Sunday, September 23, 2018

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Anyone who scoffs at the notion of reading a graphic novel simply hasn't read one. They are just as powerful and impactful as a book that's full of words, page after page. Roz Chast had me reliving some painful parental moments in her graphic novel, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

We all hope our parents live long lives, and that we have time to get to know them as people when we grow up and become adults ourselves. But as our parents age, and live longer than their parents and grandparents did, we're faced with increasing angst as parents who always were strong, independent, sharp, and ruled the household become frail and forgetful. 

Roz Chast outlines that very situation. For her, it's even more difficult, as she's an only child who doesn't live near her parents. And her parents are a handful. Elizabeth and George have been married for decades; her mother is a force, while her father is quiet. They do everything together. They've lived in the same apartment in Brooklyn since Roz was a baby. And neither of them want to talk about death, wills, money, or future care. Their routine is set in stone and they don't like change. 

There were times when I felt like I was reliving some of the same conversations I had with my Mom when I was reading this memoir. And it's always one significant medical issue that is the start of the end, and you know it when it happens. The end can be years away, but you're aware of that one specific moment when you realize it's the beginning of the end. Roz's memoir is full of that tug of war between parent and child as their mental acuity declines, and is replaced with anger and bewilderment. Faced with cleaning out her parents' apartment, Roz is just overwhelmed, and realizes that most of it is just junk. What her parents refused to throw away, and what they thought valuable, was only valuable to them, and now they don't need it or even remember they have it. I can say going through your parent's lifetime (and your family's lifetime) of things is both frustrating and heartbreaking. It adds a permanent bit of sadness to your soul. 

Roz's relationship with her mother is a strained one, and there is one moment where she says:

I left her room. Walked through the tasteful lobby of the Place as if everything was fine. Walked to my car. When I got in, I cried. The bellowing quality of the sobbing and the depth of the sadness I felt surprised me. I was angry, too. Why hadn't she tried harder to know me? 
But I knew: if there had ever been a time in my relationship with my mother for us to get to know one another--and that's a very big "if"--that time had long passed.

**Cue the ugly cry**

I found this graphic novel to be powerful and poignant. Roz mixes in photos of her parents, along with some of her mother's poems. I'd recommend it to anyone who has aging parents, or has already gone through this process and feels they were all alone and feeling the frustrations and sadness that no one else would understand. There are plenty out there who do understand. 

Rating: 5/6 for an accurate portrayal of caring for aging parents, and the struggles both emotionally and financially that adult children face--without the guidance of those we look to the most-our parents. Don't be put off because it's a graphic novel. That's what makes it a powerful memoir. Read it. 

Available in hardcover and paperback. This was a National Book Award Finalist. That's a pretty amazing accomplishment. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

I had this novel on my TBR list because I've got a reading group meeting Tuesday to discuss it for our September read. It's a novel I've seen many times on the shelves at my local B&N; I even stocked it on paperback tables, but never wanted to read it. This was my opportunity to do so--and wow, this is not a novel for the faint of heart. 

Told in two voices: Clara, a young upper class woman in 1929, and Izzy, a young teen  in contemporary times living with her foster parents. Clara Cartwright is in love with Bruno, a handsome immigrant who came to America to start a new life. Her father, a total asshole (sorry, but he is just horrible!) and her unfeeling mother insist she marry someone that matches her station. When she says no, her father has the police take her to an insane asylum, saying she's crazy. And from there, Clara's life takes just one horrible spiral down after another. At first, she's in a somewhat nice place, but still held against her will and not allowed any communication with Bruno. The stock market crash of 1929 creates a money shortage for her father, who writes her to tell her she has to go to another place: The Willard Asylum, which is state run. He can't afford to keep her at her current place and keep his home. Like I said, a complete unfeeling asshole. Her mother isn't any better, letting her only daughter be carted away under the claim that she's unstable. No one will believe Clara that she's perfectly sane, and her father is just mad at her for not marrying who he wants her to marry. Her pleas fall on deaf ears, and she's seen as willful and yes, mentally unstable. 

Izzy's foster parents are involved in a museum project that is collecting and studying patient suitcases found in the basement of the now defunct Willard Asylum. Izzy isn't interested in stepping foot on the grounds of the asylum; her mother is in jail for killing her father, and is considered "insane". It hits a bit too close to home for Izzy, who still doesn't understand why her mother shot her father ten years before. 

