REVIEW: INVISIBLE ELLEN, BY SHARI SHATTUCK

18693626Ellen Homes lives life on the sidelines. Overweight and with a scar on her face, she not only feels invisible, but she sets up her life to reinforce that feeling. She works nights, cleaning, at Costco; she lives in a studio apartment where she can view all of her neighbors and keeps notes on their activities; and she is afraid to voice her needs. She learned invisibility early in her life in a series of foster homes, after being abandoned by her abusive mother.

Then one day, she observes a blind woman on the bus: someone who is not afraid to ask her for help in finding her stop. And captivated, Ellen follows her off the bus, and serendipitously, sees three men attack the woman and grab her purse. Suddenly, Ellen finds herself in an unlikely position. She does something….by tripping the runaway purse snatcher and further incapacitating him by stepping hard on his foot.

What begins as an ordinary Good Samaritan moment changes everything about Ellen’s life. Temerity, the blind girl, swoops in and includes Ellen. Invites her to dinner, brings her along on other good deeds…and soon Ellen is involved.

What other serendipitous moments bring Ellen into further involvement in helping others and changing her outlook? How will Ellen, Temerity, and Temerity’s brother Justice team up to bring a halt to a crime?

Invisible Ellen is a captivating story of how life can change and turn in a whole new direction by one act. And how one act can lead to more, until someone on the sidelines feels needed. How someone invisible can truly become a participant in life instead of simply an observer. Four stars.

STRUGGLING FOR HOPE & REDEMPTION — A REVIEW

17331318Annie and Orion Oh had been married for twenty-seven years, with three grown children, when Annie abruptly left him for Viveca, her Manhattan art dealer.

Stunned and unable to process these events, Orion’s life unravels in unexpected ways.

And despite what was seemingly a happy home life for the children, Andrew and Ariane—twins—and the youngest, Marissa, they, too, have issues that cloud their lives. Andrew struggles with anger outbursts; Ariane has food issues; and Marissa is drinking heavily much of the time.

In a story that wends its way back and forth between the past and the present, we slowly learn some of Annie’s history, beginning with a tragic flood in 1963, in Three Rivers, Connecticut, that took the life of her mother and baby sister, and led to the destruction of the remaining family. Annie’s story includes the total loss of her remaining family when she was placed in foster care due to her father’s alcoholism.

Annie and Orion met by accident in a way that seemed totally coincidental, but which illustrated how often such moments play a role in such things. And after their marriage, when they had ended up back in Three Rivers, in a lovely home that once belonged to a family named Skloot, these events depict once again the role of serendipity in our lives.

What secrets contributed to Annie’s unhappy childhood and the demons that still lie just beneath the surface? What role did those events play in the volatile and unhappy adulthood that now plagues her? And how does the art created by a Josephus Jones, a black man who worked for the Skloot family and who died mysteriously, figure into the art scene in the present?

We Are Water: A Novel is narrated by different characters, and some are more compelling than others. I particularly enjoyed Orion’s story, with its openness and vulnerability. Annie’s secrets were revealed in bits and pieces, and some of them came from another narrator, cousin Kent.

Viveca did not have her own narrative voice, and I wondered about this. However, she seemed like the most peripheral character, a user and a manipulator, who was superficial and unlikeable. Later, she revealed a compassionate side.

While I enjoyed much of this tale, it was lengthy and bogged down with narrative that seemed extraneous. For example, Kent’s perspective did not really contribute much to the overall story; much of what we learn about him from his viewpoint was revealed in Annie’s narrative. However, his rationalizations and distortions of events did add something to the overall picture.

The prologue did not seem to advance the tale, either, although it did pinpoint some additional players that lent layers to the artistic aspects.

Themes of family legacies, secrets, abuse, violence, and tragic losses threaded through the narratives, reminding us of how we connect to others in our lives, and how these connections define us—and overall, how our common quests for hope and redemption capture the essence of the human experience. Four stars.

