REVIEW: THE ARSONIST, BY SUE MILLER

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During one summer in a small New Hampshire town, tensions are ignited between the summer people and the locals after a string of fires spread across the landscape. Despite its time period, set in the 1990s during the Clinton years, the issues exposed during and after each conflagration seem timely.

Bud Jacobs, the editor of the local newspaper, writes about the impact of the arsonist:

“The sense of community that is the bedrock of small-town life is broken, suddenly.”

Home from a fifteen-year stint in Kenya doing aid work, Frankie Rowley finds herself caught up in the fear that overwhelms all the residents, as she also struggles with family issues. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, have retired to their former summer home in Pomeroy, but Alfie’s slow descent into dementia seemingly changes everything about the dynamic between them. Meanwhile, Frankie is at loose ends, undecided about what to do next and whether or not to return to Africa.

In Miller’s beautiful prose, the story of The Arsonist: A novel unfolds, while Frankie and newspaper owner Bud give in to the powerful pull between them.

We follow the tale from the perspectives of the various characters, as it sweeps back and forth through the years, revealing the relationships between them all and the paths that have led them to where they now are. We learn more about Sylvia’s teen years and how an unresolved relationship has informed her life in the subsequent decades.

Meanwhile, we must ask ourselves: Who is targeting the summer people in Pomeroy, and why? Could the frustrations and conflicts of the past be presenting themselves now? What will Frankie decide about her next project, and how can she escape the feelings of not belonging anywhere?

Themes of home and belonging, of the social context that surrounds us in our dwellings, and the divide across which hostilities are played out, bring the story to its somewhat nebulous conclusion, with still more questions than answers. A brief fast forward through the years gives us a glimpse of what might be, even as we puzzle over those unanswered questions. A lovely narrative that will never leave me. Five stars.

REVIEW: MERCY SNOW, BY TIFFANY BAKER

17869466Titan Halls, New Hampshire, is a small town ruled by the paper mill and its owners, the McAllisters. They are the “haves,” while the “have-nots,” like the Snow family, live on the fringes, dubbed as itinerant ne-er-do-wells and a blight on the community.

So when a tragic bus accident ends a life and seemingly destroys another, the McAllisters, like some others, are quick to place blame on young Zeke Snow, who has recently returned to town with his younger sisters, Mercy and Hannah.

But Cal and June McAllister are keeping secrets, while trying to railroad the Snows out of town. Will Mercy and her young sister starve before the truth comes out? Will the runaway Zeke prove his innocence? And what long-ago secrets might be revealed after a skeleton is discovered near the accident site? Was there more to the story than a simple accidental death?

Following the struggles of Mercy and Hannah made me root for them, even as their desperate choices only seemed to bring more doubt upon any possible innocence. Hazel, the local sheep owner and the wife of the bus driver, injured in the crash, is barely hanging on. Will her sympathy for Mercy put her on the wrong end of things when faced with June McAllister’s pressures? And what surprising connections will Hazel discover in an unexpected way?

Mercy Snow: A Novel is a story that shines a spotlight on the long-buried secrets in a small town, along with the hierarchy of power and how those who possess it will struggle to retain it.

The story comes to its conclusion with a surprising reveal, and then fast forwards into the future to unmask how sometimes the sinners can find redemption. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: PLAYING DEAD, BY JULIA HEABERLIN

13147826When Tommie McCloud returns home to Ponder, Texas, it is for her father’s funeral. And sadly, it might as well have been for her mother’s, too, as she is in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, her health deteriorating.

The funeral is scarcely over when her father’s secretary hands her a letter from a stranger. A missive that will change her life in unexpected ways. A letter that makes Tommie question everything she thought she knew about her family and who she is.

Set on finding out the truth behind the secrets and lies of her childhood, Tommie’s journey takes her to Chicago, to various places in the Southwest, and to a bank vault, where more of her mother’s secrets are revealed.

But will any of the questions find answers? What is Tommie’s connection to mafia prisoner Anthony Marchetti? Who really murdered the family of an FBI agent, and what really happened to Tommie’s brother Tuck?

With the help of special friends and a reporter, Tommie tries to sort through the pieces to the puzzle. Happily, her time at home has given her special moments with her younger sister Sadie and her niece Maddie. But when she finds the answers, will her life as she knew it be over?

I enjoyed the settings, the characters, and the continual surprises that kept me from guessing the answers right away. I always love being surprised by who did what and to whom.

Playing Dead: A Novel is a story that engaged me from the very first page and kept me intrigued throughout. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys a good mystery, with all the twists and turns and unexpected surprises that this author so brilliantly provides. Five stars.

