Tag Archives: Friendship

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende explores three individuals whose lives inexplicably intersect via a freak winter storm, a sick cat, and a run to the market for diapers. There’s 60 year old Richard Bowmaster who is living in a fog after tragically losing his Brazilian wife and child. His coworker and tenant, 62 year old Lucia Maraz, has survived her own life of upheavals in Chili, escaping the danger by moving to Canada and emigrating to the United States. Finally there’s 23 year old Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented refugee from Guatemala assisting a disabled boy whose father is involved in questionable business practices.

When Evelyn “borrows” her boss’s Lexus for a quick run to the supermarket, she’s caught in the “wrong place at the wrong time” when Richard’s car skids into the rear of the vehicle. Panicking, she ends up at his home, terrified of the consequences when her temporarily out of town employer returns home. Somehow Louisa and Evelyn end up with Richard in his apartment huddling together through the night while a freak blizzard rages across Brooklyn and into the surrounding regions. It’s not just the minor fender bender, but what’s inside the trunk that has them all in a sweat despite the cold.

Thus begins a bizarre road trip to an isolated location far away from the boundaries of the “incident” to get rid of the evidence. Close quarters and fear create the perfect environment for confidences as the three tell their personal stories and develop an unbreakable bond through this illicit deed. Back in Brooklyn is the “rest of the story” providing closure long after the threesome have resolved their accidental dilemma.

I’d like to highlight Lucia’s tale involving the Military coup d’etat in Chili in 1973 where President Salvador Allende was overthrown by armed forces and the national police. It is not a coincidence that the author’s last name is also Allende since this leader was Isabel’s “uncle” which endangered not only her life, but those of loved ones. I’m sure this particular tale invoked some strong emotions from Isabel’s past when she was actively involved in helping those on the “wanted” list find safe passage, which is inherently reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of the characters in this novel.

There was a lot to take in (almost too much to absorb) as the atrocities in Lucia’s and Evelyn’s childhoods are revealed. It is almost impossible to imagine living a life of terror, waiting for someone you love to be killed, or worse, not knowing whether or not the missing are still alive – not to mention your own dangers in an unstable country. Intertwined is the scenarios of those loved ones who influenced the decisions of the trio.

Without maintaining a specific focus on the immigration issue which is currently stalled in Congress, the reader is still left to ponder the attitude of American society towards undocumented workers who have fled their beloved homeland in order to stay safe, as well as the belligerence towards their children who were brought up in this country and know no other home.

While these timely issues make this a must read book (please note the President mentioned the violent M-13 in his 2018 State of the Union Address), I did have difficulty with the choppiness of the story as the plot flipped back and forth between the three main characters revealing their backgrounds piecemeal. I actually cheated and skipped ahead to read each biography in full (one at a time) which gave me a better understanding of their motivations. Oops, sorry Isabel. Allende had the difficult task of condensing their lives into a relatively brief narrative when each of the characters could have easily filled the pages of their own book (including some of the minor players). The conclusion neatly wraps up the details with a bit of poetic justice and a touch of romance thrown into the mix.

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

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The Bad Luck Bride by Jane Goodger (The Brides of St Ives, Book 1)

In the Bad Luck Bride, Lady Alice Hubbard, Granddaughter of a Duke and an Earl, is once again left at the altar. Her first husband-to-be died just prior to the nuptials, her second fiancĂ© had to beg off when her father discovered this future son-in-law was a scam artist, and the third? He simply did not show up. Instead of feeling humiliated (well, maybe a little), Alice is almost relieved, despite her new moniker “The Bad Luck Bride”. Truth be told, while she was fond of each of these potential mates, it wasn’t love that led to any of the betrothals. Then, on the carriage ride home, who should hitch a ride but Henderson Southwell, her late brother’s best friend and the true object of her affections. Henderson (Henny) has been gone the past four years, disappearing to India after Joseph’s tragic death. Now he claims to have returned in order to stop the wedding. Everyone laughs, but he is not really joking. Alice has always been in his heart, not realizing the feelings were reciprocal. Ditto for Alice. Via a series of complications, including the return of suitor number three, hat in hand, Alice and Henny somehow find their way to romance. Subplots include a possible murder(s), an attempt to raise funds for famine relief in India, a knitting club of girlfriends, and a budding friendship with an eccentric, neighboring Earl.

