Monday, September 30, 2013

~ The Cutting Season ~

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
Publisher:  Harper
Date:  September 18, 2012
ISBN:  978-0061802058
Pages:  384
Rating:  4.5 out of 5

Book Summary:  Caren Gray is the general manager of Belle Vie, a sprawling antebellum plantation where the past and the present coexist uneasily. The estate’s owners have turned the place into an eerie tourist attraction complete with full-dress reenactments and carefully restored slave quarters. Outside the gates, an ambitious corporation has been busy snapping up land from struggling families who have grown sugar cane for generations, replacing local employees with illegal laborers. Tensions mount when the body of a female migrant worker is found in a shallow grave on the edge of the property, her throat cut clean. The list of suspects is long, but when the cops zero in on a person of interest, Caren has a feeling they’re chasing the wrong leads. Putting herself at risk, she unearths startling new facts about an old mystery—the long-ago disappearance of a former slave—that has unsettling ties to the modern-day crime. In pursuit of the truth about Belle Vie’s history—and her own—Caren discovers secrets about both cases that an increasingly desperate killer will do anything to keep buried. 

My Thoughts:  The Cutting Season is not a light beach read.  It’s a wonderfully complex, absorbing story about family, race, history, motherhood, love and loss and so much more. This book requires the reader’s focus.  It is as much about the main character, Caren, and her development as it is about the murders she is trying to solve.  They are personal to Caren as one was her great-great-great grandfather and the other, the mother of two small children.  In this way the author has used the killings, set generations apart, as vehicles for Caren Gray (the name in itself says a lot about her) to learn about herself and, in turn, the two most important relationships to her: from the past, one with her mother, and currently, one with her daughter.
 The Cutting Season’s protagonist, Caren Gray, has taken it upon herself to try and solve the mysteries behind two murders: the recent stabbing of a female migrant worker and the past murder of her great-great-great grandfather, Jason.  The body of the migrant worker, Ines Avalo, a young mother, is found on the plantation close to where the slave cabins used to be.  Caren cannot help but connect the migrant worker’s murder to the disappearance of Jason.   Both had ties to Belle Vie – she worked the cane fields and he lived and worked on the plantation for decades.   The current case reminds Caren of her family’s loss years ago.  She’s plagued by constant thoughts of Jason and dreams of what may have happened to him.
Caren’s anxious to find the truth behind both cases but for different reasons.  In the current case, the police arrested a young man, Donovan, who works at Belle Vie but Caren’s convinced he didn’t do it.  Caren likes Donovan and the other Belle Vie employees and sees this as a way to prove her loyalty to them.  As for Jason, she wants to find out what happened to him as a tribute to her mother.  Caren heard stories throughout her childhood from her mother about Jason and her other relatives who worked and lived on the plantation.   Her mother never stopped wondering what happened to him. 
Caren was raised on the Louisiana plantation of Belle Vie where her mother was head cook.  Her mother loved to share stories about their ancestors once worked as slaves in the sugar cane fields of Belle Vie long ago.  Caren hated living at Belle Vie and couldn’t wait to get away.  She didn’t care about her ancestors and resented her mother for making Caren live at Belle Vie. Now the plantation is a tourist attraction and Caren has returned with her young daughter, Morgan, to be the manager.  It’s a far cry from law school (she dropped out after two years) and Caren isn’t completely comfortable being back there.  But it’s a job and a good, safe home for Morgan.
