The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor

Yoko Ogawa

I was used to absurd demands from my employers—that I wear a different color ribbon in my hair every day; that the water for tea be precisely 165 degrees; that I recite a little prayer every evening when Venus rose in the night sky—so the old woman’s request struck me as relatively straightforward. “Could I meet your brother-in-law?” I asked. “That won’t be necessary.” She refused so flatly that I thought I had offended her. “If you met him today, he wouldn’t remember you tomorrow.”

By the time that Akebono Housekeeping Agency had sent her to work for the Professor, his card had already amassed nine blue stars—one for each time a housekeeper had to be replaced. If she failed, she would be the tenth. The job seemed easy enough: care for a man in his early 60s, work Monday to Friday from 11 am to 7 pm, prepare lunch and dinner, perform basic housekeeping, and do the shopping. The only caveat? The man—a former math professor—had a memory that only lasted eighty minutes. So began a unique friendship that would start over every hour and twenty minutes. A relationship as mysterious, complex, and intricate as the numbers that filled the Professor’s life.

Ogawa gives us a hauntingly beautiful story about kindness, loyalty, and friendship. Despite giving her characters no names (with the exception of the Housekeeper’s son who is nicknamed Root), these individuals still manage to leap off the page and burrow their way deep into your heart. Both the Professor and the Housekeeper are sympathetic and deep characters who justly deserve our compassion. The Professor remains largely unaffected by the new memories and friendships he’s made; however, when he becomes aware (either vocally or visually) of his loss, you can feel the torment, anguish, and misery literally slicing through his soul. Likewise, the Housekeeper bears an equally heavy emotional burden as she lives each day with the realization that after eighty minutes has passed, the Professor will neither remember nor miss her. This book will tug on every single heart string you possess, yet Ogawa still manages to give us a story filled with joy and hope.

The only minor downside is that The Housekeeper and the Professor does go deep into the mathematical weeds on several occasions with lengthy explanations of various theorems, laws, and formulas. Fans of Pierre de Fermat, Leonard Euler, and Pythagoras will appreciate their numerous references (with Euler’s Formula being specifically highlighted). While the majority of us will tend to glaze over these facts (while reliving some uncomfortable high school math memories), math is the singular means with which the Professor has to communicate and connect with those around him and so these enthusiastic explanations are easily forgiven as they provide valuable insight into a complicated and troubled individual.

Galileo Galilei wrote, “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” No matter how much had been taken away from him, the Professor realized that math connects us all. It is indeed a universal language without barriers or limits. Understanding this now makes me wish that I had spent just a little bit more time appreciating my high school math teachers and everything they patiently tried to teach me.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz

Drowning Ruth

Christina Schwarz

Ruth remembered drowning. “That’s impossible,” Aunt Amanda said. “It must have been a dream.” But Ruth maintained that she drowned, insisted on it for years, even after she should have known better.

Amanda Starkey is a nurse—a brilliant one in fact. She’s known for having “the touch”, but recent events have brought her mental stability into question and has forced her to leave her work at the hospital. Seeking a change of venue, she travels to her family farm at Nagawaukee. Perhaps there she’ll get the rest and clarity she needs while allowing her to reconnect with her younger sister, Mathilda, and Ruth, her niece. Soon, tragedy strikes and mystery surrounds the shocking drowning of Mathilda and as the years pass, dark secrets begin to crowd the deepest corners of both Amanda’s and Ruth’s memories. What happened that winter night in 1919 that led to a young mother’s watery death? How much does Ruth remember? What are those horrible scars on Amanda’s hand?  Are they a clue to the past? But like ice, secrets eventually thaw and allow the truth to rise to the surface. What will happen to Amanda and Ruth once these secrets are finally discovered?