Set in a seaside town, this is Book One in the Brides of St Ives series. Jane Goodger throws a lot of story at us, never quite developing the possibilities before picking up another subplot. The profession of love doesn’t occur until the second half the book, necessitating continued repetition of thoughts, as the two main characters wrest with their feelings. Feelings which they then discuss in detail with their friends. Of course, the fact that Henderson has an unknown father and is not part of the nobility is a complication not easy to overcome. With his grandparents funding he was able to attend Eton and thus made friends with Joseph and his buddies. The Hubbards welcomed Henny into their home, with their house being preferable to living with an indifferent, distant mother. Yet, being accepted as a friend is very different than marrying into the family, as Henderson suddenly discovers.

While I’m willing to give some leeway when an author is introducing the characters in a new series, it is still their first obligation to create an intriguing story for the readers. There was so much potential in the various subplots, but their “resolutions” were disappointing. Set in the late 1870’s, this Victorian Romance unsuccessfully explores the distinction between classes and the entitlement of the nobility. The inconsistent attitudes of Alice’s parents towards Henderson is an example of just one of the many question marks I had when completing this novel. Hopefully some of these blanks will be filled in by other books in the series.

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

Ironweed by William Kennedy

When you hear the expression, the dead are always with us, it is meant figuratively, but in the life of Francis Phelan the phrase is literal. As a one-time grave digger, his dearly departed father (hit by a train) and shrew of a mother corpse are aware of his presence as he pays his respects to an infant son whose life was inadvertently cut short when Phelan’s slippery fingers dropped the baby on his head.

Francis began life as a talented young man who helped his neighbors and excelled at baseball, playing in the major leagues. He married and started a family, but life got in the way when during a union strike he killed one of the scab workers and ended up on the run. Eventually he returned home but with the death of baby Gregory he left for good, unable to face the consequences of his actions. Life as a vagrant became the norm, bumming drinks and cigarettes, hunting for a place to spend the night, wearing the same set of clothes until they fell apart at the seams with something as simple as a shoe lace becoming an expense beyond his means.

In 1938 jobs were scarce especially for drunkards who weren’t even allowed a cot at the Salvation Army (unless sober). Once again in Albany, Francis does a couple of day gigs to make a few bucks here and there which he wastes on booze. An angry drunk, there is still a bit of kindness in his heart as he places a blanket on a woman who ends up dead from the cold, and finds a place for his longtime friend Helen to sleep so she doesn’t meet the same fate. As he travels through the old neighborhood he is followed by the ghosts from his past giving him an opportunity to make amends for his numerous misdeeds.

Although beautifully descriptive with some subtle humor, Ironweed is definitely not a feel good book, filled with filth, sex, violence, and despair. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, I was taken aback at some of the crude, graphic sexual references despite their crass realism. Women do not come out on the good end of the stick, often using their “assets” for a hot meal and a warm place to sleep. The grittiness is a grim reminder that home and hearth are a privilege to be treasured.

William Kennedy wrote a series of books about Albany utilizing recurring characters or their descendants. A parallel book, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, involves a difficult predicament facing Phelan’s eldest son who meets up with his dad, convincing him that nobody in the family holds a grudge, then slipping him some funds and inviting him to stop by for a visit.