A SOCIAL WORKER’S HEART-WRENCHING TASK — A REVIEW

51BoO8VyK1LAlex Lake’s job as a social worker for the council puts her in the midst of disturbing and heart-wrenching situations. She must remove children from abusive/neglectful homes and find appropriate caregivers. But sometimes it is not that simple. When the evidence is not there, but the social worker knows something is dreadfully wrong, what can she do?

In Alex’s background, her own horrific issues reveal themselves throughout No Child of Mine, and as she struggles with those and with her increasing empathy and compassion for a three-year-old child named Ottilie, with whom she feels a special connection, it is very clear that this is not going to be a simple case to solve. But Alex persists. And just when she is moving toward that conclusion, something happens and Alex is reunited with the birth mother she hasn’t seen since age three.

On the brink of finally connecting the dots and collecting the evidence to rescue Ottilie, one horrific night full of tragedy takes Alex on a completely unexpected course of action.

The setting of this story is lovely, in one of the small villages in England. Living in a rectory that had belonged to her adoptive parents, Alex once had everything she thought she wanted. And now everything is about to change.

I could not put this book down. As lengthy as it was, I was able to read quickly, primarily because it was so riveting. And also because I could totally relate to the story. Even though my years of social work were in the States, the similarities are greater than the differences. Charged with protecting children is one of the most important and most thankless jobs….and when something goes wrong, everyone is ready to point fingers. This read earned five stars.

HUMP DAY SERENDIPITY: WAITING FOR “NO CHILD OF MINE” — MAY 8

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Welcome to another event that features books we are eagerly awaiting.  Visit Jill, at Breaking the Spine, to see what everyone is anticipating.

I just discovered a book that is my kind of read.  No Child of Mine, by Susan Lewis, is a glimpse into a devoted social worker’s world.  To be released on May 14, 2013.

 

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Alex Lake’s day job is all about helping people, especially children. She cares about them passionately and does everything in her power to rescue them from those who mean them harm. It’s as frustrating a career as it can be rewarding, though all too often she is left wondering if she has done enough. When the case of three-year-old Ottilie Wade comes to her attention everything changes. She finds herself completely unable to detach from the child the way she should, and feels an overpowering need to make a real difference in little Ottilie’s life. To do this she needs the support of her superiors, but no one is prepared to believe that Ottilie is in danger. In the end, Alex follows the only course left to her, and takes law into her own hands.

***

What book is calling to you today?  Come on by and share….

WAITING ON “ANOTHER FORGOTTEN CHILD” — JAN. 9

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Welcome to another Waiting on Wednesday event, hosted by Jill, at Breaking the Spine. 

Today’s feature is a book I’m eagerly anticipating, due out on 2/5/13.  Not long to wait!  Another Forgotten Child, by Cathy Glass, spotlights issues with the child welfare system.

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Eight-year-old Aimee was on the child protection register at birth. Her school repeatedly reported concerns about her bruises. And her five older half-siblings were taken into care many years ago. So no one can understand why she was left at home to suffer for so long. It seems Aimee was the forgotten child.

The social services are looking for a very experienced foster carer to look after Aimee and, when she reads the referral, Cathy understands why. Despite her reservations, Cathy agrees to Aimee on – there is something about her that reminds Cathy of Jodie (the subject of ‘Damaged’ and the most disturbed child Cathy has cared for), and reading the report instantly tugs at her heart strings.

When she arrives, Aimee is angry. And she has every right to be. She has spent the first eight years of her life living with her drug-dependent mother in a flat that the social worker described as ‘not fit for human habitation’. Aimee is so grateful as she snuggles into her bed at Cathy’s house on the first night that it brings Cathy to tears.

Aimee’s aggressive mother is constantly causing trouble at contact, and makes sweeping allegations against Cathy and her family in front of her daughter as well. It is a trying time for Cathy, and it makes it difficult for Aimee to settle. But as Aimee begins to trust Cathy, she starts to open up. And the more Cathy learns about Aimee’s life before she came into care, the more horrified she becomes.

