoccurring dream when a tall blond-haired pilot with helicopter wings proved to be his earthly guardian angel.  Tom Johnson, stepping out of his comfortable life, walked up to a young African boy selling oranges in the dusty road and made a life altering decision that would change both of their lives forever. Tom would prove to be the single most influential person in helping Francis achieve his educational dreams and fulfill his long earnest desire to come to the United States.

The journey from Punduru to the United States winds through the deadly Sahara Desert, Algeria, Greece, Italy, England and much more. His vivid descriptions of these stops along his life’s journey will inspire some readers to plan their next vacation trip!

Mandewah exposes his inner soul and at times you feel the raw wounds in his psyche as he encounters discrimination, poverty, threats, cruelty and dire loneliness.  Yet there is more to his story besides the unbelievable cruelty in the world; Francis finds that there are more beautiful people of every color and stripe than he could have imagined.  The open hearts of these people, in his eyes, were placed in his path by God.  Their openness and generosity will leave the reader inspired.

The most endearing moments for me are the honest admissions of human failure that he brings upon himself. He always finds a way through prayer and meditation to grab himself by the boot straps and take that next positive step.   And there are so many times that the reader will feel the wonder and amazement through the eyes of this man as he discovers what lies beyond the mud brick home of his childhood.

You will applaud him in the end and you will want to encourage a friend to pick up a copy of the book.   As Francis says, it’s about Friendship.

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LaRose

LaRose cover

LaRose

bydreamcatcher Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins | May 2016
Paperback: 384 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-227702-2
Genre: General Fiction

ARC: EDELWEISS in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★☆☆

I can’t think of another book that I picked up, put down and re-read from the beginning as many times as I did with LaRose. In the end I didn’t give up.

I could hear my Algonquin Grandmother Delina telling me, “Pay attention!  Slow down.  There’s a lot to learn here about the clash of native and European cultures and religions.”

The Irons and Raviches live on either side of the Ojibwa reservation border.  Landreaux Iron and Dusty’s father, Peter had forged a respectful friendship in spite of their cultural differences. Their wives, Emmaline Iron and her half-sister Nora Ravich, however, harbor a deep seated sibling rift that has roots deep in the past.  The two sisters became pregnant at the same time and their two sons, Dusty and LaRose, enjoy the purity of childhood friendship unaware of the tenuous bonds between the two families.

Landreaux Iron, an Ojibwa native, is out hunting venison for his family.  The novel opens with an introduction to Landreaux and provides clues to everything that happens for the remainder of the book.

Landreaux was a devout Catholic who also followed traditional ways, a man who would kill a deer, thank one god in English, and put down tobacco for another god in Ojibwe.

The buck turned…giving Landreaux a perfect shot… there had been a blur the moment he squeezed the trigger. Only when he walked forward to investigate…did he understand that he had killed his neighbor’s son.  He dropped his rifle and ran through the woods to the Ravich house…Landreaux [tried] to utter [Dusty’s] name. Nola had just checked, found [5-year old Dusty] gone, and was coming out to search for him when she heard the shot. 

This tragedy on the border of the Ojibwe reservation in 1999 rips open the hearts and minds of both families.  As each person struggles to grieve the loss of this small child, they find themselves facing much more than the loss of Dusty.  Mired in their grief, they each scramble for relief from the pain.  The Raviches seek justice and the Irons seek a reprieve from the unremitting remorse and self-recrimination. Pathways to deep seated and long buried person trials are reopened in everyone and threaten to destroy what remains of their self-control and possibly their own survivals.

The shift in the story following the immediate aftermath of the tragedy threw me for a loop until I followed Grandma Delina’s advice to stop questioning things.  I discovered that LaRose, the name, not merely LaRose the child, had been significant for generations and “was a name both innocent and powerful, and had belonged to the family’s healers.”  Erdrich takes the reader back through time to back-light the harshness of life in colonial times and the origin of the name LaRose.

