The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck, author; Cassandra Campbell, narrator
I won this book from Early Reviewers on librarything.com, and I am so glad I did. What a relief it was to read a book that made me laugh, chuckle or smile on every page, a book I hated to put down because it was such a pleasure to read.
As this short novel explores the kindergarten year in the life of Maximilian Dixon through his mom’s hilarious portrayal of the class mom, the personalities and relationships she encounters are examined and exposed with all of the human frailties “that flesh is heir to”. Jen Dixon is the class mom extraordinaire, although at first that is not a universal opinion. The reader will witness the interaction of all of the Dixons, with their friends, fellow kindergarten parents, kindergarten children and their teacher. Life’s little pleasures will pop out of the story in expected and unexpected places. If nothing else, the book surely proves that we are all young inside our heads, no matter how old we are on the outside, and we all have our little secrets and dreams. It will prove that our lives shine no brighter than when we are happy and taking life in stride.
Jen Dixon is lucky and she knows it. She is enjoying the dessert of her life, as she describes her youngest child, five year old Max, who has just begun kindergarten. She has two older daughters who are already away in college. Her friend Nina who heads up the PTA has leaned on her to become a class mom. She certainly has had world class experience having been one for both her daughters. She provides a laugh a minute with her sarcastic emails, requests and expectations of the other moms, although some take umbrage at her style and do not laugh at all.
Anyone who has ever been a class mom or school volunteer will nod in agreement compulsively as Jen relates her activities and the pages fly by; they will find their lips turning up into a knowing smile as requests are made and duties are performed. Anyone who hasn’t had any experience in being a class mom will thoroughly enjoy her experiences vicariously, taking pleasure in being a voyeur into the life of Jen Dixon as she navigates her home life as a wife and mother and her outside life with all of its various temptations!
Max’s teacher is unusual. She presents a persona that alternates between a sex pot and a puritan. She is full of surprises, and she confounds some of the parents when they try to understand her. There is a parent and a child who never appear for the entire year; no one has met them! There are show offs, flirts and chronic complainers; in short, the book presents a picture that represents a slice of all of our lives, warts and all. The novel was nostalgic for me. It took me back to my days of being a school parent, my PTA days, my fundraising days, school party days and play date days. It reminded me of the camaraderie of neighbors, of watching each other’s children, of car pools and overnight sleepovers. It also reminded me of the friction that sometimes displayed itself which was followed by unity and friendships that blossomed when necessary to support a common cause. It brought back memories of happy children, school yards and school dances. The book reminded me of the dessert of my life.
Jen Dixon was what every parent might want to be even though she could be abrasive at times, because her tongue in cheek dialogue and messages were genuine, she was sincere. She spoke her mind; she was involved, and she was really a nice person when you scratched her surface. She was a joy to discover.
Shadow Man, Alan Drew, author, Will Damron, narrator
There are two major themes running parallel in this novel. One is about serious abuse by a parent, and the other is about serious sexual abuse, of women and of minors. At the hands of authority figures, minors are often confused about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior. Women are often overpowered by men who go unpunished for their behavior. Irresponsible, reprehensible parenting often goes unnoticed or unreported. Ultimately, all abuse has serious consequences for its victims. Hopefully, there will also be serious consequences for the perpetrators of such heinous and criminal behavior. There is a third more subtle theme about illegal immigration and the plight of the families.
On one side of the equation is a child who has been seriously abused and totally neglected by his father. He was kept locked in a basement for six years. Although someone had to have known something evil was going on in his house, no one spoke up to encourage an investigation which would have stopped the child from being tormented and destroyed. He grew up hoping to be set free, wanting to escape from his prison of darkness in the basement; he grew up angry; he grew up severely damaged. He grew up very disturbed, mentally and stunted physically. His childhood memories haunted him. He learned to live in both the world of the present and the world of his past with detrimental consequences. His childhood self was in control of his evil behavior. He enjoyed experiencing the fear of others because it helped consume his own. He lived a secret life. Who witnessed his torment? Why did they keep silent?
On the other side of the equation we have Ben. He and his wife Rachel have shared custody of their only child, Emma. They were once high school sweethearts. Ben had been a star swimmer as a high school student, but not a star son. His father had died when he was thrown from a horse while they were both out riding. Although he was only a young child, Ben felt responsible. When his mom remarried, he did not get along with his stepfather. He threw himself into swimming, and his high school swim coach became his mentor and father figure. However, his experiences during those teenage formative years led Ben to want to escape, and he altered the course of his life when he gave up swimming. He continued to suffer mental anguish from his memories. He harbored secrets that he was too ashamed to share with anyone. What happened to Ben? Was anyone aware of his teenage suffering? If so, why did they remain silent?
While the abused child lived in the shadows after he was freed from his basement hell, Ben chose to live in the public eye as a decorated police officer. When his quiet California neighborhood was terrorized by a serial killer on the loose, Ben was called in to investigate it. With the Medical Examiner, Natasha, who had her own secrets, he discovered clues that could lead him not only to the serial killer, but also to face his memories that have haunted his subconscious since his teenage years. The story is mostly about these two men. One turns to murder, the other to fighting crime. One turns to madness, the other tries hard to remain sane. Both men suffer from their personal ordeals, both are haunted by their memories or should I say nightmares.
The author does a good job of getting inside the heads of the tormented and the tormentors. I thought that some parts of the story seemed to parallel the sadism often found in Stephen King novels. The author seriously proved the point that how you are treated really affects how you turn out. Cowards do not face their problems and confront them. Brave people do face them and deal with them. They do not turn a blind eye to evil, hoping someone else will address it. They deal with it even when it means they must face humiliation and shame to correct it. They do what they must to prevent others from suffering the same ill gotten fate. Secrets create problems that cannot be resolved. Adults must be the examples.