One of the trunks that they open is Clara's, and it's immediate that this is not the typical patient at Willard. Expensive dresses, postcards from Paris, a photograph of a young woman and man, both gorgeous. A journal that abruptly stops after a passage stating that Clara is going to Willard. Izzy becomes fascinated with Clara, and wants to know what happens to her. 

As the novel moves back and forth between Clara and Izzy, we experience all the horrible pain Clara goes through as time goes by and she can't get out of Willard. So much happens to her, such cruelty, that it was sometimes hard to read. And to make matters worse, it was happening to hundreds of people at Willard, too. The treatment of the mentally insane was just horrific and inhumane. So many people put in asylums who were perfectly normal, but either angered their spouse/parent, or were depressed, or fell on hard times. Nowadays they would be given counseling and medicine; and those women who spoke up? They'd be running companies and changing the world. 

I don't want to give more of the story away, because a lot happens to Clara--big things--and it's important that you find them out as you read, and as Izzy discovers bits of Clara's life. Izzy's situation involves self-harm and bullying from fellow students, but I found her and Clara both to be incredibly tough young ladies who fought to be heard and understood. Would Izzy be the one who would finally free Clara's voice?

It's a pretty good novel, but some of it may make you uncomfortable.The brutal treatment of patients considered insane, and especially the women, is hard to take. The feelings of despair and hopelessness Clara experience are just heartbreaking.You just wish so much for her to have a happy ending. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel that will keep you up at night reading. Clara is a character you won't soon forget. Izzy is a strong young woman who, while trying to figure out her own life, decides she must uncover Clara's story and deliver justice denied to Clara sixty years before. 

Available in paperback ebook, and audio. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

I was thinking about how to start this review, and immediately I thought I'd say "Susanna Kearsley is one of my favorite authors"-but I stopped myself, because it seems like I have an awful lot of favorite authors! But it's true, and I am always happy to add to the list of authors that I will read without question. Jane Harper joined earlier this summer, after I read Dry. My love of Susanna's novels goes much farther back; years, actually. It's not often that I find historical novels that have an element of the supernatural tied into them; not only that key (and favorite) element, but that they end up being darn good reads, too. 

Susanna Kearsley is one of those authors who digs deep into history, then spins a tale that never fails to grab me. I've read most of her novels, and was excited to see Bellewether on Sourcebook's upcoming new releases list earlier this year. I've been patient, and have been reading this on and off in between other books. I was immediately taken by the contemporary story of Charley as the new curator of the Wilde House, a historic home on Long Island; the family home of one Benjamin Wilde, a famous Revolutionary War figure. Charley's family history is also based nearby; her father rather infamously refused to fight in the Vietnam War, and fled to Canada. Her grandparents, pillars in the community, disowned him and Charley has never met or talked to her grandparents. Her brother lived in the community with his daughter Rachel, but he recently died, and Charley took the job at the Wilde House in part to help her niece navigate life without her father. 

Wilde House, near a secluded cove and surrounded by a forest, is reportedly haunted by a figure that some say is a French soldier, wandering the forest with a lantern, lighting the way safely to the cove. Other rumors of murder, and a love story that ends tragically, add to the mystery of the Wilde House. Charley is there to oversee renovations, dig into the history of the house, and improve on the story of Benjamin Wilde. She is, of course, interested in finding out more about the Wilde family, and what life was like for them during the Seven Years War. The war pitted the French and the British against each other, and saw prisoners of war housed in local family homes while waiting for prisoner trades to occur between the French and the British. This was in the decade before the Revolutionary War, when Americans were still Colonists, and had loyalty to England. 

The other part of the novel centers on Lydia, sister to Benjamin Wilde, and Jean-Philippe, a French solider who has been brought to the Wilde house as a prisoner of war to await trade negotiations with the British. Jean-Philippe speaks no English, and Lydia speaks no French. He's definitely seen as the enemy, and yet Lydia and Jean-Philippe can't help but develop feelings for each other. What will happen when he's finally taken away? Will he end up back in Quebec to fight again? How would Lydia's family feel if they found out about the growing attraction between the two? 

The two stories, separated by centuries, but tied together by the Wilde House, work well together. The complex issues of the Seven Years War are explained well enough to be clear, but not so much that you're dragged down by a history lesson. All the little pieces of information Charley finds, along with help from an unknown spirit in the house, slowly bridge the gap between what happened in Lydia's time, and what Charley knows in today's world. But oh gosh, you just don't know until the end if Lydia and Jean-Philippe have a happy ending, or if it ends in tragedy. 

