Tag Archives: Family

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.

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The Lady is Daring by Megan Frampton (Duke’s Daughters series, Book 3)

Lord Carson (Bennett), heir to the Marquis of Wheatly, has avoided matrimony twice, both times to daughters of the Duke and Duchess of Marymount. In the first book of Megan Frampton’s Duke’s Daughter series, Lady Be Bad, Lady Eleanor ends up marrying Bennett’s younger brother Alexander and in the second book it’s his best friend who winds up with one of the other sisters, Lady Olivia. It seems three times the charm in The Lady is Daring when the Marquis urges his son to woo one of the remaining two siblings since he needs money to support his extravagant lifestyle. Bennett, who spends his days running the estate and his evenings trying to find investors for his business ventures, doesn’t have the time or inclination for an arranged marriage to benefit his dad’s other family – a mistress and their two children. Lord Carson’s disdain for his father is matched by his love and devotion for his invalid mother who only wants what is best for her son.

Then one night, Bennett’s life takes a turn when he has a bit too much to drink and somehow believes it’s a good idea to take a nap in an empty carriage.

In the meantime, Lady Ida, youngest daughter of the Duke, has decided to steal this very carriage so she can “rescue” her wayward sister who ran away with their dancing instructor and was now ostracized from society. This headstrong, singleminded plan of Ida is yet another example of the rash behavior of an adventuress who is more inclined to follow her own interests instead of the strictures of The Ton. She disdains the entire idea of matrimony since, after all, who would want to marry someone like her who is more concerned with topics such as gas lighting instead of more lady-like pursuits such as embroidery?

Unfortunately, Lord Carson refuses to allow Lady Ida to proceed without his protection, disrupting her plans. He reasons that since she is the sister of his brother’s wife, he can’t very well leave her to fend for herself. The two disparate personalities somehow find a commonality and a romance is inevitable as they deal with the numerous obstacles which they encounter on their quest. Bennett even finds Ida’s obsession with the mating habits of hedge hogs endearing.

The Lady is Daring was takes place in 1846 making it a Victorian Romance. Don’t look for historical accuracy, or for that manner common sense, in this “traveling” comedy of errors. However, if you are looking for a fun, quick read with some steamy love scenes, this book is for you.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and HarperCollins 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 Witch Elm by Tanya French

I fear Tana French must be clairvoyant. While her new stand alone novel, The Witch Elm, was being released here in the United States we were in the process of confirming a new Supreme Court Justice whose life parallels that of the main protagonist Toby.

Toby has been living the life of a privileged white male – popular at the Private High School he attended, good in sports with plenty of friends plus supportive parents; a man whose life has fallen into place, including a great job and a loving girlfriend who he’s crazy about (to the point where he’s thinking about hearth and home), when “BOOM” his life explodes with his past, including events which occurred when he was seventeen, coming back to haunt him and threatening to change his life forever.

Of concern is a bunch of distorted truths which if not illegal are definitely immoral, that were possibly behind the burglary which resulted in an injury that permanently affected Toby’s physical and mental health. While trying to put his life back together, a skull is discovered in the backyard of his favorite uncle’s home which leads to a murder investigation where Toby is one of the prime suspects. Complicating it all is his TBI which has blacked out his memories of the details of his teen years.

Of course, this is a fictional tale, not real life, although a news report about an unsolved English mystery involving a skull found inside a Wych Elm in 1943 was the original inspiration behind this story.

The question the reader must ask is if the inherent luck imbedded in our “hero” can get him through the muck and mire which has been thrown in his path. Some might think this smug, SOB deserves all the crap he is forced to endure, others will be more sympathetic since he has worked hard to earn the happiness which now eludes him. Ultimately, while we might believe what goes around, comes around, in truth, some of us fall into a vat of excrement and come out smelling like a rose. Well, maybe not a floral scent, but at least not a putrid odor.

French’s talent lies in her character development as we fall in love with Uncle Hugo and the family homestead complete with Sunday Dinners. Toby’s parents are the best and his two cousins, all only children, bond like siblings (and squabble like brothers and sister). The best friends hover in the background, included in the action since they were a part of those early years. All that’s left is to figure out exactly what happened and whodunit, which an obnoxious detective methodically sets out to discover.

It takes a third of the book to get to the murder, another third of the book to find out the guilty culprit, with the last third adding in some twists and turns. The Witch Elm was a steady read with a breezy style, although I did think it dragged a little in spots, but perhaps that’s because I wanted French to get to the point a little quicker so I could see if my suspicions were correct. I have to admit, there were numerous details I did not see coming.

While this story takes place in Ireland, it could easily be transplanted to any town in the United States.

All I can say is I hope our new Supreme Court Justice fares better than Toby and that recent events do not come back to bite us all in the butt.

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

All That I Can Fix by Chrystal Chan

Squirrels falling from the sky, a ten year old stalker, problems with parents, and a friendship torn apart over a girl – these are some of the elements of the YA novel All That I Can Fix by Chrystal Chan. Yes, the Chrystal Chan who has adapted many old time favorites for the Manga Classics series.

