Magnolia Wednesdays // by Wendy Wax

//published 2010//

Sometimes you end up with books on your shelf that you doubt you are going to enjoy but decide to at least give a chance to, and that’s what happened here.  I figured Magnolia Wednesdays was going to be a dreary novel about women discovering all men are total jerks and then going on to “find themselves.”  Instead, this story had a surprising dose of humor, some very relatable characters, and a story that kept me hooked.  I actually thought this was going to be a 4* read, but the ending fell off a great deal and really annoyed me.

Vivian is a hardcore investigative reporter who has worked very hard to get where she is, and who hasn’t been afraid to knock over people who have gotten in her way.  Some life events occur, and Vivi is forced to accept a job she thinks is ridiculous – she begins “investigating” life in the suburbs, mocking (under a pen name) the everyday life lived there.  Vivi has also been forced to move to the suburbs herself, back home to the south to stay with her widowed sister and the sister’s two teenage children.

I was expecting to really dislike Vivi, but while she did, in fact, do the exact opposite of what I would have done in literally every situation, I still found myself liking her.  She’s a hard worker and very intelligent, and underneath of everything she does care about her family and want to do right by them.  I actually really appreciated her journey of rediscovering a close relationship with her sister, building ties in the community, and bonding with her niece and nephew.  Her articles making fun of the lives of the people around her are definitely mean-spirited, and I felt like she wrestled with her guilt very well.  In my mind, I kept wondering why she couldn’t gradually change the tone of them – the whole idea is she is someone who is living in “foreign” territory – wouldn’t it be natural for her to begin to appreciate the ways of her new community, and to share that aspect with her readers?  But instead she keeps writing very mean, mocking articles even when that’s no longer how she truly feels about the people around her.

One of the big things Vivi finds out early on is that she’s pregnant.  Her boyfriend of several years is also an investigative reporter, but one who works in foreign correspondence and is often out of the country for months on end chasing a story in dangerous, war-torn areas.  Vivi not telling him about their baby genuinely made me angry (I’m always angry when people act like mothers are the only ones who get to make any decisions about unborn babies, as though fathers don’t count until the child is born), but I appreciated that she at least felt like a horrible person about it (AS SHE SHOULD), and that whole story was resolved extremely well.

In the end, things of course blow up in Vivi’s face when her identity as the writer of the mean articles is revealed.  That was to be expected, but what I didn’t expect, and what dropped my enjoyment of this story a literal full star, was the way Vivi’s sister blamed her for EVERYTHING that went wrong.  A bunch of stuff happens all at one time, all of it bad, and somehow Vivian gets the full weight of blame for a big reveal about her sister’s dead husband, another friend’s husband having a heart attack, and one character deciding to postpone her wedding (for good reasons!).  This felt completely unreasonable and instead of me feeling sympathetic towards Vivian’s sister, who truly should have felt betrayed about the articles, I just felt super annoyed with her because she was pouting like a small child because Vivian happened to be standing near her niece when the NIECE put together the pieces and realized the big reveal about her dad/Vivian’s sister’s dead husband.

Still, overall I found this book to be surprisingly readable.  There was a large dose of humor, and the stories of the different women throughout were told well and woven together nicely.  This isn’t a book I’ll read again, but it’s one that I enjoyed as a one-off read, even while it reminded me why I’m not a huge fan of women’s fiction.

November Minireviews

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Most of these books were from the very beginning of October, so the details may be getting hazy…

The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross – 3*

//published 2019//

Look at this gorgeous cover!  How can anyone resist this cover??  This book had some potential, but the pacing was sooo slow.  I also felt like the actual reason/purpose behind the Beast’s curse was rather muddled and not explained particularly well, so it made it difficult to bond with the tale.  There were a lot of aspects of the story that I enjoyed, but it definitely wasn’t one that leaped onto my bookshelf forever.

Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson – 4*

//published 2017//

I really do like Swanson’s writing.  The pacing here was excellent, especially in regards as to when to switch perspectives/introduce a new perspective.  Anytime a story is based on someone else being in your house when you are there, but you don’t know they are there, I’m completely creeped out.  (Yay small houses with multiple dogs; someone would be hard-pressed to hide in here haha)  Even though the police didn’t get the whole story, the reader does, and that’s what counts to me.  I also liked the little hint of a happy ending, because I’m a happy ending kind of girl.  This may have been my favorite Swanson yet.