Having a daughter has led Caren to have regrets about how she behaved towards her mother before she died.  She’d hated growing up at Belle Vie, wasn’t impressed that her mother was the head cook for a large house and grounds owned by other people.  It didn’t matter the owners took good care of their employees.  Caren hated the family history that her mother tried to share with her every night.  The very thing that made her mother love Belle Vie: that her ancestors worked the plantation and lived here years ago, made Caren hate it. It embarrassed her to know her family lived and worked this way.  She couldn’t understand why her mother was so proud of her ancestors.
From the start Locke had me interested in Caren’s character:  deeply flawed but likable and empathetic. She means well but her intentions usually don’t come across in her words and actions.  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.  She made some poor decisions in her life and, as a result, isn’t particularly happy now.  Caren has some major regrets, is lonely and raising a daughter, Morgan, by herself. Caren’s doing the best she can to keep Morgan safe and happy but knows Morgan isn’t happy living on the plantation.  Morgan’s lonely and has been pulling away from her mother beginning to resent her for making Morgan live on the plantation.
Caren doesn’t ooze charm and isn’t someone you instantly like.  She herself is initially suspicious of people.  It takes her a long time to warm up to someone and, even then, can be awkward and stand-offish.  Yet she is unaware of these faults, seeming to see herself as easy to get know and understand.  For example, Morgan knows more about the “Belle Vie Players”, an acting group, than her mother does.  Caren doesn’t spend much time with any of them even though they put on a play about Belle Vie’s history twice a day for plantation visitors. And yet Caren is surprised and hurt when she discovers they don’t consider her one of their own. They believe she would take the owners side over theirs if it ever came down to it.
Caren launches her own investigation into the murder of the female migrant worker after clashing with the police.  She knows they believe Donovan is the murderer and is sure they won’t do a thorough investigation.  As Caren delves further into her own investigation, taking some dangerous risks to get the answers she’s looking for, she learns about herself from unexpected places.   What she discovers about the murdered woman’s life and the history of Bell Vie itself, combined with frequent thoughts and memories of her mother, helps Caren achieve a better understanding of what it means to be a good mother.  She has a new found appreciation for her mother’s sacrifices and sees where she herself has gone wrong.  As a result, she realizes she needs to make changes for her daughter’s benefit.  Caren also becomes deeply interested in her ancestors and puts herself in considerable danger to find out what happened to her great-great-great grandfather.  Caren’s investigation into the deaths of Ines Avalo and Jason enable her to come to terms with her past, let go of long-held regrets and forgive herself for past mistakes.
This book offers something for mystery lovers as well as readers who enjoy strong, flawed characters and absorbing stories. Attica Locke intertwines Caren’s story with that of the murders making it difficult to pigeonhole The Cutting Season as just one kind of genre.  There aren’t many characters but that’s not a drawback here because Locke fully  develops her characters so they feel real to us.  Add to that the host of intense, interesting issues she includes and the way Locke layers the stories and you get a challenging, fascinating and powerful read for people who enjoy literary mysteries.  Even people who say they don’t like mysteries will find this to be an exception for the reasons above.  Whether her next book continues to follow Caren’s adventures or not, I know I’m looking forward to it.  In the meantime, am going to make a point of reading her debut book, Black Water Rising which, not surprisingly, received fantastic reviews. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

