REVIEW: LITTLE MERCIES, BY HEATHER GUDENKAUF

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Their lives were in a constant state of never-ending schedules and arrangements. Between the two of them were jobs, parenthood, and communicating the arrangements that would successfully get them through their days. Ellen’s social work career is especially stressful, with interruptions to her sleep and family life. But life in Cedar City, Iowa, is just about to get more troubling for Ellen and her family, when, on one especially hectic morning, Adam and Ellen Moore make a serious error in communication that would have disastrous and life-altering repercussions.

Meanwhile, the trajectory of another life is also impacted when young Jenny Briard, aged ten, has crossed paths with Ellen in the form of her mother Maudene. Jenny is fleeing the unknown of her own life back in Benton, Nebraska, where she saw her father arrested just as the bus they were boarding is set to leave for Iowa. She meets Maudene when she enters a Happy Pancake restaurant in Cedar City, a familiar site she has enjoyed back home.

Alternate narrators lead us through Little Mercies: Ellen’s first person narrative shows us her inner thoughts and feelings as she traverses the unknown terrain of life on the other side of the courtroom. Someone who is charged with an offense. Someone who realizes, with alarm, that her reputation as a professional and valued social worker cannot protect her from what unfolds. In some ways, her position seems to have intensified the reactions of the public and the press.

In Jenny’s narrative, told convincingly in her youthful voice, we learn her fears, her worries, and how she perceives the life changes she is experiencing. And in her quest to find family, she has placed herself on a path to hidden dangers.

With the lives of these characters seemingly in freefall, the “little mercies” include those who offer them the necessary support as they face what lies ahead.

One such person for both Ellen and Jenny was Maudene. I was especially drawn to this scene between Ellen and her mother, in which Maudene relates an incident from her own past, when she made a mistake that could have ended badly:

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that we all have our moments. We all have those times when we turn our backs, close our eyes, become unguarded…We’ll get through this. You have to look for the little mercies, the small kindnesses and good that comes from the terrible.”

As a parent and a retired social worker, I was especially drawn to this story of the events that can transform lives, and how we all can look back and consider how our lives could have turned on a dime if one small choice or action had ended differently. Since none of us are immune to life’s unexpected tragedies, perhaps we can afford to look with empathy and kindness on others. An emotional read that had me crying tears of sadness…and then joy. Five stars.

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.

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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…

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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