UNEXPECTED TRANSFORMATIONS — SEPT. 10

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While studying in Africa, young Jessica Speight, an anthropology student, was struck by the vision of children with “lobster claws,” children whose abnormalities would haunt her. In the midst of these impressionable moments, Jessica would ponder her feelings and wonder if their impact on her was a foreshadowing of things to come.

When she has an affair with her married professor, the consequences would be far-reaching. The child born changed Jess’s academic future, but also took her into a whole new kind of life. For the child, Anna, was delightful, with a sunny nature: described as “a pure gold baby.” But what that meant, ultimately, was that Anna was not “normal,” and over the years would display various special needs, changing family life for Jess and Anna. There would be private schools and boarding schools. There would be an enhanced connection between Jess and Anna, a symbiotic connection, if you will.

Jess and Anna’s story is told by another parent with whom the two have a friendship. Someone who is almost like part of their extended family; someone who narrates in what seems to be a “plural” voice, as if there are several storytellers. There is a sense of an extra layer between the storyteller and Jess: a slight detachment. Almost an omniscience about the narration. It also has an essence of being told after the fact, which also places distance between the narration and the characters.

Sometimes I had difficulty engaging with The Pure Gold Baby, as the narrator would shift onto her own issues, while remaining in the first person voice she used when talking about Jess and Anna. I would then lose focus and have to reread several paragraphs to find my way again. The story also felt repetitive and weighed down with historic details and issues that were important, but didn’t require repeating. All of these elements lent a tedium to the tale.

Overall, the story, which spanned several decades, from 1960s London to the 21st Century, revealed how one promising young academic lost her way in her initial journey, and found another one. Her almost complete focus on Anna might have been her only way to absorb herself in this new life. In the end, she takes a trip back to Africa with Anna and some friends, hoping to find something obviously missing, or to remember what was. And realizes that nothing is as it seems, even though she has come full circle. 3.5 stars.

THE LONG JOURNEY HOME: A STORY OF CONNECTIONS — A REVIEW

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In the opening pages of Don’t Let Me Go: A Novel, the reader is gifted with visual images of the lovely New Zealand world of Te Puna in which Charlotte Nicholls and her charge Chloe (formerly Ottilie) are now residing. They are surrounded by the sea, beaches, and a lovely main house, in which reside Charlotte’s birth mother Anna and her husband Bob.

Charlotte and Chloe live in the little guest house called the “bach,” named so for its former use as a bachelor pad for Bob’s son Rick.

But what we don’t immediately see in the beginning is that once upon a time, Charlotte was a child whose mother’s husband killed his son, her father, and others in a massacre, and that she, Charlotte, was rescued and adopted by a rector and his wife. It would be many years before the whole story, told in the previous book No Child of Mine, would unfold.

These events may have informed later developments in Charlotte’s life, when as a social worker named Alex Lake, she took on the case of Ottilie Wade, whose abusive father would elude the system until one tragic night.

How they came to be living in New Zealand forms the basis for this story, and the ending for the previous one. But the idyllic days for Charlotte and Chloe are about to end…and in the months to follow, a nightmare will be unleashed.

How are Charlotte and Chloe discovered? What happens next, and how many further travesties must unfurl upon the fragile Chloe before the story ends?

Not to risk spoilers, let’s just say that you won’t want to put this book down, no matter how lengthy it is, as you will need to read every unexpected twist and turn along the journey. There is plenty of legal drama, clamoring press, and hate mail. Can this story have a happy ending? And, if so, how will it all come about? Meanwhile, many characters fill the pages, as the two worlds of New Zealand and England come together in the long journey toward the final denouement.

As a retired social worker, I am all too familiar with the challenges presented in the child protection system, and thoroughly understand the frustrations faced by the social worker in this story. While I would not have done what she did, I can certainly understand the driving force behind her actions. A five star read.


LOST CONNECTIONS & FINDING NEW ONES — A REVIEW

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Dear Libby, It occurs to me that you and your two children have been living with your mother for–Dear Lord!–two whole years, and I’m writing to see if you’d like to be rescued.

 

The letter comes out of the blue, and just in time for Libby Moran, who–after the sudden death of her husband, Danny–went to stay with her hypercritical mother. Now her crazy Aunt Jean has offered Libby an escape: a job and a place to live on her farm in the Texas Hill Country. Before she can talk herself out of it, Libby is packing the minivan, grabbing the kids, and hitting the road.

