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EMOTIONALLY REWARDING

It’s hard to think of a mother who plans to kill herself as a heroine.
Sometimes, reading simply provides appreciation for the problems we own by escaping into someone else’s, but readers want a heroine, despite insurmountable odds, to triumph. With FIVE DAYS LEFT, some readers struggle with the “Brittany Maynard” premise. Because there’s a child involved. Because, they think, what if the daughter finds her? What if? What if? All these questions are propel readers forward.
FIVE DAYS LEFT is structured around Mara’s problem: loss of control. A universal fear – being completely dependent on those around us for our every need. We’ve all thought, “Please, not like that!”
Mara has one thing in her corner. She “knows” how she will die, if Huntington’s takes her.

It will be progressive. And it won’t be pretty.

But, she’s decided to take that back. The how she dies part. Because it’s all Mara has. And if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself, damnit. Under the banner of protecting her family’s memories, sparing them “seeing her like that”, Mara has made a pact with herself to end her life on her own terms, when the time is right.

THE TICKING CLOCK

All stories have them, so the audience knows when they get to turn out the light, get a snack or… pee…
Many readers wrestled with Mara’s decision to end her life based on peeing in her yoga pants. There’s several ways this opening scene would function better, revealing more without continual flashbacks to push the plot along.
Sure, untimely pee is embarrassing, but public humiliation is only truly PUBLIC when some you KNOW sees something you’re trying to hide. If Mara had been with her daughter, whom she’s trying to give a “normal” childhood or had she been approached by a colleague from her law firm, well… readers would have squirmed more during the market scene.

A way to make it better?  Include references to the existing scene with rude little boy, but let this be the SECOND peeing incident. The public humiliation is worsened, revealing the thing Mara’s been denying/trying to hide due to her birthday’s approach. Even a workaholic, driven lawyer would have second thoughts about her “plan.”
The decision on the first-pants-wet makes her seem suicide-happy because Mara’s degenerative health profile has not been explained at this point in the novel. The decision to end her own life based on wetting her pants ONCE, coupled with remarks about her “sexy” kitchen and replacing herself with a car as a gift for her husband (This is no moment of humanity. It tells the audience she believes her worth is equal to a vehicle: replaceable, shiny, only good in top condition) are misplaced. Maybe Mara doesn’t get this because she’s an adoptive mother, but bladder issues during and after carrying a child are part of the way life works. TRANSLATION: It doesn’t just happen to the elderly. These combined assumptions make Mara seem shallow, not simply depressed. This conflicts greatly with the love shown by the people surrounding her. If Mara had one moment of internal reference to jumping the gun emotionally in a previous situation, based on viewing herself this way, readers would see this as an internal, universal flaw, making her more relateable.

PROBLEM, PROBLEM, WHO SOLVES THE PROBLEM?

The heroine, naturally. Mara’s ironic problem is that her gift to herself, her gift to family is seen by some as robbery. Robbing her family of time to pour love on her and learn things about one another before the final end. But there are always what-ifs in retrospect, right? Everyone wants MORE TIME. And Mara, she wants time the way she wants it. Readers can identify with this desire, can say, well at the very least, she deserves THAT. Because of these desires we have, wills are written, letters to open on landmark birthdays, weddings, videos about our pride in accomplishments for graduations … All methods to comfort, to control what happens after we’re gone, so things don’t fall apart. Control when life is chaos.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Bring tissues

The-FirebirdWith a simple touch, she can see an object’s past. All who have wanted it. All who have owned it. All who have stolen it.

Nicola Marter was born with a gift so rare and dangerous, she keeps it buried deep. But when she encounters a desperate woman trying to sell a modest wooden carving she claims belonged to Russia’s Empress Catherine, Nicola knows the truth.

There is one with greater powers than Nicola’s, but he’s a man she can neither love nor lose. Together, they’ll pursue answers and perhaps untold rewards. In once-glittering St. Petersburg, the tale of The Firebird unfolds, irrevocably changing all who’ve pursued its secrets.

Beloved by readers as varied and adventurous as her novels, you will never forget spending time in Susanna Kearsley’s world.

What I Think:

FRESH DYNAMIC: From the opening page, the intimate relationship between Nicola and Rob pulled me in and held my attention. With this novel having a dual story line, I have to say Anna and Colonel Graeme’s scene’s were also very sweet.

