Tag Archives: poetry

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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For Every One by Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds is an articulate, intelligent, up and coming young black author who is determined to fill the neglected niche of literature for African American boys. While Reynolds himself didn’t read his first novel until he was seventeen (Black Boy by Richard Wright) he realized that there was definitely a gap in authentic offerings for youth which he was determined to rectify. His beginning efforts led to the John Steptoe Award for New Talent as well as numerous Honor Awards from the American Library Association.

A poet from elementary school (his first published work was for his grandmother’s funeral when he was ten), Reynolds had the unique opportunity of presenting a poem at the opening of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC, his hometown. Originally entitled Jump Anyway, this work has recently been published as a book entitled For Every One promoting the need for holding on to our dreams in spite of the obstacles we too often face. This is a highly personal work reflecting some of the setbacks in the author’s own life including the fact he had to move home at the age of twenty eight (he had been living in NYC pursuing a writing career). Since a career in writing hadn’t been lucrative enough to pay the rent, Reynolds held a variety of jobs from working at a book store specializing in African American Literature (while in college) to being a manager in retail in Manhattan (he also worked at a Lord and Taylor in Maryland) to a position as caseworker in a mental health clinic where his father was a director. Bringing all these experiences to the table can’t help but enrich his writings. The author was reminded by his friend Chris Myers, son of the well known black author, Walter Dean Myers, that with the aging of his dad (who died in 2014) there is a definite need for the black voice to be reflected in children’s literature, especially for young minority boys.

Not a typical college student (perhaps turned off by the more traditional approach to literature), Reynolds struggled to get his BA in English at the University of Maryland. I’m sure this experience has tempered his outlook as an author writing for a nontraditional audience. A former nonreader himself, Reynolds recognizes that books can be intimidating to many children, not just the subject matter but the amount of printing found on each page. With the poetic format of For Every One, there are fewer words per page, spread out in such a way as to be inviting to those who don’t normally read books. Despite the lack of prose, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of content or meaning behind the words. Ultimately, the goal is to make it cool for kids to pick up a book, especially one of his books, where word of mouth might get those reluctant readers to actually engage with the written word. Others must agree since this title was on the New York Times best seller list for children’s literature. While meant to appeal to minority boys, the idea of searching for a better way of life is a universal theme sure to appeal to a much wider audience.

James Reynolds is an author to watch.
Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Atheneum Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

The devastation of war leaves behind many victims consigned to clean up the mess that was once their life. Homeless, both literally and figuratively, they huddle together as refugees in their new countries trying to come to terms with an altered sense of self, brushing aside those clinging memories which must be left in the past if they are to survive in the future.

The title The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien refers to the 11,541 red chairs placed in the center of the capital of Bosnia in 2012, representing each person who died during the 1992-1995 Siege of Sarajevo, small chairs (643) indicating the life of a child. Such a visualization can’t help but move the reader before a single page is even turned. O’Brien’s intent is to haunt us as the story unfolds.

A charismatic stranger, Dr Vladimir Dragan, enters a small town in Ireland, intriguing the locals as he worms his way into the community, setting up shop as an alternative healer. Using his knowledgable background, he mesmerizes the townspeople, gaining their trust, even taking their children out to the countryside to teach them about the natural habitat. Vlad’s expertise in literature and poetry endears him to the members of the book club, gaining him further acceptance. One lonely woman, Fidelma, in a frigid marriage to an older man, desperately wants a child and convinces Vlad to oblige her desires. He reluctantly agrees and during their brief affair he also introduces her to the romance she craves. Verifying her condition, she is left wondering how to explain her predicament to her husband when her lover, afraid of discovery, disappears. Several weeks pass and he reappears, rumpled and mangy, for a previously arranged poetry outing. On the bus filled with townspeople, he is arrested as a master war criminal to the horror of the entire village, but especially to the pregnant Fidelma. Vlad has been on the run for almost twenty years avoiding an arrest for the atrocities he ordered during the Bosnian War, especially during the Siege of Sarajevo. Responsible for the death of thousands in an attempt at ethnic cleansing to remove all the Muslims in Yugoslavia, this man is hated the world over.

