Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review: Left by Mary Hogan

When things go wrong in life, some people retreat into fantasy. Sometimes the life they imagine is very basic and other times it can grow to be an elaborate escape from the reality they are facing. This is the case in Mary Hogan's newest novel, Left: A Love Story.

The novel opens with Fay Agarra, the narrator of the story, walking her dog Lola and talking to and about a pre-war building in her New York City neighborhood, a building she's fallen in love with and is fantasizing about moving into "after it was all over" without mentioning what "it" is. The story immediately jumps to Spain and a vacation she took with her husband, the time from which she dates the changes in her life. Fay is 21 years younger than her husband and although she says often that their May-December romance shouldn't have worked, it has been a nearly perfect marriage for 22 years. Paul is a well-respected sitting judge in the city and has an adult son and an annoying ex-wife. Fay is an artist whose Etsy store is finally taking off. They're in Spain for a break from real life and so that Fay can find some more inspiration for her lamp shades. As they are getting ready to leave Spain, something strange happens though. Fay's "there kind of guy" drives off and leaves her, then telling police that she's lost. This turns out to be the first instance of Paul's forgetting, his dismissal of Fay's concerns, and a rather abrupt personality change that comes and goes. Fay is concerned by what she sees as significant changes but when she mentions her fears to her stepson and to Paul's doctor, each of them discounts her observations, suggesting she is imagining things. Only after a fall and surgery change things irreparably, does the truth come out.

Fay, as Paul's wife and caretaker, narrates the story, flipping back and forth from the past that led her to where she is and the present where she imagines herself falling into a relationship with a man she's seen in the building she covets. That she has created a whole story about this man---she's dubbed him Blake and invented his entire life out of thin air--and seems to truly believe her invention or maybe just wants to believe it so badly that she is shocked when it turns out to be as far from the truth as possible seems a little odd, as does her obsession with the building this man lives in. This easy belief in her own story, and the fact that Fay is so easily bullied, unsure of her observations about Paul once they are questioned, contribute to her coming off as far younger than she actually is. Her world, until the incident in Spain, seems to have been so charmed that she is incredibly naive and completely blindsided by any hint of trouble. Although Fay narrates her own story, she resolutely steers away from discussing everything going on with Paul as much as she can, escaping into her imaginings rather than detailing the actual day to day with her failing husband. This means that although the novel deals with a very difficult subject, the story as a whole remains mostly quite light and superficial. It does address some of the stresses of being a caretaker but obliquely instead of head-on, making it difficult to connect and sympathize with Fay's character. She almost seems as if she spends the entire book in shock, repeating phrases throughout and focused on inconsequential things rather than bigger issues and concerns. The reader is told about the Agarra's wonderful marriage but never shown it to make it real. Secondary characters, including Paul, are lightly sketched, keeping Fay as the main focus of the story. The book, this tale of a love and marriage slowly fading away, is quite short and a very fast read that many readers will find sweet and affecting.

For more information about Mary Hogan and the book, check out her webpage, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter. Check out the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins for inspiring me to take my copy of the book off the shelf for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Notes from the Cevennes by Adam Thorpe.

The book is being released by Bloomsbury Continuum on July 3, 2018.

Amazon says this about the book: Adam Thorpe's home for the past 25 years has been an old house in the Cévennes, a wild range of mountains in southern France. Prior to this, in an ancient millhouse in the oxbow of a Cévenol river, he wrote the novel that would become the Booker Prize-nominated Ulverton, now a Vintage Classic.

In more recent writing Thorpe has explored the Cévennes, drawing on the legends, history, and above all the people of this part of France for his inspiration. In his charming journal, Notes from the Cévennes, Thorpe takes up these themes, writing about his surroundings, the village, and his house at the heart of it, as well as the contrasts of city life in nearby Nîmes. In particular he is interested in how the past leaves impressions--marks--on our landscape and on us. What do we find in the grass, earth, and stone beneath our feet and in the objects around us? How do they tie us to our forebears? What traces have been left behind and what marks do we leave now?

He finds a fossil imprinted in the single worked stone of his house's front doorstep, explores the attic once used as a silk factory, and contemplates the stamp of a chance paw in a fragment of Roman roof-tile. Elsewhere, he ponders mutilated fleur-de-lys (French royalist symbols) in his study door and unwittingly uses the tomb-rail of two sisters buried in the garden as a gazebo. Then there are the personal fragments that make up a life and a family history: memories dredged up by 'dusty toys, dried-up poster paints, a painted clay lump in the bottom of a box.'

