Tuesday, June 20, 2017

With You Always by Jody Hedlund: Orphan Train Book One

Jody Hedlund begins the story of Elise and her two sisters, young German immigrants in 1857 New York City, in the novella An Awakened Heart and then continues the story in WITH YOU ALWAYS, book one of the Orphan Train series. Technically this book isn't about the orphan children  you normally associate with the term "orphan train." Instead the two stories concentrate on the poor working women of New York City who suffer when an economic downturn puts many of those working in the garment industry  (tenement-centered sweat shops) out of work.  Elise and her sisters are among those who find themselves out of work and out of a shelter.  Even when they find help at a struggling mission, their future is unsettled and bleak.  Elise is encouraged to travel west on a train taking women to Illinois for jobs in newly formed communities. 

The realities of New York are harsh - despicable working conditions, meager pay, crowded tenements, forced prostitution, orphaned and abandoned children, but life in Illinois is no piece of cake. Pay is low and Elise fears she will never be able to pay her living expenses, pay back her train fare west, and send money back east to help her siblings.  Elise encounters Thornton Quincy, a wealthy Easterner who has been challenged by his father to set up a new town in Illinois to prove his ability to take over the family business.  While Elise does not know his true identity and status, she and Thornton ignite sparks that cannot be ignored.  When she does learn more about the man, she challenges him to better understand the world of those he employs. 

I've always enjoyed Jody Hedlund's historical works, and these two are a great start to a new series.  I recommend readers take the time to read the novella.  I scored a copy from Barnes and Noble at a super price.  Miss Pendleton, the wealthy woman who gives up her own fortune to help the down-trodden women of NYC, is the main character of the novella, and I think she mirrors historical women of the late 19th Century who took stands to better the lives of immigrants and poor.
I obtained a copy  of WITH YOU ALWAYS from our library system http://www.winnefox.org/
I am so lucky that many of the Christian authors I want to read are available through the library system.  

Friday, June 16, 2017

CONFESSIONS OF A DOMESTIC FAILURE by Bunmi Laditan



Image result for confessions of a domestic failure 

Why a grandmother of 6 felt drawn to reading Bunmi Laditan’s CONFESSIONS OF A DOMESTIC FAILURE, a chick lit novel clearly written for the under 40 mommy set, is beyond me, but let it suffice to say it was a brilliant decision!  Ashley Keller is a new stay-at-home mom who is, as the cover describes, a “hot mess.”  She dearly loves her 8 month old daughter and her husband, but the 24/7 routine of sleep-deprived nights, lack of social interaction, endless laundry and housework, along with the guilt of being a non-nursing mom and a stubborn body that won’t bounce back to its previous hot body, have conspired to make Ashley believe she is the worst mother ever.  When her husband spends more and more time at his struggling new start business, Ashley sinks even further into despair.  Clearly this book should read like a tragedy, but instead it was a complete hoot.  Author Laditan presents with sharp wit and humor, the absolute absurdity of how mothers continue to judge themselves and others.  For Ashley, that means judging herself against her own sister, who seems to make motherhood and domesticity a smooth ride, evidenced by her sister’s frequent social media posts.  Add in the oodles of pinterest postings by anonymous super-moms that Ashley peruses from the couch while baby Aubrey plays, and Ashley’s fatigued, caffeine-fueled state seems even more hopeless.  But the biggest guilt producer is the television and internet sensation Emily Walker.  Emily, the queen of a domesticity kingdom that rivals Martha Stewart, Oprah, and the most pulled-together actress  rolled  into one,  feeds her adoring public daily bits of mothering wisdom via her television show, books, and social media presence.  When she announces a boot-camp for mothers wanting to up their game, Ashley applies and is chosen.  What follows makes for a delightfully humorous, while still touching, read.  I chuckled over the absolute absurdity of Emily’s hints – Here’s January 30th’s hint:
        Always incorporate your children into your exercise routine.  It’s important to model healthy living.  My five love to join me on my 5 a.m. walks.  The baby  fits snugly in my wrap and I pull my middle two in a wagon.  More weight means a better workout.

Or this comment about her personal trainer/masseuse 

When I met Sven I was most of you: unhappy and overweight.  I couldn’t shake the last six ounces of baby weight.  Within three weeks, he whipped my body into the best shape of my life.  My high school cheerleading uniform is too big for me now.  

Meanwhile, sleep-deprived Ashley is trying her darnest to meet each of Emily Walker’s weekly challenges, only to have each one blossom into some type of  “Ashley” disaster that will leave readers chuckling and probably remembering some of their own mothering moments. For me, that was reminiscing about our neighborhood coffee clutch.  With a husband who worked a third shift and three kids who needed to be kept reasonably quiet in mornings while he slept, the opportunity to leave home and spend time with other moms and their kids was a sanity saver.  But like Ashley, the dark shadows of guilt always lurked as I thought about the undone laundry, unweeded garden, and numerous projects that should be tackled.  Thankfully, I did not have Pinterest and Facebook to double that guilt, but there was WOMEN'S DAY and FAMILY CIRCLE!!  LOL.