Landreaux, after spending time in his sweat lodge and fasting, determines there is only one thing he can do to make things right with the Raviches.   Following old Ojibwe tradition, he gives his favored son, a child that has always seemed to be on earth for a purpose, to the Raviches to replace Dusty.

Through the ensuing drama of this decisive action, an old enemy threatens Landreaux’s future,  the parish priest struggles to serve his flock, the remaining characters rise and fall through tough times before reaching an unexpected but in my opinion rather unbelievable yet at the same time satisfactory conclusion.  Things just felt wrapped up too quickly.

In the end I found it hard to rate the book.  There were distractions that I thought muddy things such as Peter’s obsession with the end of the world at midnight on Dec 31, 1999.  I wasn’t sure  Emmaline’s and Father Travis’ tryst was necessary.  Nola’s misplaced anger directed at her daughter, Maggie, was hard reading.

It was a solid read.  Fans of Erdrich’s will like the book very much.

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That Darkness

That Darkness cover.jpg

That Darkness

by Lisa Black

Fingerprint Showing Minutiae Ridges Bifurcations And Endings clip art

Kensington | April 2016
Hardback: 336 pages (978-1496701886)
Genre: Fiction
Psychological Suspense
Forensic Investigation
Series: Gardiner and Renner #1

★★★☆☆

 ARC: NETGALLEY in exchange for an unbiased review.

The room wasn’t much just a steel table and chairs, old paint on the walls with the occasional rust stain, two windows frosted by contact paper and a battered desk in the corner,  well out of splattering range…blood-splatter4-md.png

Jack Renner’s clients would have seen many such rooms in their time..

Brian Johnson, a life-long criminal miscreant, believes he is completing a required pre-release prison interview. Decked out in gangsta garb, stylng a cocky attitude, Brian struts into what appears to be an interview room followed by “Dr.” Renner.  Jack Renner, Cleveland homicide detective by day, dispensor of vigilante justice in his spare time,  has “interviewed” 14 “clients” here.   He has a well-honed method getting the most hardened criminal to spill their story.  Each client has been hand selected after careful consideration,  Jack has retrieved every known fact about each one and is ready to play his role in cleaning up the world.

12930883391149431275blood-scarlet-red-splash-md.pngSo Brian, like the 14 before him, never knew it when the gun pointed at the back of his head was fired.
Bang. Bang. Bang.

Maggie Gardiner works as a civilian criminalist with the Cleveland Police Department primarily collecting fingerprints but has experience in serology and spends time working crime scenes work as well.  Naturally inquisitive, doggedly persistent and keenly observant, Maggie takes on a crime scene challenge like hound dog on a scent.     

Renner has managed to control his shady side to perfection right up until he bumps up against Maggie.   As the morgue fills with unfortunate victims and murdered criminals , Maggie begins to connect the dots and unknowingly closes in on Renner’s secret life.   As Jack unravels trying to control and steer the investigation away from his involvement, Maggie begins to question inconsistencies in his behavior and statements until the day….

Jack straightened and turned to her…She stared at him open-mouthed.  Then she said, “It’s you.” “Yes, Maggie,” he told her. “It’s me.”

The novel’s overarching theme posits the question… when is it moral to take the law into your own hands?  When society fails to protect the weak from predators that game the system should someone step in and stop the madness?  What is the line between justice and vigilantism?

Strengths
The author, a forensic investigator herself, shares her knowledge of the work in exquisite detail.

The parallel story lines with Jack as part of the investigative team trying to distract Maggie from linking him to her findings and Maggie’s dogged determination to unearth the truth move steadily through the story before reaching an unexpected ending.

Jack’s clients reveal the seedy side of life and focus the reader’s thoughts on topics such as human trafficking and elder abuse and neglect.

Weakness
Black “tells” us things about Jack, Maggie, the victims and the perpetrators, but we don’t become invested in their lives. We don’t know the backstories. She doesn’t scratch beneath the surface. It would have been better to personalize the main characters in enough detail to excite the reader to follow them in later works.

