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The Thing About Leftovers

by C.C. Payne

True confession time: I’m a retired woman, on a budget in a town of 600 people with a teeny library.  To feed my book habit, I enter EVERY contest I can find.  Every Single One. Most times I am unaware of the author, and often don’t even bother to read the book description.  There was over a year of my life when a brain injury meant I was unable to read, and once healed I vowed to read like a maniac. So, I contest like mad.  blog

I won The Thing About Leftovers and eagerly began the book several days ago.  A few pages in, I became suspicious and started looking closely at the book information. I was saddened when I read: Penguin.com/Young Readers Ages 10 up.

FYI, I am way up past 10 years old.

Sigh.

But, I’d won the book, the author had kindly personalized it and mailed it quickly.  I determined to stick it out. I figured at 52 I could read faster than a 10 year old and would zip through to ease my guilt.

A funny thing happened….I became absorbed. I actually read it in two days, not to get it over with, but because I couldn’t put it down.

Payne wrote a novel with a compelling main character, Fizzy, a sad young girl who had her life ripped from her when her parents divorced.  Mom relocated to another town.  Dad found another woman. Fizzy became the new student (outcast) at an unfamiliar school.  Most teachers were uninterested, old friends abandoned her, Mom began a new relationship and Fizzy was lost.  Leftover from an old world, unsure of her place, feeling unloved, this is the story of pain, loss, rebuilding.

The Thing About Leftovers punched me in the gut.

I lived much of Fizzy’s life. My mom was married and divorced three times. There were multiple dads among the siblings, and by marriage number three I was one of the last remaining kids at home.  I had the stepfather who moved in and took over.  I lost my older siblings who fled and remained away for decades.  The only other sibling who stayed was drinking at 19, an alcoholic in his 20s and dead at 37.  My purpose as a youngster was to be the peacemaker.  To make people laugh. To be good and not cause problems.

My entire childhood was fractured and upon my parent’s deaths I was freed and packed away (much) of that pain.  I worked very hard to create a different life for my kids where they were loved unconditionally and my marriage was strong and filled with joy.

Payne crafted a novel which caused me to remember.  I remembered through Fizzy and I cried.  Several times I actually had to stop reading because I felt so much pain for a fictional character, and for me who had forgotten how hard my childhood was all those years ago.

I am sure my reaction to Fizzy’s mom is much more vitriolic than the author intended, but I felt anger any time she was in the story. Every “yes, ma’am” uttered by Fizzy hurt me.  Even though the book ended on a positive note, with some moral (hopeful) lessons for other readers, this reader hurt and felt lots of discomfort.

I am glad I won this book.  I am glad I’m polite enough to have stuck with it because the catharsis was liberating.  It’s amazing how much I’d packed away and completely forgotten.  It says a lot about the writing skills of the author that she was so spot on describing the angst experienced by many of us during our formative years.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

all we had

by annie weatherwax

Many of the books I read and review are given to me, and I’m grateful for the chance to experience such a wide variety of material.  I’m not complaining.  But there is something wonderful about selecting a book, anticipating the story and immersing yourself in the novel.  For Christmas a friend gave me a B&N gift card and I spent HOURS perusing the online store and was like a kid picking up, and putting back, the new toy until I found exactly the ones I wanted.

The first of my treasures I chose is “all we had” by annie weatherwax and, to be completely honest, I selected it because I was entranced by the cover. Yup, I judged this book by its cover and I’m so glad I did.

This is a story about a transient, underemployed, kindhearted mother Rita and her daughter, 13 year old Ruthie.  Rita has led a hard life becoming a mom at 16 and forced to use sex as a tool of power to find men willing to take them in and provide shelter and food.  This lifestyle is unimaginable to me, but Weatherwax managed to pen the character in such a way that she seems like a tragic human caught in a terrible situation doing what she has to in order to survive. She also understood the circle of poverty which can trap a person and she was determined to ensure her daughter got into an Ivy League school and made a better life for herself.  Commendable especially as a 29 year old having to resort to using, and being used, by men.  blog

Mom and daughter hit the road in a barely drive-able car and head from California to Boston, home of many top colleges. Despite the fact Ruthie is only 13, Rita is working toward the future and wants her daughter educated in the best schools and nearer to her future freedom from poverty.

…..and then things take a turn for the unexpected.

The women end up at a diner in a dying town in New York state and a cast of characters become the family they never had before.  Rita ends up waitressing, Ruthie works part time as a dishwasher and we get to watch a life build as money is made, housing is secured and friendships blossom.