I think part of what made this novel so enjoyable for me is my deep desire to actually be a curator at a historical home. That's another career that appeals to me, but I'll just have to be content to visit historical places and enjoy what others have uncovered. Lydia and Charley are both strong female characters, and both have strong counterparts in Jean-Philippe and Sam, the expert at historical reconstruction who catches Charley's eye. Overall, a good, solid historical fiction tale with a dash of romance, a bit of the supernatural, and a whole lot of history, and how we try to create truthful stories based on what's left behind. 

Rating:  5/6 for a very good historical novel with dual storylines: one set in the 1760's, another set in contemporary Long Island-and both set at Wilde House. This novel is interesting in that it delves into the Seven Years War, which I hadn't read about before. It also speaks to the importance of historic preservation, and the stories our ancestors have left behind for us to discover. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Rapahelle Giordano

I saw this little paperback at B&N a month or so ago and thought it looked like a fun little book to read. And it was! It took me longer to read it, even thought it's just over 200 pages. I finally picked it back up a few days ago and spent some time finishing it. Silly as it may sound, I think I needed to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the message.

Camille is 38, a married woman with a young son, living and working in Paris. She's unhappy with her career, her relationships with her husband and son are strained, and she's at the end of her rope. A broken down car during a rainstorm changes her life in ways she just could never imagine. 

Camille takes shelter in a nearby home, and while waiting for help, begins talking to Claude, who tells her he's a routinologist and if she agrees to follow his instructions, he can help her change her life for the better. With nothing to lose, Camille agrees, and begins her journey to happiness by following Claude's directions. 

Camille's journey to self-awareness and making positive changes is a bit bumpy, but as she follows Claude's advice, she begins to realize that everything she's working on is starting to have positive impacts on her life. Clearing all the clutter from her home is one step to being able to think clearly and breathe deeply. Working on her relationships with her husband and son are others. Building her self confidence by focusing on the great things about herself, and not "feeding the rats" of self-doubt, fear, and the part of her that likes to complain. Being confident in her own skin. Claude's approach to each lesson is little bit different each time, but each lesson is valuable and helps Camille move along her path towards enlightenment, happiness, and success in her work and home environments. 

This is a feel-good self-help book wrapped up in a novel, and it's perfect for anyone who needs a little boost in self-confidence, or someone who is stuck and needs a little kick in the butt to get moving. The author even has a little dictionary at the back of the book with all the routinologist terms and definitions handy for you to use in your life. This novel is translated from French, and is a huge hit in Europe. Buy it, read it, and gift it to your sisters, your Mom, and your friends. 

Rating: 4/6 for an empowering, fun novel about making positive changes and the magic that will flow from them. It's true: the more good vibes you put out, the more you get back. The Universe is pretty cool that way. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

This was my "last" summer read, and once again, I've got to say how much I enjoy Jane Harper's novels. 

Force of Nature is the follow up to The Dry, her first novel that is one of my top reads for the year. Once again, we join Federal Agent Aaron Falk, and his partner Carmen, as an investigation into money laundering by a well respected company turns deadly. This is a completely different novel than The Dry, but equally compelling. You can read this novel without reading The Dry, but of course it does help understand Aaron a bit if you have his background. Jane Harper doesn't go over what happened in The Dry, so this could be a stand alone.  

Aaron and Carmen have been working with Alice Russell, an employee at BaileyTennants. Long suspected of money laundering and other secretive illegal doings, BaileyTennants is a family owned business run by a brother and sister, Daniel and Jill Bailey. Their father started the business, and still keeps a hand in it. They have a sterling reputation, but underneath the gloss are illegal doings that have been going on for two generations. Aaron and Carmen are very close to having all the proof they need to put BaileyTennants out of commission, with the help of Alice. She's just got a few more key pieces of paperwork that she needs to give them. 

Only problem? Alice, along with four other women and five men, has gone on a three day corporate retreat into the wilderness--and Alice has disappeared. 
Aaron and Carmen travel to the Giralang Ranges, a rough bushland in Australia, to meet with investigators after Aaron receives a mysterious missed call from Alice on his cell phone. He's convinced something bad has happened to Alice, and it may be tied into her covert help on the investigation. 