The narrator portrayed each character well. The reader feels the tension created and anticipates the action that is coming at them, sustaining their continued interest.
I read an uncorrected proof of this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. The writer has a knack for keeping the reader hungry for more. I didn’t want to rush to the end because I so enjoyed the story’s evolution.
It is the year 2012. An infant’s skeleton has been discovered at a construction site. Whose baby is it? How did it get there? There are so many questions raised, but there are no answers. The novel revolves around the lives of four women united in some way by this terrible event.
Angela is mourning the loss of her baby, although it occurred almost three decades ago. Shortly after she gave birth, she decided to have a shower. She left the baby sleeping in the room for only 10 minutes, but when she returned, the baby, Alice, was gone. How could a baby disappear in the safest place, the hospital? The baby was never found, and Angela was never the same. Could this baby’s skeleton be her daughter?
Emma is childless. Her husband is much older than she is, and he worries about her when he sees her growing more and more distracted. When she learns of the baby’s discovery at a building renovation site, it throws her completely off balance. She grows more and more concerned about the child who was buried at the site and cannot do her work properly. She is a book editor. Her husband worries about her mental state because she has had severe emotional problems in the past. He worries that she may have a relapse.
Jude is Emma’s mother. She is very selfish. She was once a practicing lawyer. Emma does not know her father. She and her mom had been estranged for years, but Emma reached out to her mom and they reconciled. About two decades before, Jude had sent teenaged Emma to live with her grandparents. Emma was threatening her relationship with Will, the man she professed to love. However, Emma hated him, and Jude would not let her come between them. She chose Will over her daughter. What kind of a mother would do that?
Kate is an investigative journalist. She is having some family problems. Her son dropped out of school, and he now wants to travel to Phuket. She has her own problems as well. When she reads about the baby she is completely intrigued. She wants to find out everything she can and begins to pursue information from her sources and contacts. She attempts to contact and visit the tenants who live on the street where the baby’s remains were found. The trail leads her in many different directions. As it twists and turns to the conclusion, surprises unfold often.
All four women have a secret that they harbor in their hearts from the outside world. Rape and abuse were crimes that went undiscovered. All four will make major discoveries about themselves and each other as the baby’s identity is sought.
The chapters are short and keep the suspense heightened. It bounces from one character to another revealing bits and pieces slowly to the reader so that the reader is never overwhelmed but always drawn back into the story.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman, author; Cathleen McCarron, narrator
Eleanor Oliphant can only be described as somewhat strange and unlikable when you are first introduced to her. She seemed to be neurotic and unapproachable. Although she seemed quite intelligent, she was socially unskilled, often abrupt, always formal, and usually abrasive. She rarely thought before she spoke and her judgments of others were sometimes painfully critical, showing little regard for their feelings. She interpreted everything literally, but seemed naïve or completely unaware of how her responses were affecting those with whom she interacted at work or in public places. She seemed unaware of most things that others took for granted, like concerts and McDonald’s. What a manicure entailed was foreign to her. Her hair hung down to her waist and had not been cut for years. She required little in the way of vanity.
The narrative hints at some evil doing in her past, but it rolls out slowly as the story evolves and nothing is elaborated or explained until very late in the book, although, early on, it is obvious that Eleanor’s childhood home life was not stellar. She had little memory of her past, although she might be unconsciously refusing to bring it to the light of day. She had been abused, and as a child she learned exactly how she was expected to behave at the hands of a very disturbed parent. She carried the same lessons into adulthood, and she spent most of her time alone seeking refuge and company from the vodka bottle rather than other human contacts. She was friendless, except for a plant that was a childhood gift. She had no physical contact with any other human being. She followed the same routine, day in and day out. She did not believe that she was worthy of respect, but rather she believed she was incapable of success or of having a normal happy life. In addition, her face was somewhat scarred from a previous event in her life which is not revealed until late in the book. Early on, though, it became obvious that her mother was and she had an adversarial relationship. It was she who was responsible for Eleanor’s lack of confidence and odd behavior. Although at first she was not a character that you became endeared to, by the end, as she blossomed with the help of her friend and co-worker, she became a far more sympathetic figure.
This co-worker, Raymond, was walking with her, one day, as they left their place of work. Although she was trying not to encourage this conversation, when they both suddenly witnessed an elderly man taking a bad spill in the street, Raymond insisted they help the unconscious man. He ran over to see what he could do. Eleanor wanted to flee the scene and mind her business. She did not like social interaction and preferred total privacy. Soon, however, Raymond shamed her into helping him and a friendship of sorts developed between the two of them and, eventually, the family of the man they helped to rescue. It was about this same time that Eleanor discovered a musician that struck her fancy, and she fantasized a love affair and life with him sometime in the future. She convinced herself that it was written in the stars for both of them to be together. She was sure that once he met her he would be as smitten with her as she was with him.
It felt like a tragic story, but Eleanor and Raymond brought a certain amount of humor and levity to the novel with their camaraderie. Often Eleanor’s comments were so outrageous, they filled the pages with an awesome, unintended wit. She had no understanding of the nuance of certain of her remarks. As she began to “come of age”, with the help of her first, and pretty much only, friend Raymond, she experienced a period of self-discovery and began to remake herself, finally letting go of her painful past and welcoming others into her life; She discovered that she might not be so bad after all. She morphed from a wallflower that remained outside the perimeter of life, into a more communicative human being as she learned how to share feelings and experience emotions and love, without fear.
