LaRose

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Louise Erdrich is a gifted writer who brings life to stories, particularly stories about Native Americans. Her novel, The Round House, was one of the best recent novels I read, so I was excited when LaRose was available through my local library.

The writing was exceptional as always, but the story moved slowly for me. I have also been struggling to find time to read, so that was probably a factor as well.

LaRose is the youngest child of Landreaux and Emmaline Iron. After Landreaux accidentally kills a neighbor’s son LaRose becomes the who becomes the peace offering. Peter and Nola Ravich are devastated by the death of their son, Dusty, and out of desperation accept LaRose. LaRose then becomes the healer, which he has actually been destined to do as one of a long line of LaRoses endowed with power and spiritual qualities. LaRose becomes the protector of Nola who is suicidal after her son’s death, he becomes the bridge between his new “sister” Maggie and her parents and he remains the little brother in his own biological family, splitting time between the Iron and Ravich homes.

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There are many other characters who you learn about throughout the novel, but it is the generations of LaRoses that are the most interesting and compelling.

In some of the other reviews, it was noted that the novel is set in 1999. I didn’t really notice when it was set. I knew it was in “modern times,” but the story isn’t tied to a year or a time period.

If you like Louise Erdich, I think you will like LaRose, however if you are new to her, I would recommend Round House.

Note: I finished this book on March 20th. I was just a little slow in finishing and posting my review.

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I’ll be Gone in the Dark

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It looks like I started, but never finished my review for I’ll be Gone in the Dark. It turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2018, so I figured it needed to get it’s due!

I’ll be Gone in the Dark is the compelling non-fiction, true crime account of a man who terrorized Northern California through the 70s and 80s raping and murdering in a rambling pattern across the region. It is also the story of a woman so focused on getting to the truth that she puts her own self-care on the back-burner and dies from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

What struck me as I read I’ll be Gone in the Dark was what a great writer Michelle McNamara was and what a loss her death really was. I was hopeful that she would know that the man she called the Golden State Killer was eventually caught and that she would see her passion and determination pay off.

Sadly, that wasn’t the outcome, but the book was so well structured and informative, that in the end the ending of the novel was less important than the process of tracking down this serial rapist and murderer.

If you like true crime or mystery, especially a well-written account this would be a great book for you!

Once Upon a River

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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is on my list of All Time Favorite Books, so I was thrilled when I saw that she had published a new novel.

Once Upon A River is a story about a small community along a river. But not just any river, the Thames.

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One cold winter evening at the Swan, an ancient inn known for its storytelling, the door swings open to reveal a severely injured man, carrying a dead little girl. However, the little girl turns out to not be dead when the local nurse/midwife, Rita, checks on her after attending to the injured man.

Thus begins an enchanting story of this not-dead little girl and the question of who she is.

Two families, the Vaughns and the Armstrongs – come to claim her. The Vaughn’s daughter, Amelia, was kidnapped several years earlier and Mrs. Vaughn is desperate to claim this little girl as her lost daughter. The wayward eldest Armstrong son fathered a little girl named Alice, but hasn’t seen her in over a year. Her mother is found dead and Alice is missing and the Armstrongs want to do the right thing for this little girl. There is also a woman, Lucy, who believes the little girl is her sister, Ann, but is dismissed because her sister would no longer be a little girl.

Once Upon a River is part historical fiction, part supernatural tale. But what resonated most with me was that underlying it all it was the story of what happens when people experience loss and trauma and how they try to adapt.

At one point, Mr. Vaughn visits Mrs. Constantine, a woman who it is told can help resolve issues – which he thinks of as mumbo jumbo and sorcery. But later, he goes back to her and talks about the loss of his daughter and realizes that is not all smoke and mirrors and trickery, but that in the telling of his story he feels relief.

Mrs. Constantine responds, “death and memory are meant to work together. Sometimes something gets stuck and then people need a guide or companion in grief.” Mrs. Constantine and her husband had been in America studying a “new science” – the science of human emotion (she’s a therapist!).

In the end, the negative forces at work in the kidnapping of Amelia, the death of Alice’s mother and what happened to Ann and Lucy are explained and it appears that the stories of the supernatural were inflated. However, there is still the question of who this little girl was and what exactly happened to her.

There were several characters in this novel that I loved and that I would love to visit again. I particularly enjoy how Setterfield reveals each character’s backstory slowly and deliberately. She also expertly creates the river as the largest character of the novel. So while I didn’t initially feel as enthusiastic about this novel as I did the Thirteenth Tale, in the end I think it was just as good.

