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Eden: A Novel

by Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg

Confession, I grew up in the 70’s when books were produced by a few big publishing companies.  This meant there were not as many new books available in a year compared to today where self publishing and indie publishing are very popular.  It also meant, given the expense of publishing and marketing a book, authors tended to be judged and edited by professionals with skills and money on the line.  I love the current world where more than a chosen lucky few can share their wordsmithing skills.  If you follow my other blog, https://newoldgirl.wordpress.com/, you’ll remember I was seriously ill for 17 months and for most of that time I lost the ability to read. Words did not compute, and my short term memory did not work.

Once I regained my health and ability to read, I wanted all the books.  I discovered indie authors and spend more than my share of time reading and listening.  I also have learned that just because you CAN put pen to paper, doesn’t mean you should.  I have not loved every indie project I have read.  Time is short and if I’m not embracing the material, I put it aside and move on.  blog2

That said, I happily declare I loved every second of the audio book, Eden: A Novel.  Written by new author Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg, this is a book which moves seamlessly between time.  Blasberg tells the story of a wealthy family going from past to present, generation to generation.  During one moment we hear the intricate details of a young woman, war-time America, moments of indiscretion ….. then fast forward to modern day and see the now-grandmother and her progeny dealing with current life situations.

This method of storytelling can sometimes be confusing to the reader as tracking past and present, and age of characters is complicated.  In Eden, however, Blasberg is so talented, her storytelling is easy to follow.  I wouldn’t label this a casual “beach read” however as the nuances and layers of humanity call the reader to become fully invested; the actions of a grandmother contrasted with her modern-day granddaughter are compelling.  I found myself staying up too late each night because I wanted to know what comes next.

In addition to the clever use of time as a distinct part of the character of Eden, Blasberg utilized location as an integral part of the narrative.  The reader is easily transported between the richness of life in the early 20th century steel town of Pittsburgh and then flows quite naturally to days on the New England beach where the wealthy family vacations through the ages.  The use of a life-changing hurricane was particularly successful as a story telling device and the beach house itself came alive through each chapter of the tale.

Audiobooks are made or broken by the talent of the narrator.  Performance counts and Marnye Young delivered. Every character was easy to picture and she brought them each to life.  Hers is a comfortable voice which helped flesh out the story.  Knowing this is the debut novel for the author, and having never come across Young on an Audible.com book before, I looked her up and was very pleased to see a selection of books she has narrated which I can now enjoy.

I was gifted this audiobook by the author, and am pleased to share this honest review and highest recommendation of Eden: A Novel.  Blasberg is a talented writer and I hope she continues to write.  And write.

 

 

 

 

In the Garden Room

by Tanya Eby

Some book reviews are easy to write and I bang them out quickly.  I read the book, the plot was (good or bad), the characters (were, were not) fully developed, I (do or do not) recommend the book…..

And then there are the rare books like “In the Garden Room” by Tanya Eby which punch you in the gut and leave you stunned.  These are the books which you don’t stop thinking about after the cover is closed for the final time.  The one which makes you feel so many feels, that processing and being able to adequately express an opinion is nearly impossible.  blog

I confess to being an Eby superfan, but as a narrator.  When she is associated with an Audible book, I don’t hesitate to add it to my library.  I was unaware she was also an author and was both excited and a little jealous to find this out.  How can one person have such a variety of talent?  I started Garden Room much the same way as I do most books nowadays, with absolutely no clue the subject matter.  This has proven to be a wonderful way in which to find treasure I might otherwise have not chosen had I known ahead of time what the story explored.  That said, if you are reading a review prior to reading the book, I assume you are actually looking for guidance or opinion on it.  This one is tough.  It’s not a book about rainbows and unicorns, and the subject matter could be a trigger for some women.

The story centers around two women in the early 1900s.  We meet mother, Cora, and daughter, Lillian when the women lived a boring, but safe life.  Having married a fisherman with dreams of creating a good life, but reeking of the stench of fish, almost 30 year old Lillian sees her future only as doom and gloom.  She was unhappy, never content and easily swayed by the charms of a vagabond who ends up being a talent scout for a Chicago brothel.

And the ladies lives go downhill from there…..Lillian creates a fantasy life in her head and sneaks away with her young daughter while her husband is away working.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess what is coming.  In the early 20th century, a 30 year old woman was OLD, but her very innocent young daughter was a great commodity.  As I said, this subject matter might be difficult, but Eby presents it so smartly, that as a reader I was drawn into the story despite the un-comfortableness of it all.