Overall impression
A worthy read. The hot topics will challenge your thoughts about the justice system and the plight of the innocent. Hoping for more character development in the second issue of the series.

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My Summer With Gramps

My Summer With Gramps

My Summer With Gramps

by Ignatius Ryan

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform | Nov 2014
Paperback: 330 pages (978-1503221512)
Genre: Fiction/Coming of Age

ARC:  NETGALLEY in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★

Want a crash course on world history, American civil rights, religion, economics, philosophy,  modern day politics… and much more?  Grab your bike (don’t forget your helmet) and ride on over with the boy to Gramps house.

The nameless narrator, a 13 year old boy, hasn’t seen his Gramps for at least eight years although as he says, “I seem to remember him fondly“.  The reader is left pretty much in the dark about the bad blood between the boy’s parents and Gramps and the long silent years. If their relationship was like my family, who can remember why.

It’s the end of the summer, the boy’s parents are going through a rough patch together, and his mother tells him he needs to visit his grandfather.

Go see your grandfather,” she suggested in a way that sounded distinctly like an order…”It will be a nice surprise for him.” …So here I was riding along this bumpy trail… I reached Grandpa’s …house [and] I spotted him in a rocking chair.

I stepped up on the porch and said,”Howdy, Grandpa!”
Grandpa cracked an eye open and said,”What brings a young lad like you over here on such a find summer day?”

What was probably intended as something to do one fine day to get him out of the house turned into a summer’s project by Gramps to cram a lifetime of knowledge into the boy’s memory.

Warning to the reader.  You will want a dictionary and perhaps a tab open on your computer to www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com  The boy won’t be the only one learning a thing or two.  At least once during each visit Gramps uses some highfalutin word which prompts the boy to ask what? 

I got to Gramps about noon.  I was beginning to think my constant bloviation had driven you away.”  Boviation?  “Yes, pompous speechifying.”

The boy is an information sponge and Gramps is a walking encyclopedia.  As the summer progresses each of them undergoes significant character development.

As a proud Baby Boomer myself, I enjoyed Gramps style of music always playing on the old radio somewhere in the house.  Couldn’t help myself but start humming a very familiar tune to my old ears.  I wasn’t too happy that Gramps enjoyed his “jug” so often but he had some quirks that were very endearing.

And I personally want to thank Gramps for introducing me to a new word: snollygoster. Look it up.  A very apropos word for this political season.

Enjoyed the book tremendously although at times I had to admit I was overwhelmed with Gramps bloviation.

 

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Love That Boy

fournier book cover

LOVE THAT BOY: 

WHAT TWO PRESIDENTS, EIGHT ROAD TRIPS, AND MY SON TAUGHT ME ABOUT A PARENT’S EXPECTATIONS

Ron Fournier, Author

Harmony Books, April 2016
Paperback: 219 pages (978-0804140485)
Genre: Non- Fiction/Family & Relationships/Parenting 

agt_family_offWformat_quotehen a woman is pregnant, we say she is expecting. Expecting a baby and filling with expectations…Parenthood is the last chance to be the person we hoped to be. We want to get it right. We want it to be perfect, and that’s the problem. It’s a hard slog between aspiration and realization. Ron Fournier

Several weeks after I finished Love That Boy I was unsure of how I felt about the book.  Since I laid down my paperback ARC copy, and began reflecting on the impact the book had on me, Ron Fournier has appeared on several TV programs promoting the book often with short video clips with his son, Tyler.

My first impression of the book was mixed.  I had expected a straight forward biography based on the subtitle…What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About A Parent’s Expectations. I am glad I gave myself time to let my thoughts marinate because I have grown deeply affected by the book.

Ron Fournier was a successful White House correspondent caught up, in his words, “an ego-inflating career that I often put ahead of my wife and kids“. His youngest child, Tyler, arrived with a bright, loving and funny disposition.  His precocious vocabulary and professorial demeanor left no doubt that he would have a bright and successful life.  But there was another side to Tyler.  Publicly Tyler would exhibit an “inappropriate” social awkwardness that made Ron uncomfortable and embarrassed.

