Tag Archives: family life

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

My father died when I was nine years old leaving my mother a widow with four children, two boys and two girls. I was the oldest. Given the premise of the book The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin which begins with the sudden death of the father at the age of 34 (my father was 37) you would think I could relate to the lives of the four children left behind to deal (three girls and one boy) with this life changing tragedy. While my mom didn’t hole up in her room for three years like Antonia (Noni), she was largely AOL trying to make ends meet, leaving me to watch over my younger siblings. Yet I felt no connection with any of these four who despite their closeness, tended at times to be totally dysfunctional as they drifted apart over the years.

I found this a sad tale all around with even the “happy” times marred with regrets. Beginning at a poetry reading by 102 year old Fiona Skinner in 2079, she looks back on her life relating a past which led to the name Luna being included in The Love Poem, her world renowned publication. Starting with those early years, each of the siblings gets a chance to tell their story as they deal with life’s trials and tribulations directly affected by the traumatic events in their lives. Eldest Renee eschews love, focusing on her career in medicine, sensitive daughter Caroline supplants her own needs by marrying childhood sweetheart Nathan and starting a family, conflicted son Joe keeps searching for a father he can’t accept is gone, and baby Fiona has difficulty forming relationships, numbering and blogging her numerous one night stands. Eventually their issues are resolved, one way or another, and their relationships morph over the years, but the tone is far from upbeat. Then there is Noni who somehow is there but never really a substantive part of their lives, even after she reenters the world. Her preachiness makes her a less than sympathetic character and it is only on her deathbed that she reveals some truths which would have been helpful to share with her kids at an earlier date.

Centered on three locations, Bexley, Connecticut, New York City, and Miami, the narrative switches back and forth from various points of view, using present tense for Fiona then past tense for her siblings. The sections occurring in the future refer to several cataclysmic events, mainly in reference to the effects of climate change. There is a wrap up on the last few pages which brings some closure to those of us who completed the book.

While there were sections of this I enjoyed such as the passages about those childhood years and Joe’s story, the rest seemed to drag on and were at times mundane. I feel the plot could have been tightened up and I question some of the behaviors of the various characters which didn’t always align to my expectations from the text. I simply wasn’t in the mood to be depressed, despite a few upbeat moments.

The question is – does the death of a parent – sibling – child mar us for life, seemingly affecting every choice we make, or do we move on beyond the heartache to live our lives free from the guilt of still being alive?

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.

The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim

Every Sunday in the congregation at my church there is a immigrant from Iran who prays at the communion rail longing to reunite with her son who was left behind when she emigrated to the United States. Through hard work, perseverance, and a bit of luck she was able to sponsor the arrival of one of her sons, but her eldest is stuck overseas due to the current ban on refugees from certain middle eastern countries. Somehow he has made his way to Turkey and her heart is at high alert, hoping that his return to her loving arms is not just a pipe dream. Every time I see her, I pray that her dearest wish comes true.

So when I began to read The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim, I could vicariously relate to the premise. A husband, wife and young child have left Korea for the United States, not realizing that a Civil War was imminent or that the conflict between the North and South would wreck havoc with their lives. It seems that their youngest daughter was left behind with family members and now there is no way they can reunite despite their best efforts. The tale is basically told from three points of view, Inja who finds herself quickly migrating with her relatives to South Korea away from the rebels who are brutalizing their neighborhood in the North, her sister Miran who is becoming Americanized in her new homeland, and Najin their mother who is heartbroken that she cannot find a way to reconcile her family so instead sends frequent care packages to show how much she loves her displaced child. Even though they eventually once again become a family, the ten plus years of separation have repercussions that are not easily resolved, especially when there are secrets hanging over their heads.

A sequel to the novel The Calligrapher’s Daughter, much of this story is based on the author’s experiences as one of the children who came with her parents to the United States for an extended visit in 1948 only to be forced to stay put when the Korean War broke out in 1950, leaving her baby sister to survive the upheaval with the help of her grandmother back in their homeland. The friction portrayed between the siblings is based on reality, since it was not until Eugenia connected with her roots that she began to understand the dynamics which had influenced both their lives.