My Weekend of "Sleep"!

My copy of Doctor Sleep arrived this morning!  I'm so excited. I cannot wait to start reading. I'm actually kind of surprised I didn't crack open the book immediately! I'm sure you can guess what I'm planning to read most of the weekend.  What's even more fun is thanks to Ti's inspiration, I joined a readalong for Doctor Sleep (#sleepalong) hosted by Tif and Charleen.  If you haven't signed up yet, I wish you'd join us, It's going to be a great readalong! See Tif's blog Tif Talks Books for more info.

Doctor Sleep, for those of you who don't know this, is a sequel to King's fantastic novel, The Shining which was also made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson.  It's been many years since The Shining hit the shelves and I cannot wait to see where Doctor Sleep takes us!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

After Her by Joyce Maynard

After Her by Joyce Maynard 

Publisher:  William Morris
Published:  August 20, 2013
ISBN:  978-0062257390
Pages:  320
Rating:  5 out of 5

Book Summary:  It's the summer of 1979, and a dry, hot, northern California school vacation stretches ahead for Rachel and her younger sister Patty-the daughters a larger-than-life, irresistibly handsome and chronically unfaithful detective father who loves to make women happy, and the mother whose heart he broke.

Left to their own devices, the inseparable sisters spend their days studying record jackets, concocting elaborate fantasies about the life of the mysterious neighbor who moves in down the street, and playing dangerous games on the mountain that rises up behind their house.

When young women start showing up dead on the mountain, the girls' father is charged with finding the man responsible, known as The Sunset Strangler. Seeing her father's life slowly unravel when he fails to stop the murders, Rachel embarks on her most dangerous game yet: setting herself up as bait to catch the killer, with consequences that will destroy her father's career and alter the lives of everyone she loves.

It is not until thirty years later that Rachel, who has never given up hope of vindicating her father, finally smokes out the killer, bringing her back to the territory of her childhood, and uncovering a long-buried family secret.

As with her novel, Labor Day, Maynard's newest work is part thriller, part love story, Loosely inspired by the Trailside Killer case that terrorized Marin County in the late seventies, her tale delves deep into the alternately thrilling and terrifying landscape of a young girl's first explorations of adult sexuality and the loss of innocence, the bond between sisters-and into a daughter's tender but damaged relationship with her father, and what it is to finally trust a man.

My Thoughts:  I just loved this book.  It’s heart-warming and heart-breaking.  It’s humorous and suspenseful as themes of youth and innocence, love, loss and family relationships course through the pages of this part coming-of-age, part mystery story.  
Told in the voice of 13-year old Rachel, After Her is set in Northern California, Marin County just outside San Francisco. Rachel lives with her younger sister, Patty and their mother.  Rachel and Patty are on their own most of the time since their mother suffers from depression and spends most days in her bedroom reading library books.  Their father no longer lives with them, a fact that saddens both girls.  They love and adore their father, Anthony Torricelli, a detective with Marin Homicide Division, and are immensely proud of him. Joyce Maynard does an amazing job of bringing these three very different characters to life.  It was easy to imagine Office Torricelli as a beat cop, then later as a revered homicide detective, especially through the stories Rachel proudly relays.  My favorite scenes are the times he spends with Rachel and Patty and Rachel talking about being with him.  He may love his job and spend a lot of time away from his girls, but there is no doubt he loves them.
Rachel is like many 13-year old girls:  anxious to be an adult, excited about the changes her body will go through and impatient for it to happen. She wants to be one of the popular kids at school yet she loves spending her free time with Patty.  She and Patty, left to amuse themselves, use their imaginations and creative abilities to concoct games and adventures.  Early in the novel they are inseparable. Their love and dependence on each other is the ideal of sisterhood.  Rachel and Patty's relationship is one all sisters hope to have.
Into this quiet idyll comes the Sunset Strangler who is killing young women on Mountain Tamalpais, the mountain behind Rachel’s home.  She and Patty spend a lot of time there and know many of its secrets.  Maynard describes the mountain in such detail we can see it there in the distance and easily imagine Rachel and Patty hiding in trees or walking its trails. Their dad forbids them to play on the mountain anymore but the lure of the forbidden is too great and the mountain is such an indelible part of their lives, Rachel and Patty cannot stay away.   I think it’s interesting to note the author’s ability to mix reality and fiction.  For example, not only is Mt. Tamalpais real, but the Sunset Strangler in the book is loosely based on the real life Trailside Killer case in Marin County.
Rachel devises a plan whereby she and Patty can discover and find the killer.  Then they’ll give the solved case to their dad making him proud and showing him how much they love him.   At the same time Rachel discovers that information about the specific, individual killings gives her an “in” with the popular crowd.  She’s soon spending afternoons at the home of the most popular girl, discussing the murders, boys and makeup.  Rachel is also set up with a popular boy and experiences her first kiss and more.  She’s confused and torn between being popular but disliking the way the popular kids spend their time and being home with Patty having fun.  But for a while the lure of popularity is too strong.  Although Patty doesn’t understand why Rachel wants to spend time with these kids, she knows it’s something Rachel has to do.  Patty never gets angry at Rachel but gives her the space she needs to discover whatever it is she’s searching for because that’s the kind of bond they have.  It’s so sweet.
Maynard’s writing is the perfect style for the story.  In Rachel she’s created a wonderfully balanced character.   She’s the model of girlhood innocence on the cusp of adulthood, both excited for and fearful of growing up.  Rachel has a deep awareness of how harsh the world can be because of her father, a good but flawed man, his work and the ubiquitous media stories about death.   I also found the ending very satisfactory. Not open ended, it goes beyond just the “end of the case”.  Maynard avoids sappiness or morbidity, finding a balance that leaves the reader not feeling short changed but with the feeling of having had a full experience.  What I seem to have difficulty understanding are the activities of the kids at such young ages.  That kind of sexual experimentation didn’t happen with me and my peers at such a young age.  If this is what Maynard turned up in her research, then I worry for this and future generations.
This was my first experience reading a book by Joyce Maynard.  I am already looking forward to the next book of hers I read.  Hopefully Labor Day!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