As time went on it became obvious the idealized image and expectations for Tyler’s life didn’t match up against reality.  Tyler’s awkward social behavior had only increased much to his parents’ dismay which led to frustration and family disharmony.

The turning point for all their lives began the night that Lori Fournier discovered, while watching a TV Series entitled Parenthood, that Tyler shared the same characteristics as the child on the program.  She was immediately knew Tyler “would not outgrow it.”  Shortly thereafter Tyler, at age 12, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

love_that_boy_image

Ron and Tyler Fournier

Ron takes the reader on his journey of discovery to understand Asperger’s.  Utilizing Tyler’s love of history and the need for father and son to spend time in each other’s company, they visit historic settings across the country.

Ron fills in the spaces of his family’s story with information and knowledge meant to enhance the lives every family; not just those challenged with a special needs child.

When I stopped trying to figure out why Ron skipped back and forth between Tyler, the medical professionals, and the personal stories of the community, I realized that story wasn’t as disjointed as it first appeared.  Ron was sharing his own story as it unfolded for him.   Step by step we are drawn into heart of this fabulous Fournier family.   You can’t help yourself… you WILL love that boy.

Highly recommended.

Thank you, Ron Fournier and Harmony Books for the ARC paperback through Shelf Awareness.  The receipt of this paperback in no way influenced my review.  Around the same time I received the ARC I was granted an e-galley version by Harmony books via Edelweiss.

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Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide

Old Age cover

“If life is a race to the finish line, I’m years ahead now.  In the course of our lives, most of us will get… [bad] news…one day.  And every day you don’t get …bad news increasgrandfather-clipart-granddaughter-grandfatheres the chance that you’ll get it tomorrow. So get ready.”

by Michael Kinsley

 

Tim Duggan Books| April 2016
Hardback: 160 pages (978-1101903766)
Genre: Non-Fiction/Aging/Parkinson’s Disease

ARC hardback copy provided free of charge by Tim Duggan Books via edelweiss in exchange for my honest opinion.

Michael Kinsley, for the edification of the younger generation, is well known to Baby Boomers for his left leaning politicBoomer graphical commentary in print and publicly on numerous televised shows including Firing Line  and as co-star of Crossfire representing the left side of the political spectrum pitched against Pat Buchanan on the right.

In 1993, at age 42, Kinsley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  At the peak of his career, he had crossed “the line” from rising star to dying star.  In astronomical terms, a “red giant”.

Successfully ensconced  in self-denial for nearly 9 years, challenged by the advancing effects of the disease, had to release the diagnosis publicly in 2002. This admission cracked open his career and forced him to face his future.  The first casualty was a retraction of an offer to run the highly acclaimed magazine, The New Yorker.  He found solace to this first blow to his rising career with success with other endeavors…but it was a sign of things to come.

Now at age 65, Kinsley has written what he hopes will be a guide to fellow Baby Boomers as they, too, face a future with a rapidly approaching expiration date.   He writes, “This book is supposed to be funny, as well, on a subject that does not lend itself to humor.”  Admittedly at times there are witty statements that will make you smile, at the same time the self-deprecating remarks that leave you sad as you understand that a vital and creative journalist has lost his “edge” and he knows it.

Several of the chapters have been lifted from essays appearing previously in other print sources.  My overall feel is that book is somewhat disjointed but delivered with heartfelt genuineness.  Kinsley veers from discussing his life with Parkinson to comparing it to other mind altering diseases such as Alzheimer’s.  He concludes the book with a lecture on the legacy Baby Boomer’s should aspire to achieve.

As an aging Baby Boomer myself, I finished the book with mixed emotions.  Apprehensive about my future, resigned that I can’t do much to face the inevitable but inspired to live this final chapter as fully as possible and to love each sunrise and all my friends and family.

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When Someone You Know Has Depression

When Someone you know has depression coverby Susan J. Noonan, MD, MPH
head-in-his-hands

 

“It’s easy to understand depression as an illness when you’re distanced from it.  It is more difficult to keep that in mind when you’re living with someone day to day who has depression.” 