EMOTIONALLY REWARDING: There were plenty of ups and downs in THE FIREBIRD, enough suspense to keep long-haul readers interested. I felt the middle hundred pages could have been sharper, but I am used to reading shorter, tighter books. Simply a matter of preference.

DUAL HEROINES: This is where things get muddy. Who truly is the story’s heroine? Nicola or Anna? Nicola meets her greatest fear head on, but does Anna? IS Anna an active heroine or is she tossed about, merely a feisty observer?

FINAL THOUGHTS: This book is a good beach read, but it doesn’t move fast, so settle in with lots of coffee. And Chocolate.

15818107ORPHAN TRAIN, Christina Baker Kline

Paperback, 288 pages
Published April 2nd 2013 by William Morrow Paperbacks
ISBN
0061950726 (ISBN13: 9780061950728)
edition language
English

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from “aging out” of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse. Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance. The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both. Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

What I Think:

FRESH DYNAMIC: That depends. Many readers say ORPHAN TRAIN reads like young adult fiction because Kline did such a superb job with Molly’s character. I think there’s more to that claim. Consider this: 1) By leafing through a wealthy old lady’s attic and 2) forming a bond with said mysterious old lady, (who is more interested in the main character’s well-being than her own mother) 3) a young girl with a difficult past grows/heals 4) and fills a maternal void. 5) Meanwhile, she contributes to the old lady’s quality of life. Old lady feels less isolated and more encouraged to embrace her future. WOW –  -Discovering secrets in an attic was every girl’s dream (at least, before the digital age…) : BEHIND THE ATTIC WALL, any NANCY DREW. I could go on and on. Discovering a crone had a past life and making her happy? POLLYANNA, and several episodes of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. This may feel like YA because that was what you read when you were ten. If not, it is a fresh dynamic.

EMOTIONALLY REWARDING:  Absolutely, but Kline sets up expectations well in advance. Mrs. Byrne is cold-hearted. Mr. Grote is gross. When “Dorothy” sees The Wizard of Oz, readers know her life is about to go TECHNICOLOR. Maybe these overt cues contribute to the YA idea as well.

Once Molly and Vivian share truths about tragedy in their early lives, Vivian reflects: “And so your personality is shaped. You know too much and this knowledge makes you wary…The expression of emotion does not come naturally, so you learn to fake it. To pretend. To display an empathy you don’t actually feel. And so it is that you learn how to pass, if you’re lucky, to look like everyone else, even though you’re broken inside.”  p.170. These are the passages where Kline’s writing shines – making extreme circumstances emotionally transferable.

DUAL HEROINES … OR NOT?: Another reason this story could be seen as a YA read is the struggle to determine “heroineship”.

Throughout Niamh/Dorothy/Vivian’s experience she remains a good-hearted survivor who prospers, but she doesn’t do anything extraordinary. Nothing heroic or self-sacrificing. She makes her money, sits in her mansion and becomes a hoarder. She’s not particularly happy or contributor to the community. In short, not heroine material. When Molly’s school project requires an interview, Vivian doesn’t seem to fret over the decision to discuss her life after decades of silence. *SPOILER ALERT (SORT OF)*  Vivian supplies answers and out of her past tumbles an out-of-character plot twist that made me groan.

This leaves Molly, the character who changes most IN REAL TIME. The novel opens with her in full goth attire, but frustrated by the effort it takes. With each visit, her social worker comments on Molly losing some of her “armor”. The way Molly succeeds as a heroine is by finding inner strength to move beyond her sarcastic shell and help others.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I liked this story a great deal. I enjoyed learning about the historical significance of the orphan trains. Kline does a fantastic job weaving the two voices in the simplest, clearest way possible.  There will be plenty for book clubs to discuss.

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Kate Vaughan is no stranger to tough choices.
She’s made them before. Now it’s time to do it again.
Kate has a secret, something tucked away in her past.And she’s getting on with her life. Her business is thriving. She has a strong relationship with her family, and a devoted boyfriend whom she wants to love with all her heart. If Kate had ever made a list, Rowan would fill the imagined boxes of a perfect mate. But she wants more than the perfect on paper relationship; she wants a real and imperfect love. That’s why, when Kate discovers the small velvet box hidden in Rowan’s drawer, she panics.