Christina Schwarz’s Drowning Ruth is an Oprah Book Club pick and I can see why. Oprah’s selections often involve dark, broody themes with complex characters and intricate plots. This book is wonderfully no exception. Schwarz packs her book with flawed and fractured characters who carry their own unique burdens and baggage. Schwarz is able to flesh out each of her pivotal characters amply (from Amanda’s old love interest to Ruth’s beautiful and vivacious new friend) and doesn’t waste precious words with throw-away details or pointless subplots. The story switches from past to present and from third-person narrative to first-person points of view of both Amanda and Ruth. It is perhaps these personal perspectives that give readers the most honest and raw insights into these women, the motivations behind their actions, and how each are dealing with loss, adversity, betrayal, and heartache. Drowning Ruth moves along at a vigorous pace with plenty of plot twists to keep the reader engaged and guessing. The farther you get into this story, the more you realize how all of Schwarz’s character’s lives are deeply intertwined and entangled. The result is a satisfyingly suspenseful and captivating read.

One of my favorite authors, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, wrote in his book The Shadow of the Wind, “A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept.” Like Mathilda and Ruth, Amanda Starkey was drowning as well, but her water was the weight of the secrets she wrapped around herself. Despite her need to keep them submerged, Amanda’s dark secrets eventually found their way to the bright surface and as they emerged, they brought Amanda up as well and introduced her to the fresh air that only life and living can provide.    

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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Bed & Breakfast by Lois Battle

Bed & Breakfast

Lois Battle

Josie Tatternall, military widow turned Bed & Breakfast proprietor, is about to reunite her thrown grown daughters for the holidays.  Following a sudden medical emergency of one of her closest friends, Josie realizes the fragility and uncertainty of life and decides that there is no time like the present to bring her estranged family together after ten long years apart.  But will her three headstrong daughters agree?  Can the beauty and majesty of Christmas yield hope and forgiveness and unite this broken family?  Josie is about to find out.

I began this book with very high expectations.  After all, the cover is brimming with glowing reviews: “Full of warmth, humor, and characters I completely adore,” touted author Dorothea Benton Frank and “An irreverent holiday treat,” exclaimed the Chicago Tribune.  Author Cassandra King said the characters in Battle’s book were “wonderfully eccentric” and “heartwarming” who have “become her friends”.  But alas, you truly can’t judge a book by its cover and my experience with this story and its characters left me feeling more bah humbug than holly and jolly.  Before delving further, let me explain how I rate books—50% of my review is about the book itself (story, characters, pace, themes, etc.) and the other 50% is how the book left me feeling (enlightened, hopeful, disturbed, retrospective, etc.).  With a rating of 2/5 stars, the latter far outweighed the former as I am still reeling with contempt at such an aggravating cast of characters. Allow me to elaborate without spoiling the story too much…

First, let me go down the list of main characters that ran the gamut of predictable and overused stereotypes: Josie, the dutiful military wife who puts her own wants and needs last; Josie’s domineering and womanizing military husband, Bear; Cam, Josie’s eldest who fled small town South Carolina for the bright lights of New York only to be rudely awakened by the fact that she is a very small fish in a huge pond; Lila, middle child, doting daughter, and perfect Southern wife who seemingly leads an idyllic, charmed life; and Evie, Josie’s youngest who was a one-time runner-up in the Miss South Carolina pageant and who uses her legs and lashes to their full advantage.

Second, it was actually surprising to read a book, written by a woman, with so many unlikeable female characters.  The daughters were all self-centered, selfish, whiny, immature, and just plain insufferable. Josie was a little more tolerable, but it’s one thing to be loyal to a husband who is a known philanderer (at least she respects and honors her vows) and quite another to pledge allegiance to a friend who—more likely than not—had abused her trust and taken advantage of their friendship.  This makes Josie more of a chump than a champion.  Overall, I’ve never met a more contemptible set of women that I disliked a lot, respected less, and fell victim to their own self-destructive behaviors and personalities.  Oddly, it was the men (Josie’s brother-in-law, Cam’s love interest, and Lila’s husband) who came across as decent, sympathetic, reliable, honorable, and morally grounded. 