Truthfully, this novel was a refreshing read, and I highly recommend it to mothers of all ages.
Humor remains a powerful tonic and healer, and Bunmi Laditan will give you plenty of chances to laugh at the absurdity of our desire to outshine others, our need to judge others, and our own self-criticism.   CONFESSIONS OF A DOMESTIC FAILURE is Bunmi Laditan's first novel; her other works include a Twitter account dubbed THE HONEST TODDLER.  I hope she continues to provide a positive voice for motherhood.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

THE MEMORY OF YOU by Catherine West

The Memory of YouIt has been 13 years since Natalie Mitchell has spent anytime at her grandfather's California vineyard.
As a child, the vineyard was the summer playground for Natalie and her twin sister Nicole, but all that changed when the two teenagers were involved in an accident which took Nicole's life and left Natalie in a perpetual state of grief, guilt, and emotional upheaval.  Now, Natalie's domineering father
sole purpose in sending Natalie, principal stock holder in the vineyard, west is to force a shut-down of what he believes is a failing business.  Natalie sees beyond her grandfather's health issues and old fashioned ways to see new potential, but her desire to make changes is stymied by her returning panic attacks and her confrontations with Tanner Collins, the present winery manager.  Tanner just happens to be her first teen crush, and the one who Natalie believes chose Nicole over herself.

As the title THE MEMORY OF YOU foreshadows, this is a story of how one's memories of the past affect and often, hinder, the present and the future.  Natalie is not the only one struggling with haunting memories.  Tanner's ability to make any decisions about his family, especially his niece and nephew, who he is currently raising, is shadowed by his own childhood.  And when Natalie's long-absent uncle returns to the winery, he must make amends with not only his father, but with the woman he left at the altar over 30 years earlier. While I thoroughly enjoyed West's earlier book THE THINGS WE KNEW, which also dealt with family members returning, old issues being resolved, and even a teen crush reappearing, I found that this story a bit slow going.  I never truly felt immersed in a wine country setting, despite references to wine tastings and Tanner's daily responsibilities.  And I found the bristly attitude Tanner had toward Natalie was a bit overdone.  Plus there were a few winery workers who appeared in the novel to create a bit of drama and unease, but I would have rather seen more interaction between Natalie and the grandfather she loved so much.  Instead, he was often absent and when present seemed to be a shadow of a person.  I am sure most readers will love this work, as much as I loved and recommended THE THINGS WE KNEW.  Why it did not totally click with me, I am having a difficult time discerning.  I just know that it took me several days to read this book; I often picked it up and only read a few pages before putting it down again.  Most times once I start a novel, I am so drawn into it that I want to put all other projects aside,  and I never felt that way with THE MEMORY OF YOU.  If I had to give the book a ranking, I would give it a 3.5-4.0, not the solid 4.5 I give most novels I enjoyed. I try to keep the 5 rating for truly memorable books.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Life Support by Robert Whitlow

My last two reads have both been legal tales, totally unplanned on my part, but rather the
result of previously placed holds coming through in quick succession.  First, I read John Grisham's GRAY MOUNTAIN, published in 2015 but set in the 2008 recession. Samantha Kofer, a hard-working young lawyer in a huge, cut-throat New York City law firm, is laid-off as the financial down turn spirals.  Told that her spot within the company will be held for several months if she finds a suitable charitable position elsewhere in the meantime,  Samantha seeks and obtains a position at a small legal aid clinic in coal country.  The lonely winding roads and desolate reminders of mountain tops stripped bare are a stark contrast to the bustle of her previous life, but soon Samantha is caught up in the work at the clinic.  No big real estate deals here, but rather cases which try to stop the pain of living in Appalachia --- poor people being ripped off by credit collectors, spousal abuse fueled by cheap drug addiction, and the ever present fights for black lung benefits.  As each week passes, Samantha learns more and more about the divide betwee n those who continue to see the coal companies as the lifeline to the mountains and those who will do anything to stop the new methods of mining which basically decapitates a mountain top and leaves it scalped and prone to rock slides, erosion, and water pollution. 

Commentary I read said this is the first time Grisham has had a female as the lead protagonist.  In fact, the whole Virginia mountain legal aid clinic is made up of women, although a male lawyer who
is a vigilante against the coal companies plays a big role in the book.  A reader's guide at the end of the book also points out that Grisham gives faces and names to the "little people" in the book, but the large coal companies are only that -- large companies.  We do not meet any of the coal company employers or owners.  What effect does this have on the book?  Is it easier to take sides when a novel is written like this?  I must say that GRAY MOUNTAIN left me with many questions about modern mining.

