REVIEW: THE ASH FAMILY, BY MOLLY DEKTAR

 

When a young woman leaves her family—and the civilized world—to join an off-the-grid community headed by an enigmatic leader, she discovers that belonging comes with a deadly cost, in this lush and searing debut novel.

At nineteen, Berie encounters a seductive and mysterious man at a bus station near her home in North Carolina. Shut off from the people around her, she finds herself compelled by his promise of a new life. He ferries her into a place of order and chaos: the Ash Family farm. There, she joins an intentional community living off the fertile land of the mountains, bound together by high ideals and through relationships she can’t untangle. Berie—now renamed Harmony—renounces her old life and settles into her new one on the farm. She begins to make friends. And then they start to disappear.

 

My Thoughts: We meet Berie, the first person narrator of The Ash Family, as she veers off course, drawn in by a seductive man named Bay. Instead of flying off to college in Virginia, she leaves the airport and heads to a bus station where they meet. Together they journey to the farm community that promises to fulfill her need for something bigger than herself.

Berie apparently lacks something in her life that might be satisfied by such a community, and while I was almost sucked into its promise, I couldn’t understand what was missing in our protagonist that led her to such a community. We know little about her life up to this point, so her actions seem blindly unmotivated. If she had suffered abuse at home, or if she were fleeing something frightening, I could almost see why this young woman might be drawn in to its charms. Later we learn more about how sometimes not feeling anything at all can lead to wrong-footed choices.

The characters and the setting were beautifully described, and I could sense the appeal of Nature and a desire to preserve it in all its glory. Protecting the environment and the people in the family from the “fake world” could be a lure for someone like Beryl, now named Harmony.

It did not take long, however, to feel a sense of stultifying horror as nothing seemed to live up to that promise. A mix of cruelty and kindness, punishment and reward were the confusing elements that felt like a crazy-making scheme designed to hook in new family members. Searching for that sense of family and true purpose were powerful enough to blind new members to the underlying dangers…until it was too late.

In the end, we see hope come in unexpected forms, and the story leaves off just on the way to finding new possibilities. 4 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

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REVIEW: GONE SO LONG, BY ANDRE DUBUS III

 

Daniel Ahearn lives a quiet, solitary existence in a seaside New England town. Forty years ago, following a shocking act of impulsive violence on his part, his daughter, Susan, was ripped from his arms by police. Now in her forties, Susan still suffers from the trauma of a night she doesn’t remember, as she struggles to feel settled, to love a man and create something that lasts. Lois, her maternal grandmother who raised her, tries to find peace in her antique shop in a quaint Florida town but cannot escape her own anger, bitterness, and fear.

Cathartic, affirming, and steeped in the empathy and precise observations of character for which Dubus is celebrated, Gone So Long explores how the wounds of the past afflict the people we become, and probes the limits of recovery and absolution.

 

My Thoughts: The story opens as Susan starts writing about her childhood experiences, and about some fleeting memories of her father’s visits to his parole officer. Throughout the book, her creative moments reveal much about her own life and trauma.

Alternating narrators for Gone So Long include Susan, her father Daniel, and her grandmother Lois.

All the narrators sweep back and forth in time, offering a slowly evolving tale of what has happened to each of them.

I especially enjoyed Susan’s voice, and while Danny/Daniel appealed to my sense of a character seeking redemption, it was hard to get past what he had done.

Lois, Susan’s grandmother, was somewhat unlikable, but I could also enjoy parts of her shared moments and admired how she had created a successful antique store. She seemed judgmental, but as the story moved along, we could see her trying to be more empathetic.

As we follow Daniel on his journey toward his daughter, and as we accept his flashbacks as his way of acknowledging his sins, we can finally hope that father and daughter will connect in some way. But there is also a hint of a combustible reunion that will turn everything on its head. I held my breath as the pages turned, wondering what the characters would do next, feeling their joy and sadness along with their regrets, and anticipating how their paths would eventually cross. 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: A YEAR OF EXTRAORDINARY MOMENTS, BY BETTE LEE CROSBY

 

Tracy Briggs has finally gotten her act together. She’s focusing on her own life and helping her hearing-impaired son learn to talk. With her sister married and exploring a new career, Tracy has begun to run the family’s magazine business and feels her life is pretty much perfect. That is, until her son’s deadbeat dad shows up in Magnolia Grove asking for a second chance.

Now that her son is getting the help he needs and a promising new romance with his teacher is in bloom, Tracy wants to keep her life just as it is. But her ex isn’t taking no for an answer. And when a spirited elderly woman enters Tracy’s life in an unexpected way, she’ll have to work harder than ever to keep her new life on track.

Torn between the past she knows and the uncertain future, Tracy must decide what is best for both her and her son, learning along the way that ordinary choices can bring extraordinary possibilities.

