Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - By Lisa Wingate (Hardcover) : Target

Avery Stafford is finding her place, as she’s come back to the south to possibly carry on the family’s senatorial dynasty. When she visits a nursing home during a publicity event, she stumbles upon a woman she fears may hold a family secret that may threaten all that she and her family have worked for.

Then flash backward and we meet Rill Foss, a precocious 12 year old living with her poor but happy family in their river shanty. Rill is thrust suddenly into being responsible for her 4 younger siblings, for keeping them together and safe, and we watch as she is torn apart as adults attempt to destroy the family she fights to save.

As these two stories unfold side by side, we are breathless to know how they intersect.

This was an excruciating story to read at times, but at the same time, it was one that I could not put down. And while Rill herself is not an actual person, her story is based on historical events and children’s experiences that have been documented from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. That is, a woman named Georgia Tann, ran an adoption center in Memphis that actually bought and sold children as if they were property. Some of these children were actual orphans, but many were stolen from their homes, kidnapped while walking home from school, or worse. Some were placed in high profile homes, such as in homes of celebrities and politicians, but many were mistreated and hundreds are thought to have actually died under her care. She apparently made thousands of dollars from this business and had politicians and law enforcement in her pockets and avoided any legal confrontation to her dying day. Georgia Tann is the one non-fictional character in this book.

The writing in this book is gripping, particularly Rill’s story. On the other hand, it at times can be so utterly painful that some is extremely hard to read. It’s that same feeling one gets seeing a terrible car accident – can’t look but can’t look away. I personally have the hardest time hearing/reading about abuse of children and tend to avoid books like this. I have to admit, though, that the author handled it well. Just as it reaches a moment of peak discomfort, the story switches to Avery’s story line to lighten the mood and give the reader a chance to breathe. This is the only way I was able to get through, I think.

And in Rill, the author has created an extraordinary character. Though young, she is wise, cautious, kind, and she fights for her family with a passion that brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat. There is no way not to love and empathize with this character.

This is an extraordinary tale, told well. Isn’t that all we want in a book???

 

 

 

 

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Lakshmi has been cultivating her business for the past 10 years, painting henna designs onto strategic body parts of the socialites of Jaipur, and doling out her herbal remedies on the side. Now if she could only seal the deal on her newest and most ambitious venture, she’d be able to finalize the details on the house that has come to symbolize her dream of full independence. But will the advent of a surprise family member put a thorn in her meticulously laid plan? How will she negotiate what she now cannot fully control?

This artistically drawn narrative embraces you from page one and holds you in its tender wrap until the very end. The writing is lyrical and poignant and all the stark colors and radiant spice of India spill out of its pages to give you the full sensory experience. At the same time, we are also privy to Lakshmi’s emotional turmoil as well, feeling connected to her experiences by this same sensorial thread. Her struggles become ours and her victories ours as well.

I do wonder why the author chose to restrict the narrating voice to only Laskshmi’s. In some ways it gives some mystery to her sister, Radha’s character, but I wonder if it might have broadened the perspective to tell the story from her sister’s side as well. Her sister was an intriguing character with a tragic past who we know from hearing her story from Lakshmi’s point of view. It might have added that much more depth to the story to give her more of a voice.

At the same time, I loved the characters. They were full of lovely and sage Indian adages, which I loved, and they exhibited such warmth and humanity. One of my favorites was Lakshmi’s little assistant, Malik. His impish but extraordinarily wise tendencies and steadfast loyalty were heartwarming, and Lakshmi warmed to becoming almost a maternal figure to him as the story progressed. Their relationship was subtly and tenderly portrayed.

There was so much to love about this book – I’d love to hear from you what you loved. Please let me know when you’ve given yourself the gift of reading The Henna Artist! It is, I would say, a MUST READ as well!

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

Amazon.com: Lost Roses: A Novel (9781524796372): Kelly, Martha Hall: Books

8-year old Luba is not happy, having to share her older sister Sofya with anyone, let alone this American, Eliza. Here in Paris, far away from their home in Petrograd, they seem to be the best of friends somehow, laughing and talking of anything but what Luba is interested in (astronomy, of course!)- that is, until their big surprise, arranged just for Luba. All too quickly, however, Luba understands that Eliza may be the best friend that the two sisters have, as their whole world comes crashing down on them, with the uprising of the Bolsheviks and the disintegration of the Tzar’s regime.

This story, loosely based on the real life story of Eliza Ferriday, is a gorgeous narrative about the plight of the “White Russian,” the elite Russian class torn apart and displaced by the Bolshevik revolution. It is told from the perspectives of each of the main characters, as well as from Varinka, a poor, young woman who worked for Sofya briefly, taking care of her young boy. While each woman was struggling with her own internal battle, each also was a victim of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. They were also interconnected and the story was woven together with threads that bound them throughout. This telling of the story through each of their perspectives also served to build tremendous suspense, particularly at the end of each chapter.