This was the first book by Lois Battle that I’ve read.  The Florabama Ladies’ Auxiliary & Sewing Circle is still on my bookshelf and, rather than potentially throw the baby out with the bathwater, I will be giving Battle another try to see if her female leads fare any better in this book. 

I’ll end this review by mentioning a sentiment of Josie’s that she recalls several times throughout the book as she looks at the lives of her grown daughters: she did the best she could.  Unfortunately, I believe Battle could have done a little better for all of the women in the Tatternall family.

Rating: 2/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano

The Girl She Used to Be 

David Cristofano

I open my eyes and realize there is no way to turn this around. Before, there was one good guy and one bad guy; now I’m lost in a world of distrust and corruption and the odds of my survival have slipped to about one in a thousand.  The only person left I can trust is myself—and I have no idea who I am.

Melody Grace McCartney has been in the Witness Protection Program since she and her parents observed a violent murder on the morning of her sixth birthday.  By the age of 13, Melody had already exhausted six identities.  Through years of countless cities, occupations, and names, the only thing that Melody knows is that there is certainty in numbers.  In numbers, there is stability and consistency.  Math never lies.  Now 26, Melody is about to be relocated again when she encounters Jonathan Bovaro.  He’s charming, rich, and the son of the man who is the reason behind her seclusion and the murder of her parents.  Jonathan tells her that she is safe while she is with him, but after twenty years of hiding in the dark, can this man actually show Melody the light?

The Girl She Used to Be is a prime example of when people make very (very, very) bad decisions.  The book starts off promising, but with each chapter, the ludicrous choices begin to pile up faster than traffic on US 101 in California during rush hour.  Although we lament Melody’s loss of a “normal” childhood because of the secret she’s forced to keep, her twenty-year plight becomes a bit tedious and whiny as she is being relocated for the umpteenth time due to boredom (she gets a tad itchy at about the 18-month mark). Sadly, Jonathan “Johnny” Bovaro doesn’t come across any more likable or sympathetic.  His good intentions are clouded by a quick-trigger violent streak and his optimism of his Mafia family is laughable (hasn’t he seen The Godfather?  Even Zootopia should have clued him in—the arctic shrew mafia boss is cinematic genius by the way).   

All in all, David Cristofano’s novel isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but after an interesting enough start, it begins to fall apart about midway through and then just ends up in a tangled pile of spaghetti.  The actions and judgments of the story’s two main characters make the story implausible (surely adults aren’t THIS naïve) and hard to wrap your arms around.  Interestingly, Cristofano starts each chapter not with a title, but with an equation.  Unfortunately, his numbers just don’t quite add up.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus

The Nanny Diaries

The Nanny Diaries

Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus (Adult Fiction)

“There are essentially three types of nanny gigs.  Type A, I provide ‘couple time’ a few nights a week for people who work all day and parent most nights.  Type B, I provide ‘sanity time’ a few afternoons a week to a woman who mothers most days and nights.  Type C, I’m brought in as one of a cast of many to collectively provide twenty-four/seven ‘me time’ to a woman who neither works nor mothers.  And her days remain a mystery to us all.”  Nan would categorize Mrs. X as definitely a Type C.  In her final year at NYU, Nan is juggling school, her roommate’s obnoxious and hairy boyfriend, a self-absorbed boss, a promising romance, and a precocious four-year old by the name of Grayer.  As Mrs. X becomes increasingly more demanding—while blurring the lines between hired help and servant—Nan begins to wonder how much she can possibly bear for the sake of a single child.

Authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus have worked for over thirty New York City families and claim that their story of Mrs. X and her family is entirely fictional and not based on an actual family.  Let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief and hope that’s true.  To imagine such a cold, disconnected, passive-aggressive, self-entitled woman and an equally despicable, philandering, and narcissistic man actually being parents that possess such a profound and everlasting effect on another human being is beyond the pale and frightening to think about.  As loathsome characters go, let’s not leave out our poor and hapless Nanny…Nan for short.  Although she has a genuine regard for Grayer and clearly has his welfare in mind, one cannot overlook her obvious lack of a spine, as well as dignity and self-respect.  One of my biggest pet peeves is a person—either real or imaginary—who complains constantly about his or her current circumstances, but does not a single, solitary thing to remedy it (Kathy Nicolo from House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III quickly comes to mind).  Nan hates her employer and despises her current living situation yet she refuses to quit or move.  Either she’s unimaginably loyal or really likes being miserable.  Unfortunately, when Nan is miserable, she shares her misery with us and then WE become miserable and unless you’re Job, being subjected to perpetual pain and suffering is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Nanny Diaries isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read and it does contain some self-deprecating humor, but the deplorable supporting characters and a whiny main character make this an overall annoying read resulting in an unpleasant (and yes, miserable) experience.  The only character with heart who deserves any semblance of sympathy is Grayer who represents any child who was conceived to be nothing more than an accessory worn on the arm versus a being to be held in your heart.

If you want an insight into the world of high-priced fashion designers and luxury brand names (Chanel, Prada, Judith Leiber, Lalique, Ferragamo, Armani, Gucci), then this is the book for you.  If you are looking for a heartwarming and feel-good story about nannies and the children in their care, amble down the children’s section of your local library or bookseller and check out the adventures of Mary Poppins or Nurse Matilda.  You’ll find nary a Hermès bag or Manolo Blahnik pump in these stories, but you might feel a little better about the world and those among us who have more money than manners…unless you like feeling miserable and then the Book of Job is right up your alley.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Walk by Richard Paul Evans

The Walk

The Walk

Richard Paul Evans (Adult Inspirational)

Alan Christoffersen had it all: a successful advertising agency, a big house, luxury cars, and a beautiful wife who was the love of his life.  But a horrible accident would set off a series of events that would send his world crashing down.  Within weeks, he would lose everything and Alan Christoffersen, the man who had everything, was suddenly left with nothing.  It seemed that even God had abandoned him.  So, Alan decided to walk away from his troubles…literally.  With nothing more than a backpack and a few essentials, Alan set off on a near 3,500 journey stretching from Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida hoping that this walk might bring him some clarity to a life that didn’t make sense anymore.

I’ve read many What-would-you-do-if-type books: What would you do if you could live forever?  What would you do if you had one wish?  Go back in time?  Trade places with someone?  Were invisible?  This one was different.  Tackling the idea of how to move forward after you’ve lost everything is daunting.  Alan faced this situation, questioned his own faith, and wondered why love, hope, and grace had been so mercilessly taken from him.

The Walk is the first in a series of five books in The Walk Series by Richard Paul Evans.  This first installment takes Alan all the way across the state of Washington: from Seattle to Spokane.  During this first leg of his journey, he meets several people who remind him what kindness, generosity, and gratitude look like: a handless man looking for answers, a scarred woman offering hope, an innkeeper who faced death, and a stranger returning a favor.  Each person along his journey offers Alan little bits of wisdom and insight and their brief presence in his life leaves him undeniably changed.

The Walk is an easy and quick read.  Evans deals with religion and faith without being overly preachy and gives us a likeable protagonist who seeks the good in humanity although he himself has been betrayed by those he had trusted most.  In the opening pages, we know Alan completes his walk and eventually reaches Key West, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” and we know that Alan has a very long journey ahead of him.  A journey that will hopefully answer some of his questions and perhaps even restore his faith.