In Ironweed, Francis decides to purchase a turkey with these proceeds and arrives at his former home with this somewhat of a peace offering. His wife, Annie, remaining true to him over the past twenty two years, welcomes him back, no questions asked, for as long as he’s willing to stay. A visit to the attic locates a trunk filled with Phelan’s belongings, including a suit of clothes. Now cleaned up and snazzily dressed he saunters off to catch up with his derelict friends knowing he has an open invitation to return to his family if and when he chooses. Memories flood his mind as he visits old haunts, some not so pleasant, allowing a glimpse into his motivations even if they often lack commonsense. While the culminating events tug at ones heartstrings, there is a bit of hope that the future might hold some promise. (Spoiler alert: in Very Old Bones Phelan’s demise corresponds with his youthful endeavors – a fitting end of life passage.) Four and a half Stars.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Children can be cruel, especially middle school age kids. It’s the reason that most teachers choose to work at elementary or high school, they can’t deal with the angst involved with the hormonal surges of pre-teenagers. It takes a special breed to actually enjoy that age group, children who once they find a weakness in their peers have no qualms in exploiting that fact, whether real or imaginary. “Your nose is too big”, “Your hair is greasy”, “You’re too fat”, “You’re too thin”, “You smell”, You’re stupid”, “You’re smart” . . . Now imagine that you really do have a physical “abnormality” which is front and center and impossible to ignore? Wonder by R. J. Palacio explores the reaction of a private school community to August Pullman, a ten year old boy with a rare congenital defect which has distorted his facial features.

August was home schooled, both due to the recovery periods from his twenty seven surgeries and also to shield him from the reactions of his peers. However, by the time he was ready to start fifth grade, his mother wondered if it wasn’t time to consider a school setting, Beecher Prep, a private school in New York City with a “limited” population. August is leery, but he agrees to check it out. Three of his incoming classmates are chosen to show him around prior to the start of the school year. While Jack and Charlotte seem nice, Julian is outright nasty. After much discussion, August decides to give it a go. The whole experience is not an easy one, neither for August, his parents, or his older sister Olivia Pullman. The adjustment involves not just August, but his classmates, as everyone learns to deal with one another – a process fraught with tension, not just from the kids but also from some of the parents. It’s a time of growth for all, and August develops from a spoiled child into a self assured young man over the course of the year despite or perhaps because of the challenges thrown his way.

What I really liked about this well written, age appropriate children’s book (which should also be read by adults) is the narrative approach Palacio uses to tell August’s story. While it was Auggie’s tale to tell, his life also affected others so we get to hear the point of view of various events from his sister Via, her “best” girlfriend Miranda and boyfriend Justin, a couple of August’s friends – Jackalope and Summer, and even his nemesis – Julian Albany. While we mainly hear August’s voice, it was also important to get the perspective of the people who surrounded him.

Even if you go into this book feeling aloof, eventually the uplifting message grabs you and pulls at your heartstrings. While some might question the happy ending, remember that there was a lot of cruelty along the way. I can only imagine what a tear jerker the movie version evokes. I also appreciate how the educators were cast in a positive, supportive light – they even impart some knowledge on the reader. The additional chapter from Justin’s point of view is a good counterbalance with a surprise revelation which creates a positive outcome for all concerned. Although a little lengthy, it’s still a perfect book for fifth grade ELA! Five stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

What would you do if you were visiting the neighbors next door while your 6 month old daughter slept in her crib and returned home to find her gone? Kidnapped! That horrible scenario is the premise of the novel, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena.The police are called but their investigation yields very little and not even the couples plea for help through the press or the offer of a lucrative reward (provided by some wealthy grandparents) turns up enough insight to provide a substantial lead in the case. As Detective Rasbach conducts multiple interviews with the parents, Anne and Marco Contis, he starts to believe it’s an inside job involving either one or both of them despite their united front and obvious frantic distress. He even suspects the child, Cora, is dead.

