the leavers

31318368_10156592377218392_8885773605795790848_nThe Leavers by Lisa Ko is about a mother and her son and what brings them together and tears them apart.

When Deming Guo was 11, his Chinese immigrant mother, left for work at a nail salon and never returned home. In alternating narratives, this heart-wrenching literary novel tells both sides of their stories.

This novel is also about immigration, belonging in a foreign place, figuring out who you are and who you want to be and what it means to have a family.

After his mother’s disappearance, Deming Guo is adopted by a white family, Peter and Kay Wilkerson, and given the new identity of Daniel Wilkerson. Daniel struggles with the loss of his mother and the other people he considered his family. He had lost so much and he was lost himself and could never bring himself to fully accept the love his adoptive parents tried to give him. He kept everyone at arm’s length because he was scared they would disappear. He felt like a stranger and was always fearful and on edge, never feeling like he belonged anywhere.

Daniel really struggles with himself. He goes to school for a while and quits, goes back, quits again. He joins a band and quits. He drifts around from place to place torn between his two identities (Daniel and Deming), never knowing who he really is or who he should be.

Later in the book we learn what happened to his mother. Will he be able to forgive her for abandoning him? My book club didn’t care for this book. It has won a lot of literary awards, but I also felt like it just wasn’t as good as it could have been. Still, it provides a heart-breaking look into the world of immigrants and the battles they must face.

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the wife between us

30074880_10156535437693392_252904516_o.jpgThe Wife Between Us was not as spectacular as I thought it would be. It was a good read, but I didn’t think it was as good as some of the others in this genre. I just hate it when books don’t live up to the hype. Maybe if I hadn’t been expecting something great, I would feel differently.

The book has a very unreliable narrator. Vanessa obviously has some issues with drinking, anxiety and obsession. She is obsessed with the woman her ex-husband is marrying. Nellie is slowing realizing her husband isn’t the person she thought he was. As the book progresses, it is hard to determine who the psychopath really is and who, if anyone, is the sane person.   There were several plot twists. I didn’t find the book to be that thrilling, but I did read to the end because I did want to know what was really going on. If you like a light suspenseful read, then give this book a try. If you are expecting something spectacular, you may be disappointed.

the Great Alone

29633314_10156514822493392_1585173720_oThe Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is the story of the Allbright family: Cora, Leni and Ernt. Ernt receives a letter that he has inherited a home and piece of land in Alaska, from a fellow soldier he was friends with during the Vietnam War. Cora and Leni reluctantly agree to go, in hopes for a new beginning. Ernt has some serious PTSD issues and is often abusive and angry and unable to keep a job. They are all hopeful Alaska will be a good change.

When the family arrives in Alaska they are immediately warned by the locals how hard it can be. Most people that move to Alaska don’t make it through the first winter. Fear is common sense. “If you’re tough enough, it’s heaven on earth. You have to know how to survive.”

Cora is warned by the other Alaskan women, “A woman has to be tough as steel up here. You can’t count on anyone to save you and your children. You have to willing to save yourselves. And you have to learn fast. In Alaska you can make one mistake. One. The second one will kill you.”

“They lived on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream.” Winter was a big deal. Survival, could hinge on the smallest thing.” You have to be self-sufficient. You either belong here or you don’t.

Leni soon discovers that despite all the bad things, she belongs more in Alaska than she ever has anywhere else. She felt a great opening in her soul. She felt fully herself. She finally belonged.

Pretty soon, the cruel Alaskan winter arrives and Leni’s father gradually gets angrier and more abusive. Every day is darker and colder. “As winter pared their life away, the Allbrights were left with only each other. Every evening was spent together, hours and hours of night, huddled around the woodstove. They were all on edge. Arguments erupted over nothing. Worse than the weather was the confinement it caused.”

Leni’s father “looked ruined, tired, but present; in his eyes, she saw more love and sadness than should be able to exist in one human being. Something was tearing him up inside. It was the other man, the bad man, who lived inside of him and tried to break out in the darkness.”

For a while, Leni, like her mother, believed that her dad really was just sick and sorry. They thought that if they loved him enough, he would get better and it would be like before the war. It wasn’t long before Leni stopped believing that.

“The darkness and the cold and the isolation got inside my father in a terrible way, turned him into one of the many wild animals.” The war broke Ernt and no one could help him. “With no local police and no one to call for help. All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”

Leni and her mother stick together to get through her father’s episodes. They are very close, strong for each other when they have to be, each other’s reason for living. Leni, “Whatever happened, she wasn’t ever really alone. She had her mama. Her childhood would always smell like sea air and cigarette smoke and her mother’s rose-scented perfume.”

As for Cora, she loved Ernt way too much to leave him. She felt like she couldn’t breathe without him. She longed for the man he was before the war. The book says a lot about the durability and lunacy of love and how it stays against all odds.