~ First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros ~

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros is a weekly meme hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea every Tuesday. To participate share the opening paragraph or two of a book you've decided to read based on that paragraph. This book caught my attention because the protagonist is a man, a dad concerned about his son and how he's living his life.  Most of the books I read involve female characters and their relationships with other women and with men.  I thought this would be a nice change and I also thought the story sounds pretty interesting.

Don't forget to drop by Bibliophile By the Sea to read Diane's selection this week and find out who else is participating in this fun meme! You'll probably get some good book titles, too!

A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein
These days, when people ask how I'm doing—some of them still ask, you'd be surprised—I shrug and say, as manfully as I can, "Much better than you'd think." And this is true. I am fed, I am clothed, I still have a few patients, the Nets are winning, and my mother, thank God, has finally agreed to the assisted-living place in Rockland. And I have a home, of sorts—the room we built for Alec above the garage so that he could pursue his oil painting with the firm scaffold of our love and money under his feet. God forbid that Alec should ever have felt unsupported—that we should show dismay at his dropping out of Hampshire after three semesters and almost sixty thousand dollars of tuition, books, board, and other proofs of parental esteem. Sixty thousand dollars vanished—puff—like smoke; our son fails out of a college that doesn't even give grades, and in response we build him an art studio above our garage. And here's the kicker: we were happy to do it. This was one of many lessons we took from the plight of our friends Joe and Iris Stern, whose daughter Laura was lost to them once, and is again, now.

My new home, the studio, is floored in gray, paint-speckled linoleum. Alec's old drawing table sits in the corner, next to a double-sized futon buried under a pile of airplane blankets. On the opposite wall rests a slightly corny oak dresser covered in scrollwork and brass, which Elaine's parents gave us for our wedding and we dutifully kept in our bedroom for twenty-plus years. An armchair from the same era. By the armchair there's a stack of books, some Alec's, some mine: Bukowski and Burroughs, a small selection of graphic novels, and thrillers I no longer have the taste for.

I read in this studio. I sleep. Sometimes, on weekends or late into the evening, I listen to the Kriegers fighting next door. Our garage is situated along the property line; the Kriegers recently finished an addition, and now, without even trying, I can peer right into their granite-and-stainless kitchen and watch them go at it. Jill Krieger is a harridan, it turns out, and Mark likes to throw things. I wonder when this started. Elaine and I always liked them, always thought they had a very nice marriage, nice young kids; sure, their addition took forever, but at least they had the courtesy to keep the exterior tasteful. I wonder if Elaine can hear them. She and I never fought, you know, never like that.