Part celebration of both rustic and urban France, part memoir, Thorpe's humorous and precise prose shows a wonderful stylist at work, recalling classics such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

There is nothing new under the sun. While we may not have heard of separating children from their families at the border before, taking children from their families, housing them in orphanages, and then adopting them out to new families is not new in the history of this country. From 1924 through 1950, Georgia Tann ran the Tennessee Children's Home Society, an adoption agency that stole babies from single mothers or kidnapped older children from their poor parents and sold them to wealthy people looking to adopt. The law looked the other way for decades, and they and the adoptive parents colluded with Tann to keep the secret of the these illegal adoptions. In Lisa Wingate's novel, Before We Were Yours, she fictionalizes Georgia Tann's very real crimes to create a novel about the devastation and long term affects on the children and families illegally ripped apart.

In 1939, a young woman loses her baby and is advised not to have more. To mitigate this devastating heartbreak, her father is directed to a woman in Memphis. In present day Aiken, SC, high-powered federal prosecutor Avery Stafford has come home from Baltimore to help her father, a wealthy and well-respected Senator in the midst of a reelection campaign who is also facing a health crisis. Avery is both being groomed to take over for her father one day and also to provide an additional face for his campaign events right now. At one such event, an elderly woman named May Crandall mistakes Avery for someone else. This case of mistaken identity is somehow the thing that Avery latches onto during this stressful time, leading her first to her grandmother, suffering from dementia, with questions about the past and then to the family secret buried for so many years. May might have gotten Avery's identity wrong but she remembers quite a lot from her own tragic past.

Memphis, Tennessee, 1939. Rill Foss lives with her parents and four siblings on a riverboat shanty tucked away on the Mississippi River. When her mother's latest labor becomes dangerous, Rill's parents must go into town to the hospital, leaving the 12 year old in charge. While they are gone, the boat is raided and the children taken to an orphanage to await reunification with their parents. But Rill comes to understand that there will be no reunion, in fact her parents were tricked into signing their children away, even as she fights to keep her siblings together. The orphanage is an appalling and terrifying place. The children are abused and starved. They are molested. They are punished for outspokenness. And they disappear. Some children disappear into new adoptive families. Others just plain disappear.

Avery's and Rill's story lines alternate back and forth as the novel progresses taking the reader from the heart-breaking and horrific life in the orphanage in the 1940s to the closely guarded secrets of the present day. The description of what the Foss children endured daily after being ripped from their parents is so disgusting and their perseverance is so extraordinary that this historical story was far more compelling than the modern day revelations. Rill's determination to stay connected with her siblings and to find her way back to her family is incredible. Avery's story is more of a blossoming love story with a side of mystery and less engaging in general. The two plots come together in ways that reader will see coming long before the end but somehow that doesn't take much away from the power of the novel. Although based in large part on a terrible, true historic tragedy, this novel manages to be hopeful and positive in the end. Historical fiction fans will be completely engrossed in this one and all readers will sadly learn that we have not always been concerned with the welfare of children or of the sanctity of families.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It turns out that getting ready to leave for the summer, rally my youngest to get ready too, and leave the house in a reasonable state of being for my husband and oldest (who don't get to bug out of this nasty heat and humidity) cuts into reading and reviewing time terribly! This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed this past two weeks are:

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
You'll Always Have Tara by Leah Marie Brown
The Paris Wedding by Charlotte Nash
The Taster by V.S. Alexander
Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce
Calypso by David Sedaris

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
The Beauty of the End by Debbie Howells
Country of Red Azaleas by Domnica Radulescu
A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti
Paint Your Wife by Lloyd Jones
The Company They Kept edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
Thousand-Miler by Melanie Radzicki McManus
Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Hope Has Two Daughters by Monia Mazigh
After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara
Metis Beach by Claudine Bourbonnais
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love by Per J. Andersson
The New York Time Footsteps by various authors
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
Mean by Myriam Gurba
The Widow Nash by Jamie Harrison
The Wangs Vs. the World by Jade Chang
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
One House Over by Mary Monroe
Postcards from the Canyon by Lisa Gitlin
Burntown by Jennifer McMahon
Everything She Didn't Say by Jane Kirkpatrick
The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale
The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman
The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
Sycamore by Bryn Chancellor
Plum Rains by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Reviews posted this week:

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
The Paris Wedding by Charlotte Nash

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Unslut by Emily Lindin
This Far Isn't Far Enough by Lynn Sloan
The Hounds of Spring by Lucy Andrews Cummin
Paper Boats by Dee Lestari
Mothers of Sparta by Dawn Davies
A Handful of Happiness by Massimo Vacchetta and Antonella Tomaselli
Swimming with Elephants by Sarah Bamford Seidelmann
As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman
Dates from Hell and Other Places by Elyse Russo
Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard
The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman
Love Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
A Song for the River by Philip Connors
Daditude by Chris Erskine
In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt
Beautiful Music by Michael Zadoorian
Still Life with Monkey by Katharine Weber
America for Beginners by Leah Franqui
Vanishing Twins by Lea Dieterich
Tenemental by Vikki Warner
Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
The Lido by Libby Page
The Invisible Valley by Su Wei
The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs
The Showrunner by Kim Mortishugu
I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice
Paris by the Book by Liam Callanan
Terra Nullius by Clare G. Coleman
Christmas in July by Alan Michael Parker
Nothing Forgotten by Jessica Levine
Housegirl by Michael Donkor
Wildwood by Elinor Florence
All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman
Weedeater by Robert Gipe
The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff
Chemistry by Weike Wang
The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams
Come Back to the Swamp by Laura Morrison
The Animal Gazer by Edgardo Franzosini
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
Sound by Bella Bathurst
Celine by Peter Heller
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
You'll Always Have Tara by Leah Marie Brown
The Taster by V.S. Alexander
Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce
Calypso by David Sedaris

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review: The Paris Wedding by Charlotte Nash

How long would it take you to get over the guy you thought was the love of your life? Would you mourn your relationship for days, months, years? What about a full decade? And if you are still in love with him a decade on despite being dumped for no good reason, would you be able to accept an invitation to this man's wedding to someone else, even if only in hopes of giving yourself closure on your relationship? In Charlotte Nash's new novel, The Paris Wedding, main character Rachael West is faced with just such a decision.

Rachael's mother, who suffered from a fast moving and rare kind of MS, has just died when into her mailbox drops an invitation to Rach's ex-boyfriend's wedding. It's in Paris, all expenses paid. But Rachael has never gotten over Matthew and in the wake of her mother's death, a decade during which she gave up her dreams of university and a life and family with Matthew to stay on the family wheat farm and care for her mother, she is even more conscious than ever of all she gave up, sacrificing the husband and children that so many of her contemporaries now have. Initially she doesn't think she can go to the wedding. Seeing Matthew marry Bonnie, a wealthy Sydney socialite and philanthropist, would be too hard. But then she reasons that maybe actually seeing him commit his life to another woman will help her get over him and move on. So she asks her best friend Sammy to be her plus one as she and the other members of their tiny, rural Australian community travel to Paris for an incredible wedding experience.

Once in Paris, things get impossibly complicated though. Rachael is horrified to discover that she still has feelings for Matthew.  She is also intrigued by the sexy wedding photographer, Antonio. She and Sammy get in a fight that tests their friendship; she meets and likes Matthew's fiance Bonnie; and her talent as a seamstress and designer, something she's always thought of only as a hobby, is recognized and applauded. With so many potential futures suddenly open to her, where will her heart lead her?  Is that once yearned for life with Matthew her dream or is her dream something else entirely?

Rachael's character initially feels stuck in place. She never regretted staying and caring for her mother but she did make a huge sacrifice to do so. That she hasn't been able to move past her love for Matthew despite not seeing him for a decade is completely believable given the small town and lack of opportunities in it so the reader sympathizes with her feeling of life having passed her by. Although going to Paris is supposed to help her get unstuck, she can't quite let go of that promised life with Matthew even while she's attracted to Antonio. Her waffling between the two men is frustrating because the reader knows for sure early on what the correct choice is. She spends much of the novel wrapped up in her own troubles, without giving a thought to those around her but luckily she's drawn as kind and caring enough that the reader still wants to see her happy and moving forward. Some of the plot threads are fairly predictable (and some seem to be intentionally so), especially those around the secondary characters, but this doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the novel. When Rachael remembers her mother and the things she used to tell her daughter to help her cope with life, her mum offers some lovely, profound, and true sentiments. This is a sweet romance but it's also about facing the future and learning to let go of those who leave you, whether intentionally (a break-up or abandonment) or because they have no choice (death) and it's about figuring out and following a dream no matter how delayed.