One unusual aspect of this story was the absence of demonizing the rich. So often in literature, the wealthy are assumed to be snobbish and evil and the poor are assumed to be altruistic and pure and good. What I admired here was that the characters were beyond that. There were some wealthy characters who were elitist for sure, but there were plenty who were generous and kind – likewise, with the poor. It was a refreshing avoidance of stereotypes.

I felt I gained more of an understanding of the Russian Revolution from this book. It gave an alternative version, something of a balanced viewpoint. It is true that the Tzar was terrible in his management of the country – his mismanagement of the economy, ignoring the needs of the masses, and certainly murder of the Jews in the country. This story strongly acknowledged this. But the Bolsheviks’ methods were not exactly honorable either. There was so much bloodshed and misery in order, really, to just put a different small number of people into a position of power over the masses. With new forms of propaganda that were just as deceiving and dishonest.

From the author of Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly, this is another MUST READ! Give yourself this very gripping and very loving gift!

Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams

Amazon.com: Her Last Flight: A Novel (9780062834782): Williams, Beatriz:  Books

As a photojournalist, Janey Everett has learned how to use everything she has to get information. In pursuing the backstory of the perilous crash of Sam Mallory, whom, she knew, was considered the best pilot of his time, she is determined to stop at nothing to get to the details. She knows that her only hope is to find the elusive Irene Foster, once his co-pilot, and thought to be lost at sea years prior. But Janey follows her instincts as well as the trail of rumors that she may just be alive. And as Janey chases her story, we are also brought back in time to follow Irene’s. Both women, through their narratives, reveal how courage and grit can lead to a life lived as one’s true self.

Once again, Beatriz Williams has knocked it out of the park with this book. Don’t let her breezy, familiar, and accessible style fool you. This is a heavy book – historical fiction, fully researched and chock full of detail that make it feel as real as any biography might. There is subtle reference to blood and war and the ugliness of humanity, just as in other historical fiction novels. But here, because the references are kept so subtle, they really hit you more when you look back on the story and realize all that you’ve just taken in.

Usually what I love most about Williams’ writing is her gorgeous, fallible, earthy characters. Generally, the main character is a strong female, who is in full control (how refreshing!!). She may make a few less-than-ideal choices, but she is smart, witty, somehow vulnerable, courageous and resilient. Nevertheless, in this novel, I was enthralled by the plot as well, as there were as many twists to it as I imagine there were in a flight demo by Mallory himself. It was as driving as it was passionate.

There is no question whether I’d recommend this book. I’d say it’s even a MUST READ!

 

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The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

The thirst for learning instilled into Adunni by her mother has been the driving force for everything she’s done, including continuing attending her small school even when she’s the oldest student there. While her best friend fantasizes about marriage, Adunni only worries about improving her academic skills, so that she can continue to teach others, as she’s done since she was very young. But her dreams come crashing down when her father reveals a proposal he’s made on her behalf – one that threatens not only her education, but any degree of autonomy as well. This sets her on a trajectory that both threatens her but also strengthens her as she sees what she has to do to set herself free.

This very powerful story ignites our deepest sense of injustice and we find ourselves loving and rooting for this heroine, Adunni, at every turn. Because of the poverty into which she was born, her gender, and her cultural milieu in rural Nigeria, she has no power and no agency over her own life. What she does have is intellect, stamina and utter grit, though, and these all serve her well. We love cheering for her and hating her oppressors, and while each character is portrayed with a realistic abundance of depth, we know who is on her side and who isn’t.

What I loved also about this book was the insight into the cultural strata of Nigeria, in both the rural/small town and the big city. There is apparently a vast chasm between the upper class and the lower class, and much corruption filling the space in between. (Pretty much like here in the United States, but I digress…) . Adunni observes more than once, also, that wealth, while it may wield power, it does not, in fact, bring happiness. This is starkly evident to her from observations of her extremely successful but painfully disgruntled boss, Big Madam.

The writing is also striking. It is written as Adunni might think, with her grammar and syntax. It has the singsong, innocent structure of a 14 year old Nigerian girl with an elementary education struggling to be respected. And as she struggles to pursue an education in whatever form she may, the writing develops as she does, and eases subtly into more sophisticated structure.

There are definitely some painful parts to read, and they are not where you expect to find them. There are also many tender moments from characters that are just beautifully written. And throughout, you will be inspired and sad and connected with this young heroine in a way that will surprise you.

 

 

 

Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult

Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel (Wsp Readers Club): Picoult, Jodi:  9780743431019: Amazon.com: Books

Shocking both herself and her husband, Jane has done something she cannot believe and she must get away. To her surprise, her teenage daughter, Rebecca, is ready for her, bags packed, in their car, ready to leave with her. They have no idea where they’re headed, but they get on the road and begin an adventure that will change them forever.

I love Jodi Picoult and have read, I believe, almost all of her books. She has a pattern – not exactly a formula, but a definite style. She meticulously builds a story from the perspective of more than one character, gradually reaching a crescendo that always has a fantastic twist of some kind.

This was not quite that book, however. While normally Picoult’s transitions are smooth and easy to follow, they were not so here. I found that characters were not “properly introduced” and I found myself wondering at times whom I was reading about. And the non-chronological telling of the story, which is normally ok with me, felt choppy here.