A great idea, despite the uneven pacing and plot development, made worthwhile if only as an exploration of an honorable people caught in an untenable situation. This is an approachable story dealing with a country which is very much in the news as our President plans to meet once again with Kim Yon Un to continue a discourse once again encouraging a ban on the development of nuclear weapons so that the 60+ year Korean conflict might one day be history.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

People Hate People by Ellen Hopkins

At a time when hate has become a common occurrence where children are being held in detention centers while their parents are deported or bombs are being sent through the mail to high profile individuals or a synagogue has become the target of gunfire during a religious ceremony, these events, whether sanctioned or not, are the result of mistrust and resentment towards those who are not considered a part of main stream society. Nationalism (versus Patriotism), a part of the Make America Great Again Community, has become an accepted way of life for too many in the United States to the point where some individuals feel justified in acting out their feelings of hatred towards those they resent – for whatever reason.

Ellen Hopkins uses this darkness as the theme for her newest YA novel People Kill People. In her introduction she decries the rise of gun violence in this country and attempts to explore the reasons why someone might pick up a gun with the intent to do harm. Her unique style of combining freestyle poetry and introspective narratives introduces the reader to a group of struggling teenagers whose lives intersect through their reactions to their individual situations. Each faces varying issues, some dire others seemingly innocuous, but all internalized and possibly life changing.

We have seventeen year old Grace; her homeless boyfriend Daniel; Daniel’s half brother Tim, a skinhead; and Tim’s good friend Silas who is stalking Grace but finds solace in Tim’s cousin, the badass Ashlyn; Grace’s sister Cami who is a teen bride married to Rand with a two year old son Waylon; and Grace’s former best friend Noelle who was seriously injured in a car accident as a result of the shooting which killed Grace’s father. Their interactions create a story which ultimately leads to a shameful calamity.

I personally found this book difficult to read. The details were so tragic, the choices at times devastating, the introspections so negative I was left with a depressed view towards life, grateful that my own trials seemed trivial by comparison. This is definitely not a PG book since the dark subject matter  includes violence, sex, and numerous deplorable activities. Yet these subjects, while fictional, are based on real life events which occur too often in society, so I suppose they need to be addressed and discussed by the upcoming generation if attitudes have any hope of changing for the better.

Hopkins unique style provides smooth transitions as we “Slip into” each character’s skin and then “Fade out”,  helping us understand the motivations behind each of their choices.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

A Spark of Life by Jodi Piccoult

Not only do I live in the same neighborhood as Dr Bernard Slepian, my son went to school with his children. As PJ entered third grade, there was a letter at his desk from the child who had been in that seat the previous June. This class assignment, in this particular case, was bitter sweet, since the welcoming words were from a boy whose parent had only recently been murdered by a sniper out to destroy another abortion doctor. His beautiful home with the large picture window in the normally crime free town of Amherst, outside Buffalo, NY, was the perfect site for a certain type of target practice. While the perpetrator was caught, the damage was done and those three boys and loving mother lost a dedicated father, husband, and doctor.

No matter how many clinics are closed or doctors are castigated, abortion will never be eliminated. If it can’t be done legally, there will be those who find illicit means to get the job done. We are currently at a crossroads, with the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice whose vote might finally overturn Roe vs Wade or severely limit its reach. I have watched as the rights of women to find affordable reproductive care (which goes way beyond the topic of abortion) have been eliminated along with the planned parenthood centers who provide Pap Smears, mammograms, prenatal and postnatal care, treatment for symptoms of menopause and other women’s health issues. There are other uses for hormone treatment besides birth control, yet, for some, the right to life of a fetus takes precedent over everything – even the life of the doctor who works in the field. With this mindset, it is no wonder that the maternal mortality rate (death of the mother in childbirth) has actually doubled over the past twenty years, especially in the minority community. Shocking!