John Hopkins University Press (June 2016)
ISBN (paperback): 978-1421420158
160 pages
Genre: Non- Fiction/Mental Illness/Caregiver

An advance reader copy was provided free of charge by John Hopkins University Press through edelweiss in exchange for my honest opinion.

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This newest book by Dr. Susan Noonan, When Someone You Know Has Depression is aimed at supporting parents, spouses and friends who are on the front line.

Noonon says, “Family members and close friends are usually the first to recognize the symptoms of depression and the ones providing daily support.  Most felt powerless to know what steps to take, what to say or do in response to symptoms, or how to change the course of the illness.”

There is a ton of information in this little 160 page book.  Some of the discussion covers information most likely known already but now viewed more intimately and personal.  Noonan’s bedside manner is helpful and styled to make concerned supporters feel more confidant and secure in their conversations and observations.

The book is scattered with many professionally developed tables such as Symptoms of Depression, Warning Signs of Suicide, and Anger in your Family Member or Friend.

Although it is impossible to address every concern, there’s enough here to provide a guide for each reader.  Even a chapter on taking care of the caregiver.  And a brief chapter advising the concerned supporter that the depressed person (over 18) has the right to refuse treatment but can be overridden if in danger of harming themselves or others.

I would like to have seen some discussion of where the caregiver can turn if the loved one loses the strength to go forward and commits suicide.  Perhaps added to the chapter on taking care of themselves to avoid burnout.

Overall, a very useful book.

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And After Many Days

And After Many Days cover

And After Many Days

by Josouthern nigeriawhor Ile

Tim Duggan Books
2016
Hardback: 246 pages
ISBN: 978-1-101-90314-8
Adult/Fiction/Nigeria/Family/Politics

 

ARC provided free of charge by Tim Duggan Books via Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest opinion.

“I’m going to Fola’s house,” he said again to his brother, Ajie, who was lying on the couch, eyes closed…If Ajie heard, he gave no sign…Paul floundered by the door as though he had changed his mind…left the house, and did not return.

It’s 1995.  Nigeria is still reeling from its independence and struggling to find its new identity.  Despite signs of progress in some areas, there’s still an underlying threat of violence from political and military regimes vying for control.

The Utu family resides in metropolitan Port Harcourt living what appears to be a stable middle class lifestyle.  Life feels good, the children have done well in school, there’s plenty to eat and luxuries of the world can be found throughout the home.  The calm found is this home  is a thin veneer laid over a nation in crisis.

The opening narration reminded me of the false normalness portrayed in the daylight hours in the movie, I Am Legend The TV blares in the background, cell phones ring,  and adolescent angst threatens family peace.  When night falls, evil lurks and deep seated fears surface.

We learn at the outset that this family suffers an unimaginable horror.  The eldest son, the loving older brother, the apple of his mother’s eye walks out the front door to visit a friend and never returns.

Ajie narrates.  The story flips between the origins of the family unit arcing back to the present narrowing the gap between the two timelines until we reach the final chapters and finally learn what happened to Paul.

The writing itself is wonderful and captivating however the retro-current story line arcs were hard to follow at times.  Personally I was disappointed that Paul’s story faded into the background dialogue focused on the national struggles and violence.  I would like to have been better invested in Paul’s character.   Learning his fate almost felt melodramatic after traveling through religious wars, police corruption, and cultural inequalities.

Having said that, as a mother myself, I felt a deep maternal surge of sympathy for the years of questions unanswered about Paul’s fate.  His disappearance changes each family member’s life line.   You do wonder in what way the shadow of grief and loss affected the overall development of each character; how would it have been different if he never left.

The heartbreaking story of the Utu tribal history through war affected me deeply.  The religiously based horrors of 1995 Nigeria feel contemporary to ISIS and terrorist activities of 2016.

The author has produced a good read that will present to an uninformed readership the state of living found in a corrupt and developing nation.

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