If people keep asking me, look deep into my eyes to see if there are any secrets left in my stubbly soul, I tell them, "Listen, life goes on." And I'm not just feeding them formula, pap. Life really does go on. That's what I've learned. It goes. You'd be surprised.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Friday, September 20, 2013

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, VIII

It's that time of year again!  I’m a little behind in signing up for the best yearly reading challenge   ~ R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, VIII  ~  run by Carl at his amazing blog, Stainless Steel Droppings.  But I'm almost finished a couple of books that fit the mystery & suspense categories.
 As you can tell from the heading, this is the 8th year Carl has hosted this awesome challenge which revolves around the idea that when the warm days of Summer give way to the cooler, darker days of Fall, it’s time to read books that can make the hair on the back of our necks stand up or a chill run down our spine or just makes us a little leery of the dark. 

Dark Fantasy.
Or anything sufficiently moody 

Carl makes it easy and fun to participate in this challenge by offering a variety of participation levels (Perils) to choose from and two simple rules: 

1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

 I’ve chosen to participate in:

Peril the First:

Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be King or Conan Doyle, Penny or Poe, Chandler or Collins, Lovecraft or Leroux…or anyone in between.
I just finished Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson! (review later this week)

Peril of the Short Story:

I am a big fan of short stories and my desire for them is perhaps no greater than in Autumn. I see Poe and Lovecraft in my future for sure, and some Angela Carter. You can read short stories any time during the challenge. When I can, I like to read short stories over the weekend and post about them around that time.
I love short stories and I'm reading Shadow Show stories in tribute to Ray Bradbury.  Some great stories.
And I can’t resist this last option:
Peril on the Screen:

 This is for those of us that like to watch suitably scary, eerie, mysterious gothic fare during this time of year. It may be something on the small screen or large. It might be a television show, like Dark Shadows or Midsomer Murders, a great detective show, or your favorite film. If you are so inclined ~ I'm thinking, The Exorcist!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

~ The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout ~

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Publisher: Random House
Date: March 25, 2013 I
SBN: 978-1400067688
Pages: 345
Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Summary: Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art.

My Thoughts: Of the three Burgess siblings, Bob is the only one who believes family means everything. To him, nothing’s more important than supporting your family. Unlike his older brother Jim and his twin sister Susan, Bob is willing to help his siblings in any way he can. The fact that Jim thinks Bob is a moron and Susan refuses to speak to Bob doesn’t affect how Bob feels about them. An enigma, it’s hard to understand why Bob willingly puts up with being Jim’s verbal punching bag. A recurring thought I had while reading The Burgess Boys was: “we choose our friends but not our families. We’re born into our families and stuck with them for life”. That saying was the only way I could really understand Bob. Susan and Jim, particularly, are miserable, angry people. They aren’t particularly nice to anyone, even the people with whom they live. Susan told Bob many years ago she didn’t like him and wasn’t going to talk to him anymore. Bob has respected her feelings and stayed out of her way. Meanwhile, Jim has been belittling and disparaging Bob since the death of their father when Bob was four and Jim a few years older. The fact that Jim still treats Bob this way rarely fazes Bob. Bob thinks “it’s just the way Jim is”. So when Jim moved to Brooklyn, NY from Shirley Falls, Maine, Bob followed.

Bob isn’t stupid (he’s earned a law degree and is a practicing NYC Legal Aid attorney), angry or miserable like Jim and Susan. He is sad and confused. Though he doesn’t think very much of himself, he’s still kind and thoughtful to others and people feel happy being around him. Bob would help just about anybody he could rather than see them in pain, including his family. This in spite of how they treat him. I didn’t think Bob was easy to relate to or understand but I was able to sympathize with him. He’s a loner who can’t understand why anyone would want to be his friend so he’s often withdrawn. It seems to me, despite Jim’s abuse, Bob spends a lot of time with Jim and Helen (Jim’s wife) because a) Jim lets him; b) Helen likes having Bob to talk with; and c) it’s preferable to being alone.

It’s easy to understand why Bob accepted Susan’s decision not to talk to him anymore. Susan is boring, bland and has no skills as a conversationalist. She has no friends, hobbies or interests and simply fades into the background. She has a son Zach, to whom my heart goes out. Susan has left him in limbo. She did nothing to set up play-dates or give him a social life when he was little. He must have been bored out of his mind growing up with her as a mother. And now he doesn’t know how to make friends.