I listened to this book via Audible and must give kudos to the narrator, Christa Lewis.  She had me believing in the spoiled Cora, the defeated Cora, the regretful Cora as well as the unfortunate personality changes of naive Lillian to warrior Lillian.  There is one scene in the book detailing the inauguration of this child into the dreadful world of brothel life which literally caused me tears.  Lewis WAS that young girl.  Between the words Eby penned, and the voice Lewis spoke, that was one of the hardest paragraphs I ever heard on an Audible book.  It was not gratuitous. and was completely essential to the character development, but it was hard to hear.

This was also one of those audio books where you found yourself wishing you had pen and paper to jot down some of the lines because they were so impactful.  This one especially summed up the idea behind life as a woman:

So much of a woman’s happiness depends on what type of a cage she was kept in.

I’m glad I listened to this book and would not hesitate to try another Eby novel or listen to more of Lewis’ narration.

 

For the US State reading challenge – this one is set in Illinois.

 

Tupelo Honey

by Lis Anna-Langston

Coming from a very dysfunctional childhood, at 52 both my parents and my brothers are now gone and I find myself drawn to novels which deal with childhoods filled with hardship.  If I was Oprah or Dr. Phil I’d probably say I’m using fictional works to help myself reflect on my past and mourn the imperfect world in which I lived until marriage.  Whatever the reason, I can definitely say that when I find a gem like “Tupelo Honey” and when the tears fall over that character, I feel a cleansing of my own pain.  And it is good.

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Set in Mississippi in the 1970s, author Lis Anna-Langston has penned a story which is touching and insightful. Main character Tupelo Honey is an 11 year old with an absentee junkie-mom, a loving grandma called Marmalade and slightly ‘off’ uncle Randall.  She is a smart, savvy child who faces more challenges at her young age than most will see in a lifetime.  As all of us do, Tupelo Honey craves a feeling of being wanted.  Loved.  This is a need which is supposed to be lavished on us as youngster by our parents, but never knowing her dad and a mom not interested in parenting leaves a void in her young life.

Interestingly, mom introduces a boyfriend into the picture who ends up being a blessing.  Nash, a low level drug dealer initially made my own mom-hairs on the arm rise, but Anna-Langston uses him to show normalcy and love the way a parent should behave.  I enjoyed this unexpected character twist and appreciated the fact that the author shows the reader appearances can be deceiving.

My other favorite thing about this novel is the feeling of nostalgia it offers.  I found myself smiling at my own childhood fondness for bologna sandwiches with mayonnaise.  Our world of gluten free ancient grain whole wheat bread with organic mustard and sprouts is just not the same as Wonder Bread and Kraft Mayo.  Anna-Langston does not punch us in the face with the fact this is set in the 70s, but there are enough mentions to bring that time period to life.

This is a can’t-put-it-down page turner. Despite my feelings of guilt that the author likely spent thousands of hours writing, and I’m whipping through it like a tornado, I read this in two days. And my emo was high through most of it. I cannot praise enough a book which makes the reader feel all range of emotions – sadness, laughter, joy, relief….  To be completely honest it took three days to finish the book. I had just 20 or so pages left to go at 2am, but I forced myself to stop. I knew my heart needed to see the end during the light of day and not while I laid awake processing the ache of this character.

I don’t keep every book I read because I don’t have shelf space and I won’t waste precious reading time going back to re-read something which was not wonderful.  “Tupelo Honey” gets my highest recommendation when I tell you this one sits in pride of place on my bookshelf to be picked up again and again in the years to come.

 

 

Into the Land of Snows

by Ellis Nelson

I read young adult novels.

At almost 52.

There, I’ve said it.

A book worth reading must make the reader feel a connection to the characters. When reading a legal or medical thriller, or contemporary women’s fiction, I relate to those characters in a way reflective of my current life.  I can commiserate with the struggling mom, worry for the cancer patient, feel anger for the victim in a lawsuit.  And that is good.  Empathy and understanding are traits which are necessary in our world.

What I enjoy most about YA fiction is returning to my younger self.  Not identifying with the middle aged mom but, instead, seeing the world through the eyes of the angst ridden teen; reflecting on my own childhood and feeling the pain and rooting for this younger soul at the start of their journey.  blog

“Into the Land of Snows” by Ellis Nelson is not your typical YA book.  One clear distinction is the lack of young adults in the novel.  Sixteen year old Blake, a child of divorce, runs into some trouble with drugs and is sent to spend time with Dad, a doctor with a climbing expedition at Mount Everest.  Blake talks about a friend from home, and one of the Sherpas seems to be young, but otherwise the novel is filled with (don’t be offended) old people, or at least older people than you’d expect in a YA book.

