Tag Archives: adoption

Venn Diagram by Wendy Brant

Zenn Diagram by Wendy Brant is as cute as the title suggests. High School Senior Eva (pronounced “ever” without the “r”), is gifted in mathematics and helps tutor other students who need a leg up. A PK (Pastor’s Kid), she has extra responsibilities involving her quadruplets siblings, the eees, who at three are a handful requiring more than one set of hands. With so many mouths to feed, her dreams of attending a top notch college hinge on receiving a hefty scholarship. Then she meets Zenn, (pronounced like Zenn Diagram), who captures her heart as she helps him up his math grades. Zenn is a true artist who also has dreams of attending a prestigious college despite his lack of funds to pay the all-too-expensive tuition.

Sounds like your typical teen novel, but there are a bunch of twists starting with a terrible car accident which occurred when Eva was a baby, killing her parents and leaving her with a rare gift/curse – the ability to decipher the emotions of people through physical contact with them or the objects they have touched. With small children it’s all pastel colors and sweet thoughts, but adults radiate complicated vibes which often leave Eva prostrate as their angst can be overwhelming. Eva fantasizes about touching Zenn, a feat she fears is beyond her ability due to the anticipated negative reaction. Somehow she must figure out how their relationship can move beyond the pupil/teacher stage, especially when Zenn seems to feel a mutual attraction. Of course, Eva is not the only one with a secret, and the mystery in Zenn’s life threatens to affect the future of both of their lives. Add in a lifelong best friend who kinda goes MIA when the popular athletic boy shows an interest and an interesting home dynamic which interferes with any thoughts of romance, and you have a fun little YA novel.

While this debut novel by Wendy Brant is well worth the read, the author needs to watch out for repetitive thoughts (Eva too often laments about her inability to touch Zenn and her difficulty going to her first choice college). However, there are several twists which will keep the reader guessing and a hopeful conclusion which seems reasonable without being too sicky-sweet. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Family Dynamics! The interpersonal relationships within a family create a complex pattern complicated by the cross purposes of each individual as they forge their own pathway towards the fguture. A mother, while she loves her children, has a slightly different connection to each based on their unique personalities. Sometimes there’s one who never seems to get things right and remains an irksome reminder of that illusive impeccable life we all daydream about in our youth. As my own offspring grew, I was amazed at the other parents whose unblemished children never caused them a moments anguish – always behaving appropriately, earning honors at school, scoring the winning run or goal on the sports team. My own children fell far short, although I loved them anyway and urged them to work hard and do their best in every endeavor. I concluded that either my children were subpar, or the other parents were liars (or at the very least in denial). In my experience there are ups and downs in each of our lives, joys and tragedies which pop up on occasion, and it’s the family unit who sticks together that helps us celebrate the highs and get through the low points of our existence. Such is life reflected in the theme of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.

Elena Richardson is one of “those” mothers. She created the perfect life in the perfect community with the perfect husband and three perfect children. Unfortunately, she has four offspring. The youngest, Izzy, is a thorn in her side, resisting motherly (smothering) concern, choosing the contrary side of an argument, and just not quite jelling with her siblings. She’s not an evil child, just a soul who marches to the beat of her own drummer which drives a Type A personality like her mother to distraction.

Mrs. Richardson always planned to be a journalist but was not unhappy at her job as a reporter for the local paper which would never win her a Pulitzer but still gave her access to important information and people. Plus when she needed her credentials to do some sleuthing she was not afraid to call in those favors she had easily doled out over the years, assisting others yet keeping a tally for future reference. Things really start happening in her idyllic life once the nomadic Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl become tenants in their rental house. The photographic genius of Mia delights Elena who generously offers the super neat tenant a job as housekeeper/cook in exchange for enough salary to cover the lease agreement. Mia soon becomes a fixture in their home and Pearl develops into a sibling of sorts to the four teens, enjoying the luxuriously lifestyle which is the opposite of the normal hand to mouth existence of her daily world. Izzy latches on to the supportive, common sense manner of Mia, finding in her a comfort which is missing with her own mother. As the plot unfolds, the inner thoughts of each of the characters are revealed clarifying the life altering decisions which affect the outcome of all concerned.

The idea of motherhood is explored through various stories involving mother/child relationships. In a secondary subplot, Mr Bill Richardson, a lawyer, represents Elena’s friends the McCulloughs who are caring for and hopefully adopting an Asian child who was abandoned at the local fire station. The real mother, a coworker of Mia’s, now has a job, albeit for minimum wage, and wants her daughter back. The question remains – “Who will be the better parent?” – the struggling single parent birth mother or the well-to-do loving family who can provide for the baby’s every need? This issue divides the town, leaving even the presiding judge in a quandary about the best verdict.