It always happens this way. Just when Kate thinks she can love, just when she believes she can conquer the fear, she’s filled with dread. And she wants more than anything to make this feeling go away. But how?
When the mistakes have been made and the running is over, it’s time to face the truth. Kate knows this. She understands that a woman can never undo what can never be undone. Yet, for the first time in her life she also knows that she won’t fully love until she confronts those from her past. It’s time to act.
Can she do it? Can she travel to the place where it all began, to the one who shares her secret? Can the lost ever become found?
And Then I Found You gives new life to the phrase “inspired by a true story.” By travelling back to a painful time in her own family’s history, the author explores the limits of courage, and the price of a selfless act.

What I Think:

FRESH DYNAMIC: Granted, I don’t read Women’s Fiction as often as I used to, but I haven’t read much Fiction at all these days where an entire family heaps so much GOOD, but not-well-suited advice to one person. Henry draws the picture very early that Kate’s family is loving and supportive – so invested in one another that Kate “pays it forward”. Kate invests herself in troubled teens not because she was one, but out of compassion. That certainly IS a fresh dynamic. I don’t even recall an alcoholic uncle mentioned anywhere in the entire text and doesn’t EVERYONE have one of those?

EMOTIONALLY REWARDING:

So often, characters are thrown into situations where they grieve a situation made in haste, without good counsel. Kate grieves a decision she considered thoroughly. In fact, Kate’s ability to grind her decisions to dust could drive a reader to stab the novel at times, but Henry layers Kate’s personality well. The story told in AND THEN I FOUND YOU is the solution to Kate’s long-standing problem, not a story where Kate was presented with a problem to solve. Kate’s public self is not much different from her private self because she lives her life surrounded by a supportive family who knows her secret. Her secrets are kept from Rowan, possible fiance, and their “friends”. This is where readers see her unravel.

Kate’s whiny, self-obsessed stares at the river seem like spots of deleted action. Possibly moving some later scenes forward would have helped this and trimmed the wishy-washy feel out of the last few pages and helped with pacing.

I had to wipe my eyes several times during this read. I appreciated Kate’s respect for the adoptive mom’s territory and found it interesting that AND THEN I FOUND YOU’s release is close to the release of the Tina Fey / Paul Rudd movie, ADMISSION.

ANOTHER TWIST?

Maybe there could have been, somewhere. Because we all knew what would happen when we started reading, but Henry’s characters are so well drawn that readers don’t mind a bit. Like I said, there is a great emotional payoff, served most by the mother-daughter unease. Questions of: How do we go about this? How do we relate? And most importantly, Where do we go from here? Still hang in the balance.

FINAL THOUGHT-

Great beach read. Has well-developed family dynamic. This is another one to recommend to mom or grandma to open discussions about how pregnancy was handled differently in previous generations. Would be great springboard for conversation with a young teenage girl, fostering some deep and interesting discussion.

CMHimages (1)Calling Me Home
Author: Julie Kibler
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (February 12, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1250014522
ISBN-13: 978-1250014528

Eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister has a favor to ask her hairdresser Dorrie Curtis. It’s a big one. Isabelle wants Dorrie, a black single mom in her thirties, to drop everything to drive her from her home in Arlington, Texas, to a funeral in Cincinnati. With no clear explanation why. Tomorrow.

Dorrie, fleeing problems of her own and curious whether she can unlock the secrets of Isabelle’s guarded past, scarcely hesitates before agreeing, not knowing it will be a journey that changes both their lives.

Over the years, Dorrie and Isabelle have developed more than just a business relationship. They are friends. But Dorrie, fretting over the new man in her life and her teenage son’s irresponsible choices, still wonders why Isabelle chose her.

Isabelle confesses that, as a willful teen in 1930’s Kentucky, she fell deeply in love with Robert Prewitt, a would-be doctor and the black son of her family’s housekeeper–in a town where blacks weren’t allowed after dark. The tale of their forbidden relationship and its tragic consequences makes it clear Dorrie and Isabelle are headed for a gathering of the utmost importance and that the history of Isabelle’s first and greatest love just might help Dorrie find her own way.

What I Think:

FRESH DYNAMIC~

Several reviews compare CALLING ME HOME to THE HELP, so let me address how it stands apart. The main relationship in CALLING ME HOME is between an elderly, widowed white woman (Isabelle) and a middle-aged, single black woman (Dorrie). Many authors agree there are no new characters in any genre, just new relationships. In novels such as THE HELP and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES a character dynamic that is often presented is The Wise Black Woman. CALLING ME HOME offers a fresh dynamic as Isabelle shares her bitter losses and past mistakes in hopes of helping Dorrie through her present-day struggles. The story is about race, but with a different approach.