That is why A Spark of Life by Jodi Piccoult is such a timely piece of literature. Here is an issue which has dogged the country for years without coming to a full resolution with both sides continuing to fight for what they feel is justice. This is also a concept where there is no legitimate compromise, since each side is firmly committed to their opinion which literally represents life or death. Where, to some, even birth control or the morning after pill to prevent pregnancy and the hated abortion, is unacceptable.

Piccoult attempts to present both sides of the issue via the story of a hostage situation at a Woman’s Health Clinic, where the authorities are trying to garner the release of the captives before anyone else gets hurt. To complicate matters, the chief negotiator discovers his daughter is amongst the prisoners, and he must do everything in his power to keep the situation from escalating including keeping the SWAT Team at bay. This is one of those backwards stories (with the ultimate conclusion as an epilogue) where the ending is the beginning and we count down the hours to slowly discover what motivated the events to unfold in this manner. There are a lot of “whys” to be discerned as the countdown begins.

While the topic is fascinating, the characters interesting, the issues compelling, I find this writing mechanism confusing. Perhaps it’s because I’m directionally challenged, but I like my books to be mostly chronological. The backwards recitation also requires alot of repetition which I find annoying at best. While I understand the desire to apply a new approach, this topic is too important for games.

However, I don’t want to dissuade you from reading this book. Piccoult has a way of bringing important issues to the forefront and this is a dialogue which remains vital for our society, especially with so many visible cases of misogyny and the resulting Me, Too Movement.

While for me this was a three and a half star book, I’m giving it a four star rating due to its relevance to upcoming legislative events. I’m looking forward to some interesting discussions. Thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth

Our story, The Light Between Worlds, begins in London during the Blitz (the bombings of England’s capitol during WWII) where three children huddle together in an Air Raid Shelter waiting for their parents to join them when suddenly they find themselves in the “Woodlands” where the indigenous  creatures give them haven. Promised that they can return home at any time  to their original time and place, they take up residence in a castle, assisting in diplomatic discussions to prevent a war (which eventually breaks out anyway). After six and a half years, the two older siblings, James and Alexandra, decide its time to return home bringing the surprised and reluctant Evelyn with them. 

Back home they never quite readjust, especially Evelyn, who is living between the two worlds, longing for one while trying to find some sort of peace in the other. Six years later, Evelyn and James are both at their respective boarding schools while Alexandra has escaped the trauma of caring for her despondent  little sis by going to college in America. 

Told in two sections, from both Evelyn’s and Alexandra’s point of view, the past is featured in Italics. Most of the text is introspective as both girls reflect on their behaviors and their relationships. Poor James is also lost, not knowing what to do, and their parents are besides themselves, never understanding why their children are emotionally falling apart. When tragedy strikes, nobody is surprised, but there is enough guilt to go around. 

The author, Laura Weymouth, is from Western New York, my general location, and I was rooting for her debut novel to succeed. Unfortunately, C S Lewis did it so much better, so I recommend the YA population read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to see how it should be done. I don’t understand why Weymouth would write a book which has so many parallels to the classic The Chronicles of Narnia series. Perhaps this could be forgiven if the text were dynamic, but there is too much lamenting and not enough action. I would have liked to read  a lot more about The Woodlands so I could perhaps understand the attraction. To top it all off, at times I found the narrative confusing. Sorry, it just didn’t come together.

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

The Next Person You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom

In today’s paper there is an article about a young couple who were recently married and killed in a freak roll over car accident on their way to their honeymoon. While there are many such incidents throughout the United States, what makes this one especially tragic is that these were two young people at the pinnacle of their happiness. Nothing is as sacrosanct as a bride and groom. I am silently sending my condolences to their families in this most grievous loss of life.

Perhaps that’s why Mitch Albom used a wedding to start off his newest novel, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, a sequel to a book by a similar title published in 2003. My first reaction was “Oh, no! Not on their wedding day!” since obviously in order to have a tete a tete in heaven, you must be recently deceased. Albom takes us through that happy time and the series of events which followed sending both lovebirds to the hospital where extraordinary measures are necessary to perhaps preserve a life or two.