Double Folly by Marnie Ellingson – 4*

//published 1980//

Years ago I purchased a book by Ellingson at a thrift store (The Wicked Marquis), which I absolutely loved.  Not so long ago it occurred to me that, with the power of the internet, I could probably find some of her other books, and this is one of them.  It was quite the adorable story, and I enjoyed every page.  I will say that at one point the hero was in a carriage accident, and it felt like the heroine’s feelings underwent too much of a change to quickly, but other than that the story hummed right along in a delightful fashion.  It’s one of those little stories that is just plain good fun, although it’s possible that Ellingson lifted part of her plot concept from Georgette Heyer’s False Colours

Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid – 3*

//published 2013//

I got this one for free on Kindle and thought I would give it a try.  While it was an alright contemporary romance, Janie annoyed me SO. MUCH. Like, I get it.  She babbles when she’s nervous.  It was bad enough to have to hear what she said out loud; having to listen to all of her babbling thoughts was even worse.  This book would have benefited a LOT from having Quinn’s perspective as well, because his actions really did seem inconsistent a lot, so if we had known his thoughts, it would have helped the story a great deal.  As it was, this was a fine one-off read, but it definitely didn’t inspire me to finish the series.  I was also expecting there to be a lot more about the knitting club, but they only appear a couple of times and don’t really become individual characters, so I didn’t care enough to read other books and find out about their stories.

Your Perfect Year by Charlotte Lucas – 2*

//published 2016//

This was a classic case of the book not being what I expected.  The synopsis definitely makes this sound like a lighthearted, romcom type of story.  Jonathon is a super rigid, scheduled, Scrooge-ish kind of person.  On New Year’s Day he comes back from his morning run to find an appointment diary hanging on the handlebars of his bicycle.  Inside, every day has been already filled in with assignments, and all of those assignments are about embracing and enjoying life.  According to the synopsis, Jonathon begins to follow the directions, which change his life, and throughout the course of that he falls in love with the author of the diary.  That’s all technically true, but instead of it being lighthearted and fun, it’s quite serious, verging on sad.  The suicide of one of the characters plays a major part in the plot, as does the residual grief and guilt of the people left behind.  One character has terminal cancer, another discovers that the death of a loved one was due in part to a letter he wrote.  All in all this just wasn’t a book for me.  It wasn’t a bad story, but it was definitely a downer.  Consequently, the romance part didn’t feel like it fit into the rest of the story at all.  Having Jonathon fall in love with the diary’s owner was weird instead of fun because of everything going on in Hannah’s life.  I kept waiting for the tone of the story to go up instead of down, and it just never did.  I was already feeling a little depressed when I started this one, and I felt even more depressed when I was done, despite the technically “happy” ending.

In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip – 3.5*

//published 2003//

I’ve found McKillip’s books to be a mixed bag of magical, bizarre, and mysterious.  This was the type of story where I didn’t quite “get” everything, yet still found it enjoyable.  As always, her language is lovely and world-building excellent.  I would have liked to have seen some more character depth, but overall this was still a book I liked reading.

The Rosemary Tree // by Elizabeth Goudge

//published 1956//

I’m not sure how Goudge manages to make writing about everyday life, with virtually no drama, so entirely engrossing.  While The Rosemary Tree was not as thoroughly engaging as The Scent of Water (which remains one of the most magical books I have ever read), I was still completely drawn into the lives of the small group of people at the center of its story.

This is the story of a vicar named John, his wife Daphne, and their three little girls.  It is the story of John’s old nanny Harriet, and of John’s great aunt Maria, who still lives on the old estate and trying desperately to hold it together.  It is the story of Michael, a middle-aged man once full of promise but now learning to face his mistakes.  It is the story of a young Irish woman named Mary who teaches at a local school, and her coworker – an older and depressed woman – and the woman they work for: even older, and possibly even evil.  It’s the story of an elderly pig-keeper, of a monk, of the way different places make us feel.  It is a story of many strands of life coming together, of the way that life patterns weave us together, and of the great contentment that can come from understanding and accepting your place in it.  It is, in fact, a story of rosemary – of remembrance.

Like most of Goudge’s works, it is a gently religious story.  But Goudge’s characters rarely come to God quietly.  Instead, in a very human and realistic way, they rail against an all-powerful Being who doesn’t seem to greatly care about what is happening here. The honesty and poignancy of what Goudge has to say consistently blows my mind.  Everyone’s journey is different, and this isn’t the type of story where everyone comes to God and suddenly all their problems are miraculously cured.  Goudge has a knack for writing about human character, and our view of God, like no one else I’ve ever read.  She does it in such a way that I don’t hesitate to recommend her books to even those who are ambivalent towards religion – while religion is an important part of what she is writing, it never feels as though she is trying to convict or convert her readers.

Despite the fact that I should find Goudge’s writing quite boring – truly, nothing really happens in this book! – I could barely put it down.  I fell in love with every character in this book.  The story covers a few days where several lives intersect and impact one another, and it is done with an artist’s touch.  I even felt empathy and sorrow for the bad ones.  Goudge’s writing is such that characters I would despise in other stories – or real life! – somehow become more pitiful than anything, as the complete emptiness and pointlessness of their actions is revealed.