“In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness, you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone.”

“Wild. That’s how I describe it all. My love. My life. Alaska. Truthfully, it’s all the same to me. Alaska doesn’t attract many; most are too tame to handle life up here. But when she gets her hooks in you, she digs deep and holds on, and you become hers. Wild. A lover of cruel beauty and splendid isolation. And God help you, you can’t live anywhere else.”

I loved this book. Do not expect another “Nightingale.” This book is very different, but just as powerful and lovely.

We Are Called to Rise

29387175_10156496573133392_516812701763108864_oWe Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

Each chapter of this book is told from a different point of view. Each character lives in Las Vegas and as the book unfolds, we learn how they all become connected.

Avis has spent her whole life in constant fear that something would happen to her beloved son, Nate. She lost daughter, Emily, at a very young age and it has a huge effect on the rest of her life.  When the book opens, Avis is standing naked in front of her husband thinking of ways she can spice up their marriage when he tells her that he is in love with someone else. Avis is faced with the heartbreak of losing her house and her husband.

Avis had a rough childhood, living with a drunk mother who moved from one abusive relationship to another and moved into one run down hotel to another, sometimes even living in the back of a car. She has spent her whole life trying to not be anything like her mother.

Nate is Avis’s son. He recently came back from serving time in Iraq and has just begun his career as a police officer. His mother notices he isn’t quite right when he returns home from the war and his PTSD gets worse and worse until something tragic happens.

Bashkim is a young Albanian boy in Las Vegas. His father was put in an Albanian prison for protesting an act of the government. He applied for political asylum with the United States and his family was sent to live in Vegas. Bashkim’s mother is lonely in US. She misses her family and their homeland.

Bashkim’s father is often violent and angry. Bashkim worries a lot. He lives in a state of fear that he will get in trouble at school, which will get him into trouble with his father. As a school project, Bashkim begins writing letters to a soldier in Iraq.

Luis is Bashkim’s pen pal. After three years in Iraq (or hell as he called it) he shoots his own self in the head and winds up in the hospital instead of dead. He wanted more than anything to be a good soldier and make his grandmother, who raised him, proud of him. Luis blames himself for everything. He is full of anger and guilt and self-loathing.  He lays in bed and wonders, “Will I ever be a man again? Will I always be this crippled fuck?” At 22 years old, Luis feels he has nothing left to hope for, he doesn’t know what to do with so much pain and failure and he has no idea what to do with his life if he’s not a soldier.

The letters he receives and writes to Bashkim begin to wake him up and bring him back around. They make him want to do something right. Bashkim really gives Luis the will to live again.

Roberta is a court appointed Special Advocate who takes her job very seriously. She puts all her heart in soul into her job and wants to make recommendations for the children she helps that she would make if the child were her own.  She learns everything she can about each child so she can make the best decision possible for the future.

Las Vegas, in my opinion, is also a character in the book. “It’s not a small town anymore. For decades, people have been streaming in from all over the world, from every country on the planet; stateless people, desperate people, eager people, ambitious people. They came for easy work, the ability to pay someone off, for the chance to start over.  They come because they are rich, they come because they are poor, and someday soon, all these hundreds of thousands, millions, of newcomers may even wipe clean the slate drawn by Vegas’s earliest dreamers.”

These three quotes sum up everything the book was about:

“Coincidences can be powerful. The strangest coincidences are opportunities.”

“Things happen to us that are more than we can take. And we break. We break for a moment, for a while. But that break is not who we are. It’s not the sum total of who we are.”

“One small thing changes everything. The tiniest act, the smallest space of time, the most inconsequential of decisions, changes a life. Whole lives are born out of the most fragile of happenstance.”

 

Everything Here is Beautiful

29133480_10156474900708392_825751391581503488_oEverything Here is Beautiful-Mira T. Lee                        Everything about this book is beautiful. It’s heart-wrenching, unforgettable and moving. It’s about the complex relationships between two sisters. It’s about love. It’s about mental illness.

Lucia suffers from schizophrenia. She goes through long periods of time living a pretty normal life and then the disease resurfaces with no warning causing turmoil. Lucia often has trouble figuring out what is real and what isn’t. At age 26 she was diagnosed and told she had a 20% chance of maintaining a full time job, a 25% chance of living independently, a 40% chance of attempting suicide, a 10 % change of succeeding.” She fights against this diagnosis her whole life. She never gives up and always keeps trying.

Her sister, Miranda, who she calls Jia, has been there for Lucia her whole life. The two sisters were brought to America from China by their mother who thought they could only truly be free in the US. When their mother died from cancer, all they had was each other. Lucia always steps in to get her sister help when she has manic episodes and is always there when the phone calls come in that Lucia has been admitted to a hospital somewhere. Miranda struggles with finding her own well-being and happiness and taking care of her sister. How much can one person sacrifice for another?