Then we are in heaven as the former spouse, sans honeymoon, meets the five individuals who most strongly influenced their past. Through the details revealed in their interchanges we get the backstory which led to this fateful day. Back in real time, we discover what happened to those impacted by the couple whose lives had taken such a tragic turn.

I have a copy of The Five People You Meet in Heaven sitting unread on my bookshelf (my brother gave it to me as a Christmas present, at my request, shortly after it was published). While it was obvious that this book was a sequel, with some common characters to both novels, you don’t need to read the first to understand the second. The language is simple, slowly revealing some reinterpretations of an earthly past which changes the viewpoints of everybody involved, including the reader. While one person might personally take offense at actions (or inactions) from various situations, when secrets are shared both discover that there are perfectly plausible explanations for everything. As understanding dawns, peace can be found, and what better place than heaven to achieve this “life” changing miracle. As the song says “Was blind, but now I see!”.

While Albom shares the Grace of God through his words, the story, almost a fairy tale, seems contrived. At times I want to shake the characters in frustration at their stupidity, or I wonder at the dynamics of some of the situations – “Now, really?” I also felt like Albom was being condescending, forcing us to learn a lesson which we might not want to hear. Yet, there were some interesting aspects to the story with several outlooks we might not have considered on our own. Ultimately, I anticipated the outcome and was grateful I guessed correctly since, despite the tragedy, I was able to leave with a good feeling deep in my soul. What more could you ask about a book with the word “heaven” in the title?

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

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

If you didn’t notice the author of your most current read, it wouldn’t take long before you realized Clock Dance is an Anne Tyler book. Her stories always deal with the nitty gritty of life, focusing on flawed characters who both triumph and fail in their struggles, full of angst with a touch of humor thrown in to keep it interesting.

Willa Drake is a reactionary, not a rebel, but someone used to reacting to any given situation, trying to smooth out the cracks which get in the way of moving forward. First there’s her mom – a difficult woman (probably manic depressive) with wild mood swings who blows up at her family for relatively minor reasons, disappearing until her disposition changes. At one point when it looks like her mom is gone for good, the eleven year old Willa imagines successfully stepping up and filling the void to keep the family intact. This opportunity is over before it really begins, and the hinted abusive relationship continues, with Willa’s father constantly doing the “repaving” necessary to maintain a somewhat placid home life despite the strife. While Willa is able to adapt, her younger sister’s reaction is more rebellious, causing a rift between siblings which is never quite healed. Jump forward in time to Willa’s Junior Year in college, when she and her boyfriend, Dexter, are meeting her parents over the Easter break. We quickly discover that Dexter is domineering, firmly cajoling Willa down the path which is most beneficial to his needs, not hers. Ironically it’s Willa’s mother who calls him out on his selfishness, but the confrontation just pushes Willa farther along into a relationship which leads to more of the same – going along to get along – even if it means forgoing her own dreams. Once again, as a wife and mother, she finds herself placating husband and sons to keep the peace. Fast forward to 2017, with second husband Peter, a “retired” lawyer a bit older than 61 year old Willa (who he deferentially calls “little one”). I’ll let you guess the dynamics of their relationship.

Here is where the story gets interesting. Not particularly close to her two unmarried sons, Willa gets an unexpected phone call which sends her on a mission to Baltimore to assist her oldest boy’s former girlfriend who is in the hospital. Accompanied by a misgiving Peter, she goes to the rescue of this stranger who needs her help in caring for her precocious nine year old daughter, Cheryl (no relationship to her son). Kind of a convoluted mission, but one which just seems right. Finally we are able to see Willa crawl out from the shadow of others, possibly learning how to stand on her own two feet.