I felt a connection to this story since Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the 1990s in a suburb outside of Cleveland during the some time period I was raising my own four children in an upscale community outside of Buffalo. Cultural references brought back memories of those days which compensates for the slow start of this novel. The author Celeste Ng has a talent for skillfully interweaving the lives of the secondary characters flawlessly into the narrative enriching the entire plot. However, while this well written book brings up some interesting questions, it also has some disturbing turn of events which leaves the reader in a wistful mood. There is more than enough finger pointing and blame which doesn’t distract from the pit-in-the-stomach feeling when things fall apart as secrets are revealed, tarnishing the golden glow of sublimeness and recognizing the reality that there is no such thing as smooth sailing. While there are promises of a positive outcome for some, the ambiguity of the future for others is disturbing and I’m not sure even the fire department can put out those flames.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Art of Losing Yourself by Katie Ganshert

If you enjoy Christian books with a capital C, then you might like The Art of Losing Yourself by Katie Ganshert, but don’t expect a squeaky clean story. This novel deals with issues such as alcoholism, failed relationships, sex before marriage, teen drinking and drug use, and swearing. Yet interspersed between these “sinful” behaviors are various scriptures and reflections about God and Jesus (which at times become a bit preachy). It’s easy to see why the main characters have doubts about their religion when they can relate better to the Book of Job than to the Gospels.

Two estranged half sisters end up together battling their personal demons. Carmen, a successful meteorologist on a local news channel, is numbed by her inability to have a child, lashing out while keeping her distance from a loving but clueless husband. Gracie is compulsive in her actions reflecting her anger at the world, but she gets a fresh start at a new high school and even begins to make friends despite her negative attitude.

Yet life is not fair and this is definitely not a fairy tale as even simple solutions are unattainable. Despite the hard work and dedication towards setting things right, more often than not failure is the result. Watching the hypocritical achieve their desired outcomes without a struggle, the sisters each wonder about God and why he doesn’t seem to be there for them.

A series of “coincidences” leads one sister to save the life of the other, but there is no resolution to their dilemmas, just more questions.

Three stars for an interesting, though depressing read.

Thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Celie’s life has been full of abuse since she was a small child. When her mother becomes too ill to satisfy her husband’s needs he turns to his preteen daughter, fathering then getting rid of her two newborns, and eventually farming her out to be the wife of another man so she can take care of HIS house and children. Once again, Celie becomes a receptacle, this time for her husband. Despite the verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, she works hard and quietly accepts her fate, obediently doing what she is told. Her one moment of rebellion involves her sister Nettie whom she harbors from the leacherous attentions of their father. Nettie is sent on her way when she refuses the advances of Mister, Celie’s husband, but vows to write (unless she is dead). When after years of waiting and no letter is received, Celine assumes the worst, another blow in her lackluster life. Yet there are women who refuse to be dominated by men. Shug Avery, Mister’s mistress, becomes an ally of Celie, teaching her the joys of intimacy. Then there is Sophia, step son Harpo’s wife, who refuses to be bullied by any man, physically reciprocating the violence. This, of course, gets ugly when Sophia accosts the mayor after “sassing” his wife for assuming she would jump at the chance to be a maid for a white family.

As we follow the life of Celie we slowly watch as she finds her voice with the help of Shug, Sophia, and even Squeak (Harpo’s mistress). With her newfound independence many truths are revealed, changing her outlook on life. The story is told in “letters” at first beginning Dear God, then switching to Dear Nettie when Celie looses her faith in the Almighty.

Now what I’ve neglected to mention about the book The Color Purple by Alice Walker is that Celie is black, living in rural Georgia during the depression, so not only does this story deal with misogyny, but also the racism still prevalent in the south sixty to seventy years after the Enancipation Proclamation.

There are so many facets to this story, I can see why it won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction. It’s raw language and unabashed references to sexuality has also earned it a consistent place on the banned book list.

While the depressing aspects of Celie’s life should leave us in a morbid funk, this is a story about the strength of family and friends, full of the promise that people’s attitudes and behaviors can change in a positive manner providing hope for a brighter future. It helps that I listened to the tape narrated by Alice Walker who brilliantly brought the characters to life. Little wonder The Color Purple provided a plot perfect for the stage and screen.

A must read. Five stars.

Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch by Max Candee, illustrated by Raquel Barros

Of all the genres, the one which is the most difficult to master is the creation of a satisfying children’s book. Unfortunately, Max Candee, the Swedish author, has not quite found that sweet spot of success with his book, The Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch. It’s not that his story is lacking since I enjoyed the engaging tale of the orphan Anna discovered as ammbabe amongst the Bears in Siberia by a kindly fur trapper. Upon reaching the age of six, her Uncle Mischa brings her to an orphanage in Switzerland and the story opens at the private boarding school which Anna attends due to a generous trust fund (gotta love those Swiss Bank accounts) that will provide her with the financial security necessary to support her on any quest which crosses her path. Add in some evil doers and the fact Anna has special powers, and you potentially have the start of something great.

The issue then is the delivery. Candee decided to create a book which is part diary, part first person narrative using simple text which doesn’t fit the age of the characters. Anna is an intelligent thirteen, not eight or even ten. In addition, children have become quite sophisticated in their reading material, note another book about witchcraft – Rowling’s Harry Potter series – which is a lot darker and more sophisticated than this story. Or examine the higher level of text in the malicious Series of Unfortunate Events. So the question is: “Who is the audience?” Not YA or even middle school, but perhaps those in the elementary grades (yet not too young). Despite the numerous kid friendly illustrations by Spanish artist Raquel Barros, which are a huge positive for this publication, this is definitely not a picture book.

Yet I’m sure this new series would please the average child especially if it were presented in a different format. Do away with the diary and narration, taking the exact same story, and change it into a graphic novel. Viola! Perfecto! The possibilities are endless. Barros is more than capable of extending her delightful drawings into a pictorial description of Anna’s adventures. The author has the imagination and talents to redraft this saga into something quite exceptional. Graphic novels are also a popular emerging genre, especially those written specifically for children, having already been embraced by middle and high school students. The Anna the Girl Witch series could be one of those ground breaking books which would delight a much broader audience.

Problem solved. So when Anna receives the bizarre gifts from her unknown mother on her thirteenth birthday and slowly discovers she is a witch with an affinity for the moon, we will visually experience her awe and power as she fights the lurking evil which threatens her friends at the school she attends. A female teen protagonist who saves the day is just the sort of role model young girls need to read about as a means of their own empowerment.

So there it is. Right story, great illustrations, wrong format.

A thank you to Netgalley and Helvetic House for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Two and a half stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Here are two totally different women, one about 90 years of age and another a junior in high school, yet they unknowingly are kindred spirits due to a common difficult childhood.

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline focuses on the practice of “adoption” via a train ride from the East throughout the Midwest where families could choose an orphan child to take home. These new “family members” were often selected to be servants or unpaid hired hands to help on the farm. While this entire concept seems unbelievable by today’s standards, this practice began in 1854 and continued as late as 1929. Documented over the years, many survivors or their families maintain a blog or communicate with each other over the Internet. While some placements were fortuitous, too many created unbelievable hardships which these orphans had to endure.

The main focus of The Orphan Train is on Niamh aka Dorothy aka Vivian whose family is put on a boat leaving Ireland in the hopes of finding prosperity in New York City. Unfortunately, her father still drinks and her bitter, jaded mother is pregnant again, so their existence in the crowded flat is less than ideal. Yet Niamh feels lost when her family literally goes up in smoke and she finds herself a ward of the Children’s Aid Society on the Orphan Train going west to find a family willing to take a chance on a red headed Irish girl of nine or ten. The only thing she has from her past is the cross her Irish grandmother bestowed upon her before giving them all the boot. Despite being used to hardship, her new life is one of servitude in Minnesota, first to a seamstress, then to a large family of wild children, before she runs away from a situation which could only worsen if she stayed. That she survives the ordeal is miraculous, but through a series of happenstances, Niamh finds herself a comfortable life although not free from heartache.

Then there is Molly Ayer who also has a keepsake necklace, hers consisting of three charms on a chain which her Penobscot Indian father gave her just prior to his accidental death. Her mother, due to her own issues, is unable to care for her daughter and thus Molly ends up in the foster care system, for all practical purposes an orphan. A difficult teen who gets in trouble for minor infractions purposely rebelling with her piercings and goth appearance, she finds herself doing community service at Vivian Daly’s home, helping the old woman clean out her attic. At first the whole task is a chore, especially since the boxes full of artifacts containing memories from a prior era are simply unpacked, examined, and reboxed. Yet each item has a story and in just a short bit of time, the bitter Molly discovers that she is not the only one with a tragic youth. As part of a school assignment, Molly records Vivian’s tale and the story unfolds along with the items in the attic as the book moves seamlessly from past to present and back again. Through the telling, a relationship develops which soothes them both and makes for a satisfying reading experience, despite the quick wrap up and open ended conclusion.