Lucia is very unpredictable. “One minute she’s sweet, the next she’s snide. She’s not stable. It’s like she’s fighting some demon inside.” Lucia marries Yonah, leaves him behind, has a baby with another man (Manny) and then moves to Ecadour with him. Manny feels a duty toward Lucia that he confuses with love and will do anything for his daughter Essy (Esperanza). He is a kind and decent man who promises to stick with Lucia and the baby. Lucia is always wanting to pick up and move somewhere new to get a clean slate, but she never does because her mental illness always interferes with her plans.

The miles put a greater distance between the two sisters. Lucia feels that Miranda tries to control her and only sees her illness. Miranda is trying to live her own life. Manny and Lucia struggle with their relationship for years as well. Lucia feels the need to get away again but can’t leave her daughter behind.

I was really torn up at the end of this book and could not stop thinking about it. It’s a truly beautiful book.

“Oh, golden summer! Each day sharp and transformative, glowing and singular, each moment a glittery embrace.”

“It was impossible to know the truth of another’s interior life.”

“Love is everything.”

Lilac Girls

28951636_10156462871663392_5700336640279445504_oMartha Hall Kelly does an outstanding job with this detailed and heartbreaking account of the tragic events that happened during World War II in, Lilac Girls. The book is told from the point of view of three different women that come from different backgrounds and were affected in different ways by the war.

Caroline volunteers at the French Consulate and is quite the philanthropist for the French, especially the orphans. She goes as far as to sell her own family’s china so that she can send the orphans in France the things they need. She crosses paths with the other women at the end of the book and helps so many people along the way, making a real difference in their lives. Caroline’s romance with a married actor is also a big part of the story.

Kasia is a young Polish woman that becomes involved in an underground operation that ends in her being captured and sent away to a concentration camp with her family. She feels very guilty for getting her family involved, “It was one thing to suffer myself on account of my own stupidity and quite another to bring everyone I loved down with me.” Some pretty awful things happen to her and all the women that have to endure life at Ravensbruck. Survival is something that they have to fight hard for and many of them didn’t survive the camp. “Sadness was often a more potent killer than disease. Some gave up, stopped eating, and died.” Kasia, fueled by her anger, says, “The hate grew in my chest. How could I live without revenge?”

The third narrator is German woman named Herta, who is the only female doctor at the camp. She takes the job to fulfill her dreams of being a surgeon and has no idea of the horrors that await her there.

There are some pretty graphic, horrific and heart-breaking moments in this book. The author actually based this novel on a true story and did a lot of research to make her story as accurate as possible. This book was very well written and will surely touch the heart of everyone who reads it.

They May Not Mean To, But They Do

28312641_10156416298193392_2096433629_oThey May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Shcine

At the beginning of this novel, Joy Bergman is the caregiver to her husband Aaron, whose health is failing quickly. It isn’t long before Joy begins having some issues with aging herself. Much to her dismay, her two children, Molly and Daniel are full of ideas and solutions to deal with Joy’s aging and loneliness. She loses sleep worrying that they may send her to a nursing home.

Joy has begun to feel “out of date, obsolete, and left-behind,” and useless to anyone. She wants to take care of everything herself, but is beginning to realize that she may not be able to do that anymore. “She mourned her husband. She mourned her life. She longed for her children and husband. She didn’t seem to belong anywhere anymore.”

The title of Cathleen Schine’s novel comes from a poem by Philip Larkin which begins “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” Later in the book, Joy says,” They meant well. They did. But they fuck you up, your son and daugther. They may not mean to but they do.”  She says this about her children interfering in her life, making decisions for her and trying to control what she does.

This book will be very true to life to anyone that has dealt aging or caring for an aging parent. The book is set in New York and I really enjoyed reading about the city as well. At times it was heart-breaking, but at the same time, the author lightened up the book a little bit with scattered dry humor. I laughed out loud many times reading Joy’s observations and thoughts about family and life. This book is an emotional exploration about aging, grief and dysfunctional families. The author really hit the nail on the head.

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

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At the beginning of “Faithful,” by Alice Hoffman, Shelby Richmond is suffering from severe depression, anxiety, guilt, and post-traumatic stress. It’s been two years since the car accident that ruined her best friend, Helene’s, life and Shelby has spent all this time (after a suicide attempt and being in the psych hospital) living in her parents basement with no contact to the outside world.   She blames herself and doesn’t understand, “Why would an angel rescue her when she’s worthless and Helene, who was so much better than she could ever be, was right there, in desperate need of help?”

One night while out walking, she runs into Ben. “They stumbled into each other’s lives one cold winter when they were both desperate for warmth.” Even though Shelby tries to do everything she can to prevent it, they become friends. She decides to move to New York with Ben because she is haunted in her hometown and she wants to try to escape her past.