While I don’t feel the desperate urge to get this book into the hands of literally everyone, as I still do with The Scent of Water, this is still a worthwhile book.  Like Water, it is somehow refreshing and uplifting without being preachy.  Goudge is another author whose books I am slowly trying to find and read, and I’m happy to add this one to my permanent collection as I definitely see myself returning to it someday.

Eagle & Crane // by Suzanne Rindell

//published 2018//

It’s been several days since I finished this superb novel, but the characters and writing are still circulating through my mind.  Rindell creates such an incredible sense of time and place that I was completely drawn into the story in a way that I rarely am with historical novels.

The story begins with a federal agent in California in 1943.  An elderly Japanese man and his adult son have escaped from the prison camp, and Agent Bonner is visiting their old home to see if he can find any trace of them.  Within that first chapter, while Bonner is talking with the current owner of the Yamada’s home, a plane falls from the sky and erupts into flames.  From the wreckage two bodies are pulled out – presumably both of the Yamada men.  Yet Bonner feels that there is more to the story, and he decides to stick around town and see what he can find…

Meanwhile, Rindell begins to take us back in time, through the 1930’s, giving us background on the Yamadas, on the young man who currently owns their farm (Louis Thorn), and on their complicated relationship involving a family feud, cultural and financial differences, a love for airplanes, partnership in an aerial stunt show, and a young woman whom they both loved.

The majority of the chapters are the backstory, because the backstory is the main story, but Rindell jumps forward to Agent Bonner’s activities just frequently enough to keep us abreast of his investigation.  She also does an excellent job of giving us enough information so that every time we joined Agent Bonner, I had a different theory for what really happened in the horrific airplane accident.

Quite a while back I was doing a lot of reading about World War II and was on the lookout for stories set in and around the American Japanese community/Japanese concentration camps in America.  It’s a truly horrific time in our country’s history, and consequently one that is frequently glossed over during WWII studies.  One book that I read at that time was China Dolls, which is set in California in the 1930’s.  One of the characters is actually Japanese, and I was hoping that the book would give me some insight into the setting.  Unfortunately, while an alright story, China Dolls lacked any true sense of culture or place.  It felt like a story that could have been set in any time period, about girls from any culture.

Thankfully, Rindell’s book was everything I had hoped China Dolls would be, and more.  It’s an incredibly engaging story written about characters who feel like real people.  I was completely caught up in the story of Louis Thorn, Harry Yamada, and Ava Brooks.  I was afraid that the story was going to devolve into a desperate love triangle, but Rindell balances that part of the story incredibly well, making the relationships between the three believable, giving weight and motive to different actions by the three characters.  I personally fell in love with all of them.  Quiet, thoughtful, poor, hardworking Louis, who struggles between his loyalty to his family and what he personally is beginning to believe is right.  Intelligent, dashing, adventurous Harry, who is keen enough to see the writing on the wall and recognize how often he is going to be judged harshly because of his race, but doesn’t let the bitterness control him. Independent, clever, crafty Ava, who decides what she wants and isn’t afraid to pursue it.

The secondary characters are also drawn well.  For me, one of the ways to determine that is whether I’m surprised or confused by a secondary character’s actions or not – that is, is this character consistent, or does the author just manipulate them into doing whatever needs to happen in any given scene?  In this story, I felt that all those characters were drawn well – the pilots, Ava’s stepfather and her mother, Harry’s family, Louis’s family, Agent Bonner, his landlady, even the sheriff and his deputy – if a person in this book had a name, that person also had enough individualism to be their own character that I could describe.

Pacing in this story is spot-on.  While I wouldn’t really call it a mystery or a thriller, there is just enough fog around what really happened in the plane wreck to keep me wondering, even as I watched the complicated ties between the characters develop. Rindell does a truly excellent job at looking at the racism surrounding the American Japanese community, and studying that incredibly strong urge that we all have to find a scapegoat to blame for all our troubles – and it’s especially convenient if that scapegoat looks and acts nothing like ourselves.  Parts of this book were consequently genuinely tragic, but I never felt like Rindell was pulling emotional punches just for the sake of making a scene.  The tragedies that occurred felt (sadly) inevitable, even while I kept desperately hoping they would turn out differently.

All in all, 4.5* for Eagle & Crane, and I highly recommend it if you enjoy historical novels, or if you are just looking for a truly fantastic story with realistic characters.  I haven’t read any of Rindell’s other books yet, but if they are anywhere close to being as strong as this one, I am definitely looking forward to it.  This particular book was brought to by attention by FictionFan’s excellent review – as usual, she is far more coherent than I am! – so be sure to check it out.

Ana of California // by Andie Teran

//published 2015//

I still randomly subscribe to book boxes when I have a little spare cash (it’s an addiction).  They pretty consistently send books I wouldn’t necessarily pick up on my own, and sometimes they even end up being books that I enjoy.  I wasn’t too sure about Ana since the synopsis said that it was a book in “the tradition of Anne of Green Gables.”  Sometimes there are books in your life that you are so emotionally bound to that you know it’s kind of unreasonable, but there you are.  AGG is of those books for me, and I have seen other interpretations of it that do that wonderful story and its perfect characters a huge disservice.  So I was nervous about Ana.