Alan keeps a diary of his walk.  In one entry, he wrote, “We truly do not know what’s in a book until it is opened.”  Likewise, we often don’t know what’s in a person until we ask or until we have the opportunity to get to know them.  We don’t know their past, the burdens they may carry, or the pain they may be enduring.  The few people that Alan encountered during his walk through Washington began as unopened books, but by extending a kindness or even just a simple greeting, those books began to open and Alan discovered that perhaps the love, hope, and grace that he thought had been denied him had never really abandoned him after all.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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In the Woods by Tana French

In the Woods

In the Woods

Tana French (Adult Mystery)

On August 14, 1984, Jaime Rowan, Adam Ryan, and Peter Savage—all twelve years old—were playing in the surrounding woods of their small Dublin neighborhood of Knocknaree when the unthinkable happened.  Jaime and Peter disappeared and Adam was found in blood-soaked sneakers clinging to a tree with no memory of the event.  Flash forward twenty years and Adam Ryan, now Detective Rob Ryan, is investigating the murder of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin in Knocknaree.  Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, diligently work the case to find Katy’s killer while Ryan grapples with lost memories that may link the two cases together.  But Knocknaree is a small place.  What are the chances that two different child murderers live in the same village?

In the Woods is French’s debut novel and she handily presents an interesting and compelling police procedural.  Clocking in at 429 pages, she manages to hold our interest throughout her novel while creating a slow and steady momentum as our main characters flesh out four different threads of theories and begin peeling back multiple layers on two seemingly-connected murder cases.  Her characters are multi-dimensional and French gives us time to become familiar with them; however, the portrayals are a bit biased since we are seeing everything through Ryan’s eyes, our story’s narrator.  By his own admission, he lies and so we are already aware that throughout the case, we’re going to run into credibility problems.  (Personally, I don’t like unreliable or untrustworthy narrators, but I digress.)  The thing which pleasantly surprised me was the relationship between Ryan and Maddox.  French chose a professional relationship for these two versus the obligatory romantic/sexual conflict that readers often get when presented with a male/female partner pairing.  We see the ease they have around one another, as well as the mutual respect they share.  This platonic relationship allows the reader to concentrate on the case rather than muddy the waters with “will they/won’t they” expectations.

Despite these positives, I found this book fell short on multiple levels.  In the Woods starts off riveting and suspenseful and then—through a series of professional negligence (some folks should have lost their jobs), self-destructive decisions, and just plain sloppiness (or laziness) on the author’s part—the story begins to unravel and disintegrate right before our eyes.  Ryan is not a very likeable guy and he knows this: “I am intensely aware, by the way, that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light.”  More often than not, he comes off as whiny and immature and his love for the bottle (which leads to more hangovers that I could count) makes me wonder how he manages to stay gainfully employed let alone be put in charge of a murder investigation.  Despite his horrifying backstory (which should have earned him at least a few pity points), it was simply impossible for me to connect with Ryan and feel any kind of sympathy for him.  Conversely, Cassie Maddox is bright, intuitive, hardworking, and a much more likeable character, which is probably why Tana French gave her the starring role in her novel’s sequel The Likeness (book two of six in the Dublin Murder Squad series).  Positives and negatives aside, the biggest problem I had with this book is the giant red herring that French made the cornerstone of her story.  I won’t divulge any spoilers, but I will say that by the end of the book, I was left feeling irritated, unsatisfied, and frankly duped.  I did stop myself from throwing the book against the wall so I guess this can be added to the positive column.

In the Woods won several awards and inspired an eight-episode series for the BBC and Starz.  Obviously, a lot of people thought that this novel and its sequel were the greatest thing since the melon baller.  However, between an annoying main character and a plot line that utterly evaporated, I hope to find satisfaction in French’s sequel.  Until then, any closure that I thought I would find in this book will remain elusive for I believe that it is still probably hiding somewhere.  Somewhere in the woods.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

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A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable Wife

Robert Goolrick (Adult Fiction)

Ralph Truitt was fifty-four years old, rich, and alone.  He had been alone for twenty years and if the loneliness didn’t kill him, then another year in a bleak and barren Wisconsin winter might.  So, he placed an ad in the Chicago paper: “Country businessman seeks reliable wife.  Compelled by practical, not romantic reasons.  Reply by letter.”  He received many responses, but it was Catherine Land’s letter that he would choose.  He had read it so many times, he knew it by heart.  It was the first sentence that piqued his interest: “I am a simple honest woman.”  But letters can be deceiving and all this “simple honest woman” wanted—ever wanted—was to acquire both love and money.  Catherine would not live without some portion of both and Ralph Truitt was the ticket to her dream.  With a beautiful face and a sympathetic backstory, she was well on her way of inheriting a vast fortune…unless Ralph Truitt had other plans.