This not to say that the entire book was uninteresting. The underlying plot, while a bit far-fetched, was engaging, and as usual, the science was well-researched. The tidbits about whales were actually intriguing and even the details about apple farming was fun to read. Once we did get to know the characters, we did like them. It just took time to figure out who was who.

I’m still a fan, for sure. But this is not the best of the bunch…

 

More than Words by Jill Santopolo

Nina has known that while she was passionate about speechwriting for the mayoral campaign,  this could only be a temporary departure from what she has been destined to do.  She knew that at some point she’d need to take the helm of the family dynasty of NYC hotels, but she thought she had more time.  But as her life was changing faster than she’d expected, with her father’s illness rapidly progressing, it seemed that her usual supports were failing her.  The only one who seemed to truly understand her was the one least likely to and the one she could not let anyone else see her turn to.   Or could she?

This was a modestly entertaining read, but honestly, disappointing.    With characters that are entitled, stereotypical, and one-dimensional, a plot that was predictable, and a message that said, in my opinion that if you’re wealthy enough, you can get away with a crime.  Bottom line -in my opinion, it was a mediocre at best.

And that’s about all I have to say about that.

 

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

Lily, Ted’s 12 year old dachshund, has been the love of his life from that very first moment when she chose him, by tugging on his shoelace.  She may have been the runt of the litter, but she was brave and wise and she’s been perfect company ever since.   They’ve shared walks on the beach, Saturday night movies and pizza, and discussions about cutest guys – and Ted was very content to continue his life with her.  That is, until, the advent of the octopus, who invaded their lives and turned everything utterly upside down.

This is a very unusual story about love and loss, told as a medley of poetic license, imagination and great tenderness.  Anyone who has ever lived with a pet can relate to the deep bond that forms, and the dependence that runs in both directions.  It appears that Ted may have elevated this bond to a higher level, but the way it is depicted is engaging and endearing and we can all relate to some degree.  And loss is hard, no matter whether what kind of living creature it may be.

My only hesitation in fully recommending this book is that it is somewhat monochromatic.  It is missing a secondary plot line, a more layered approach.  It might have benefitted from a side story about his best friend, Trent, to make him more interesting?  Maybe more about Ted’s sister?  Something…

On the other hand, it was incredibly sweet, it had an ironic crescendo, and quite a bit of heart.  And you will definitely also fall in love with Lily.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Althea and Proctor are deeply troubled, and it is less about their being imprisoned than about how they got there and what this means now for their family.  On an impulse, and in revenge for longstanding resentment toward her mother, their daughter, Kim, has revealed illegal activity committed by her parents, and they are now all paying the price.   Will they be able to repair the damage that has been wrought, especially with the physical distance they now must endure?  Will Althea’s sisters, who have themselves experienced hardships in their youth, be able to rescue the situation?

This was an engaging narrative from page one.  Each character was a mosaic of her complex past and her present emotional strength, with the overlay of the complicated state of their family story.  No one was a cliche, and no one was a stereotype.  Everyone felt genuine and unique.

I personally appreciated the inclusion of characters of color with eating disorders.  While eating disorders are so common, it is rare that folks who suffer from them are depicted in novels – and rarer still, that people of color with eating disorders are represented.  I have worked with adolescents for almost 30 years and I can attest to the fact that these disorders do not discriminate by race, gender, sexual preference, religion, or socioeconomic strata, despite what the general public believes.  I also loved that this was not the focus of the story – it was just a side issue .  Nonetheless, it was described with tenderness, with sensitivity, and with a true grasp of the suffering that occurs with these conditions.

This was a quick read, it was engaging and honest.  I would definitely recommend it!

 

 

After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid

It comes as no surprise to either Lauren or Ryan that they are at a crossroads in their marriage.  In fact, if they are honest with themselves, they’ve been struggling, with resentment and anger cresting like a slow wave, for months now.  As they are finally forced to acknowledge their painful situation, they strike a condition — an unusual, creative test of a sort —  to try to determine their future together.  Will this work?  Will this test drive them further apart?  Or will it, as they hope, bring them back together?

After reading a few of Reid’s books, I have come to understand that her gift is writing about relationships.  She has the uncanny ability of being able to create warmth between characters so palpable that is seems to rise up from the pages of the book.  I think that’s why I enjoy her writing so much.  Present here also is her signature use of an alternative medium of writing, using emails between characters to serve as an inspired means of allowing the reader to dive deeper into their hearts.

In truth, this book is really a light, beach read-type book.  It’s a love story, with sunny, quirky characters, and a few entertaining subplots that push the story forward.  In fact, there are a few details missing that I find odd.  For example, we never learn what Ryan actually does for a living – and he’s a pretty significant character.  I don’t know why that is.  And when Lauren goes to work (we do know what she does), we rarely hear about the work that she does.  Just an interesting and strange thing.

But that said, it is a fun, light, summer read that is a good antidote to all that is surrounding us at the moment, so I say, go for it!  Good therapeutic distraction!