While I did have a copy of the book for reference (I especially appreciated the photographs and list of resources), I actually listened to the majority of the story on tape (CD) performed by Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren. I felt the Scottish accent of the young Niamh, which disappeared over time, added a dimension to the tale which my imagination couldn’t provide with simply reading the written words.

Although Kline used some exaggerated stereotypes to forward the plot, the emphasis (and obvious research) on the historically accurate Orphan Train and its effects on the lives of children such as Niamh was a riveting subject. Four stars.

Girl at War by Sara Novic

When reading a novel, I often like to put myself in the heroine’s shoes to better experience the emotions portrayed, but when the book involves violent conflicts, I prefer to remain a neutral bystander staying partly aloof to avoid personal heartbreak. Since I was alive during the war between the Serbs and Croatians, I had an extra reason to remain detached, a feeling of guilt. After avidly watching the 1984 Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo, the idea that the world was allowing people who could easily be my next door neighbors to participate in a mass genocide greatly disturbed me. The four years of conflict from 1991-1995 was too long a period for the United States to remain effectively quiet, even if they categorized the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia as a Civil War. Croatian American author Sara Nović brings the trauma right into our homes with her debut novel Girl at War.

Life was simple in the city of Zagreb until civil war broke out between the Serbs and the Croatians. Granted, there had always been hostilities with back and forth fighting, but then warfare came to the village. Ana Juric, at the age of ten, had to learn how to adapt to air raids and rationed meals, to blackouts and her friends’ fathers going off to war, even the observations of an occasional death. Luckily her own father was exempt from the fighting due to a crooked eye, but that didn’t mean that their lives weren’t constantly in danger. When Ana’s baby sister Rachel couldn’t fight off her progressive lung disease, despite the medicine provided by Medipact, a difficult decision was made to send the small child off to America to a foster family who could oversee her treatment. While Rachel was safe from harm, her parents were not so lucky and Ana was forced into survival mode with the help of the community at large.

Ten years later, Ana is now American, formerly adopted by her sister’s foster family. Her Croatian past is kept hidden since people don’t really want to hear about the barbarity of combat, especially after the recent calamity with NYC Twin Towers. Even her boyfriend doesn’t know the truth. Too often Ana feels numb, not allowing herself to feel lest she remember. Yet, these very memories keep calling to her and she realizes she must return to her former home in order to search out her past. Will she be able to locate her childhood friends? Will she be welcome now that so much time has passed? What will remain from before the war and what will be unrecognizable? Temporarily leaving her NYU campus life behind she travels to the village of her childhood looking for some sort of affirmation and possible closure.

Girl at War is written in four parts, with a back and forth between “present” and “past” so the reader can vicariously feel the trauma which Ana experienced as a child soldier in a war torn country. As we wonder what really happened, snippets of details are revealed which explains Ana’s predicament. The author also gives us a glimpse of the horrors of war through a child’s eyes. As Americans, it is difficult for us to imagine the threat of bombings or random shootings at civilians in the streets. In general, we are willing to recognize the atrocities of such conflicts, we simply don’t want to dig too deeply into the gritty details. It’s too painful. Which is why, although well written with a clear, relevant message, I found Girl at War extremely difficult to read. Not that it was overly graphic, the simple explanations were gruesome enough without added embellishments, it just was heart wrenching. While we are aware there is violence in this country, it’s hidden away in the inner city, rarely out in the open. That was why the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 or the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 were so appalling, we aren’t used to “the enemy” attacking us on our home turf.

However, I do recommend this book – it’s an eye opening story which needs to be told – an event in world history which we Americans have largely ignored. Sara Novic is an excellent storyteller, despite her personal affliction of deafness. Instead of telling Ana’s tale chronologically, the plot vacillates between events and it takes a moment to figure out where in time and space the story continues. So my recommendation to the author is to provide some sort of transition when the settings change. However, perhaps the author was trying to replicate the confusion of a ten year old girl dealing with the effects of war on her world. Born in New Jersey, Sara took her own journey to Bosnia, prior to her graduation from Columbia University, where she gathered the tales of a conflict which had become a personal obsession, eventually transforming them into Ana’s staggering narrative.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for supplying an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on my blog, Gotta Read.