This is actually crucial to the growth Blake experiences during his travel.  The use of marijuana is the least of the issues with which he struggles. He is angry. His entire world collapsed when his parents divorced. And the icing on the cake was Mom moving him from his hometown to her childhood hometown.  She immersed herself in her own depression. Dad escaped to the Himalayas. Blake was left alone with his own sadness and no way to process his grief.

The trip to Everest was supposed to be an opportunity for father and son to reconnect, but after an unexpected climbing tragedy, and potential further danger, Blake is instead sent on a hike with Sherpa Ang, across the mountains to safety.  Opportunity for introspection, long discussions with wise Ang, encounters with Buddhist Monks, a truth which had been kept from him, all provide Blake with the tools he needs to move forward.

Nelson created a world which also allowed the reader to grow.  As a Christian, I admit to ignorance of Buddhism, and probably also an inability to accept a lot of their beliefs, but I did appreciate the opportunity to hear of their religion and culture and to think.  What struck me most about Blake’s travel in a world so completely different from the United States, was the civility he encountered.  Spend some time on social media reading the vitriol spewed right now about our presidential election and see that rich, first world, is not kind to one another.  I enjoyed the kindness shown by those who welcomed a stranger.  It was a respite of peace.

“Into the Land of Snows” is a journey worth taking.

 

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

by Bryn Greenwood

When I am reading a book which I don’t connect to immediately, with which I feel ambivalence, it often takes a while to get into the story. At my age, and especially after a two year illness where I lost the ability to read, if the ambivalence with a book continues for about the first 100 pages, I abandon it. I might pick it up for a second look at a later point, but my patience for mediocrity won’t let me waste precious reading time on a book which doesn’t strike a chord.  blog

When I read the first few pages of Bryn Greenwood’s “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things,” I was immediately hooked. Her prose and mood entranced me, and I felt connected to the damaged child at the center of the story. Readers bring their own history into any book they read. For me, a damaged child, I was mesmerized from the start.

There are several primary characters featured in the novel, and Greenwood shifts perspective with each chapter. I’m still dealing with a healing brain, and have difficulty when the narrator changes. Each chapter would be titled with the name of the character, month and year. The time was the harder part for me, frequently requiring a look back at the previous chapter to see how far into the future we had jumped. This is purely an author’s device to move the story and offer alternate viewpoints, and for the average reader it might not cause a second thought. For me, it required some effort to keep track as the story developed.  I also found myself doing a lot of math.  There is an age difference between the two main characters, and after writing down the year they were born, I was forever subtracting that from the current date to determine their current ages.  This might seem meaningless, until you understand the plot when it becomes kind of important.

Wavy, the main character, is a young girl with an extremely dysfunctional family. Medicated Mom appears to rely on both big pharma pills for a mental health condition, as well as illicit drugs. Depending on the day, she is either a disinterested parent lying in bed, or a cruel abusive person. My heart broke for Wavy who dealt with life by remaining mostly silent and acting as parent to her younger brother. The lack of connection to her parents, and the missing necessary affection all children need, play a huge role in everything about “All the Ugly.”

Greenwood amazed me in her ability to write a story which any sane person would not connect to – yet I cried and felt emotion throughout much of this book.  I literally questioned my own internal sense of right and wrong as I became a cheerleader for a relationship which in any normal world is taboo, and wrong, and worthy of condemnation.  Yet, somehow, this author wove a spell and drew me in and had me rooting for a cause I NEVER in my life imagined I would support.  The talent of her writing is beyond my understanding.

I won’t give away too much of the plot, because I truly believe a book should be unwrapped and enjoyed by the reader making their own discovery and connection, but if you read the back of a book before opening its pages, the author herself tells you:

One night everything changes when she witnesses of of her father’s thugs, Kellan, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle.  What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things life has to offer.

I really enjoyed immersed myself in this book.  I couldn’t put it down, and it made me think.  A lot.

I won this book in a contest on twitter with no expectation a review would be left – but since I LOVED this book I felt compelled to review it.

State Challenge – no real location is mentioned in the book given the sensitive nature of the subject – the location wasn’t crucial.  The author tweeted a reply to my query and said she felt it took place in her state of Kansas.

 

The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

Found on the shelves of our new home, again, a book I would not have selected had I read the cover, but one I couldn’t read fast enough once I started.