For more information about Charlotte Nash and the book, check out her webpage, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter. Check out the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Dependents by Katharine Dion.

The book is being released by Little, Brown and Company on June 19, 2018.

Amazon says this about the book: A wise and lyrical debut novel about a new widower confronting the truth about his long marriage.

After the sudden death of his wife, Maida, Gene is haunted by the fear that their marriage was not all it appeared to be. Alongside Ed and Gayle Donnelly, friends since college days, he tries to resurrect happy memories of the times the two couples shared, raising their children in a small New Hampshire town and vacationing together at a lake house every summer. Meanwhile, his daughter, Dary, challenges not only his happy version of the past but also his view of Maida. As a long-standing rift between them deepens, Gene starts to understand how unknown his daughter is to him--and how enigmatic his wife was as well. And a lingering suspicion seizes his mind that could upend everything he thought he knew.

Katharine Dion's assured debut moves seamlessly between Gene's present-day journey and the long history of a marriage and friendship. Rich and wonderfully alive, The Dependents is the most moving kind of drama, an intimate glance into the expanse of family life and the way we must all eventually bridge the chasm between what we want to believe and what we know to be true.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Review: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

I have read other Wiley Cash books and thoroughly enjoyed them. I have heard him speak and even had dinner with him at a literary event. He writes beautifully and is clearly invested in the forgotten or hidden stories he tells of his native South. The Last Ballad, based on a true story, is a novel that he obviously holds close to his heart. Ironically though, despite his closeness to the subject matter, it is the least successful of his novels for me.

It's 1929 and Ella May Wiggins is a single mother of five children (four living) who works in a textile mill in Bessemer City, NC. She earns $9 a week, which isn't really enough to feed and clothe herself and her children. Her alcoholic ex-husband up and left before her last baby was born and the man she's with now (and pregnant by) is almost as no-account as her disappeared husband. Ella May lives in Stumptown, in the Negro part of town, despite the fact that she and her children are white.  The Wiggins family, like their black neighbors, live in grinding, desperate poverty. When Ella May is reprimanded for missing work to care for her very ill child, she decides that she will attend a meeting to see what unionization could mean to her and to her children. Despite her fear of losing her job and the only income she has, she agrees to join the movement.  After singing a heart-rending ballad she's written about the mills and motherhood, she quickly becomes the local face for the union, trading her mill job for one within the union organization. But the local mill owners are not about to allow these communist unions into their mills without a fight, a truly horrible and violent fight if required. Ella May, being so publicly recognizable will be square in the cross hairs of those determined to keep the unions out no matter what.

Mostly set in 1929 with two short portions in 2005, the novel is told from various characters' points of view. The multiplicity of characters, from Ella May to her daughter, from the wealthy wife of a mill owner to a violent sheriff's deputy, from a black activist to a broken man haunted by his past, and many more, shows the events of the novel from many different perspectives, highlighting the way that so many different people converged on Gaston County.  This same multiplicity made it hard to follow the story as it switched from one person to another to another, sometimes quite far from the main plot thread. Eventually the threads all converged but until that point, the narrative structure gave it a choppy feel. While the history here is incredibly important to the story, it often drove the novel to the exclusion of the human story. History has covered the general story of unions and the conditions that led to them pretty thoroughly but the story of Ella May herself has faded into obscurity. Unfortunately, Ella May didn't quite come to life here either, portrayed as she was first as an unthinking pawn of the union and later as a martyr to their cause rather than the complete person she must have been. Her personal story, the things that made her more than just the singer, are sometimes told, not shown, in the novel but are almost never fully explored, lessening the emotional impact of this woman's life and her struggle. It must have taken heaps of courage to stand up for her children and herself, as well as for her black neighbors, who were not being welcomed into the union fold, but somehow this courage is only viewed at a far remove and not close and viscerally for the reader. I think perhaps the message overwhelmed the story here, which is a shame because there's quite a story to be told and usually Cash has the chops to pull it off. The writing itself is well done despite the stumbling block of the structure and the story is an important one, if incredibly bleak. Readers who like their fiction to confront injustice will still want to read this even if the emotional punch isn't quite there.

For more information about Wiley Cash and the book, check out his webpage, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter. Check out the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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