Then Came Darkness

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I had the opportunity to read Then Came Darkness by D. H. Schleicher before it was published and since I am the author’s wife, I encouraged the publication.

If you worry that my review will somehow be tainted because of my personal relationship with the author, rest assured that I am probably more critical than most reviewers, and wives for that matter.

Then Came Darkness is set in Upstate NY during the Great Depression on the cusp of World War II. We meet the Kydd family who have been hit by hard times, made worse by the decisions and near constant absence of the father, Samuel. We know before we meet the Kydd children (Edison, Sally and Tyrus) that their father won’t  be returning from his latest absence, as his past finally caught up with him in Richmond, VA.

It was hard not to be mad at Samuel for his poor choices and to roll my eyes at Evelyn’s lack of care for her children. She had an unnamed illness that resulted in seizures, however, it seemed to be more emotional than physical.

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While Evelyn worked sporadically and carried on a relationship with a local doctor and Samuel lay dead down South, the Kydd children suffered through various close (and not so close) calls with accidents and the evil element that was Joshua Bloomfield.

There is a seriousness to the novel, but it is also filled with humorous passages like Sally Kydd’s interaction with the proprietor of a store she visited to get provisions when she and Tyrus were on the run.

Throughout the novel, I felt for Tyrus, the youngest Kydd child, the most. He wanted to do the right thing and was curious and imaginative. However, the circumstances of his life required a toughness and hardness well beyond his years.

In the end, there is a hopefulness when the bad guy gets his due and Sally and Tyrus manage to escape the darkness of rural NY with a chance for happier futures. But we will have to wait for D. H. Schleicher to write the next novel to find out what he has in store for them.



Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was a book I had seen and picked up, but hadn’t purchased. But one afternoon while perusing our local independent bookstore (the wonderful Inkwood Books in Haddonfield, NJ), the bookseller noted that it was different and better than she had expected.

So I took a chance and bought it. I read it relatively quickly and overall it was well written. I don’t know if it is the time of year – the end of daylight savings time meaning earlier darkness and the arrival of the holidays, the first without both of my parents – or my experience as a therapist working with children and adults effected by trauma, but I felt melancholy and worried about Miss Eleanor Oliphant from the very first pages.

It is clear from the start that Eleanor is peculiar and it is equally clear that she has experienced significant trauma in her life. Her co-workers mock her and she has no close friends or family. She lives an isolated life of work, vodka and reading. Until one evening leaving the office with a somewhat awkward but warmhearted new co-worker when everything changes for Eleanor when they help an elderly man who falls ill and needs their help.

As I was reading this novel, I had dreams of people not wanting to sit near me on a subway and people whispering behind me. I think I was dreaming of being Eleanor Oliphant, which likely indicates that this was a well-written character. However, I felt a deep and core level of sadness.

31434883The good news is that on the precipice of a significant depressive episode, Eleanor’s awkward/kind-hearted coworker, now her pal, Raymond, intervenes and Eleanor begins to repair the damage from a traumatic and heartbreaking childhood.

In the end, Eleanor begins to live. Still a bit unique and certainly peculiar, but also with a level of self-awareness that is to be admired.

My overall feedback about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is to be prepared to be saddened, but also touched.

Watching You

I have been a fan of Lisa Jewell’s writing for many years, back when she wrote light-hearted (possibly could be considered Chick Lit) stories about friends in their 20s and 30s in England when I was in my 20s and 30s. So when she started writing mysteries, I was totally on board.

I was given the opportunity to read her newest offering (being published in December) through NetGalley.

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In Watching You, Jewell takes us into the Melville Heights neighborhood in Bristol, England. We know from the start that something has happened, that someone has been murdered or injured, but we don’t know who and I was surprised when my assumption was wrong.

Jewell brings together a quirky cast of characters from Melville Heights around this mystery of who was killed and why. Jewell’s mysteries are not gory and they aren’t police procedurals. They are about normal people having large reactions to things happening in their lives – real and imagined. So she takes time to describe the backstories of the characters and and how their paths crossed other times in the past. Which I personally enjoy.

Overall,  I thought it was an entertaining read.

Anything is Possible

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Another consistent offering from Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible, is a series of interconnected characters from small town Ohio. It seems that everyone has a story and Strout is a master teller of their stories.