It’s an unfortunate aspect of the book that I can’t make the leap and imagine a real-life Susan in the real world. With Jim, on the other hand, it was almost too easy! I’ve known many attorneys just like him: arrogant, obnoxious, nasty and extremely self-centered. Jim is the kind of man that believes everything revolves around him and nothing bad will ever touch him. Even when you see it right there in front of you, though, it’s hard to imagine going through life like that: angry all the time.

Elizabeth Strout clearly understands family dynamics and how family members can mistreat one another. This book made it easier for me to understand why, sometimes, family members don’t speak: when they do, they treat each other terribly. It’s one thing to lash out at your brother on a bad day, for example, but to consistently verbally abuse him the way Jim does Bob brings things (down) to another level.

Jim, the oldest, doesn’t tolerate the different opinions, behavior and lifestyle of anyone. Despite being his siblings, Bob and Susan are no exceptions. Jim is extremely flawed and dysfunctional. He loves his wife but he’s become much angrier and unhappy recently. He has very little contact with Susan. This is only in part because she has remained in their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine, a place Jim abhors. If Bob, who lives very close by, didn’t visit frequently, Jim wouldn’t be in contact with him either. Jim doesn’t understand how fortunate he is to have siblings, especially a brother like Bob who believes everything Jim does is gold. Jim left Shirley Falls to escape his family and his past, something Bob doesn’t understand. Bob thinks Jim is a great guy - strong and fearless. Meanwhile, Susan believes Jim is too important and busy to be bothered by her.

The book’s central conflict begins when Susan reaches out to Jim because she desperately needs help for her son, Zach. Jim’s instinct is to shut her down but he winds up helping, propelled by ego and pride. His decision to help Susan and Zach is based on the belief he’s a household name in Shirley Falls after he prosecuted a big case years ago. He doesn’t want to look like the bad guy now.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bob doesn’t care that Susan didn’t call him, his only concern is the welfare of his nephew. Bob doesn’t judge Susan for being disagreeable or screwing up her son’s life. He believes Susan’s been doing the best she can against difficult odds. Bob is like that, often giving people the benefit of the doubt, to a fault. This makes it all the more shocking and painful for him when he learns that some of the people he’s always believed in can’t be trusted. To say more here would “spoil” the story.

The crisis with Zach that brings Bob and Jim back to their home town shakes up their family dynamics. Jim can’t handle the memories of his past and he appears even angrier and more miserable than usual. Bob is the only one who sees how difficult it’s been for Zach to grow up without a father, a loving family and the support that comes with these things. When Bob brings this up to Jim, Jim hurls some truths about the past at him that shake Bob to his core. When he learns the truth about his father’s death, his love for his family is severely tested. Finally Bob sees Jim for who he really is and understands Jim’s callous disregard of his family. Bob’s doesn’t know if he can be around Jim anymore. But at the same time he’s not sure he can live without his brother in his life.

Elizabeth Strout shows how important a families’ love and support is for a good and happy life. Family members need to be able to rely on one another and support each other. Strout looks to the Somali people for an example of strong family community. They’ve been immigrating, moving into Shirley Falls from Mogadishu where their people and their way of life are being destroyed.

Shirley Falls is small-town Maine. Much of the population is closed-minded and not receptive to the Somali people. Their brightly colored clothing, strange foods, alien beliefs and ideas are too far removed from the mainstream. What really strengthens the book is Strout’s brilliant juxtaposing of the lives of the Somalis and their emphasis on family togetherness against the splintered, dysfunctional Burgess family. The Somali way of life is dependent on extended family relationships for almost everything: child care, food, clothing, shelter and companionship. So it’s no surprise one of the most trying aspects of fleeing Mogadishu was keeping families together. Unlike the Burgess siblings who keep their distance from one another and have no idea what happens in each other’s lives day-to-day, the Somalis live close together and interact daily not just because it’s expected but because they want to.