Her character was completely and authentically developed by the author. She began as a kind of tragic heroine but with Raymond's kind heart and his attention and friendship, which he almost forced upon her, Eleanor discovered her own heart and capabilities and saw a path to happiness.
One lesson of the novel is that relationships can be both positive and negative and can change the outcome of a life if allowed to flourish for either good or evil. It is up to you to improve your circumstances and leave excuses behind. The positive support and concern of professionals, friends and family is very important and influential!
The Shadow Land, Elizabeth, Kostova, Author; Barrie Kreinik, Fred Berman, Barbara Caruso, George Guidall, Narrators
It is springtime in 2008 when Alexandra Boyd arrives in Sofia, Bulgaria, to begin teaching at the Central English Institute. She looked forward to being there because she and her brother Jack had often played a game in which they picked a place they would love to travel to, and this was the place he had loved. After an argument with him, while hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains with their parents, he disappeared and was never found. At the time, he was 16, and she was 14 years old. Her thoughts of him are often complicated and emotional.
As the story unfolds over a period of several days, it alternates between her youthful memories of growing up in North Carolina and her present day experiences in Bulgaria. She is now 26 years old, and she is standing in front of a hotel in a country she does not know, where they speak a language she does not understand. She is in a quandary. Her taxi driver has taken her to the wrong place.
As she stood looking up the steps of this unknown, foreign hotel, she spied a few people having some difficulty descending. One of them was in a wheelchair and was quite infirm. A woman she presumed was his wife, stood behind him. A younger man, she presumed was their son, was trying to figure out how to negotiate the stairs with both of them and their luggage. Attracted by that handsome younger man’s demeanor, she offered to help and hurried to their sides. The younger man, Nevin, spoke some English. After their taxi pulled away, she discovered that she was still in possession of one of their bags, a bag which turned out to contain the remains of a cremation. Since Nevin had mentioned that they were going to a monastery, she assumed they were going there in order to bury the urn with the remains of someone called Stoyan Lazarov. She was determined to try and return the urn to them. With the help of another taxi driver, an enigmatic young man named Bobby, she begins her pursuit of the family.
The search for the rightful owners of the urn begins in earnest as they traverse many countrysides and roads in Bulgaria, in what seems to be an unending, unfruitful effort to return the bag and its contents to the Lazarovs. The search often seems to put them in danger. It also seems to endanger the others they have come in contact with who try to help them. Soon there are some violent and frightening moments.
Some parts of the book are much more interesting than others. The first half of the book seems to be about Alex and Bobby and their backgrounds. The second part is about the family that owns the urn and the man whose ashes are in the urn. It was the history of Bulgaria that drew me in and kept me interested when I might have given up on the book. There were several descriptions about the brutality of the Communists after they took over Bulgaria at the end of World War II. Their prison camps and the false accusations and charges presented against the accused will surely remind the reader of the very violence and ferocious viciousness and sadism of the Nazis that they had just defeated. Still, knowing that the Bulgarians had sided with the Nazis, at first, gave me mixed feelings of sympathy for their plight.
Eventually, all of the loose ends are knitted together and the mystery of the bag and its owners is resolved, but it takes a bit too long. The dialog of one of the main characters about his horrendous experience in captivity is too drawn out, too descriptive, and often repetitive. Also, since several characters are telling a piece of the background, it adds to the redundancy of certain parts of the story. I found Alexandra’s character to often be annoying. She tended to melodrama and overly emotional responses. Bobby, on the other hand, seemed more authentic and stable. As the story moves back and forth between the narratives of the different important characters, it also sometimes grew confusing as to where and when the action was taking place. Still, the author does have a way of painting visual images with her sentences which made the book a worthwhile read.
Except for the moments of overdone melodrama, the narrators did a very good job of portraying the individual characters, although a few times, the voice of a character changed suddenly and seemed to become a different character, although the character speaking had not actually changed. Perhaps the age of the character being presented had changed from young adult to older adult or the time had changed from the present to the past, but in those parts of the narrative, it was hard to determine what had just occurred!
House of Names, Colm Toibin, author; Juliet Stevenson, Charlie Anson, Pippa Nixon, narrators
I really enjoyed the narration of this short novel about a famous Greek myth. In order to retain power and success in battle, Agamemnon has arranged for the murder of his own first born daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods who have demanded it. The elders agree that this must be done to save their own lives and protect their families. They agree to tear asunder his family and to take the life of an innocent young girl to save their own. This they believe will turn the tide of battle in their favor. So begins a cycle of deception and violence.
Clytemnestra was deceived into preparing her daughter to be the bride of Achilles. Unwittingly, she brought her daughter to her place of slaughter. When her husband, Agamemnon, returns victorious after battle, she is ready to take action to avenge her daughter’s death. Clytemnestra teams up with a prisoner, Aegisthus, to carry out her deed. One murder leads to another in a cycle of violence and betrayal.
Meanwhile, Elektra, sister to Iphigenia, draws her own conclusions about her sister’s death, blaming her mother. Orestes knows his father ordered her murder, but is unaware of anything else that has happened. Both sister and brother have been temporarily neutralized by order of Aegisthus and are imprisoned.
As Toibin reimagines how these characters feel and react, the reader is drawn into the palace and their lives. The secrets that are kept and the deceptions that are planned lead to more and more confusion, rumor and disloyalty. Toibin breathes life into their introspection and behavior.
In this retelling of the story, the characters deal with all the pain of human suffering and the duplicity of those around them. The narrators brought them to life as their performance was not only insightful, but their portrayals felt genuine. I could actually see the shade of Clytemnestra walking in the corridor, feel the blade plunge into the neck of Agamemnon, hear the cries of Iphigenia as she was brought to the slaughter, feel the fear of Orestes as he tried to pretend to be brave and grown up when he was kidnapped and didn’t fully understand his position, and the deceitfulness of Elektra as she carried out her own plans.