It’s clear that Aimee should have been rescued much sooner and as her journey seems to be coming to a happy end, Cathy can’t help but reflect on all the other ‘forgotten children’ that are still suffering…

***

Why am I waiting for this one?  Having worked in the child welfare system for many years, I am all too familiar with those cases that fall through the cracks.  This one sounds like a must read.

What are you waiting for?  Come on by and share….

 

 

SERENDIPITOUS FRIDAYS: BOOK BEGINNINGS & THE FRIDAY 56 — JULY 27

Welcome to some serendipitous fun today as we share Book Beginnings, hosted by Rose City Reader; and as we showcase The Friday 56 with Freda’s Voice.

To join in, just grab a book and share the opening lines…along with any thoughts you wish to give us; then turn to page 56 and excerpt anything on the page.

Then give us the title of the book, so others can add it to their lists!

My spotlight today is on The Tree of Everlasting Knowledge, by Christine Nolfi.

Book Blurb:  A savage rape on hallowed ground. Secrets buried for decades by the town’s most influential family. Now Ourania D’Andre will learn the Great Oak’s secrets as construction begins at the Fagan mansion. She can’t afford to turn down a job that promises to stir up the long-buried guilt–and the passion–she shares with powerful Troy Fagan. She’s already juggling the most important job of her career with her new responsibilities as a foster mother for young Walt and Emma Korchek. And there’s a hard, older man on the construction crew with eyes void of emotion–cold and killing. The secrets of his brutal past will pose a grave threat to the children in her care. Will she find the courage to face him?

***

Beginning:  Staring at the tables wouldn’t put Ourania at one of them.

Nursing a cup of coffee, Troy Fagan wondered if she’d decided to decline the work.  Bow out with embarrassment, beg forgiveness—if Ourania didn’t come to her senses, he’d fire her.

How didn’t matter.  He’d find a way.

***

P. 56:   Marcy glared at him.  ” Listen, buster—you’re going to school.”  Narrowing her regard, she brought his thrashing to a halt.  “When we get back to Ourania’s place tonight, you’re helping me clean up the mess.  The floors, the walls—everything.”

***

Sound good?  I know I’m looking forward to this one.  And now I’m off to see yours!

FAILINGS OF AN OVERBURDENED SYSTEM — A REVIEW

When children spend most of their formative years in the foster care system, and then are turned out because they’ve reached the age of eighteen (or nineteen in some situations), the results can be devastating.

On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age Out of the Foster Care System zeroes in on these issues in great detail, sharing facts, figures, and anecdotal stories of featured young people. How they came into the system, the experiences they had, and what happened to them during the transition out of care.

These stories were not new to me, having worked for many years in the system as a social worker; I could definitely connect with what happened to these young people, as I’d seen many of these events firsthand.

Throughout this chronicle, the authors talked about different programs that successfully helped young people transition, and also shared legislation that offers a hopeful future for children in this situation.

Most of us know from experience that children are not ready to be independent and fully functioning at eighteen, nineteen, or possibly even twenty-one. And when you factor in the scenarios experienced by children in care who are “protected” by law and not offered opportunities to experience independence, you compound the problem.

Budgetary constraints are often the obstacles that prevent more help for these children. Community support can turn these issues around when private agencies partner with governmental agencies.

The authors bring out some recent changes:

“The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative is a national effort to help young people make successful transitions from foster care to adulthood. Formed by two of the nation’s leading foundations focused exclusively on child and youth well-being, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs, the Initiative strives to bring together the people and resources to help young people make the connections they need to education, employment, health care, housing, and permanent, family-like relationships.”

A probing, detailed illustrated journey that takes the reader right to the heart of the problem, I recommend this book to anyone who cares about the youth of our nation; especially those most vulnerable because of their life experiences. Five stars.