And in the end though – I was pleasantly surprised, as this story ended up being a 4* read for me.

Ana is set in modern-day California.  Ana is an orphan being shuttled around the foster care system who is just about out of options.  At 15, Ana is one of those people who wants to get things right, but never can quite seem to.  Horrified at the prospect of returning to a group home, Ana accepts an opportunity to live an work on a farm.

Abbie and Emmett, brother and sister, have run their family farm together for years.  Abbie is convinced that having a younger person around the farm will help with the work and with the overall spirit of the place, which is a little down since Emmett’s wife left him the year before.  However, she neglects to tell Emmett that the orphan heading their way is actually a girl.  Prejudiced against Ana when she arrives, Emmett says that she is on a month trial.

There were a lot of things to like about this book.  First off, if you’ve never read Anne of Green Gables (I hope that isn’t true), it would have no impact on the reading of this story, which is completely its own thing (in a good way).  But if you HAVE read the classic, it was fun to see where Teran had borrowed concepts and given them her own twist without getting out of hand.  For instance, having Abbie be the one who immediately loves Ana and wants her to stay while Emmett is the grumpy one, felt natural and fun.  The whole thing where Anne accidentally gets Diana drunk had its own updated version here that still felt believable and moved the story forward.

Ana herself was a very sympathetic character.  Struggling to do the right thing but so often accidentally making the wrong choice, there were also a lot of moments where she did do the right thing, but the prejudices against her painted the incidents in a bad light.  It was a good reminder that the people around us frequently are struggling with things of which we are unaware, and being slow to judge is a good thing.

Overall, I felt like Teran did a decent job modernizing this story.  Some aspects of Ana’s past are much darker than Anne’s, but for the most part it was handled pretty deftly.  I appreciated a YA story that didn’t revolve around sex, too.

Places where this book really falls down as an AGG parallel are with some of the other characters.  Diana’s replacement, Rye, was incredibly annoying – she spent all of her time whining about how she hated her small-town life, being jealous of the fact that Ana lived in LA (hello??  She’s a penniless orphan??  While you have two incredibly loving and supportive parents?!), refusing to forgive her ex-best friend despite repeated apologies for what he did, and lying about Ana not once, but TWICE to get herself out of trouble!  Rye’s character really brought down the overall tone of the book for me, even setting aside the fact that she is nothing like the sweet, kind, innocent Diana from the original – on her own, Rye is still obnoxious.  

There were other places where the story stuttered.  Sometimes, the third person narration would give me some background on characters and situations that Ana still didn’t know about, or would jump to what another person (usually Abbie) was thinking/feeling.  This was a little confusing and distracted from the flow of the story.  Also connected, although a bit of a personal preference, but having two main characters whose names start with the same letter is always a little confusing to me, I think because I’m a very fast reader.  Sometimes I would have to go back to the beginning of the paragraph to remind myself if these feelings belonged to Abbie or Ana.

It also felt like some things were just kind of skimmed over, so I still had a lot of questions about some of the different characters.  I really thought this book could have been longer and more fleshed out.

With my midwestern farming mindset, I couldn’t quite get my head around the farm where Ana was living.  Is this really what farms look like in northern California?  Just like… tons of random crops all going at the same time, all of which have to be hand-picked (we tend towards acres and acres of one crop around here)?  I also wasn’t convinced that Abbie, on her own, was somehow doing all of this cooking/food preservation, especially in her home kitchen.  But, you know, maybe they do things differently in California…

I wanted this book to last a little longer, because the ending felt somewhat rushed.  It’s no shock to the reader that Ana is going to stay with Abbie and Emmett as her forever home, so it would have been nice to spend a little more time with that part of the story.  I would totally read a sequel to this story.

One of the things about AGG that I love is the sense of hope throughout the story.  While Anne has some dark times, she is always optimistic and working to become a better person.  Throughout the story, Anne never really gives into despair, although she may have reason to, and although there are some characters that are easier to dislike, there isn’t anyone truly mean-spirited or evil.  Some adaptations of AGG that I have seen/read fail to capture that spirit, turning the story into something much darker and more depressing in tone (I’m looking at you, Anne With an E).  All that to say, I think that the real reason that I enjoyed Ana of California was that Teran stuck with the vibe of the original, allowing Ana to come through the dark times of her life a stronger, better person, still looking for the good in other people, still willing to trust, still trying to be open and accepting, despite the betrayals of her past.

Ana stands on its own as an enjoyable story, but even more rare, I felt that it did give homage to the spirit of Anne of Green Gables as well.