I wondered how it would have turned out if Orestes had been a more active participant in the entire process of the palace intrigue. Although he is not, and is rather an observer forced to be on the sidelines, it felt to me like Orestes was the dupe, the foil, the Job like character who was the catalyst for bringing about the events that would take them all into the future. At the end of the novel, there is a germ of greater freedom planted and the yoke of slavery begins to be questioned.
Each character modeled his/her behavior on someone who may or may not have been worthy. Power was constantly changing hands. Fealty was questioned, people were murdered. Elektra’s character was hard to read as she seemed to be part heroine and part villain, as did Aegisthus and even Leander. Orestes seemed to be caught in the trap each laid. I believe the author has done a wonderful job of reimagining this myth, making the inner workings and feelings of the palace and the characters real, rather than objects of imagination.
I am not sure if it is as good a read in a print book, but as an audio, I found it captivating. I could not stop listening and felt regret when I was forced to put it down for awhile by other earthly needs.
Three sisters are summoned home by their mother with no explanation. She wants to give them some news. All three have been estranged, not only from their mother, but from each other. They have rarely returned home to Westport, CT, after they left, and they do not often communicate with each other. They wonder why their mother has reached out to them and wonder if it is just another one of her ploys to get attention.
Ronni Sunshine, their mother, was a famous actress. Nell, Meredith and Lizzy have all lived in her shadow in one way or another, throughout their lives. Ronni had little time for them as they grew up, neglecting them and her marriage, devoting herself to her work in order to further her career.
Each sister has a different personality which developed in response to the way in which their mother treated them and the way they reacted to her often cruel tirades and selfish needs. Lizzie is forceful and confident and would laugh, never letting her mother’s moods bother her. Nell would withdraw and show no emotion, when the moods were particularly unpleasant. Meredith would feel shame and blame herself when her mother harangued her. She lacked self confidence. She took the brunt of her mother’s rage.
How each daughter reacts to the call to return home to see their mother and how they interact with each other is the substance of the novel. It explores the relationship between parent and child, sibling and sibling and husband and wife. Relationships between partners of same and opposite sex, married and unmarried are unmasked and described in detail. How will they all get along when they suddenly find themselves thrown together in their family home, confronting the anger and jealousy they each harbored toward each other and their mother?
There are some humorous as well as some more serious touching moments as the story rolls out. The author presented several important issues and they were developed well. In addition, like most books today, the author seemed eager to subtly present her views on controversial issues through the types of characters she developed, the problems they faced, the careers they pursued, and the lifestyles they chose. At times, it felt a little contrived as it moved back and forth in time, revealing the family’s history and problems by exposing the memories of each character. However, it did keep me interested and was an enjoyable read. It is definitely more of the type of a book I would describe as chick lit or a companion to take with you on vacation. I especially enjoyed reading about some of the communities in the story which were suburban or bucolic and with which I am familiar.
The Stars Are Fire, Anita Shreve, author; Suzanne Elise Freeman, narrator In the late 1940’s, women were subservient to men. They were housewives or secretaries, nothing more, but they had their own dreams and could educate themselves if they chose. Often they settled for “husband, house, a mortgage, a baby,” as the words of a song from the Broadway show “Funny Girl” stated. This was the setting and the prevailing situation of the women described in this book until an unspeakable tragedy forced them to step up to the task of survival. Based on a disastrous fire which really occurred in Maine, in 1947, the novel portrays the tragic destruction that was left in the wake of wind-fanned flames as they swept down the coastline for miles. Grace Holland was a 23 year old dutiful wife who lived with her family in a modest home, seemingly contented, in a place called Hunt’s Beach. However, after the night of the fire, they, along with many other victims, were homeless and penniless, without any worldly possessions. Gene Holland, Grace’s husband, never returned home and was officially listed as missing. He had been working on a firebreak with a few other men who survived, but as time passed, she was not sure if he did or if he would ever return. Their already troubled marriage had begun to occupy her thoughts. Gene had lately been withdrawn and distant. As she took charge of caring for her family and matured, she became more aware of her own capabilities and questioned whether or not she even wanted him back. When she recovered from the effects of the fire on her mind and body, she remembered that her husband had recently inherited his mother’s large home a few miles away. She moved there with her mother Marjorie, and her children Claire and Tom, feeling a bit like a squatter, wondering if she even had the right to be there since it was her husband’s home, not hers. However, having no place else to go, she had no other choice. When she arrived there, she heard the sound of someone playing the piano in the turret room. Thinking it was her husband who had returned, she cautiously entered. She found, instead, Aidan Berne, a concert pianist who also found himself homeless. Assuming the place was unoccupied, he took up residence there. It fortuitously had a magnificent piano on which he could continue to practice. She invited him to remain as a tenant, and they developed a warm relationship over a matter of days. As the reader learns of Grace’s heroism and strength, they will sometimes be confused because this seemingly naïve woman is at times worldly, but at other times she is completely at sea. She was a Shrinking Violet or Wonder Woman. I wondered if her state of mind or behavior was actually credible. Sometimes she seemed very unsophisticated and unsure of herself, but at other times she seemed completely in charge, totally informed and independent. The narrative seemed to descend into fantasyland as events simply fell into place for her. She found a house, then a job, then discovered a fortune in jewels hidden in the hem of her mother in law’s dresses. She learned to drive, bought a car, became involved in a relationship with a stranger, and rejuvenated her relationship with her mother. She suddenly had the ability to advise others far wiser and more educated then she was when previously the simplest of decisions were often beyond her ability. Certain questions were never considered by her very seriously. Shouldn’t she have tried to find out about what of her