AN ACCIDENTAL FAMILY — A REVIEW

It was a time of escape, of trying out new experiences, and a time for love. But for Lisa Fay, life in San Francisco in the mid-sixties became more than she could manage. She fell in with the wrong crowd, got caught up in the frenzy rather than the peace…and one day, life happened to her in ways she hadn’t expected.

Giving birth to her son one day in the park was only the beginning of her out-of-control life, and when he was three-years-old, this child who also dashed through life everyday, wreaking havoc and earning the name “Wrecker,” was lost to her when she was arrested for a number of charges. She was off to prison for thirty years (fifteen for good behavior), and Wrecker was off to the foster care system.

Enter Len, an accidental relative, husband to Lisa’s sister Meg. By age three, Wrecker had blown out of every placement and there was nothing left for him except group homes. Or this one relative.

Len and Meg, his brain damaged wife, live in Humboldt County in Northern California. They are used to a simple life, free of chaos and the complexities of the rest of the world. What can an angry, frightened, and wrecking-ball of a child bring to this world, and how will he change them? How will the neighboring communal friends step in to offer just the right mix of support, comfort, and consistency that will be just what this child needs?

Wrecker: A Novel is a story that spans more than two decades, showing a glimpse of how the gentle life into which this child has stumbled offers that “soft place to land.” Yes, there are challenges along the way. And no apparent support from the system. We don’t see any social workers checking on this child after placement, which probably was typical of the times. The rather loosely arranged placement and then later, the adoption, seem all too casual.

Meanwhile, as we learn bits and pieces of Wrecker’s life, we also glimpse Lisa Fay’s life inside prison from time to time. In the end, life seems to come full circle in a satisfying way. A loving story full of the miraculous possibilities of life. Four stars.

WAITING ON WEDNESDAY — THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS — MAY 18

Today I’m excited about an upcoming release that spotlights an issue with which I am familiar—the foster care system and what happens after.  Waiting on Wednesday is an event, hosted by Jill, at Breaking the Spine, in which we share books we’re eagerly anticipating.

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, tells us what the foster care system and its aftermath was like for one young woman.

A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

What unique upcoming books spoke to you this week?  Please stop by and share….

THE ACCIDENTAL MOMENTS THAT SHAPE LIVES — A REVIEW

A story of three generations of women, bound by the love they share, the dreams they refuse to surrender, and the secrets they held, Mothers and Daughters: A Novel reveals those accidental moments in life. How taking one path over another can yield such different outcomes, and how looking back with regret is an exercise in futility.

Violet, Iris, and Samantha are the women in this illuminating novel, and we meet each of them in the chapters that tell their stories.

Violet’s early life on the streets of New York led to an “orphan train” to the Midwest and another kind of life.

Iris thinks about her journey in life as she awaits the death that is coming sooner rather than later. Her accompaniment on this journey are her thoughts, her memories, the Virginia Woolf book she is reading at the end, and the joy of gazing out at the sea in the home she has chosen as her final residence. Her solitude and her secret plan help her through the days.

Samantha’s baby daughter Ella has taken over her world, replacing sad memories of a firstborn whose life was cut off before it began, and substituting for her artistic life as a potter. As she reshapes her life, a gift from the past arrives in the form of letters and treasures that belonged to her mother and grandmother. She ponders the unknown, and probes at the secrets of her grandmother Violet’s life and the answers none of them have.

These characters felt so real to me, and as I read their stories, I felt caught up in the lives they led. There was much that was not revealed to the individual characters that we, the readers, were privy to in snippets here and there. I liked this aspect of the book, and the fact that the author’s voice came through in these moments, telling us about how certain events played out. We had the answers to some of our questions, like: What happened to Violet’s mother? Did the street companions finally find homes? What was the significance of a blue piece of paper placed within the folds of Violet’s old Bible?

For anyone who enjoys reading about the connections between family members and about how life is sometimes all about making one turn over another, this book could be a favorite read of yours. I gave it five stars for the satisfaction I felt as I read, and even as I turned the last page.