A Reliable Wife is one of those books that if you don’t stick with it, you would simply give up on it and unapologetically mark it as “Did Not Finish”.  With its foreboding and depressing backdrop of a 1907 Wisconsin winter, to its flawed and morally corrupt characters, to its underlying themes of lust and sexual fantasies, it really takes a herculean effort to weed through all of the debauchery and depression.  Thankfully, a nice story twist about midway through the book rewards those who stick it out and marks the beginning of several plot turns that will keep the reader’s interest and make the remaining scenes of lust and unrequited passion a little more forgivable.

The story centers on three main characters: Ralph Truitt, Catherine Lane, and Tony Moretti (Ralph’s illegitimate son).  All three do their fair share of whining and complaining and mourning a past that is lost and hating themselves for who they might have been.  Interestingly, I found Tony’s character the most sympathetic of the three, although Goolrick paints him as the antagonist.  He is the only one who truly deserves to feel betrayed and abandoned and can safely shroud himself in the term “victim”.  Don’t get me wrong, all three have their reasons to mope and feel wronged by life, but only one trophy can be awarded and I don’t give out participation ribbons so Tony gets the prize.

Robert Goolrick gives us a tale of regret and remorse and poses the question of how far would someone go in order to make a person love them?  I enjoyed this work far more than his book Heading Out to Wonderful, which I only gave 3/5 stars.  Unlike the latter, A Reliable Wife felt consistent all the way to the end and proved to be a suspenseful and compelling read.

I’ll end this review with four important takeways that I learned from A Reliable Wife: 1) If you live in Wisconsin, get out of Dodge before the first snowflake falls.  Winter marks the beginning of crazy season and you’re apt to either kill yourself, kill your family, kill yourself and your family (not in that order), or maim yourself (and possibly your family); 2) If your mother is a fanatical religious zealot, chances are you are going to grow up to be a hot mess; 3) A promise is a promise.  No matter how ridiculous, immoral, unethical, or illegal the promise is, you have to keep it.  No backing out.; and 4) Money doesn’t bring you happiness.  No matter how good looking you are, well educated, worldly, well-spoken.  It doesn’t matter.  You are going to be miserable so just pin that badge to your chest and wear it proudly.  So take a lesson from Ralph, Catherine, and Tony, just live a poor life in the tropics with a good therapist and don’t ever, EVER, make any promises.  You can thank me later.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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Tracks by Jim Black

Tracks

Tracks

Jim Black (Adult Fiction)

It’s 1968 in the small town of Archer City, Texas.  Fifteen-year-old Jim and his friends, Charles and Gary, are freshmen in high school and the world is suddenly full of hope and possibility…and broken hearts, broken noses, and a few bruised egos.  Yes, life is good until strange things begin to happen.  There are reports of livestock being found mutilated just outside of town and rumors of satanic cults and aliens begin swirling around faster than a Texas dust storm.  Every nerve in town is raw and on edge and that could only mean one thing: the time is absolutely ripe for Jim, Charles, and Gary to pull off a prank worthy of the ages.

Tracks is the sequel to Jim Black’s delightful and humorous semi-autobiographical River Season.  I was gifted my copy of Tracks by the author himself (who also kindly signed it) who mailed it to me after reading my review of his first book and noting that I was looking for a copy of his sequel.  I must say, I was a bit apprehensive when I started reading Tracks.  Would it capture the same magic and nostalgia as its predecessor?  What if I didn’t like it?  How can I tell an author, who personally sent me a copy of his book, that it fell a little flat and then afterwards, how would I be able to fake my own death?  I shouldn’t have worried because Tracks captures the same heart, soul, and humanity that originally endeared me to three teenaged lads in a small Texas town.