I spent most of my adult years reading medical thrillers (think Robin Cook) and legal thrillers (John Grisham), and mostly avoided anything that would have led to thinking about feelings.  Coming from a dysfunctional childhood with lots of baggage best left packed, I avoided connecting to my emotional side.  Then my kids grew up, I became ill and suffered for 2 years, and I suddenly understood that the healthiest thing I could do to enjoy the rest of my life was to face the demons I battled and embrace every emotion, even the painful ones.  As the ability to read has returned, I’m feeling even more connected to books and more grateful to authors who invest of themselves for my pleasure.  blog

“The Secret Life of Bees” takes place in the 60s in South Carolina.  Although the main character is a young white girl, Lily Owens, her much needed support system ends up being blacks in a time when racial unrest was prevalent.  As I write that sentence, I should probably cross it out as the current United States continues to battle its own demons of racial divide.  As a white person raised in Jersey, I do not have the emotional background of having to fight for my civil liberties, yet Monk made me connect to her characters in a way that hurt.  I hurt for the country then; I hurt for us now.

There is mystery surrounding Lily.  She lost her mom at a young age, and the reader can only make guesses through most of the story how that occurred.  What we are sure of, however, is the loss of mom, and life with an angry 1960s white farmer father, is painfully hard.  She feels unloved.  And that is where I connected closest to Lily.  My childhood did include a mom, but a mom with 3 husbands and siblings only partially related.  A mom who might as well have been absent, and a stepfather who didn’t know how to be a dad.  Up until the last 4 years, I can honestly say I would have defined myself as unlovable.  Unworthy. The catalyst for loss and never on solid ground when it came to faith in the world around me.

Once I realized my connection to Lily, I was absorbed by Monk’s writing.  If I were a highlighting woman, this book would have looked like the sun when I finished because I wanted to capture so much of the wisdom being shared with Lily by the beekeeping mom-substitute, August Boatwright.  As I read the passages there were times when I just had to stop because I couldn’t read through the tears.  I’m sure the author intended to evoke emotion, but I’m also sure she wrote this book just for me.

I could fill the rest of this post with prophetic quotes from this book, but I want you to read and discover for yourself, with your baggage and perspective.  I’m sure each verse would mean something quite different for every reader.  If I had to choose a favorite, this would be it:

“The world will give you that once in awhile, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.”

 

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For the Reading around the states challenge, this book takes place in South Carolina.

The Lodger

by Louisa Treger

I love books, and I love to talk about books, but as a “book blogger” I struggle with excitement over sharing the experience I just had, with ruining the next reader’s unwrapping of an amazing present.

“The Lodger” is one worth unwrapping.  And do it slowly in order to savor the journey.  twitter

Confession time: I’m one of those readers who has a type.  I like contemporary fiction based in the US.  Am I dull?  Yes, I am.  But the first step in solving a problem is admitting…..ok, I just like what I’m familiar with as a person.  So, how did I end up reading a novel set in early 1900s London? Twitter.

If you are a reader, and not using Twitter to discover new authors, you are missing out. I stumbled onto the fact that writers are also people and like to talk to one another, as well as interact with us normal folk.  Whereas some fan girl over cute actors, I am an author fan girl. I am humbled to get a like or retweet of my amateur words from someone who is creative and brave enough to share their souls within the pages of a book.

Really savvy bloggers and authors frequently run contests on Twitter to share books, in print, e-books and even audio books.  I saw a contest for “The Lodger” and didn’t read a thing about it – I entered because the cover was beautiful.  I was drawn to it.  Luckily, I received an autographed copy from the UK which was also cool to receive international mail.

I opened the book and started page 1 having zero clue about the plot.  If you are a longtime reader of this blog you know that I became ill in 2013 and have struggled to return to my pre-injury reading ability. Things are still somewhat hard for me. I get distracted easily and if a book, tv show or movie doesn’t draw me in quickly, I fast lose interest and move on. Here’s the big deal about Treger’s book – I finished it in 2 days.  That is a celebratory moment and says a lot about the writing. I wanted to know more.

My husband saw me reading and reading and asked what the book was about – even at @100 pages in, my answer was “I don’t know”. I couldn’t pigeonhole this novel into a category.  Ultimately, for me, it was about a woman discovering herself and allowing us to watch the layers be pulled back.  Without spoiling your own discovery, Dorothy is a young, single woman in the city who struggles financially and has to make choices. Ah, the choices.  So many, so interesting, so unexpected.

Treger manages to capture characters who create all kind of emo. I was intrigued, confused, perplexed, angry….and at any given time I likely would have chosen much differently than the main character did in the end. What’s really wonderful about this novel is the writing style. You feel transported to a time when words flowed and were spoken with feeling, yet Treger manages to do so in such a way that reading her prose is effortless.

By the time the novel was done, and I was firmly #TeamDorothy, I discovered this wasn’t all just fanciful imagination. Treger based this novel on real people, and her use of Dorothy Richardson, discovered during thesis writing, made “The Lodger” even more intriguing. When you finish a book, and want to find out more about the subject or characters….that is time well spent.

And if you ever want to make this reader squeal, a signed book is your surest bet 🙂

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