A Drop in the Ocean // by Jenni Ogden

I’m positive I read about this book on someone’s blog, but I’m not sure who…

//published 2016//

So this is my second book I’ve read recently set in Australia, and both books had a main character named Tom.  Are there a lot of Toms in Australia??  Also my husband’s name is Tom, so it always feels weird to read about another one…

Anyway.  This book is actually mostly about a research scientist named Anna, who narrates the story.  On her 49th birthday, Anna finds out that the funding for her long-term research project on Huntington’s disease has been discontinued, and she is now unemployed and not sure what she is going to do next.  Through a series of events she ends up renting a (very) small house on a (very) small island off the coast of Australia – a completely different experience from her apartment life in Boston.

I think I was hoping that this story would just be about Anna’s life on the island and getting to know people and whatnot, and at some level it was.  But on the island Anna meets Tom, who is also a scientist.  His work is studying sea turtles.  Anna falls in love with Tom, but even though he does become her lover, there isn’t really a sense of permanence about the relationship.  Anna is only staying on the island for a year, and there is a sort of big question mark as to what is going to happen to them when her time there is done.  It felt like way too much of this story was about Anna and her feelings towards Tom, which was disappointing to me, because the feelings weren’t particularly interesting, and felt somewhat weird considering Anna’s age – so much of her internal dialogue felt way more YA than mature adult.  Not that adults can’t have fluttery, romantic feelings, but Anna’s uncertainty and self-consciousness and jealousy just didn’t always feel like they fit her age.

There is an ongoing theme with Huntington’s disease, and as I have had a cousin (only two months older than me) pass away from complications of early-onset Huntington’s, and since his sister is also positive and beginning to show symptoms, I do have some personal connection, even if it isn’t super close.  While I felt like Ogden handled the disease aspect sensitively, it was pretty obvious that she is very much pro-assisted-suicide, a position that I cannot remotely condone.  While the book wasn’t necessarily polemic, it did venture that direction at times, and the reader is definitely only given one very specific position on a topic that to me has way, way more complications than Ogden’s simplified “this is just a nice way to make sure people don’t have to suffer if they don’t want to” explanation.  (It was also frustrating that Ogden only gave people two options: long, drawn-out misery and suffering or a quick, painless, basically pleasant death.  Especially after reading a book about hospice last winter, and after watching multiple relatives work through varying stages of cancer, I cannot possibly agree that killing oneself is the only “good” option…)  I was just really, really uncomfortable with the way Ogden consistently presented assisted suicide as a 100% great choice, and people who opposed it as being close-minded and unable to really understand the situation.  Of course, I always get aggravated when people inform me that my conservative viewpoint would obviously change if I was in a different situation.  Or… I’ve actually thought through it and this is what I believe from a logical decision, not just off-the-cuff?!

Anyway.  It also felt pretty obvious to me what Tom’s “big secret” was, and the way that it all played out really annoyed me quite a bit, which I’ll put below the cut.

Despite these negatives, I actually did enjoy reading this book.  Large chunks of it had nothing whatsoever to do with death or disease or suicide, and those bits were quite pleasant.  I loved reading about the sea turtles and the research there, and reading about Anna reconnecting with her love of the ocean.  And even though it felt somewhat odd, I even enjoyed Anna making up with her mom and the way those things played out.

Overall, A Drop in the Ocean had that typical A Novel tendency to make everything quite dreary and depressing, with even the “happy” parts somehow coming out a bit gray and surrounded by qualifications.  While I found it a nice one-time read, it definitely wasn’t a book that became an instant classic for me, especially because of the way it all concluded.  But apparently loads of people enjoy having all their characters end up with mediocre conclusions, so maybe this book is for you…

Spoilers below –

Continue reading

The Light Between Oceans // by M.L. Stedman

//published 2012//

Sometimes, I life gets busy and I don’t have a lot of time for book blogging.  When that happens, I can usually manage to work in some reviewing UNLESS it occurs at the same time that I have a book that I consider to be a block – a book that gave me a lot of feelings and that I really do want to review well, but I just can’t seem to get my thoughts into coherent order.  So September has had a busy start, and the next book on the review pile – The Light Between Oceans – has been one that I’ve been struggling to review.  Hence, no reviews for this month, and a HUGE pile of books awaiting attention!  So it’s time to at least attempt to get some thoughts down on this one.

It can sometimes be a bit awkward when someone loans you a book.  I’m always scared that I’m not going to love it like this person does!  And while I didn’t dislike The Light Between Oceans, it wasn’t really a book I probably would have picked up on my own, being a bit too ‘A Novel’ like for my tastes.  Still, it was a decent read with an engaging premise and an excellent setting.  The writing was beautifully evocative and I was genuinely drawn into the story.  Although I have to say that Stedman does employ that irritating trick of randomly inserting present-tense paragraphs in the midst of a past-tense narrative.  This drives me crazy and consistently felt jarring and odd.  I think it’s supposed to ‘pull us into the moment’ or some such nonsense, but it really just felt like the editor missed a lot of chunks of the book that needed to be switched to past tense.