Like Black, I grew up in a small, southern town.  During the 1970s, my town had a population of only 646 and I remember the barbershop with the lighted barber’s pole, the diner, the hardware store, post office, service station, bank, library, and courthouse that stood along Main Street.  Black’s novel isn’t just a story about the special bond of friendship and how family goes way beyond blood, it’s a sentimental and tender journey back to a time when after a fight or a bad date, all it took to set the world right again was a fried fruit pie and a flavored Coke with your best friends sitting beside you in the corner booth.  A time when you walked into the diner and all you had to be asked was, “The usual?”  A time when your mom served you Malt-O-Meal for breakfast, you played Parcheesi with your grandmother on Sunday, and you sat around the television set watching Bonanza at night.  It was a time when friendship meant that someone always had your back and was ready to offer up a hand or a shoulder when needed.  It’s a story about life and everything that goes with it: humor and heartbreak, hope and disappointment, pitfalls and promises.  It’s the uncertainty and the adventure that makes life worth living and a story that each of us writes for ourselves with every breath we take.

I will never be able to thank Jim Black enough for his kindness and generosity for sending me Tracks (he sent me a second book which I will be reading and reviewing in the very near future).  I read because I love getting lost in a story and I write because it is what God gifted me to do.  When the two meet and happen to come across an appreciative eye, it makes life all the more sweet.

Ben Franklin once said, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”  With the help of his two best friends in the world, Jim Black was able to accomplish both.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill

A. Manette Ansay (Adult Fiction)

There are many ways to describe Ellen Grier: wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, caregiver, teacher.  All of these different roles and yet Ellen still feels incomplete…invisible almost.  She had been happy in Illinois in their rented house, but after her husband lost his job, she and her family are back in their hometown of Holly’s Field, Wisconsin and living with her in-laws at 512 Vinegar Hill—a harsh, loveless, and cold home filled with secrets.  She wants to be happy, but finds herself drowning under a sea of hopelessness and despair.  Can Ellen save herself and the ones she loves before Vinegar Hill consumes them all?

Vinegar Hill is an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  I’ve read several of her recommendations and often found them to be “hit” or “miss”.  This book is clearly a “miss”.  On the back cover, a review from Washington Post Book World calls it “Sweet, tender, and chilling.”  After reading this and several other critics’ comments printed on the book, I’m wondering if I actually read the same novel that they did.  Sweet?  Tender?  Vinegar Hill is the type of book that would make Edgar Allan Poe pause and say, “Wow!  Now THAT’S dark!”  This is a depressing, depraved, and disturbing story devoid of purpose, value, or meaning.  We’re introduced to several generations of individuals whose intolerance, callousness, cruelty, meanness and spite are clearly hereditary.  It’s an endless cycle of verbal and physical abuse with a skosh of religious hallucinations and psychological delusions thrown in for interest.  Ellen’s daughter, Amy, “buries” her “dead” dolls in shoeboxes; her husband, James, sees his children as the personification of Halloween with their skeletal hands and sunken ghostly eyes; and her elderly and bitter mother-in-law, Mary-Margaret, has dreams of her deceased twin infants growing back inside of her.  THIS is sweet and tender?  The Chicago Tribune even called Vinegar Hill “one of the year’s best books.”  I’m absolutely speechless.  I found the characters unpleasant and unsympathetic, religious judgements are frivolously tossed out as if they were beads at Mardi Gras, intelligence is scorned and vilified, and helplessness is encouraged and celebrated.

When Ellen sought advice from her fellow co-worker, she was told, “No one gets used to anything, they just get numb.”  After a while, with the constant derisions and disparagements, I too became numb and found myself eagerly counting down the pages until I could finally close the covers of this book and walk—or actually run—away from Vinegar Hill and all of its inhabitants…never to look back again.

Rating: 2/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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