The theme of family and love and loyalty to one another is central to the narrative. However, there’s still a lot going on in terms of Jim, Susan and Bob’s side stories. These are mostly predicated on immediate family relationships that I don’t cover in this review. Though they relate to the themes of family, love, loyalty and trust, they don’t coalesce into one solid story. Rather, they emphasize how the lack of strong family relationships can cause sadness, loneliness and even despair.

Despite being relayed by a third-person omniscient narrator, to me The Burgess Brothers was about Bob. He’s the one who undergoes the most change, discovering his strength and worth as a human being, learning to face the reality his siblings’ characters and deciding whether or not he wants to be a part of their lives. Stripping it down, this book is an intense and complex novel that, at its core, explores the many facets of family relationships.

Strout’s prose style is beautiful and her in-depth exploration of family relationships is fascinating. But I admit when I first finished The Burgess Boys, my head was swimming. There’s just so much happening in this book and most of it doesn’t end well. I certainly prefer this to when a book’s ending is all neat and tidy but so much unhappiness and intensity is exhausting. As time went by, the more I thought about The Burgess Boys, the more I appreciated and understand Bob and what Strout is saying about family.

I received an ARC of The Burgess Boys from Giselle-Marie Roig at Random House.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Equilibrium by Lorrie Thomson

Equilibrium by Lorrie Thomson 

Publisher:  Kensington Books
Published:  August 27, 2013
ISBN:  978-0758285775
Pages:  320
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 

Book Summary:  In the year since her husband died, Laura Klein’s world has shifted on its axis. It’s not just that she’s raising two children alone—fact is, Laura always did the parenting for both of them. But now her fifteen-year-old daughter, Darcy, is dating a boy with a fast car and faster hands, and thirteen-year-old Troy’s attitude has plummeted along with his voice. Just when she’s resigning herself to a life of worry and selfless support, her charismatic new tenant offers what Laura least expects: a second chance.

Darcy isn’t surprised her mom doesn’t understand her, though she never imagined her suddenly acting like a love-struck teen herself. With Troy starting to show signs of their father’s bipolar disorder, and her best friend increasingly secretive, Darcy turns to her new boyfriend, Nick, for support. Yet Nick has a troubled side of his own, forcing Darcy toward life-altering choices.

Exploring the effects of grief on both mother and daughter, Equilibrium is a thoughtful, resolutely uplifting novel about finding the balance between holding on and letting go, between knowing when to mourn and when to hope, and between the love we seek and the love we choose to give.

My Thoughts:   The Klein Family, mom Laura, 15-year old Darcy and 13-year old Troy have spent the past year grieving the death of their dad and husband, Jack.   Jack’s death has been especially difficult because Jack suffered from bipolar disorder and, as a result, took his own life.  Jack was a loving husband and a wonderful dad much of the time but, while in the clutches of a manic episode or severe depression, he could be a very different person.  Lorrie Thomson demonstrates, through the lives of the three Klein family members, how painful the grieving process can be when the person you loved and lost was mentally ill.  Darcy and Troy have an especially difficult time with the loss of their dad because they are forced to face the truth of the person their dad was and still believe that he loved them. 

Jack was a dysfunctional and flawed human being.  He was also brilliant, creative, full of fun and extremely loving.  He made Darcy and Troy feel like they were the most special children in the world.  Laura was impressed with and inspired by Jack and there was nobody she loved more.  She spent the last ten years taking care of him and his mental illness while revising and rewriting his novels.  Towards the end it became difficult to be sure who’d written the final product.   Now that she has the time, Laura’s considering returning to her abandoned writing career but she’s full of doubt about her ability to write well thanks to Jack’s unkind criticism.  She’s also afraid, questioning whether she’s any good at writing at all.  Laura’s also lonely and a part of her wants to be cared for.  She spent so many years caring for Jack, almost as if he was her third child, that it feels as if she’s been a single mother for too long.   