The book was loaned to me by my boss – I work for a small orchard, and the couple that own it are quite fantastic.  The wife said that she made the mistake of cutting through the book section of our grocery store, and read a huge chunk of this book while she was standing in the aisle… and then went back the next day and bought it!  I admired her self restraint, as I don’t think there is any way that I could have waited until the next day…

The setting is Australia, just after World War I.  Tom is the main protagonist, a quiet man who just wants to put the war behind him and go on with his life.  He ends up with a job as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island off the southwest coast, an excellent job for a reliable, steadfast, not-particularly-sociable man.  Eventually, Tom marries Isabelle and brings her to the island, and they are very happy together.  The only dark spot in their lives is Isabelle’s inability to carry a baby to term.  After multiple miscarriages and a stillbirth, Isabelle is grieving for the family she cannot have.  Only a week or so after her stillbirth, the ocean brings a small boat to the shore of the island.  Inside of it is a dead man and a live baby.

What follows is a story of what happens when people try to build their lives on a lie.  And while I could always see how this was all going to come crashing down sometime, Stedman makes the whole situation very plausible – I completely could understand Isabelle’s justifications, and could see how she could convince herself that they were true.  The isolation of the island, the way the supply boat only comes twice a year and they only make it to the mainland every couple of years, makes the whole story possible.  Watching Isabelle and Tom grow to love the baby that isn’t theirs is heartbreaking.

The big takeaway I really had from this book was how all of their troubles started when Isabelle convinced Tom to go against his conscience.  Tom knew what was right and wanted to do it, but Isabelle forced him into a position where he had to choose between his convictions and his wife, something that no spouse should ever do to their beloved.  It was SO heartrending to watch Tom continue to struggle with their choice and the lies they were telling, and while Isabelle was always a very sympathetic character, I just found her to be incredibly selfish.  It was especially ironic because she married him for his integrity and reliability, and then basically emotionally blackmailed him into betraying himself.

On the other hand, it was easy to see the terrible toll that Isabelle’s miscarriages had had on her, and I found it very easy to believe that her mental health was struggling with grief and hormonal imbalances, so that the lies that she told became, at some level, truth for her.  Sometimes our minds prefer to accept easy lies rather than difficult truths.

Of course, part of the trouble is that my husband’s name is Tom, and book-Tom reminded me a great deal of husband-Tom, so Isabelle’s lies and insistence on Tom’s lies somehow felt very personal!

I think the hard part about this book for me is that there wasn’t really a way to end it happily.  There was going to be a lot of grief and sadness for someone somewhere (and there was), and I’m more of a happy-ending kind of girl.  So while it was a decent ending, it was still sad, and I felt like Stedman made it even a little sadder than it had to be.

Overall, I wouldn’t personally reread this book, but I can see it having a great deal of appeal to many readers.  It was an emotional and intense read with intriguing characters and a gripping story.  While it was a bit too melancholy for my personal tastes, it never felt so in that pretentious way that many novels do – it was honest, not wallowing.  The setting was perfection and the writing very beautiful.  A 3.5/5 for me, but a book I would recommend to people who don’t mind books where not everyone gets a happy ending.

The Silent Sister // by Diane Chamberlain

//published 2014//

I had some mixed feelings about this book.  It kept me thoroughly engaged while I was reading it, but a few different things made me uncomfortable during the story, and I found the ending to be unsatisfactory.  In the end, I think it has to go as a 3/5.  I don’t particularly recommend it, and it’s the sort of book that made me feel that while I wouldn’t avoid Chamberlain’s books in the future, I’m not anxious to seek them out, either.

The story mostly centers around Riley, aged 25, whose father has just passed away.  Riley has returned home to go through his house (her mother passed away just after her senior year of high school) and get it ready to sell.  Riley loved her father and had a good relationship with him, so she’s quite devastated by his sudden death, and that’s amplified by the way that she feels that she is all alone in the world – her older sister committed suicide when Riley was only two, and Riley’s older brother, Danny, suffers from severe PSTD that leaves him unreliable and unpredictable.  He also harbors deep resentment towards their parents (which Riley doesn’t understand) and is completely disinterested in cleaning out the house or reliving memories of any kind.

As the tale unwinds, Riley begins to discover that her dad was actually keeping quite a few secrets, including a major one about her sister.  At this point, the story also begins to give us Lisa’s story from twenty years earlier.

This is a well-written and engaging narrative.  Riley uses the first person for her sections, past tense.  She is likable and kind and very lonely.  Lisa’s section are in third person, but that doesn’t prevent her from being a very relatable character.  I was really hooked into this story from the very beginning.