husband’s estate she would have been entitled to take over? She didn’t know who held the insurance on her completely destroyed house. Wasn’t there anyone she could ask for to help her find out? She didn’t seem to make any effort in that direction, but simply moved into the home of the mother-in-law who resented her completely and with whom she had no prior relationship. If Gene was her husband, weren’t his possessions, left to him by his mother, now in her hands? She didn’t seem to think so. What if he was not missing and recovering somewhere, but had actually died in the fire? How long was she expected to wait for his return? She needed to find a way to take care of everyone but she didn’t want to use what was available to her in case Gene returned and thought she had overstepped her bounds by assuming possession of his mother’s things. The story became a bit overwhelming as the scars and pain of the fire’s injuries and devastating destruction were described meticulously and a wife’s responsibilities to a husband who had suffered catastrophic injuries was addressed. At times, I found the story almost too gruesome as the bloodcurdling descriptions of the injuries caused by the fire were the stuff of nightmares. Grace wondered if she was going to be a prisoner in her own home or had she always been one and not realized it? I found her to be alternately a genius or a fool, and that detracted from my sense of appreciation for the novel which covered only three years, the time of the fire in 1947 until 1950 when Grace was 26. In 1950, we found Grace visiting with her friend Rosie who had fled to Nova Scotia with her family after the fire destroyed their home too. Without insurance, they had little recourse but to move in with her husband’s parents. The effects of the disaster upon the community were palpable; in that way the author did a fine job. However, as the story became less about the historic event and more about Grace’s need for love, more about Gene’s bizarre view of love and more about the dysfunction in their relationship, the book seemed to morph into a beach read rather than what I thought was to be an effort to seriously present the history of the tragedy of the firestorm. As the event and its effects on the community were pushed into the background, the romantic interludes seemed to take center stage with what seemed like contrived meetings and/or confrontations. It seemed that everyone Grace met was charmed by her and wanted to help her. The author obviously researched the devastating effects of the catastrophe and portrayed them well. The reader was deposited right there in the middle of the disaster almost to the point of feeling the ash and heat of the flame’s course, the cold of the ocean where they sought refuge, and the smell of the smoke descending upon them. They were caught unawares, unprepared, and completely helpless. The author has a wonderful way with words. Even the mundane everyday moments of daily life came alive with her descriptions, so the extraordinary event of the fire was that much more of a visual in the reader’s mind’s eye. However, when the perspective of the fire became less of a theme in favor of the perspective of Grace’s love life, when it became a story about the disintegration of a marriage, the dissatisfaction of a wife, the disrespect of the husband who treats her like property and the pompous mother-in-law and up tight mother, the narrative failed me. There were several things about the book that I wondered about. Why, although the children were old enough to ask, did they never ask for a father who did not return. Why did the author insert a lesbian couple into the story? I could find no reason since their sexual predilection was irrelevant. Why was the subject of racism brought up when referring to a professional who was highly educated, a Native American who was described in disparaging terms by Gene? There was no real reason to include those subjects or comments, especially in the era of this novel, except to possibly impress the author’s own political perspective upon the reader. When this happens, in a totally unnecessary manner, I feel like a hostage to someone else’s politics. I enjoyed the narrator’s presentation and thought that the reader spoke clearly with appropriate emotion, giving each character his/her own voice. Even though it descended into the realm of a romance novel, becoming predictable, as well, it held my interest because of the author’s writing talent and style. There were no wasted words.
Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone, Phaedra Patrick, author; James Langton, narrator
I really enjoyed this book. It is a sweet, tender story about an up-tight, rather taciturn, 44 year old middle aged man, Benedict Stone, and his 16 year old niece Gemma Stone. Although uninvited, she arrives on his doorstep and moves into his home.
Benedict Stone is a jeweler who has recently been rejected by his wife Estelle, an artist. They had once lived happily and quietly in what seemed to be a lovely English village called Noon Sun. Benedict dearly wanted to have children, but he and his wife were, so far, unable to start a family. She moved on, but he would not give up hope and it was straining their marriage. Gemma is the daughter of Benedict’s younger brother Charlie, a man he had not seen or heard from in 18 years. Benedict was 18 and Charlie was 10 when their parents were killed in a tsunami. Benedict devoted his life to raising his brother until the day Charlie left for America to live with his girlfriend Amelia’s family. Amelia was the woman who was to become his wife. Gemma now lives with her father on a farm in Maine. Her parents were divorced but her father and his new wife are expecting a child. Gemma feels utterly unwanted and rejected by all of these new developments in her life. Essentially, the absence of a child in one couple’s life and the presence of a coming child in another’s, is the seed of all of the problems.
When Estelle left Benedict to move into her friend’s apartment to ostensibly pursue her art career and to think about their waning relationship, he lost his interest in most things. Without her, he went through his days automatically. He took his comfort in food and disregarded the condition of his home which was succumbing to his neglectful ways. When someone banged on his door in the middle of one rainy night, he was surprised to find, not his wife returning, but instead, a bedraggled, rather arrogant teenager was on his doorstep. She demanded to be let in after announcing that she was his brother’s daughter, a brother he had not had any contact with for 18 years, a brother who lived across the ocean in America! From here on in, this semi-stranger, his niece Gemma, helps to bring about many positive changes in the lives of all those she meets in the village. As long kept secrets are exposed, and new ones are suddenly discovered, revelations cause monumental changes in all of their lives.
Together, the budding relationship between uncle and niece, which begins in fits and starts, teaches them both, and those with whom they interact, how to see things more clearly, how to open themselves up to challenge and face their fears, and it brings them all satisfaction and provides them with the confidence they need to make the necessary adjustments that will improve their lives.