Laura spent a lot of time worried about her children and about being a strict, close mom to Darcy and Troy, but her behavior belied her intentions. She feels Darcy is spending time with a boy who’s not good for her, but Laura doesn’t do much to rectify this situation.  And she’s concerned Troy is exhibiting the early stages of bipolar disorder but it takes Darcy and some others pushing Laura for her to get Troy help.    Laura rents Jack’s studio in the house to a tenant, an attractive man, Aidan despite her fear it might upset Darcy and Troy.  Fortunately, Aidan is a good guy.  He hits it off with Troy and soon becomes the father figure Troy needs.  This works out doubly well since Laura gets into a relationship with Aidan pretty quickly.  I thought this wasn’t a great idea considering Darcy is dealing with her first serious relationship.  

Darcy, it turns out, is the smart and responsible one in the family.  She begins the story seeming like the typical rebellious teenager.  This is more from her mother's point of view and we soon learn, Laura doesn't know her daughter nearly as well as she thinks she does.  She’s sweet, smart-assed and struggling with her dad’s death.  Over the past year, she’s realized that as great as she thought her dad was, he was also a very flawed man.  She understands that her dad used the love she had for him to manipulate her into keeping secrets from her mother.  Although this angers Darcy at first, it ultimately makes her sad for her dad and strengthens her love for him.  Darcy’s also able to better understand her mother and her experience with Darcy’s dad.  Darcy realizes her boyfriend, Nick, is soft and vulnerable deep down and has been terribly hurt by his own father, a mean and ugly man.   Darcy realizes that she needs to think about who she is and wants to be as well as what’s she’s learned about life if she wants to help Nick avoid ruining his life. 

Thomson has a good eye for family interactions and understands the dynamics of parent/child relationships. I liked Thomson writing style, despite some heavy-handed descriptions occasionally. The theme of mental illness and its impact on an entire family is fascinating and, aside from a few glitches, keeps the story moving at a good, even pace.  Themes of love and loss, of loyalty and trust and of letting go flow throughout the pages of Equilibrium, as well and show us how the Klein Family is united in their grief and ready to move on with their lives together.  My only real objection to this story is how it ended happily tied up in a big red bow but I know there are many readers who appreciate an ending like this.  I think readers who enjoy well-written, thoughtful stories about coping with life will enjoy this book.


Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Lorrie Thomson for a copy of Equilibrium.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

~ First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros ~

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros is a weekly meme hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea every Tuesday. To participate share the opening paragraph or two of a book you've decided to read based on that paragraph. This book has been on my shelf for a long time. Maggie O'Farrell is one of those authors I've always wanted to and meant to read. I've been trying to read the books that I've collected because I want to read them and yet, they've been sitting on my shelves...waiting. It's a lot of fun!

Don't forget to drop by Bibliophile By the Sea and read Diane's selection this week and be sure to visit and read the contributions of other participants in this terrific meme who can be found in the comments!

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell
Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.  
The garden is empty, the patio deserted, save for some pots with geraniums and delphiniums shuddering in the wind. A bench stands on the lawn, two chairs facing politely away from it. A bicycle is propped up against the house but its pedals are stationary, the oiled chain motionless. A baby has been put out to sleep in a pram and it lies inside its stiff cocoon of blankets, eyes obligingly shut tight. A seagull hangs suspended in the sky above and even that is silent, beak closed, wings outstretched to catch the high thermal draughts.  
The house is set apart from the rest of the village, behind dense hedge, on the crest of a cliff. This is the border between Devon and Cornwall, where the two counties crouch, eyeing each other. It is a much-disputed piece of land. It would not do to look too long at the soil here, soaked as it will be with the blood of Celts, Anglo- Saxons, Romans, filled out with the rubble of their bones
What are your thoughts about these paragraphs? Would you read this book based on these paragraphs?