Despite the lack of pertinent information, things begin to happen, secrets are revealed, marriages become stressful, and friendships are torn apart. Anne can’t help but despise her once close friend, Cynthia Stillwell, who didn’t want little Cora mucking up her dinner party, forcing them to leave their child home alone when the babysitter canceled at the last minute. On top of that, she’s angry about the drunken hanky lanky on the porch, probably at the very moment her child was being kidnapped. How could her husband respond to their neighbor’s flirtation? With everything going wrong, she suspects the worst.

It’s up to Detective Rasbach to unravel the case, discover the real criminal(s), and hopefully recover a living babe and not a corpse. Numerous twists and turns keep the reader guessing until the final few chapters.

While this book had potential and did deliver on the suspense, there were a few flaws which took away from my enjoyment. Number one was the simplistic narrative and the use of present tense which at times made for awkward reading. Then there was the repetition, a constant “let me gather up the facts” – listing them over and over as if the readers are idiots who can’t keep a thought in their head. However it is a quick read and there are enough clues that the climax is more of an “Oh yes, I see” and not a “Huh?” plus the ultimate conclusion has a sense of poetic justice. Still, the writing itself held the book back and there were a couple of loose ends which didn’t make sense.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. I also received a “hard” copy from Goodreads.

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.

Lord of Night (Rogues to Riches, Book 3) by Erica Ridley

First of all, suspend all sense of reality, and forget that this book takes place during the Regency era since there’s a lot in this plot which would otherwise not make sense.

Lord of Night by Erica Ridley, Book 3 of the Rogues to Riches series, deals with Dahlia, the middle sister of the Grenville family. In Book 2, Lord of Pleasure, eldest sister Camellia, a prodigy known for her singing talent throughout the Dukes of War series, has wed the Earl of Wainwright and gone off to pursue her passion for opera, a fate which would ordinarily have caused social ruin for the entire family. If that weren’t enough of a scandal, Dahlia runs St Giles School for Girls, a boarding home for indigent girls teaching them skills which will keep them off the streets as beggars, thieves, or, even worse, prostitutes. Unfortunately, running a business costs money for things like rent, uniforms, supplies, food, etc. Dahlia, whose father is a Baron, needs to maintain her connections with The Ton to solicit the necessary funds to keep the doors open, and she isn’t above a little pilfering, playing a sort of Robin Hood, to protect her interests. Her mother and the rest of society don’t understand her fervent dedication and wonder aloud why she doesn’t devote her efforts to running a finishing school for the right type of patron instead of wasting time on those ruffians.

Enter Bow Street Runner Simon Spaulding, passing by while the Night Watchman is playing hooky, who rescues Dahlia’s latest recruit, a girl in danger of being robbed and raped by the dangerous element in the notorious St Giles neighborhood. Spaulding arrests the ruffian and promises to return to make sure they are all safe, a departure from his usual routine which becomes a habit of sorts. All of a sudden he finds himself actively involved in the life of the two dozen “refugees” and their matron, even giving up an hour of his time each week to assist in their dancing lessons. While he becomes fond of the students, it’s their teacher who has beguiled him, teaching him that his life should include something besides work. Yet if he wants that promotion he needs to capture the Thief of Mayfair, then perhaps he might even consider matrimony. Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize that Dahlia isn’t quite what she seems and that certain maiden also knows that she can’t marry an inspector, even if he is the bastard son of a Duke. If she wants her school to continue she needs someone with deep pockets willing to support her “little project”, (not to mention that marriage would transfer all the property she owns over to her husband’s domain). She can’t allow that to happen which is why she’s made special arrangements with her best friend and partner, Faith.

This is her dilemma, that and her growing attraction to the officer who would reject her if he knew the truth about her real identity and her thieving ways, especially since they have supposedly been confiding in one another.

This is one of Ridley’s better stories, full of charm as the young “ladies” find their voice, the detective discovers the joys of friendship, and Dahlia falls in love. There are a couple of twists before the two lovebirds find their happily ever after with appearances by some of the characters from previous books.

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