Immediately after finishing GRAY MOUNTAIN, I began LIFE SUPPORT by Robert Whitlow.  Publicity for Whitlow always lists him at the Christian fiction version of John Grisham, and I must agree that both are excellent writers of legal fiction.  Once again, the protagonist is a young female lawyer who finds herself suddenly unemployed.  Alexia Lindale has made quite a name for herself as a divorce lawyer who can calmly advocate for her female clients.  That may be why her firm asks her to navigate a dispute between Ezra Richardson, a rich and powerful client of the firms, and his daughter-in-law Rena.  Baxter Richardson, Rena's husband and Ezra's son, is on life support after a fall from a cliff.  Both Ezra and Rena hold documents which should give each power to make medical decisions for Baxter, but the two have differing opinions about what should be done.  Readers will clearly know Rena's motives, but Alexia will not, but soon the interactions between the two women will lead to Alexia being asked to leave her firm.  As she begins to navigate a private law practice, Rena becomes one of her first clients and deception abounds.  Built into this legal thriller is another layer that makes the novel stand apart.  Alexia, a lover of classical music, meets Ted Morgan, a music pastor, at a local church, and she is drawn back again and again to hear him play.  As a relationship just begins to sprout between the two, an even greater relationship opens for Alexia.  Through music, she feels God's presence for the first time --something her grandmother had always wished for.
This thread which focuses on the divine power of music becomes even more important as Ted is allowed to play for the comatose Baxter.

I must admit that LIFE SUPPORT ended disappointingly for me.  I stayed up until 1:00 a.m. to finish the book last night, only to find the book did not really end.  I quickly searched and yes, there is a second book.  After reading comments about the second book, it appears that it ends with a cliffhanger also, but there is no third book.  Right now I am in a bit of a dilemma.  I want to know more, especially about Alexia and Ted, but if the second book ends without resolving Rena's guilt do I really want to continue this tale?

Gray Mountain; Hardcover; Author - John Grisham

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

LIFE AFTER by Katie Ganshert

Image result for life after ganshertLIFE AFTER by Katie Ganshert is a contemporary Christian novel which tells the story of survivor guilt and the healing stages of grief.  Autumn Manning is the sole survivor of a random act of terror on a Chicago commuter train.  While she has no memories of the accident, Autumn has been told that she left work early that day.  Yet it was a later commuter train that she was on when a bomb exploded and killed all passengers except her.  Where had she spent those several hours?  Why was she on that train?  And why did she survive and not someone else?  Those thoughts and more haunt her every waking hour. As the first anniversary of that date approaches, Autumn's family voice their concern over her inability to move beyond that terrible day.  Finally accepting their advice, Autumn sees a counselor.  "Autumn rubbed her knuckles, then found a dry piece of skin near the middle of her left pinkie and began picking.  By the time this appointment was through, she'd need Band-Aids for all ten of her fingers.  She didn't want to worry her family or visit cemeteries at night or wake up at three in the morning in a cold sweat." (p.45)  Soon after the appointment, Reese, the young daughter of a woman who died in the bombing comes to see Autumn and makes the suggestion that someone make a tribute video remember all those who died.  In an attempt to face her survivor's guilt, Autumn takes on that task.  In doing so, she learns about the "ordinary" people who lost their lives that day and the people they left behind.  In doing so, she enters into the lives of Paul, Reese, and Tate -- the family who for a few hours believed their mom and wife had survived, only to learn later that it was Autumn who was unconscious at the hospital. As she gets closer to Paul and his children, Autumn learns that reaching out to others who are suffering may be the only way to heal oneself.

Katie Ganshert herself says she set out to create a story that showed God "weeps with the hurting," and she has succeeded.   A few years ago, I blogged about one of Ganshert's first novels, saying that I loved her writing, but that I hoped she would move beyond simple romance and begin writing novels with depth, especially ones with complicated characters.  She has done that and more!    I was lucky to score a copy of this novel from our library system;  LIFE AFTER was just published and is sure to be a popular read throughout 2017.

Friday, May 26, 2017

THE ONE TRUE LOVE OF ALICE-ANN by Eva Marie Everson

Lately the World War II historical fiction books I've read have not focused on the front lines, but on the people at home affected by the war. Some of those novels covered the European homefronts, while others have told stories of young Americans whose lives were interrupted and put on hold while brothers, fiances, and neighbors went off to war.  My interest in how those left behind coped and helped the war effort grew even more when I started watching the PBS series HOME FIRES. (On a side note, that series just ended after two seasons without a true ending.  I just learned that the producers are publishing three books to take the story to a suitable ending.  Check Amazon or Barnes and Noble for release dates.  Sorry for digressing.)