Life on Aunt Jean’s goat farm is both more wonderful and more mysterious than Libby could have imagined. Beyond the animals and the strenuous work, there is quiet–deep, country quiet. But there is also a shaggy, gruff (though purportedly handsome, under all that hair) farm manager with a tragic home life, a formerly famous feed-store clerk who claims she can contact Danny “on the other side,” and the eccentric aunt Libby never really knew but who turns out to be exactly what she’s been looking for. And despite everything she’s lost, Libby soon realizes how much more she’s found. She hasn’t just traded one kind of crazy for another: She may actually have found the place to bring her little family–and herself–back to life.

And so begins the wonderful tale of how losing one kind of life can lead to finding something unexpectedly wonderful. Narrated in Libby’s first person voice, the reader is gifted with wonderful word pictures of the country setting and the simple folks who take nothing for granted. Who knew that the quiet country life would hold such sweetness, mixed in with all the hard work? And even though Aunt Jean’s house doesn’t even have a TV, and the smallness of the community takes some adjusting, Libby is finally carving out some wonderful connections here.

But what is the root of the antagonism between Aunt Jean and Libby’s mother Marsha? What daunting secret can explain a decades-long rift that has carved a groove into Aunt Jean’s normally-serene persona? And what about O’Connor, that shaggy man who seems attracted to Libby, but does nothing about it?

The Lost Husband: A Novel reminds us that losing people and one kind of life doesn’t mean that you can’t find something else. And that accepting that loss isn’t a betrayal, but, in a way, a tribute to the lost one.

I like this excerpt (in Libby’s voice):

“And then I realized something: I would always miss Danny. No matter how full my life became, there would always be a hole where his living presence had been. But the truth was, I was already better. And not despite that hole–but because of it. His loss was now a part of the story of my life….”

I enjoyed this story, despite it’s predictability at times, and maybe because of it, too. Who doesn’t love a feel-good ending to a beautifully wrought story? Four stars.

UNDER SIEGE: ONE WOMAN’S ESCAPE FROM TYRANNY — A REVIEW

51Gsiraa28LTyranny takes many forms, from the restrictions of freedom imposed by governments to the familial constraints that markedly prevent an individual’s personal growth.

 
Growing up in post-war Germany, the author shows the reader what her world looked like, both at home and on the larger canvas that was her life within Berlin after the building of the Wall.

 
Walled-In reveals much about the young woman’s pursuit of individual freedom, and as I read about her personal struggles and the family dynamics, much of it tolled a familiar bell for me.

 
Our lives did not mirror one another’s, since I grew up in the US and did not face the governmental restrictions that dictated her life; however, the era in which we were each born was very similar and the family dynamics I experienced echoed hers.  I could totally relate to her feelings and rooted for her escape.

 
My escape was made simpler by the governmental freedoms I enjoyed, but freedom from any tyranny can feel just as exhilarating, no matter how different the cage may be.

 
Other aspects of the story were wonderfully drawn, from the historical context in which she grew to the world at large that offered opportunities for change.  This was a beautifully told story that is even more inspirational because of the parallels between Berlin under siege and the uncompromising world of family.  Five stars.

THE NOT SO EMPTY NEST: FAMILY CONNECTIONS GONE AWRY — A REVIEW

15799339Weezy Coffey was labeled the “smart one,” while growing up; her sister Maureen, on the other hand, was the “pretty one,” who would “marry well.” Did these labels define their lives? Weezy (Louise) tended to do the opposite of what her parents decreed, so in a sense, perhaps they did.

Now she is the matriarch of a family comprised of three grown children, partnered with Will, who is a kind man and a good father. It seems she did marry well, after all, while Maureen was divorced early and raised her children alone.

The story begins with Claire, the middle “child,” late twenties, living in New York. Her world has imploded. Despite the fact that she, the “smart one,” has a good education and a good job.  She is drowning in credit card debt and expecting eviction any day. Partially because her boyfriend, who shared the apartment and the rent, broke up with her and moved out, cancelling their wedding. She spends weekends holed up in her apartment like a hermit.

Martha, the oldest, still lives at home with her parents. A year older than Claire, she is obsessed with worrying and stresses about almost everything.

Max, the youngest, seems to be age-appropriate and is soon to graduate college. His gorgeous girlfriend Cleo, however, is a mystery to the family. When she joins them all at the shore, she confidently displays her body on every occasion imaginable by wearing her bikini…all the time! Even at dinner.

This mix of characters kept me turning pages as I read their stories from their perspectives throughout The Smart One. Whenever I was ready to dislike one of them, as I saw them from another’s eyes, I soon felt some sympathy for them when I read their point of view.