The story bounces back and forth between the search for Alice, and the days leading up to her disappearance. This corporate retreat sounds like a nightmare. It's cold, rainy, windy, and the women and men are split up, with one map per group to find their way to checkpoints, where food and shelter await them. Both make it fine on the first night, but soon after, the women get lost, and things go from bad to worse. Add in the dynamics of the group: Jill, Alice, Lauren, Bree, and her sister, Beth. Bree is Alice's assistant, and Beth is the lowly clerk in the company. It's a mix of high up executives, middle management, and entry level positions. Each woman has issues: Alice is rude, and has the only cell phone of the group (she hid it and didn't turn it in, as required). Jill is the "boss", and Bree is trying to make a good impression so she can move up. Beth is a disaster; a recovering alcoholic with a strained relationship with her sister. Lauren has been slipping up at work, and is nervous, on edge, and painfully pale. All of the women bring something to the trip that becomes a factor in their journey. None of them like each other. None of them want to be on the retreat. 

Does anyone know Alice is working with the police? Are there other secrets each woman is keeping from the others? Does the notorious past of the Giralang Ranges as the playground of a serial killer have any bearing on their situation? 

Jane Harper makes you feel every miserable raindrop, the wet clothes, the hunger pangs, and the painful blisters as the women struggle to find their way through an ever increasing dangerous situation. Alice's cell phone is slowly losing power, and there's no service anywhere. She's desperate to get back, but why? As their situation becomes more fraught with danger, the tension rackets up and tempers blow. But what happens to Alice? 

Good stuff! It's a complete switcheroo from The Dry, where a two year drought made everything dry, dusty, and parched. Force of Nature is wet, stormy, cold, windy, and just plain uncomfortable. I found myself longing for a flannel shirt, chili, and a hot cup of coffee. In the middle of a hot and humid week in Iowa. Jane Harper is a master at setting the mood, the tone, and the feel of a place. 

Rating: 5/6 for another great novel by Jane Harper. She pulls you in, and won't let go until the last page. Anyone who likes thrillers--and these are set in Australia--will enjoy her writing. Interesting look at what motivates each of us to act, and the consequences we must live with when we do. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Summer Reading is Over; What I'm Excited About Reading in the Fall

Summer zipped right by, and here we are, September 1st. It's been a particularly hot and humid summer in Iowa, and I can't wait to shut the air conditioning off and enjoy sleeping with cooler nights. I've got a few short weeks left to enjoy my back deck, which became my favorite reading spot this summer. Nothing like sitting outside listening to birds chirp while relaxing and reading on the weekend. 

I've thought back on what I had on my TBR list for the summer, and what do you know? I didn't read a lot of those books. They're all still sitting on my shelves, waiting. But I read some great books, and discovered a few authors I hadn't read before: Jane Harper and Laura Madeline. I also rediscovered my love for John Bellairs, and read a fantastic thriller by Heather Gudenkauf, an Iowa author. So while the biography about Leonardo Da Vinci still gathers dust, and I missed reading Prairie Fires (Laura Ingalls Wilder), I did make a start on Circe, by Madeline Miller. It reminds me of my teen years, and my fascination with Edith Hamilton's Mythology book. 

I'm still plugging away at my piles, which don't seem to go down. Not a bad problem to have, right? But there are new releases coming out this Fall that have me chomping at the bit. I thought I'd share what I'm excited about reading  for the rest of 2018--new titles that are coming soon!

I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am about Time's Convert. The U.S. sale date is September 18 and you can bet I will be buying a copy that day. If you haven't read A Discovery of Witches, you are missing out! Read the trilogy, then read this. It's a branch off the original, dazzling, amazing novels. 
Kate Atkinson. Life After Life is one of my favorite novels. This novel returns to World War 2, and is a spy thriller. I can't wait to dive into the talented writing of Kate Atkinson. Due out in the U.S. September 25th. 

 I first read Signe Pike years ago, when she wrote a non-fiction book about fairies. I've been waiting to hear more from her, and here it is! First in a trilogy, a magical novel about a forgotten Scottish Queen: Languoreth.  It's out on Tuesday, September 4th.  I'm ready to delve into some magic. 

Kate Morton. Solid stories, historical novels that I've always enjoyed. It seems like a long time since her last novel. This one, set in England, involves murder, artists, and an archivist in modern day London discovering pieces to a 150 year old puzzle. Released in the U.S. on October 6th. 
It's going to be an awesome Fall with these talented authors. If I'm really good, and I read faithfully, I should be able to read each one as they come out. I'm saving my pennies because these are all novels I want to keep. 

What are you looking forward to reading?  Share!  I'd love to hear from you. 

Happy reading everyone!