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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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.)

 

A Marriage of A Thousand Lies

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I had high hopes for A Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu as it seemed like a story I would enjoy. The description billed the story as about a Sri Lankan couple, Lucky and Kris, hiding the fact that they are gay by marrying each other but still being able to pursue other relationships.  But this novel wasn’t really about the marriage at all. It was about Lucky who goes to visit her mother and her ill grandmother and then becomes involved (again) with her high school friend who is about to get married. Lucky continually puts herself at risk of being discovered, to the point where I couldn’t decide if it was youthful stupidity or if she wanted a way out of her lie. If the latter was the case, I wanted the author to just get it over with and if it was the former, well, I just thought that made it a weak story. 32077959

There were parts of the novel where the writing flowed eloquently and I could almost forget my other issues with the novel, but the problems were greater than the short passages of eloquence that would have made for a lovely short story. The novel was littered with continuity errors – was it hot or was it cold, it went back and forth and I need to know so that I can imagine the characters in that environment. Lucky and Kris have sex once when she returns home for a short visit and they decide that maybe a baby would be a good idea. Lucky then anxiously awaits her period after returning to her mother’s home. What? Does the author not understand ovulation?

It was these kinds of details that made me frustrated with the novel coupled with never really getting a glimpse of Lucky and Kris’ marriage.

 

 

The Hundred Story Home

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In The Hundred Story Home, Kathy Izard sets out to recount the story of what began as a simple volunteer opportunity with Urban Ministry Center (UMC), but grew until she was helping to create a building to house the formerly homeless. A woman who was a graphic designer, suddenly leading a campaign to build homes for a hundred people, how can that be interesting? But it was truly an interesting and inspiring read.

Izard’s journey to “build beds” began after an encounter with a formerly homeless man, Denver Moore, who came to Charlotte to speak at a fundraiser Izard had organized for UMC. When Moore asked where the beds were after a tour through UMC’s services, Izard felt like it could be the answer to her desire to do good.

Izard is honest about her family’s struggles with her mother’s bipolar disorder, the loss of her father and the eventual need for her mother to move out of their family home. She insightfully reflects on how those experiences affected her particularly her relationship with her mother and as a mother herself.

In reading about the book, I had been apprehensive that it would be overly sentimental and religious, so I was both relieved and happy to find that Izard herself 32027227was skeptical of “god-instances” and feeling called to help. Izard is not a religious person, preferring to volunteer at the soup kitchen with her small daughters rather than dress them up and sit in pews to listen to a pastor tell stories of how one should act in a godly way. It is this desire to act, that leads her to follow the path the question Denver Moore posed to her all the way through creating a building to house the homeless.

I had a personal connection to the story from living in Charlotte around the same time Izard was working on the Moore House and I have to say, I knew nothing about it. But the locations and organizations were familiar. I also related to Izard’s feeling of how separate the worlds are in Charlotte.

A good friend (Ellen) recommended The Hundred Story Home by Kathy Izard to me and I am glad I took her up on the recommendation.  Six years ago, I quit a lucrative career in marketing at a large bank to become a Social Worker/therapist, so Izard’s story about feeling compelled to do something more with her life hit home for me. It also made me think about my impact on my community and if I can do more. So be prepared, you might feel compelled to start volunteering or making other efforts to help those around you.