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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.

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.

Barefoot by Elin Hilderbrand

For 17 months I battled a brain injury which left me unable to read, process anything complex, follow plots or retain information. I could only listen to chapter 1 of my favorite childhood book, Alas Babylon, every night as I battled insomnia because I knew that story for 30+ years pre-injury. I was a mess.

Then at about the two year mark, my brain recovered. One of the greatest gifts I received was my ability to read. Believe me, your world becomes hopelessly small when you are unable to escape into the pages of a book and nothing of substance crosses your frontal lobe.

I attempted to restart my book review blog shortly after healed, but I was paralyzed with fear. How could I judge the quality of anyone’s work? What if my brain was still broken and I was incorrect in my opinions or understanding of the material? Who was I to judge anyone’s efforts? After so long with a silent brain, I now even embrace “bad” material because I can. I can follow a plot and care about characters again. Give me something to read, and I will find something to celebrate about it because I’m so joyous to understand words.

So, I’m back to try again, but this time with a goal. I saw this challenge on the internet and thought it a good way to dip my toes back into book reviewing. I’m going to travel the US state by state via books set in each of the 50 states, and DC because she should be one.

My reading speed is much slower than before the illness, but I will make my way across the country eventually.

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I am starting this journey in one of my favorite places in the world – the beach.  “Barefoot” by Elin Hilderbrand is set on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts.  Featuring three women, each with baggage far too heavy to carry, this novel evokes a lot of feels.  I found myself dog-earring pages (a sin for some, but to me the sign of a well loved book) which I wanted to come back and reflect upon.  Although these women are younger than me, I could relate to their troubles – illness, stupid choices, impulsive behavior.  I also fell in love with their community of support they created. In our world of long distance relationships, I yearn for close girlfriends who could put aside daily life and rally around me in a pinch.  blog.jpg

Hilderbrand does an excellent job of weaving the stories together.   Each character is developed enough that the reader can relate to her and root for her, while also making the communal story just as important.  In life we each walk our own journey, and if we are lucky enough, we have a path filled with friends and family who weave their way to our destination with us.  I also appreciated the locale as an important character in itself.  The sounds, smells, visual descriptions of this place of peace reminded me of my own frequent trips to the Jersey shore, and how important the summer feel was to my childhood.

This was my first Hilderbrand book, but it won’t be my last.  I really enjoyed her style and characters.  I read this one versus audio book, my first book purchase from a brick and mortar since getting well!  Because much of the writing hit home with me, I was glad that this was one I could read slowly, highlight and re-read versus the narrator determining the speed for me.

To see more works by this author, please visit: http://www.elinhilderbrand.net/

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If you have suggestions for books set within the US for me to try (including Young Adult please), comment and I’ll check them out.

And to track my journey, please use this link (also found at the top of the blog) to see the map:

US Book Reading Challenge Map