However, there were several things that gave me unease.  One of the biggest is when Lisa meets Celia.  After spending the evening together, Celia stays the night (romantically) – despite the fact that they had only met that day AND until she met Celia, Lisa didn’t realize she was gay.  It seemed kind of ridiculous and unhealthy for Lisa to immediately get in bed with someone on such short acquaintance, especially when she hasn’t actually sorted through her sexual orientation??  Of course it all works out and they stay together forever because that’s what always happens when you hop in bed with someone you’ve only known about eight hours.  This situation became even more disturbing when more details about Lisa’s childhood were revealed.

I was also a smidge offended by the fact that, of course, the traditional, conservative church was the home of a bunch of hypocritical self-centered people who “push away” people going through a crisis; while the church that is “open and affirming” to gay people are the ones who are so supportive and loving to everyone, no matter what!  I’m sorry, but believing that homosexuality isn’t Scriptural doesn’t automatically mean that I hate gay people or that I’m unwilling to help out people who are going through a dark time in their life.  This wasn’t a huge part of this book by any means, but it was a completely unnecessary dig.

It also seemed really weird to me that part of Riley’s back story was that she had just broken up with her boyfriend of two years – because he had never divorced his wife?!?!?  That seemed unnecessarily wrong, and it honestly changed my perspective of who Riley was as a person.  Like wow, she’s just been an adulterer for two years??  That seems… disturbing?

The rest of my angst I’ll put below the cut as they involve spoilers.  This wasn’t a terrible book by any means.  I really was very engaged with the story and anxious to find out how it ended.  But I felt like justice was not served by the conclusion and it left me feeling rather angry, this concept that this person “deserves” a good life, rather than deserving what they earned through their actions.  So yes, a 3/5.  And for a more positive review, be sure to check out Carol’s thoughts, which first led me to this book!

Also – #14 for #20BooksofSummer!

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The Joy Luck Club // by Amy Tan

 

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//published 1989//

When I picked up The Joy Luck Club, I was hoping to read a book that would emphasize the mystery of the culture within a culture – the difficulty of balancing the culture from the past with the culture of a new place and time.  In this story, Tan blends old and new culture beautifully, telling the story of four women and their daughters in a way that wonderfully expresses the yearning every parent has to see life be better for their children than it was for themselves, and the inability for any child to truly appreciate the sacrifices that have been made for them.  And she does this while emphasizing the impact that the Chinese culture has had on each of the characters.  Throughout the story, Tan’s ability to express various aspects of this culture and its influence on Tan’s characters gave layers of depth and interest to the tale.

It is an odd story in many ways, being more of a collection of vignettes surrounding a group of individuals than a linear story.  There are four sections in the book, and within each section is a chapter told by either one of the mothers or one of the daughters.  For me, this was the only part of the book that was a tad confusing – because there were long gaps between characters’ chapters, and because the next chapter about a character would not directly pick up where the last chapter had ended, I found myself having to flip back through the book at the beginning of each chapter to remind myself what had happened in this family before.  I think this mild confusion was emphasized because every chapter is told in first person, so rather than reading a chapter wherein an individual’s name is repeated throughout, thus helping me to remember that Lindo Jong was the person who was pledged to marry a neighbor’s son, the personal pronouns in every chapter meant that I had to flip back to that chapter to remind myself whether Lindo Jong was the person pledged to marry the neighbor’s son, or the one who told the Moon Lady her secret wish.

However, the first person narratives did, in this instance, make the stories feel much more personal and real, and also gave the narrators opportunities to emphasize not just the action of what occurred, but how they felt about the event and how they believed it influenced them in the future.

The nature of these stories means that we jump back and forth in time.  The mothers were all born, in China, around 1915, so when they tell a tale from their childhood, it usually takes place sometime in the 1920’s.  Most of the immigrated to America in the 1940’s, and their daughters were born in the early 1950’s, so many of the stories take place in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Finally, the present-day story, where the book begins and ends, takes place in the late 1980’s, when the daughters are approaching middle age, and the mothers are elderly.  Despite this, I never felt lost or confused as to what was happening when.  Tan easily inserts dates when necessary, and they flow naturally into the story, giving context and place to each chapter.  This is a book where date and location are important, as the story ranges through the good part of a century wherein the world goes through many advances in technology and changes in societal mores.

While Tan doesn’t claim this book to be autobiographical, she was born in 1952 of parents who had immigrated from China just a few years before.  This is definitely a story that is rooted in what the author knows.

This wasn’t exactly a happy book, yet despite the many tragedies and misunderstandings throughout, Tan somehow manages to leave us with a sense of hope, that each of these mothers will be able to reach her daughter and share what it is that has shaped her.

I’m not sure that The Joy Luck Club is a book that I will return to again and again, but it was a thoughtful read, beautifully written and brilliantly executed.  I look forward to seeing what else Tan has written since this 1989 debut.

This book was initially brought to my attention by a lovely review by The Literary Sisters, who do a much better job than me at outlining the story!