A marvelous character study of a wimpy pushover who we hope finds the inner strength to become her own person with an entire cast of quirky characters lending a hand in defining this journey. Tyler brings us back to her beloved Baltimore, as Willa, a somewhat petrified driver, learns how to navigate the streets as she chauffeurs her charges throughout the town. While this is a quick, simple tale, there is a lot of symbolism lurking throughout the narrative which will provide fodder for book club discussions.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Chemistry Lessons by Meredith Goldstein

First of all, I’d change the title from Chemistry Lessons to Love Potion Number Nine, at least that’s the tune I was humming while reading this G rated love story perfect for young teens. A loving family is torn apart when Mom succumbs to cancer. Dad turns to physical activities to work out his grief, while daughter Maya finds an internship transcribing notes at the MIT lab where her mother did research in Epigenetics. A high school graduate, Maya is looking forward to her Freshman year at Cambridge, but the summer is ruined when her boyfriend Whit, already a film major at Boston University, decides he’s ready to move on to greener pastures. Devastated at this betrayal, she turns to her best friend Bryan, for comfort. Theirs is an unusual relationship, with this talented fellow, immersed in the acting world, a pal to not only Maya, but also Whit, and even her dad. Obviously gay, Bryan is a welcome overnight guest, and her father even feels comfortable when Maya finds herself after hours at his place. Of all the characters, Bryan is the most grounded, with excellent advice and a huge shoulder to cry upon.

When Maya discovers that her mom was working with pheromones to manipulate romantic relationships (make love last), she decides, with the help of her mother’s former graduate student lab assistant, to continue the experiment with the hopes of reawakening the attraction of her former boyfriend. In order to make the study more valid, she needs to test the procedure on two other subjects. The selections have results which are definitely a surprise to Maya, but the reader will certainly have a premonition that this scientific query with a lack of definite controls, does not have a foregone conclusion.

Meredith Goldstein has come up with a rather crazy idea for a research topic, but a fun little way to write a teen romance. It was nice to read a story for once involving loving parents, good friends, and moderately behaved teens where higher educated is expected and welcome. Perhaps the scenario sounds like a fantasy, but there’s just enough tension to keep the silly plot interesting. Great for fans of the Boston area and Willy Wonka (two words – Whiff Walk).

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

Lord of Secrets (Rogues and Riches, #5) by Erica Ridley

Through her original series, the Dukes of War, Erica Ridley has created an entire world in Regency London whose background continues with the current series, Rogues and Riches. Lord of Secrets (Book #5) runs concurrently with the other novels where past events are now revisited as the couples attend a ball hosted by the Earl of Carlisle with references throughout to the Grenvilles as older brother Heath, heir to the baronetcy, is in search for a bride to please his demanding mother who also wants to marry his sisters to eligible gentlemen in The Ton. She’s doomed to fail since oldest daughter, Camellia, dreams of a scandalous singing career and middle daughter, Dahlia, spends her time running a girls school in the rookery, hardly a pastime to endear her to the aristocracy, while the littlest sister Bryony – well, let’s say that she’s the wildest of the bunch.

Brother Heath so wants to please his mom, yet the simpering youngsters barely out of the school room do not appeal. While looking for a slightly older potential mate, he doesn’t neglect his duty to scan the room for any wallflowers who would like to dance. He meets one lovely vision with red hair dressed in pink whose conversation peaks his interest, but she slips away. Once he discovers that she is simply a paid companion, that should end his interest, but instead he finds excuses to spend time with her, all under the guise of his friendship with Lady Roundtree . Even as he realizes that anything beyond “friendship”, and even that, is unacceptable, he still can’t stop himself.

Miss Eleanor “Nora” Winfield is a distant cousin who has been called into service as a paid companion to Lady Roundtree after the poor woman fractured her ankle. After living in poverty on a pig farm with her brother and grandparents, she suddenly finds herself in the lap of luxury even if she is treated like the hired help. With a luxurious place to sleep, gorgeous clothes appropriate for the social events attended by the elite, and sumptuous meals far beyond her simple tastes, Nora feels guilty knowing how her family is living hand to mouth. With the money she earns, life will be a little easier back home. To while away the time and give her brother a notion about her current lifestyle, she draws elaborate sketches along with funny caricatures based on her personal experiences and the scads of gossip which Mrs Roundtree loves to share with whomever will listen. To Nora’s chagrin, one of the pictures ends up in the local paper and becomes the talk of the town. Her caricatures are in high demand carrying a price tag which will give her family some stability. Yet, these same pictures have the potential to hurt others, an unintended consequence to a harmless activity.