Fairytale like, this unconventional young girl brings joy into the lives of all she meets with her brutal honesty and sincerity. Sometimes, her analysis seems to be coming from the only adult in the room, defying the reality that she is the only child present. She enables many of the town’s residents, who are floundering, to find their way to happiness, although she has a hard time finding consistent joy for herself.
It was a pleasure to read and learn about the meaning of each gemstone, it’s purpose, and the way in which it was used in the story to help a character achieve his/her goal. It was the magic of believing that seemed to pave the way, seemed to be the impetus for the achievement each character sought. The stones seemed to be the mechanism that united families, friends and lovers, that mended fences and romances, and that renewed hope in many. Although secrets destroyed relationships, revealing them sometimes led to more solid foundations and reconciliation.
The names of the characters seemed to have been chosen tongue-in-cheek. Benedict Stone’s parents died on a business trip in search of gemstones. Benedict is a jeweler who works with stones. Gemma’s first name and their common surname Stone is an obvious combination of both words in gemstone. It is through the gemstones and their meanings that the book develops and the characters grow. They come in search of something nebulous, and Gemma and Benedict give them the tools they need to fulfill their dreams. As the “gem and the stone” discover each other, they provide what just might bring them all the happiness they seek.
Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout, author; Kimberly Farr, narrator In this novel, the author has continued the saga of “Lucy Barton”, the title and character in her book of the same name, but it is now decades later. Lucy was raised in Amgash, Illinois, a small town with neighbors that seemed overly critical of each other, often exhibiting ridicule when compassion would have been the better option. It also seemed overly populated by troubled residents. After Lucy left Amgash, as a young girl, she never returned until now, as a much older woman. The author reintroduces many of the people she came in contact with during her difficult and troubled childhood. Those who influenced her life in some way and who were responsible for the adult she became were reintroduced in this book. Who they were, who they became, and why, is the substance of the story. There were times that I felt the narrative was disjointed, as so many characters from the previous book were recreated and connected to her past. Coincidentally, in one scene, in the same way that Lucy and her mom had a meeting of the minds in the first book, two other characters did the same in this book. Angelina and her mother Mary seemed to reconnect across the distance of miles and time, with a heart to heart conversation that was at once very difficult, but also very revealing and cathartic for both. Every character seemed to have a story to tell, a horrifying secret to reveal, or a relationship to reconcile. There was nary a character that seemed to simply grow up happily and unscathed. They all had some dysfunction, greater or lesser, with which to contend. All of the characters seemed to leave a trail of confusion or pain in their wake as they grew older; some still seemed scarred even after experiencing a sudden revelation that made them understand or accept their past or that made them able to find a pathway forward. The author tried to reconstruct the characters as each new scene began, but at times I thought perhaps there were simply too many to keep track of or remember. Still, although it was a bit convoluted at times, the characters did take on a life of their own, even if not always believable. The nature of the novel made it repetitive at times as each character related something of their past and explored their memory of events connecting them to each other. I found it interesting that in the novel, Lucy Barton became an author who had written her memoir, and this author, Elizabeth Strout, was essentially writing it for her. Lucy Barton was troubled as a child, and although successful, she still seemed troubled as an adult. I was not sure that the author was able to prove her premise that anything was possible.
Trajectory, Richard Russo, author; "Horseman" read by Amanda Carlin, "Voice" read by Arthur Morey, "Intervention" read by Fred Sanders, "Milton and Marcus" read by Mark Bramhall
In this book of short stories, Russo has chosen characters who are faced with a life choice of going forward or remaining in the past, of having hope or of sinking into the lap of despair. Stories that could have been depressing are uplifting in the end, as all of the main characters choose what life has to offer them, rather than what life has given them, oftentimes, with disappointing consequences.
In “Horseman”, a college professor matures through the errors of her student’s ways. The student’s poor behavior causes her to review her own life choices. She comes to terms with her own social issues and chooses to broaden her horizons, to break free and make the necessary changes to improve her life rather than stay stuck in a protected environment that she has created for herself, rather than remain in the place she always thought would keep her safe!
In “Voice”, the main character is insecure. He has to come to terms with his past, has to learn to forgive himself as well as others, and then he has to go forward optimistically instead of dwelling on despair and his previous mistakes of judgment. He has to decide whether or not he is a good person, or whether he has to stay in the shadow of others as he always has done before, believing they are right and he is wrong.
In “Intervention, the economy has hit a recent downturn, and the real estate market has hit the realtors and the sellers strapped for cash. As the main character becomes more empathetic toward his clients feelings, he also becomes more introspective about himself and rediscovers his own will to live hopefully, rather than be stuck in the patterns of his family in the past, a pattern that apathetically accepted fate as if it could not be influenced by outside forces and as if it was predetermined.
In “Milton and Marcus”, a screenwriter is in a difficult position. He has to find a path forward with a wife who is seriously ill and a successful career that is in decline. It is, therefore, a story within a story. One part is his own story and the other is about Milton and Marcus, two estranged friends, a screenplay he has written. It is the screenplay that provides the impetus for him to go forward and be the man he wants to be, and perhaps, not exactly the kind of man he has been.
In each story, the main character is faced with what sometimes seems an insurmountable problem. The issue becomes the catalyst that propels the main character’s road forward, and determines how he/she comes to terms with how to proceed with living. All of the stories involve the character’s examination of his past behavior which acts as their guiding light to the way ahead. In some cases, a weakened, lesser character is the impetus for improvement. In each story, there is desperation, but the writing style and insertion of humor brings each one to a hopeful conclusion, one not steeped in pessimism, but rather in optimism, as each character finds a way to accept themselves, warts and all, and to accept that life might still present them with opportunity rather than defeat as they march into their futures. Each of the characters chooses to challenge themselves, to fly rather than remain tethered to the ground.
