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the end of miracles

by Monica Starkman

Narrated by Jane Oppenheimer

To be completely honest, I requested this book from the narrator because 25 years ago I battled infertility.  The subject is a tough one, and I thought as a reader who has lived some of this, I could relate to the character. And I did. blog

Starkman has penned a debut novel that hits home with any female who struggles to become a mother.  Something so “natural” that when denied, our center is knocked off balance and we swim upstream to find ourselves, define ourselves.  The main character in the end of miracles is every woman.  She’s in the prime of life, solid marriage, goes to work every day, has friends, and for her, giving birth is the ultimate dream.  We watch as she deals with feelings of jealousy for friends to whom pregnancy comes easily, self hatred as she thinks her soul is defined by an empty womb, guilt that she cannot give to her husband the child that will have his same nose…..

I became absorbed listening to narrator Jane Oppenheimer voice Margo’s pain and her ultimate psychological decline.  Starkman’s writing is spot on and she managed to convey through Margo the plethora of suffering infertility can bring.  The story moved quickly and I was easily engrossed in the plot which has some unexpected turns.

As an audio book listen, I give huge kudos to Oppenheimer.  Her voice was perfect for this novel.  Several hours in I realized this didn’t feel like someone was reading the story to me; it felt like I was listening to my girlfriend Margo and aching for her as she shared her suffering.  This isn’t an easy skill that all narrators possess.  I would not hesitate to listen to another Oppenheimer audio performance.

the end of miracles, to me, felt like a book in three parts – before, during and after.  I never like to give away specific details because as a reader I believe you should unwrap the present yourself and enjoy each layer without advance warning.  That said, my only ugh was the “after” part of the book.  I didn’t love the ending.  I understood the ending.  I appreciate how Starkman wrapped it all up, but for me, I wasn’t sure that was how Margo’s story should have ended.  Then I read a brief bio on the author and learned she has a medical degree and spent much of her career working in the field of psychotherapy and infertility.  I’m guessing her vast experience makes the ending choice far more appropriate than anything I could have devised.

Great book and a great audio performance.

To please the lawyers, as I mentioned above: “I was given this free review copy audio book at my request and have voluntarily left this review.”

 

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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.

 

 

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.

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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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