When the three adult children, along with Cleo, find themselves living in the family home in a suburb outside of Philadelphia, all at the same time, chaos will ensue. Will Weezy’s well-ordered world turn itself into an uncontrollable mess? Why do the two oldest “girls” suddenly morph into teenagers, whining and screaming? How does Weezy suddenly find herself trying to control every thought and feeling that they have? And why does she feel the need to coddle Martha, spotlighting every minor achievement as if it were something remarkable?

While I could see all kinds of ways Weezy could have handled the situation better, I could also relate to having that almost empty nest turn into madness, having had my share of “returning” adult children over the years.

Eventually, some resolutions were reached, but not through anything particularly insightful done by any of the characters. Living rent-free helped with credit card debt, but none of them actually seemed to have made any real changes. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and couldn’t wait to see what would happen. Four stars.

BRIEFLY SPARKING THE CONNECTIONS IN LIFE’S JOURNEY — A REVIEW

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Set in Fulton, NC, Life After Life: A Novel explores the precarious lines between life and death. The reader follows the interior journey of various characters, with each chapter narrated by someone different.

Joanna is a hospice volunteer, but her own life has been quirky and free-spirited. Described as someone who has been married numerous times, we also see that there is much more to this woman than what is on the surface. At a time when she almost took her own life, she met Luke. Someone she credits with her new lease on life and her new purpose. When she goes home to Fulton, as her father is dying, she begins her hospice work and shares the experiences of the dying, as well as those who are living in the higher level of care at the facility. She practices a concept passed to her from Luke that he called “unpacking the heart.” A process of closing one’s eyes and setting aside everything taking up space in the heart—grievances, relationships, and projects—and putting them out on a make-believe lawn, leaving the heart free and clean.

Another philosophical mantra for Joanna is that “the longest and most expensive journey you will ever take is the one to yourself.”

In some of the narrative entries, we travel with the characters that include Sadie, Rachel, C. J., Stanley, and others…while they traverse the journey that formed their individual lives at a time when there is more of their life behind them than ahead of them. I could connect to these characters, to the losses, the regrets, and the hopes and dreams that remain.

Also among the characters is a child called Abby, whose father is an old friend of Joanna’s. This child is a frequent visitor to Sadie, the woman who believes in reframing one’s life by cutting out the parts of reality that don’t work for us. She seems like a mentor for the child. In many ways, though, the child did not seem to fit among the other characters. Perhaps her purpose was to show the life continuum, from young to old.

Disjointed at times, the story was also hard to follow in the beginning, as only tidbits were revealed about each character. It took awhile to see the connections between them. The narratives of Joanna and Rachel were the most meaningful to me and made the story better. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy posing philosophical questions and pondering life and death issues. For me this book earned 3.5 stars.

MEMORABLE CHARACTERS & BEAUTIFUL PROSE — A REVIEW

8136642“Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, in Jeannette Walls’s magnificent, true-life novel based on her no-nonsense, resourceful, hard working, and spectacularly compelling grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town—riding five hundred miles on her pony, all alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car (“I loved cars even more than I loved horses. They didn’t need to be fed if they weren’t working, and they didn’t leave big piles of manure all over the place”) and fly a plane, and, with her husband, ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one of whom is Jeannette’s memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in Glass Castle.

From the very first page of Half Broke Horses, I was hooked. Lily Casey’s first person narrative brought me right into the midst of her world: a world that started in West Texas, but would lead her to numerous places, from Arizona to Chicago and back to Arizona, with a few jogs along the way. Through her eyes I saw the gorgeous, yet sometimes brutal Southwest, from a new perspective. I could admire her energy as she trained those “half broke horses” that occasionally came along. And her determination to earn her education in spite of the odds against her.

Some might describe her as stubborn, while others can see that she had the stamina necessary for the life she had chosen. A life thrust upon her by birth and family, but one to which she returned after deciding that “city life” was not for her.

Her persistence in showing her children the life lessons she wanted them to learn had the opposite effect on her daughter Rosemary (the author’s mother). Rosemary preferred living life for the moment, since the future was not something one could count on. I liked this excerpt that shows us the companionship between Lily and her husband Jim, and their philosophy, too, as they watch their daughter after her wedding to Rex Walls:

“Jim put his arm around me and we watched them take off up the street, heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses.”

The author describes that she gleaned the facts of the story from those she interviewed, but that she recalls her grandmother’s distinctive voice: a wonderful detail she has brought to the reader as she tells the story. A story that I won’t forget…and to which I offer five stars.