This book is the story of an unknown part of the Israeli/Lebanese conflict. Young men were sent to a remote place called Pumpkin Hill, in order to protect the border between Lebanon and Israel; the conflict cost many lives on both sides over several decades. It also possibly changed the course of history in the Middle East. The book is written in such a way, with an almost casual relating of events, as a reporter would relate them, so that the import of the message is sometimes lost in the fog of the war, but the dedication, loyalty and the sacrifices of the Israeli soldiers is not. In Israel, the injured soldiers are called flowers and the dead are referred to as oleander. The twelve outposts overlooking and securing the Israeli/Lebanese border also had colorful names. The hill was used as a media tool by Hezbollah. In 1994, they staged a surprise attack on this tiny outpost and filmed it in such a way that Hezbollah could use it for propaganda purposes to recruit soldiers into their ranks. Although the Israelis were afraid, so too were the attackers, who were not filmed running away. The media was complicit in creating their story. It turns out that the media may be the best weapon anyone can use. The Lebanese conflict may have spawned the suicide bombers and rise of Hezbollah. The Israeli show of force and presence on the border may have inspired further rebellion. The reader will have to judge for themselves exactly what the catalysts are for the expanding Middle East conflict. For sure, the events on that hill inspired the Four Mother’s Movement which finally brought the occupation to an end. With the election of President Barak, Israel pulled out of Lebanon, in 2000. What happened on Pumpkin Hill, beginning in 1994 and continuing until 2000, is not recorded for public consumption, but the circumstances surrounding the holding of the hill made the Israelis rethink the efficacy of the Lebanese military operation. Matti Friedman participated in the protection of that hill. These are his thoughts and memories coupled with the testimony of others who were witnesses and willing /or unwilling participants. The hill remained with him, even after the outposts were destroyed. In 2002, he made a trip into Lebanon, concealing his Israeli identity, and revisited the places there that were visible from his watch post on Pumpkin Hill, the places they joked about someday visiting as tourists when peace would come. Now, a decade and a half later, peace has not come as hoped, but he has recorded the story of Pumpkin Hill and its effect on the soldiers who held it, on the Israelis and the Lebanese, the Christians and the Muslims, in essence, on all involved. He has recorded his impression of his clandestine trip back to Lebanon. Was the effort to hold that hill and that border worthwhile? Is it indeed necessary for Israel to take all of the defensive actions it has taken and will continue to take, perhaps, in order to survive? When the Israelis evacuated their outposts, the South Lebanese Army faded into the background or joined forces with their former enemies; they had no other choice. The world watched the rise of Hezbollah and the suicide attacks on Israel. Will this simply be the way of life in Israel forever? Will they be able to simply go about their daily lives as if the attacks are just a normal part of their lives, as if life is simply portable, one day here, one day not here. If they do, it will not be apathy, but rather it will be a determination to survive, an indication of their strength and fortitude in the face of constant turmoil, living in a place that wants only to reject them and erase their country from the pages of history in much the same way Pumpkin Hill has been wiped from the pages of Israeli history. I had mixed feelings reading the book. At first I was horrified, thinking that perhaps Israel had instigated the Middle Eastern conflict by their reactions, criticized in all quarters at all times. After all, both sides suffered the loss of life. One side treasured and tried to protect them, though, while the other side sacrificed them in their cause. As I read, I thought, no, this conflict continues because the enemies of Israel refuse to accept its existence as a Jewish state, to accept its historic place there, to acknowledge its holy sites. Whatever the reason for the conflict initially, its perpetuation lies in those facts. Israel usually retaliates to protect itself; the survival of the country is and has always been the prime mover and motive of its leaders. As a Jew, I hope it continues to be. Long live Israel. I pray for a short lived existence of the sponsors of its enemies. I am not too hopeful, but, I too, am determined that it remain a viable democracy in the cradle of civilization. It is up to history to judge the events in the Middle East. Hindsight seems to always be the clearest perception of events. At the end, the first words of the song “What’s It All About Alfie?” kept playing in my head. “What’s it all about Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live? I gave the book five stars because it is an honest appraisal of both sides of the issue, the loss of future men and women and the pain left behind by their absence. It humanizes the soldiers, their families and the country, and grounds them all in reality. They were, after all, just boys being told what to do, but they were expected to act like men! They were the country’s human treasure. They persist and prevail still.
Gwendy’s Button Box, Stephen King, Maggie Siff, narrator
When Gwendy, (combo of Wendy and Gwendolyn) is 12 years old, she is taunted at school about her weight and called “Goodyear” by a nasty boy at school. She decides to slim down and exercises running up and down suicide stairs, in Castle Rock, Maine. One day, an odd man with a small black hat who has been sitting on a bench close by for days, without speaking to her, suddenly calls out to her. After a brief conversation, he presents her with a gift, she really cannot refuse. It is a beautiful box for which she is now responsible. It has several buttons and levers. One lever provides a small beautiful animal made out of a delicious chocolate, no bigger than a jelly bean. What does this chocolate do for Gwendy? The other lever dispenses rare silver coins. There is a red button which grants wishes and a black button she is warned never to touch. There are seven buttons representing the continents of the world.
How the box changes her life is the subject of the story. It is entertaining and read well by the narrator. Her character is developed clearly as is the character of the man with the black hat, Mr. Ferris. Over the next decade, we share Gwendy’s life. Will Mr. Ferris ever return, or will Gwendy bear the burden of the box forever? Is the box good or evil? Why was Gwendy picked to watch over it?