She soon finds in New York that you can’t escape your past. She eventually develops friendships even though, “She has never wanted to be involved with people.  People are dangerous, unreliable, stupid, greedy, needy, breakable.” Despite her best efforts, people come into her life and she becomes attached to them and they slowly bring her back to life.

She has an eye for tragedy and sorrow and seeks out needy people and animals. Since she couldn’t help Helene, I feel like she tries to help everyone else she possibly can.  “She understands abandonment and loneliness. Her desire to do right for those creatures is what fuels her.”

I won’t spoil the book for you, but the people and animals she helps, really end up helping her. I loved this book. I was immediately pulling for Shelby and wanted her to find her way in the world.  The other characters in the book were lovely as well, especially the dogs!!!!

A few quotes from the book:

“Maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running.”

“If you don’t think you’re worth something, no one else will either.”

“How much of the world can never be understood or explained?”

“Life was beautiful, everyone knew that, but it was also bitter and bleak and unfair as hell and where did that leave a person?”

 

Manhattan Beach

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Manhatten Beach by Jennifer Egan.     I am ashamed to admit that this is the first book I have read by Jennifer Egan. Her other books have been on my bookshelf way too long. I have mixed feelings about “Manhattan Beach.” I was a little bored at times, but I am not a historical fiction lover, so a little boredom is to be expected when I read such a book. The author obviously did a lot of research to make this book an accurate portrayal of the World World II/depression time period.

When the book begins, we are introduced to the heroine of the book, Anna Kerrigan. She is just twelve years old and she is obviously daddy’s little girl. Anna and her father have a very close relationship and a special bond. It’s apparent that Anna’s father is involved in some sort of mafia/gangster activity and he begins going away a lot. Because he is gone so much and Anna is no longer allowed to join him, their relationship begins to wither.  

At 19, Anna’s father has disappeared and she becomes the provider for her mother and handicapped sister. She tires of her factory job and pursues her desire to become a diver. It is unheard of for a woman to be a diver and Anna has to fight constantly to fulfill her dreams. Most people would have given up, but she let nothing get in her way.

Around this same time, Anna also becomes involved with a dangerous man who may be able to help her figure out what happened to her father. There are many lovely characters in the story that kept me interested through the boring parts. Another thing I loved about the book is that the sea wasn’t just the setting, but it was almost a character in the novel itself. Jennifer Egan is an amazing writer and I look forward to trying some of her other books, which I understand are much different from this one.

This blurb from Amazon sums it up perfectly: “Manhattan Beach is so rich in detail and atmosphere; such an exploration of underworlds of all kinds, filled with lessons on lifelines and buoyancy and how to bear life’s weight by diving deep into it. Jennifer Egan has masterfully conjured an era we are on the cusp of losing. Her novel is an absorbing story, beautifully written. Its strands of subtle intrigue and quiet heroism make you reluctant to leave each page while eager to get to the next.”M.L. Stedman

The House We Grew Up In

23782098_10156145202343392_593225045_nThe House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell. 

Meet the Bird family. The Bird children had a picturesque childhood that “was all golden shiny times when nothing could go wrong.” They were a very close family who ate dinner together every night, played in the garden all day, and had huge egg hunts every Easter. Their charming mother left sparkles and sunshine wherever she went and made sure they had the best childhood ever.  Then one Easter, tragedy strikes, tearing the family apart, and nothing is ever the same.

Lorelei is the mother of the family. She is a very eccentric woman who began collecting things in order to deal with her unhappy childhood. Her collecting becomes more and more of a problem until social workers tell her that her hoarding is so bad that her life is at risk.

Meg is the oldest child. Since a young age she has suspected her mother is ill and has constantly criticized her hoarding. She despises her mother’s hoarding and is very outspoken about it. She is the only family member that stands up to her mother.

Bethan is two years younger than Meg. She is happy to live in Meg’s shadow. She is shy, quiet, and easy to get along with. She doesn’t really know herself and she struggles with this through adulthood.

Rhys and Rory are twins and couldn’t be more different. Rory is cool and popular, while Rhys is strange and nerdy. Rhys is the odd child of the family. Everyone else is bright and fun, but Rhys is a little weird and likes to be alone.

After the tragedy that occurs, that I really wish I could tell you about, but I don’t want to ruin the book for you, the family drifts further and further apart, blaming each other for the tragedy until they are pretty much estranged. At their mother’s death they are all brought back together again to deal with their troubled past.

“When someone doesn’t want to help themselves, there’s only so much you can do.”

“No family is indestructible, but were pretty resilient.”

“Maybe if there’d been an explanation we could have all moved on, found closure. We blamed each other because we didn’t know who else to blame. And then we just carried on blaming each other for everything.”

A very good read about a dysfunctional family. My favorite thing to read about!