Realizing she is carrying this monster’s child, Fidelma wonders how to rid herself of this affliction, but matters are taken out of her hands when she is kidnapped and brutalized for revenge by Vlad’s bodyguards who are livid that they couldn’t claim the huge reward for their former boss’s capture. Just barely escaping death, Fidelma is rejected by her husband and seeks refuge from the nuns at the nearby convent who help her escape to London where she becomes one of the homeless and disenfranchised.

Now a refugee from her own homeland where she no longer feels welcome she must find a new life which includes meeting and hearing the stories of others who also have heartbreaking tales to confess, a string of seemingly unrelated anecdotes sharing a common bond of crimes against humanity. Fidelma meanders through various jobs drifting from one location to another, finally seeing closure by going to The Hague to attend Vlad’s trial and confront her former lover who is unable to admit any responsibility for his actions. Hearing his blame game, she must accept her own guilt in this matter so she can move forward. In a way, she is another war victim of this man. Eventually Fidelma finds some sort of peace with the help of her “new kin”.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this story which is full of literary references and an underlying message. There are many parallels with the author’s life. Edna O’Brien was a poet from a young age who felt a deep connection to literature and ran off with a writer to spite her parents and escape their disapproval, just as Fidelma left her parents to find a better life with an older, wealthier husband. O’Brien, who focuses on the truth, refusing to sugar coat her findings, has habitually found her books banned in Ireland due to the power and control of a church which prefers to deny the foibles of the average man prone to sin. O’Brien believes literature provides a means of escape and uses literary illusions as a parallel to Fidelma’s hardships, with references to classics such as Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, The Aeneid by Virgil, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare. Including subtle underlying caveats, such as the name Fidelmas which means faithfulness and Vud (Vlad’s nickname) which means wolf, O’Brien’s true genius is in her vignettes revealing that each person has a tale to tell, no matter how reluctant the storyteller.

Carefully researched to bring an authenticity to her writing, O’Brien even attended the trial at The Hague of Radovan Karadzic, the true villain behind the ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War who received a sentence of forty years about a year ago.

This seemingly straightforward book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. While I would have preferred a bit more expository transitions between events, The Little Red Chairs is a poignant narrative reminding us of the evil which still exists in our world manifested, but all too often ignored, in the mantra “Never Forget”.

Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate

The topic of slavery is a difficult subject to introduce to children, especially those whose ancestors were enslaved. Yet, sometimes there are bright spots to be explored in spite of the historical adversity. The picture book Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate explores the experiences of a self taught slave who, despite the restrictions placed upon him by society in the 1800s in North Carolina, was able to sell his poems to the students at the White Chapel Campus, improving his living conditions despite his status as a slave. With the help of sympathetic patrons, he was even able to publish his works. In spite of his earnings, his master refused to give Horton his freedom, and it wasn’t until after the Civil War that Horton was able to leave slavery behind and pursue his dreams as a poet at the age of sixty six. Regardless of his prior hardships, Horton was able to share his gift of words – a talent even more incredible from a slave during a time when reading and writing was forbidden. While the colorful illustrations reflecting Horton’s life are a bit cartoonish with oversized heads, examples of his words decorate the pages and give the reader a taste of his talents. This is definitely a read aloud book with a smaller print font than often found in picture books. Even though this topic might need some adult explanations, Horton’s success is certain to be inspiring to all children. Here is an individual whose name should be common knowledge as a great American poet. This book is a good step in the right direction to get the word out to the upcoming generations. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

One of my pet peeves is when an author, whether on television at the movies or in a book, treats all elderly persons as if they have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Perhaps this is because the more birthdays I celebrate, the older the start of old age seems to become. I know numerous eighty and even ninety year olds who are active and get around just fine, including my own mother. Yes, she’s slowing down, but she’s not a doddering old fool.

I also understand that Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease which robs the victim and their families of so much. However, an author doesn’t do the reader any favors by misrepresenting the realities of these symptoms, although I realize that the “lost and found” of the heroine’s memory is central to the plot of The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. I suppose we must allow him some poetic license, especially since this is such a baffling ailment (and was even more unknown back in the days when this book was first written).

Nicholas Sparks is one of those authors whose name I have heard repeatedly attached to the term – “romantic novel”. One only has to mention the title of his next book and it is immediately optioned into a movie. When I was informed the book club I had recently joined had never read a romance, I immediately thought of Mr Sparks – the quintessential romanticist, and so I recommended The Notebook, a book on my own to-read list which I had never gotten around to perusing. I even owned my own copy and knew that it would be easy for the group to find at the public library, at Amazon/Barnes&Noble, or even at a “take one/put one back” bookshelf. We had just finished a super long tome and I thought a quick read would be a welcome change.