The Music Room, Stephen king, author; Maggie Siff, narrator
It is around the time of the Great Depression. People are starving and suffering. The Enderbys, a childless couple, have devised a diabolical way to make it through these difficult times. In their home there is a sound proof closet in which they have placed various guests. What happens to those guests is revealed as the short story plays out. Are they murderers or thieves? I didn’t find this story plausible by any stretch of the imagination.
The Fix, David Baldacci, author; Kyf Brewer, Orlagh Cassidy, narrators
Amos Decker is a detective extraordinaire! His demeanor is sometimes caustic and abrasive, but he is always honest, perhaps to a fault. His ability is exceptional because of a football injury which gave him special abilities. He cannot forget anything he experiences, and he sees people in various hues, as in navy blue denoting death. He is still recovering from the tragic deaths of his wife and child, Cassie and Molly, almost two years before, and because of his unique abilities, the memory is always with him and does not diminish.
When he witnesses the murder of a woman by a man who is engaged in government work, requiring several clearances, by a man who was about to attend a meeting at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which was the headquarters of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), he becomes embroiled in the investigation into her death and the murderer’s suicide. Working with a colorful cast of characters, Alex Jamison, his partner and Harper Brown of the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), who also just happens to take a liking to Melvin Mars, Decker’s friend who had been wrongfully imprisoned for two decades, and who has been in other books in the Decker series, the story really takes flight.
Who was Walter Dabney, the murderer? What was his motive for killing Anne Berkshire? Who was she? Her past appears to be hidden. All they know about her is that she volunteers at a hospice reading to a dying young boy, among others, and also is a substitute teacher. She is a complicated character who seems to be living two lives, but one of them is unknown. Dabney is a successful business man whose family claims to have no knowledge of Berkshire, but as the family’s history and the woman’s past are both exposed, it soon becomes clear that this won’t be an easy mystery to solve. Has Dabney been living a double life as well? Before the enemies of democracy can stage a symbolic, tragic event which will affect the major powers of the world, Decker and the others engaged in the investigation must find a way to prevent it.
As the story develops, there are light and humorous touches as well as romantic moments mixed in with the moments of extreme danger. The narrators were excellent. They read the story without becoming the story; they read with expression, but never over emoted. The characters were really well developed so that there was a picture of each in my mind. It is a book that will appeal to a variety of readers, especially those on vacation or traveling. It is a great book to listen to while driving because it is very engaging as secrets are revealed and an espionage ring is uncovered. While it is interesting, it is not distracting.
Music of the Ghosts, Vaddey Ratner, author; Jennifer Ikeda, narrator
America’s part in bringing about the revolution in Cambodia is painful to acknowledge. It seems to have been one of the catalysts that brought death and destruction to the country and helped to inspire the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime. Although it promised to bring about a more equitable, democratic environment for all, as is often the case, there is no utopia, and instead, the horrific policies of the Khmer Rouge were responsible for a widespread abuse of power that wreaked havoc upon the people. Pol Pot, inspired by Mao Tse-tung and Marx, set up a brutal, violent and vicious regime. Thousands upon thousands lost their lives. Those who were considered enemies of the regime, sometimes seemingly at random, were arrested, tortured and murdered. They simply disappeared. Families were torn apart and left to mourn their losses without explanation or recourse. They never found out about the circumstances surrounding their kin’s imprisonment and/or death. The author’s own history and family experiences inspired this work of fiction.
This is a story about a great tragedy, but out of the landscape of horror, against all odds, hope eventually rose up to allow the country and its people to renew itself and begin again. As the tale moved back and forth in time, focusing on one or another of the characters, it presented the reader with the history of Cambodia, the culture of the people and their motives for supporting the Khmer Rouge with ultimately disastrous results for so many. At times it is a love story and at times a story of revolution and its consequences. It is a story of familial love and devotion, betrayal and loyalty. It is the story of Suteera and the Old Musician as their two generations united and began to understand what led to their misfortunes. It was in this way that they were able to forgive themselves for real and perceived wrongdoing and then to forgive and accept each other. They were able to begin again to love and respect their country and their culture and to return to the simplicity of their way of life.
Suteera Aung was 12 years old when she and her Aunt Amara escaped death in Cambodia. They made their way to America and resettled in Minnesota. The rest of her family had succumbed to the violence and war in Cambodia. Upon Amara's death, Teera decided to return to Cambodia. She brought her aunt's ashes with her to be left at the Temple there that Amara had continued to support throughout her life in America. She had also received a letter from someone who had been imprisoned with her father during Pol Pot's regime. He had sheltered with the monks at that temple for the last quarter century. He had some of her father's musical instruments. Both men had been musicians. He wanted to return them to their rightful owner as he had been charged to do so, by her father before his death.
When Teera returns to the country of her birth, she is drawn to her past and her heritage. She meets the other man who once loved her mother and who knew her father. He had sheltered with the monks at the temple supported by her aunt for the last quarter of a century. She also meets a former monk, Dr. Narunn, and as her heart opens to him and she learns of her father’s shared past with the Old Musician, she begins to discover the truth behind the inhumane cruelty they both suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. She begins to understand her own anger and discovers she can love again and forgive those who have hurt her. Although she has lived in America for much of her life, she finds she loves her own country even with its poverty and need, or perhaps because of it. There are few creature comforts, but it calls to her; after all, she thinks, how much does she really need? She has witnessed the suffering of orphans and survivors and she wants to help others more than she wants luxuries for herself. As the novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge, the author reminds us that it also tells the story of survivors and their path to forgiveness.