EMOTIONALLY REWARDING~

Get some tissues, they said. Block out some time, they said. Tragic love story.  Apologies authors, but my reading is done in the carpool line. No leisurely tub reading in this LIFE PHASE – sorry! To be fair, my car is the same place I write fiction, articles and blog posts.

If I’m hungry, I hit this country meat & three with internet. (Don’t worry. I have headphones.) For future reference, when you CRY at a meat & three, the *Nice Guy with a Walker* (whose wife is in a wheelchair & connected to an OXYGEN TANK) will come over and tell you, “Honey, now, it’s just a little ‘ol book.”

You will feel like you’ve been visited by ANDY GRIFFITH.

So, thank you, Julie Kibler. CALLING ME HOME an emotional, rewarding visit. Plus, there was *Nice Guy with a Walker*.

Though the circumstances of the story are extreme – few of us have dealt with Isabelle’s troubles – being controlled by authority figures, feeling powerless, and the intensity of first love, are all universal emotions. Kibler guides readers through these with ease.

ONE FUNNY THING~

Emotional moments during Isabelle’s storytelling are emphasized by a seemingly all-knowing crystal-ball type crossword puzzle book Dorrie picks up at a convenience store on their way out of town.  I wanted the characters to not only note the crossword book’s eerie abilities to perceive/predict the conversation, but to also fling it out the car’s window in terror.

INTERESTING~

Isabelle only states that Dorrie is “African-American”, but Dorrie describes Isabelle’s appearance at length. This bothered me because I thought Kibler had made a white-author-writing-black-people mistake until I reached Isabelle’s description of Robert.

NICE TWISTS~

You think you know, but you don’t. Repeat.

DUAL HEROINES~

I don’t like to compare movies and books, but this novel reminded me of BRAVE in a small way. It took both Dorrie and Isabelle to tell the story, with the small difference being the greater change was in Dorrie.

FINAL THOUGHTS~

A great debut filled with historical suspense. Will she or won’t she? Did she or didn’t she? You can even recommend CALLING ME HOME to your mother. Totally worth it, but not in public. You see, I’m not the crying type. On another note, I searched both Goodreads and Amazon for reviews from readers who aren’t white girls. I only found ONE. I would love to hear reviews from a different point of view.

I have a friend who has a terrific time coming up with names, but the names? Quite frankly, my dear… dry as a corn husk. I have another friend who dreads it, but her names roll off the end of the tongue like extra cherries at the bottom of your milkshake. They’re juicy, fit the character perfectly.

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my obsession with cemeteries. A friend of mine works for Dachshund Dream Rescue in Atlanta & needed fresh names. Because of my crazy obsession and name banking compulsion, I sent her 200  names like Acel, Cobb, Mettie, Euphemia T. Proudfoot, Zodie, Moody, and Gillam. That was just the name bank that was on my phone.

That time of year is creeping up again, when it’s not too hot, not too cold.  I highly suggest pulling off the side of the road at an old church.  Jot down your favorite names. Add them to your name bank. You never know when you need a Mettie with a wandering eye or a Cobb who lost his foot in a war. Moody did not sell Bibles, though. I promise you. But Zodie read tea leaves in her kitchen for $5 a pop.

Another route ( if you’re spooked by cemeteries) is Ancestry.com. This summer, I discovered that I have an ancestor named Pleasant Melvin Alexander. I am so not kidding. If Ancestry.com is pricey for you, go in with a cousin and you can each explore different ends of the family under the same password.

Another way to do names is to identify the thing that most describes/embodies your character. Here are some easy examples. For a cheat or a weasel,  “Wesley”. If you have someone who seems dreamy and lives for escapism, feel free to use “Misty”. For a liar, I’ve used “Lila” and for someone who offers forgiveness, “Joshua.”

For secondary characters, sometimes nicknames-as-names work best to remind the reader of that character’s role in the story. Say the Dad is enthusiastic and older and fast-talking, instead of calling him “Dad”, call him “Pop”. A sweet aunt can be “Aunt Sugar”, especially in the Southern US. For an aunt who cleaned until her fingers cracked, I have used “Aunt Blanche”.

There are a gazillion ways to go about this, I’d be interested in hearing yours!