I really loved the time in the diner. Weatherwax fleshed out each character, and as a reader, I was impressed with her ability to hook me despite my own initial misgivings.  One of the waitresses is transgender and not someone I’ve ever experienced in my own life but by the end of the book, Peter Pam was my favorite. I felt an attachment I wouldn’t have thought possible and was invested in her character.

And like many great novels, there is more to the story than just the adventures of a mom and daughter. Weatherwax was writing a fictionalized account of what much of America suffered during the sub-prime mortgage crisis in our country. People wanting to create their own American dream and instead ending up worse off than before.  Dreaming of home ownership but instead becoming caught even further in a cycle of poverty.  Besides the main characters, this is represented throughout the novel as factories move, diners disappear, neighbors going from frequent Walmart truck deliveries to destitution and, of course, Walmart encroaching on mom & pops which used to be a way of life.

I read this book in 2 days and had to force myself at 3am to put it down. I hope Weatherwax writes many more books. She is stellar.

 

For the US Book Reading Challenge – this was set in New York.

 

Attuc

by Jeffrey Koval

If you are a regular reader here you know my story and know I suffered a brain injury which took about two years of my life.  During that time I was unable to read or listen to books because I couldn’t process plots or retain information.  Following that awful period, my mantra has been GIVE ME EVERYTHING to read. I’m making up for lost time, and celebrating the return of a skill even 5 year-olds manage.

That said, I am always on the hunt for new material, authors, narrators and I happily volunteer to read and review work.  I go into things blindly and very rarely have any idea of the material genre until I begin.  I came across the narrator for “Attuc” on Twitter and he kindly sent me this audio book from Audible.com.

And then I saw it was a 45 minute short story. Sigh.

I HATE short stories. I’m the 10-20 hour book listener and believe it takes an hour to properly introduce a character. I want to immerse myself in every detail.  I learned to hate short stories in high school when it felt like literature was dumbed down to fit the class period.

But I had agreed to listen to this so I turned up the iPod and busied myself with New Year’s resolution #86 – pantry organization.

And I was sucked into this story by Koval, and especially Skyler Morgan’s narration.

This is the story of a man attending the funeral of a college roommate, and speaking of the times they shared long ago, with a horror twist.

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By happenstance, I am actually from central New Jersey as is the author, and I attended Rutgers where the story takes place. That upped the creep factor of this chilling tale for me as a listener.

This 45 minutes ended far too soon.  I got mad at the last sentence when I realized it was over. Morgan has a soothing voice and his narration was well done.  I would not hesitate to listen to him in more works.  Checking now to see if Koval has written more, which is the highest praise I can give a writer.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

Riveted

by Kenzie Macallan

If you are a book lover, and are willing to roll the dice on new authors, or genres, I highly recommend joining Twitter and spending time in the community of writers who are using that venue to reach out to readers.  I have been introduced to many terrific works which I otherwise would likely have never come across.  I won the book “Riveted” by Kenzie Macallan and if you are a fan of fast-paced adventure/romance novels, you will likely enjoy Macallan’s work.

The highest praise I can give an author, is also one which causes me guilt – speeding through the book.  I imagine these poor, dedicated souls spending night after night, week after week, investing themselves in character and plot development, while I (guiltily) read speedily through the work just to find out what happens next.  That’s how I felt when I began reading “Riveted.”  I just wanted to find out what was the next unexpected twist.  blog

The author included a warning which I will also share with you – this is not a book if you are sensitive to grief or domestic abuse.  I’ve read books which are much more graphic and disturbing, but since the main character, Mara, deals with both issues, this is something to consider when choosing “Riveted.”  For me, the best thing about this book was the healthier relationship Mara shares with her sisters.  As a 51 year old without a strong extended-family dynamic, I was drawn to these successful women.  They support one another unconditionally, and don’t hold back honest advice.  Honestly, in today’s world of relocation for jobs, high stress environments and social media replacing face to face communication, how many of us truly have a real-life tribe that can support us through the worst of times?

Macallan has created two main characters with a lot of potential, but with baggage to be dealt with through the course of the novel.  A chance encounter on a plane, as Mara heads to an island escape with her sisters to deal with a personal tragedy, leads to romance.  While there is the typical “love at first site physical attraction” expected in the romantic genre, the twists of psychological exploration and physical danger make this more interesting than your Mom’s Harlequin stash.  This is what kept me going.  I’m not a cowboy-city girl, rip-off-the-clothes, no plot reader.  The depth behind why each character responded to the other is what made “Riveted” interesting.

“Riveted” is worth a read and as first in the Art of Eros series, you may have just found a whole slew of future reads by author Kenzie Macallan.