Now I am somewhat embarrassed by my choice. This was not what I expected.

Don’t get me wrong, my favorite type of book is a Regency Romance, so I often read romantic novels. I even dabble in contemporary romances by authors such as Bella Andre and Melody Ann, so I did have a baseline in mind. Let me just say that The Notebook didn’t meet even the minimal bar and I was left disappointed.

Of course, all romances are contrived and at times unrealistic as couples must overcome various road blocks in order to be together, otherwise why bother to write it all down. The Notebook does have numerous obstacles, not the least of which is a fiancé and an upcoming wedding. So what went wrong?

First one should determine the characteristics of a worthy romance, including:
Romance
Witty dialogue
Well defined characters
An Interesting plot with a few twists
Just long enough to tell the story without a lot of repetition of thoughts or dialogue
Some sexual contact (a plus, but not necessarily a required component)

Well, this book centered on the romance, but the story was one dimensional. Boy loves girl, girl loves boy, they separate and fail to reconnect, she finds another (the problem), girl finds boy again, boy still loves girl, girl discovers she still loves boy, girl sacrifices current life to stay with boy. I wish there was a little more, but that’s basically it. As far as the characters are concerned, Noah Calhoun is a simple, down-home boy who loves poetry and nature while Alison Nelson is a sweet, beautiful girl who appreciates poetry and is a gifted artist. Boom! Not much to build on. The dialogue consists of routine day to day conversations and repetitive thoughts of deep love – nothing clever. The main plot twist is that Allie’s mother Anne hid all the love letters that Noah wrote to Allie after the summer they spent together as teenagers. Mrs Nelson maintains a big town/small town bias, believing that her daughter was meant for something better than the rustic lifestyle Noah has to offer. In addition, pursuit of a career as an artist did not fit into Anne’s overall plan for her daughter’s future. Fiancé, Lon Hammond, definitely exemplifies the life that Allie deserves. Lon is a kind, considerate, wealthy, and well connected man who is respectful enough to wait to consummate the marriage until after the nuptials. The fact that he is devoted to his career as a trial lawyer and doesn’t make Allie the sole center of his universe, seems to be held against him. Yet he cares enough about her that when Allie chooses her old love, he graciously accepts her choice. After fourteen years of denial, Ann experiences a sudden change of heart, removing any sense of guilt her daughter might feel for the switch of future husbands. Conflict over!

The best part of the book is the set up. It starts at a nursing home where one of the residents spends every day reading a notebook containing the love story of Noah and Allie to a woman with Alzheimers. On a good day, the patient realizes that this is her story and she will emerge from the fog of her dementia into the real world for a few hours before the haze descends upon her once again. Noah hangs on to these precious moments, cherishing them along with the letters that his wife has written to him over the years. He leaves little poems under her pillow, in her pockets, etc. for Allie to find. Even if she doesn’t know how they got there, the words cheer her up. Noah is beloved by the other residents and the staff for his devotion to his wife. His dedication is responsible for those lucid moments and the kisses which follow, filling the remainder of his days with some sort of purpose.

Sweet like a cup of tea which is more honey than liquid! Contrived like a forged note to get out of gym class!

I suppose people are drawn to the story because everyone wants to root for the good guy. The book is short, direct, with simple dialect, and mild enough that you could give a copy to your grandparents. Also, who doesn’t want someone to love them so totally that you are the center of their universe. Well maybe not everyone, but it does appeal to our romantic side. There are even people out there who can relate to such a love affair. Forgive me if I’m not one of them.

The highlight of this short novel was the author’s mini autobiography found at the end of the story – if The Notebook could have injected some of the humor found in the vignettes of Spark’s own life, this book would have been a much better read.

To my chagrin, this novel is popular all over the world. I hate to believe that readers in other countries think that this is the best literature America has to offer.

I was going to give The Notebook one star, but, ironically, I was the only person in the book club who didn’t care for the book, so here is a reluctant two stars (which is as high as I can go and still sleep at night).

If this book had a hash tag it would be #SappyMaudlin or #NobodyIsThatGood