There is an underlying level of sadness in all of the stories, as people are misunderstood or make choices that lead to hurt and distance from others in their life – which to me, feels very much like the human condition. 32080126

Strout’s writing is, as always, pure and refined. There were many little nuggets of beautiful prose, but one I marked is “he felt a tiny shudder go through him, as though his soul had a toothache.” Which just encapsulates so much feeling and brings us right there with that character in that moment.

 

 

The Hate U Give

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is categorized as a young adult novel, but honestly this novel feels like one everyone should read.

Starr Carter is a high school student at an elite private school who returns every night to her neighborhood of Garden Heights, which she often calls “the ghetto.” Starr’s ability to navigate between these two worlds is threatened when a childhood friend is killed by the police during a traffic stop.

 

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Starr struggles to make sense of what she thinks is right as she feels pulled between the two opposing views of her two worlds.

Thomas’ writing brings to life Starr’s worlds and the people who make up that world. She brings in issues of race and privilege and of loyalty and honesty.

I would recommend The Hate U Give to pretty much anyone and would highly recommend it to those of us who benefit from white privilege (so, every white person).

The Underground Railroad

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a novel that deals us a heavy story, but with Whitehead’s skilled writing and magical realism elements, it never becomes too heavy that you want to stop reading.

The story focuses on Cora, a slave in Georgia who escapes along with another slave from the perils and maltreatment at the Randall 30555488Plantation. Fast on their heels is Ridgeway, a slave catcher, who carries resentment that he never caught Cora’s mother, Mabel, who escaped years earlier.

Cora and Cesar link up with the Underground Railroad, which in this case is an actual railroad with trains, and begin their journey toward freedom. There are many close calls and recaptures and you wonder if Cora will ever find the freedom she fights so hard for.

Whitehead does an excellent job of keeping the focus on the plight of all African-Americans whether “free” or still enslaved and the tortures and fear that fills their lives. That fear is palpable for Cora as well as those who try to help her and other slaves escape.

Much of what Whitehead writes feels so poignant in today’s political climate and I was particularly struck by this passage: “And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make War. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

Yes, yet here we are.

The Last Ballad

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Wiley Cash’s newest novel, The Last Ballad, like his previous novels, is set in North Carolina. In this story, Cash brings us to Gaston County in the early summer of 1929 where Ella Mae Wiggins becomes involved in unionizing at the local mill in Bessemer City where she works (and is grossly underpaid).

Cash brings the early 20th century to life in the south, parti

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cularly the racial tensions, the differences between the workers and the wealthy mill owners.

We know early on that a tragedy eventually befalls Ella Mae and leaves her four surviving children orphans, but Cash does a masterful job in delaying the revelation of what actually happens.  In the intervening chapters, we get to know more about Ella Mae, her children, her friends in Stumptown and the organizers of the strikes.

Cash based the novel off a real life story and it feels rich in historic accuracy while being a story you want to keep reading because of the characters and strong writing.

Cash uses different voices for different chapters which was sometimes be distracting, but overall, I enjoyed this novel and felt so much of the attitudes and issues were still pertinent today.

Lilli de Jong

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Janet Benton is a local author in Philadelphia and will be appearing at the Collingswood Book Festival in October, so I planned to read her novel, Lilli de Jong, beforehand. Then I read some good reviews of her first novel and received some positive reactions from friends, so it moved up to the top of my TBR pile.

I read it quickly over the past week and would recommend it to most readers and highly recommend it to local readers.

We meet Lilli de Jong in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in the 1880s. She is a devout Quaker and school teacher who is dealing with the recent death of her mother. It might be the grief or just the naiveté of a young woman, but Lilli falls in love with Johan an apprentice of her father’s as a furniture makers. Before Johan (along with her younger brother)  heads off to explore a better life in Pittsburgh and then send for her to join him, they have a night of passion and have sex. That interaction leads to Lilli finding herself pregnant and unmarried in a society that sees all such woman as whores and unworthy of assistance.

Lilli embarks on sev31752152eral months on her own, trying to keep herself and then her baby safe. She has not heard from Johan and assumes she has been duped into sex without any intention to marry her. She is forced to make many dangerous and challenging decisions to keep her baby and many people she encounters encourage her to give the baby up. However, that would likely mean death for her baby as there were little services and options for a “bastard” child.

There were a few times in the novel when I thought, “how much more can this woman endure,” but my interest in the character of Lilli and Benton’s writing kept me going. I don’t want to spoil any of the novel, so I will instead you recommend you pick up a copy and find out for yourself what happens to Lilli de Jong. (Also, if you are in the Philadelphia/Southern NJ area, mark October 7th on your calendar for the Collingswood Book Festival.)