Bitter Greens // by Kate Forsyth

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//published 2012//

So this is my first official 2017 read – my other reviews this week have been of books I actually read the last week of December.  It was quite the book to start things with – almost 500 pages of me not being completely convinced that I liked the book.  In the end, a pretty solid 3/5 read for me, although this book had an extremely satisfying ending, so that boosted it up to a 3.5.

Bitter Greens is several stories in one.  The first story is that of Charlotte-Rose, in late 1600’s France.  She tells her story in first person, and at the beginning of the book, she has been exiled from court and sent to a poor convent, where things are pretty miserable.  There, she meets one of the nuns, Soeur Seraphina.  This sister begins to tell Charlotte-Rose a story about a young girl a hundred years earlier who lived in Italy, who was kidnapped  by a witch and imprisoned in a tower.  And then, part way through that story, we start also getting the perspective of the witch as well.

Despite the multiple layers, each story was so distinct that I didn’t have any trouble telling them apart.  And Forsyth would usually spend a few chapters with one character before switching to another, so we got each of the different stories in large chunks.  Charlotte-Rose was telling her own story in first person, both what was currently happening to her in the convent, and about different episodes in her past that led to her being exiled there.  Seraphina’s Rapunzel tale was told in third person, which made sense, but I was confused because the witch’s story was being told in first person.  The Rapunzel story felt natural because we knew where it was coming from – Charlotte-Rose is hearing it from Seraphina – but where was the witch’s perspective coming from?  It added a good layer to the overall story, but felt a little awkward.

This was another story that just sort of assumed that magic and witches and whatnot are real things that happen.  And, just like when I read The Shapeshifters, I found myself completely accepting Forsyth’s version of history – that a spell and bathing in blood could make a woman stay young; that a curse and some hair and a bat’s wing could force a man to desire you; that you could torment a man with a curse and make him die from the terror of his own dreams.

There were a lot of things about this book that I liked.  The setting is done very well.  The terror and uncertainty of all three of the time periods really came across, especially in France when only Catholicism is legal and everyone must join the church or die.

Charlotte-Rose and the Rapunzel character (Margherita in this story) were likable and tangible.  I also appreciated how Forsyth even managed to make the witch into not exactly a sympathetic character, but one whose perspective you could at least understand.  Charlotte-Rose is based on a real person as well, and Forsyth gives us some extra information – just enough – at the beginning and end of the book.

However, the problem was that this book was basically about sex, the repression of women, and the way that those repressed women can use sex to control the  men around them.  All the sex got very old very quickly, and there was a lot of it.  I found myself flipping pages frequently looking for the next actual bit of the story.  Everyone was a whore, or related to a whore, or acted like a whore (by their standards, not mine).  And like I get the fact that at these various time periods there weren’t really any options for women except for marriage, a convent, or prostitution, but still.  It felt like I was being beat over the head with this fact on every page as the women bemoaned their lack of choices, and then went on to continue manipulating the men in their lives by giving or withholding sex.  I just was totally over all the descriptions of sex.  I really feel like I can walk into a room without being overcome with lust for someone in said room, but that didn’t seem like something that ever happened to one of Forsyth’s characters.

I’ve also realized that I just have an issue with the actual story of Rapunzel.  In the story, Rapunzel is locked in the tower, immured from society and social knowledge.  When the prince starts hanging out with her, he has sex with her despite the fact that she doesn’t really know anything about it or what it means or that it leads to babies, and that’s just really creepy to me.  This book was the same, and I don’t blame the book – it’s the original story that’s creepy!  Actually, I felt like Forsyth handled it a little better than some, except for the fact for no reason that I could understand we also had to have this bit with Margherita having her first period and I’m not going to go into details here but I just never really want to hear about menstrual blood or people touching menstrual blood and I don’t understand why novels act like they have to get into the nitty gritty detail to  prove that they’re serious about writing about women.  I mean, please.  So that was super weird.

But the ending!  I dragged a bit through this book.  It’s a bit of a chunk of a book and since I was terribly excited about it, I mostly left it sitting at my spot at the counter where we eat our meals, and would read it whenever I was eating.  So it took me a few days to get through it and I was feeling fairly ambivalent towards everyone, assuming that Forsyth was going to do the traditional Novel thing and kill everyone off and/or leave them in hopeless misery for the rest of their lives.  Instead, while they didn’t all necessarily get happy endings, they at least got logical and satisfying ones.  I really liked the way that things came together in the end.  I felt like all of the women in the story had changed and grown.  And despite hundreds of pages of sex and sex being the only thing women can do, in the end it actually seemed like each of the main characters had grown past that, to find their true selves.

So as I said, a 3.5/5.  This was pretty good historical fiction with intriguing characters, and if there had been about 80% less sex, I think this book would have received a 4/5, especially with the satisfactory ending.  I heard about this book from both Sophie and Lady Fancifull, and I definitely recommend checking out their reviews as well.