Friday, June 30, 2017

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

A Piece of the WorldChristina Baker Kline scored great success with her novel ORPHAN TRAIN, and I eagerly tackled that title when our book club chose it for a monthly discussion.  Without being to articulate exactly why, I felt slightly disappointed in the story. Perhaps I had hoped for a broader scoped novel, one which delved more into the organizations and people behind the orphan trains.  But while I might have felt let down with the plot, I recognized Baker-Kline's writing style flowed and drew readers in, so when I read a review for A PIECE OF THE WORLD, I was ready to tackle another of her stories.
In this title, she has found, not only a worthy subject, but she also captured the character's voice to perfection.  Anna Christina Olson spent her entire life on a Maine farm that had been in her mother's family for generations, and she is middle-aged, living a solitary life with her brother, when young artist Andrew Wyeth meets the pair.  Over several years, Andrew paints their farm and the reclusive pair, but the painting that is most well known is of Anna alone.  Entitled Christina's World, Wyeth shows a younger Christina on a golden grassy field with the family house a distance away.  Only careful observation reveals a dogged determination across the woman's far, the tense grip of her hands, and the odd angle of her super thin legs.  Then comes the realization that Christina is crippled (language of the time) and dragging herself across the field is her mode of transportation.
A PIECE OF THE WORLD takes us in to Christina's world, one dominated by her parents and her undiagnosed, untreated illness.  As I have already said, Kline gives Christina a scrappy voice that will make readers both sympathetic and frustrated with the central character.  Year by year, event by event, her body becomes more fragile, making her more separated from all life beyond the farm, until the decaying house, her dwindling family, and the shabby farm are indeed CHRISTINA'S WORLD.  I can't wait for the next morsel of history that Baker-Kline can find and then with her diligent research and talented pen brings to life.

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
I am so lucky that many of the Christian authors I want to read are available through the library system.  

Friday, June 16, 2017


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