When I recently read a release for Eva Marie Everson's THE ONE TRUE LOVE OF ALICE ANN, it sparked my interest right away.  Another home front story, this one features a farm family in Georgia (very near the area which would be obtained by the government for Fort Stewart), especially the 16 year old daughter Alice-Ann who quickly grows up when her brother's best friend Mack enlists.
Alice-Ann's brother, 20 and already married and involved in the family farm, receives an agricultural deferment. That bit of information added another stronger layer of interest to my reading purpose. My father, who died two years ago at age 96, had an ag deferment, also, here in Wisconsin.  At first he was an employee of a farm, then he and my mother married, and he took over my grandfather's farm, a place that is still in our family.  I never truly understood how keeping all the farms at top production was contributing to our country's ability to wage war, but after reading about food shortages and ruined crops and such in Europe, plus thinking aboutthe enormous task of feeding the millions of soldiers, I now have a clearer view of the need for able-bodied men  and women to continue working our farms.

But I digress again.  Back to the book.  My copy, which I obtained through inter-library loan, bears a tiny genre sticker reading  "Gentle Reads," and that summarizes the book to a T.  This is a gentle, quiet romance about Alice-Ann growing from the wide-eyed teenager with a dreamy crush on her brother's handsome best buddy to a maturer woman who makes the right decision about who to marry. At sixteen, Alice-Ann believes Mack will come to his senses and recognize that she is growing up and that she's the one for him.  But the war intervenes and Alice-Ann keeps her dream alive by writing to Mack, finishing school, finding a job at the bank, and working very hard on the farm.  Hers is a story that could be found in almost every rural town across the nation.  Soon the reality of war comes to their Georgia town, as news of a local boy killed in action reaches them.  Then another local boy, Carlton, returns home badly wounded, and Alice-Ann begins to spend time with this friend of her brother's who just happens to be the older brother of her own best friend.  Can someone you've known all your life and whom you've considered just to be a family friend be more?

Gentle, quiet, yet realistic and worth telling -- that is the story of Alice-Ann.  Strength and courage were not only found on the front lines. You will be entertained by this book, but it serves a greater purpose. If you know someone of the Greatest generation, talk to them, learn their story before it is too late.  And don't think you need to seek out just the soldiers; everyone of that generation, and even the kids who were too young to serve, have something to share.  Let's acknowledge and treasure their experiences

Friday, May 19, 2017

HOME by Ginny L. Yttrup

HomeMost of us identify the word home with a place - a building or a community.  We may spout the words, "Home is where the heart is" or profess that we would follow a loved one anywhere, making where he/she is our home.  Ginny Yttrup's new book HOME shows us that "home" is also that place/state of mind where we are comfortable with ourselves, true to ourselves and to God.

Next door neighbors, good friends, and work partners, Melanie Vander and Jill Rodriquez both seem to have captured the American dream.  Both have loving spouses, Melanie has a growing career as an author, and Jill can continue her career as an editor from home, while raising twin boys and her daughter.  But despite the daily cups of coffee and personal thoughts shared, neither Melanie nor Jill realizes the emotional baggage the other hides. 

Melanie and her husband are facing financial ruin as a result of the continuing recession, causing her husband to work longer hours, and also fueling the writer's block Melanie currently experiences as a huge deadline looms closer.  When she escapes the pressures of home and travels to the lakeside retreat of a new friend, Craig feels his wife's absence is more than just physical.  But could the time there and the new novel which seems to be leading Melanie, instead of the other way around, bring a whole new understanding of home to Melanie and eventually Craig?  Meanwhile, Jill finds that the obsessive thoughts and actions that have darkened her life ever since the birth of her daughter must be faced.  The growing anxiety is crippling her and threatens all she loves.

While at times, it seemed odd having two such diverse stories happening at once, I quickly settled into this pattern, accepting it as another layer of realism.  Certainly, suburban neighborhoods are filled with friends facing unique life-shaping events at the same time.  Being there for someone else while your own life is breaking into a shambles is NOT fiction.  It happens every day, and God calls us to be there for others.  It may be what he provides as a path for our own healing. My heart ached for Jill as she found her way and also when Melanie and Craig finally admit what began her emotional exit from their marriage.  Jill seeks professional help in the novel, and there is also another counselor who is a minor, but significant, character.  The inclusion of these give Yttrup an avenue for
presenting important, well-grounded information about the stages of grief, OCD, and PTSD.
While I find that many Christian contemporary novels lack the depth for book club discussions, the themes of pain, loss, anxiety, coping mechanisms, being present in your own life, and more will give
readers plenty to think about and discuss.  Read this book and you will be left pondering Yttrup's message that "Home is the memory we've yet to live."

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Barbour Publishing and was under no obligation to post a review.