Chan tackles numerous social issues such as drug addiction, mental illness, alcoholism, child abuse, runaways, suicide, racism, gun control, all wrapped up with the normal teen angst thrown into the mix. To push things up a notch, there is a group of dangerous wild animals on the loose (ones you normally only get to see in the zoo or on a safari) who are actually attacking and killing the local citizens.

This is Ronny’s story, told from his point of view and it’s full of anger. Furious at his dad who is suffering from chronic depression and anxiety, Ronny yearns for the days when he had a real father who actually participated in the family. Suffering the results of a gun shot wound from a suicide gone bad, Ronny watches his pop, the one person he used to admire, shuffle around in his bathrobe doing nothing except sleep and watch TV. With a mom who has to work long hours to pay the bills coming home spent and using medication to erase the reality which is now her life, Ronny has to pick up the mantle of adulthood and taken on the responsibility of the household. A fifteen year old still in high school, he does the home repairs which they can’t afford, watches out for his younger sister Mina, and, in his limited spare time, hangs out with George, the girl he worships from afar, and his best friend Jello, a photography buff. On occasion he even attends school. Oh, let’s throw into the mix the factor that Ronny is mixed race and has to deal with those who object to the shade of his skin. This is one bitter boy.

I can see this book as one of those after school specials for kids. There’s a lot going on and the melodrama would lend itself to a visualized format. From the reader’s perspective, it was difficult to empathize with such a rude, nasty teen who has a bone to pick with the world and doesn’t pull back the punches (at times quite literally). Yes, he has it rough, and yes, he does show some redeeming characteristics when dealing with the troubles of his sister’s friend Sam, but overall he’s a jerk (I had another word in mind but I’ll keep it PG). Since Ronnie is the person telling the story, his attitude tempers the entire piece, forcing the reader to experience his cruel attitude towards life, ultimately directed at his father. Not my cup of tea. As a minor annoyance, the “little” sister Mina, supposedly a genius, is actually ten, but treated more like a six or seven year old. I was actually glad when she ditched the orange ensemble and started dressing more appropriately.

This one showed potential, but it definitely needed some pruning of the subplots, an upgrade to the attitude of the protagonist, and additional depth added to the characterizations.

2 1/2 stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa translated by Archibald Colquhoun

What pushes a piece of literature from a mere book into a work of art? Is it the ability to construct a significant moment in time transporting us to another era? Is it the exquisitely expressive language making the surroundings come alive? Or is it the richness of the characters spawning a three dimensional persona which transcends the words on the page?

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa is a novel which demonstrates all of the above and more. Perhaps it’s because the story is based on the life of Lampedusa’s Great Grandfather as well as the Palace outside his home of Palmero which was bombed during World War II. Perhaps it’s because The Leopard explores the ramifications of the reunification of Italy, focusing on Garibaldi who overthrew the monarchy and was then himself overthrown. Perhaps it’s because the author had lived through two world wars and was full of memories of a different time when being an aristocrat represented a noble dignity which was revered by the common folk.

In any case, Lampedusa spent the last few years of his life creating a piece of literature which was eventually considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the twentieth century, winning the Premio Strega in 1959. Unfortunately, these accolades came too late, since he was unsuccessful in finding anyone willing to publish this book during his lifetime.

Don Fabrizio is a Sicilian Prince from Salina watching the aristocratic way of life fading away during a series of political upheavals in 1865. A dreamer, forced to focus on his day to day responsibilities, he finds refuge in watching the stars and studying mathematics, a past time disdained by the common man but excused in someone so distinguished and revered. The Prince has been brought up with refined sensibilities, polite to a fault, and observing all the niceties of nobility, attributes he finds lacking in his own sons. It’s his charismatic nephew, Tancredi Falconari, who has the qualities to carry on the tradition. Fabrizio, at the age of forty five, looks back on his life contemplating the past and reliving the glory days via the romance between Tancredi and the bewitching Angelica Sedara. When Angelica kisses the middle-aged Don on the check and calls him uncle, he gladly gives her a piece of his heart.

The climax of the plot is not the Leopard’s death at the age of seventy +, but the ball he attends where he sees his former lovers, now old like him, and laments his lost youth. Hiding away in the library, Tancredi and Angelica find him and drag him back to the party where he, an excellent dancer, has one waltz with his beautiful niece-to-be, becoming the focus of attention for a roomful of admirers who spontaneously break into applause. Not wanting to be a third wheel, he resists their pleas to join them for supper and instead stands in the corner watching their mutual devotion while eating a decadent dessert. In the movie, starring an all Italian cast (except for lead actor, Burt Lancaster), this scene is the major focus of the film.

In the end all that’s left are his elderly three daughters trying to hang on to what remains of their family dignity via the private religious services in the family chapel. Connecting their bittersweet past to “modern times” is the pelt of their long deceased papa’s favorite dog, Bendico. In order to move forward, leaving unrequited grievances behind, this symbol must be discarded. After all, it’s all about things “changing in order that they may remain the same”.

This book is so rich in imagery and content that my remarks fail to do it justice. Amazingly, Archibald Colquhoun captures the melancholy essence of Lampedusa’s words in his translation. In fact, the reader would never guess that the original was not written in English. While there isn’t a lot of action, the strong presence of the characters, especially The Prince, carries the plot. Five stars.