Even worse, Grenville, known as the keeper of secrets and the fixer, is on the hunt to discover the perpetrator of these despicable drawings – one which includes his own sister. Nora must choose between her family and the man she is growing to love. Even though it’s a forgone conclusion, it was fun watching the two love birds find their way.

Full of witty dialogue, tender moments, amusing scenarios, and the comfort of old friends, this is the best book of the Rogues and Riches series so far. Yes, there was still a bit too much repetition, but it was manageable. My favorite scene was when Nora receives a warm reception from Grenville’s sisters while my biggest uncertainty is the question: “Where is the Baron?” He hasn’t once made an appearance even though his children are constantly requesting an audience.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

March by Geraldine Brooks

If one were to ask my favorite childhood author, although a difficult choice, I would have to say Louisa May Alcott, specifically Little Women (although there are other of her novels which I also hold dear). There’s a reason I named by third daughter Elizabeth, though she’s a Liz or Izzy and not a Beth.

Perhaps I was responding to the authentic voice of the author. Certainly basing her novel on members of her own family brought a touch of normalcy to the words. Of course, as a nine year old I didn’t ponder these things, I only knew that I had grown to love each of the sisters, reveling in their interactions with one another and their struggles in their daily lives. I was also attracted to the time period and the formal language, so different than the common vernacular of Brooklyn in the 1960s. Jo’s love of books and writing was another draw, binding her to my heart in a way that few other literary characters managed to accomplish.

So when I discovered that the title of the book March by Geraldine Brooks was actually in reference to the absentee father in Little Women, I decided that this was a novel which needed to jump to the top of my “To Read” list. Although I had heard of March (after all it was published over ten years ago), at that time in my life the focus was on children’s books as I was working in an Elementary/Middle School Library. Luckily, a good book remains readable whether opened the day it’s published or years later, especially one which has been so thoroughly researched.

I can see why March won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2006 due to the talent of Brooks who was able to successfully replicate Alcott’s style from the original novel. Bronson Alcott, a teacher not a preacher, was a fascinating man who obviously had a big impact on Louisa’s life. The chance to get a better glimpse of this individual, even via a fictional lens, is an opportunity not to be missed. Using the background of Alcott’s family (with a few poetic liberties) plus the details from Little Women set during the time frame of the Civil War, the reader gets a glimpse into the life of Robin (Father) March who is off at War throughout a major portion of Little Women. We get his young years as a peddler in the South, eventually becoming a preacher and settling in Cambridge where he meets his wife Marmee, with their abolitionist tendencies leading to his decision to meet the battle cry as a Chaplain at the age of thirty nine leaving behind his wife and four daughters.

Here we experience the conflict through March’s eyes with all the horror and inhumanity which war entails. We get the cleaned up version which he includes in his letters to his family, then the nitty gritty including the moments which he would rather forget but feels guiltily compelled to reveal. Occasionally there are reflections he shares which mirror the original work, but the majority of the story veers off into his own previously unreleased past. It’s not until Marmee gets the letter that her husband is gravely wounded that we begin a true parallel to Little Women as details from this book intertwine with her discoveries about her husband’s past. While most of March is from the father’s point of view, while he lays sick in the hospital, it is his wife who picks up the story and reveals the events leading up to his eventual return home to his daughters, including the gravely ill Beth.

While some of the actions of wartime made me squeamish, the realism of the story, along with memories of my childhood favorite, kept me engaged throughout the novel. That events which occurred at the beginning of March’s tale had an impact on later circumstances shows the talent of Brooks who was able to draw the entire contents of her plot full circle. The PTSD which infiltrates the protagonists being, makes one wonder about his future as a husband and father as even common events seem to bring up ghastly memories of his guilt ridden experiences from over the previous year, forcing him to live a double life, presenting an artificial front to hide his own internal conflicts. While not necessarily reflected in Alcott’s work, it gives the reader a new perspective into the inner workings of a patriot who has discovered that supposed “heroism” comes with a lot of baggage.

Five stars.