My Thoughts: When I first started meeting the delightful characters of A Year of Extraordinary Moments, I was immediately caught up in their lives, with all their flaws, hopes, dreams, and losses.

Alice DeLuca is the first one we meet, and I could sense her longing to once again connect with her grandson Dominic. His mother had abandoned him, but Alice raised him. And now that she is terminally ill, time is running out.

In Philadelphia, Dominic is just barely making it, with nothing or nobody meaningful in his life. When his grandmother calls, requesting he visit her in Magnolia Grove, he sets off to make her wish come true.

But once there, Dominic falls back into his old ways, drinking and carousing.

Meanwhile, Tracy is raising Dominic’s son alone, but she has the help of her mother Lila and her sister Meghan.

What, if anything, will bring these disparate family members together? Will Alice’s final days bring some of the joy she has desired? Unexpected events change the course of all their lives, and we discover that sometimes life brings just what we need.

With a great setting and characters I could root for, this book earned 4.5 stars.
***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: EDUCATED, BY TARA WESTOVER

 

Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills” bag. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged metal in her father’s junkyard.

Her father distrusted the medical establishment, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when an older brother became violent.

When another brother got himself into college and came back with news of the world beyond the mountain, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. She taught herself enough mathematics, grammar, and science to take the ACT and was admitted to Brigham Young University. There, she studied psychology, politics, philosophy, and history, learning for the first time about pivotal world events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

My Thoughts: An inspirational story of one young woman’s struggle to break away from the constrictions of her childhood, Educated brings the reader right into the world she inhabited from her early years. Her first person voice was not filled with self-pity, but revealed an inner strength and a persistence that would serve her well in the years ahead.

As I followed her journey, I identified with some of her experiences. I had not been kept out of school as these children had, but so many of the attitudes that surrounded me growing up were very isolationist, so I could empathize with her plight.

Despite the authoritarianism of her family life, there seemed to be a true caring spirit that surrounded them all, and the actions of the parents seemed to come from a strong belief system.

However, there were aspects to the family life that chilled me: specifically, one of her brothers tormented her regularly. Perhaps his behavior served as an impetus that led to her eventual escape.

I was also struck by instances of family events that were recalled very differently between family members. I am also familiar with this tendency to either deny or conveniently forget the more disturbing elements of family life. Each individual’s perspective would vary, perhaps as that person’s coping measure dictated.

What happens ultimately to our narrator was in equal parts sad and uplifting: turning away from the belief systems and the tyranny of her youth would allow her to finally be her true self. A brilliantly written 5 star read.

***

REVIEW: BEFORE I LET YOU GO, BY KELLY RIMMER

 

The 2:00 a.m. call is the first time Lexie Vidler has heard her sister’s voice in years. Annie is a drug addict, a thief, a liar—and in trouble, again. Lexie has always bailed Annie out, given her money, a place to sleep, sent her to every kind of rehab. But this time, she’s not just strung out—she’s pregnant and in premature labor. If she goes to the hospital, she’ll lose custody of her baby—maybe even go to prison. But the alternative is unthinkable.

As the weeks unfold, Lexie finds herself caring for her fragile newborn niece while her carefully ordered life is collapsing around her. She’s in danger of losing her job, and her fiancé only has so much patience for Annie’s drama. In court-ordered rehab, Annie attempts to halt her downward spiral by confronting long-buried secrets from the sisters’ childhoods, ghosts that Lexie doesn’t want to face. But will the journey heal Annie, or lead her down a darker path?

My Thoughts: Before I Let You Go was a familiar story to me, after working with dysfunctional families and addicts for a number of years. Each story has its unique journey to the horrific slide toward “nothing left to lose,” but each one is filled with the frustration of human vulnerability and failure.

The author offers a unique perspective with alternating narratives: Lexie’s voice in the first person, revealing the family history and how her own life has gone off the rails because of her sister’s addiction, followed by Annie’s journal entries. The horror of her stepfather’s abuse reveals much about Annie’s need to sever ties with family and regain control of her life, but whenever she faced challenges, she sought escape through drug abuse, sinking further into the pit.

After the baby’s birth, she faced criminal charges, since the state’s laws demanded this outcome…unless she could complete a rehab program. Lexie stepped in to provide “kinship” care of the baby, who had suffered withdrawal from drugs after the birth. As a doctor, with her fiance Sam who is also a physician, the future looks promising for this temporary family.

Would Annie finally reach sobriety? Would Lexie be able to let go of her own feeling of responsibility for Annie’s outcomes?

A familiar and tragic tale that tugged at my heartstrings, even as I felt Lexie’s frustrations. I wanted to tell Annie that she needed to open up with the whole truth of her past life and what led her down that dark road…but, like Lexie, we had to let go of our own sense of responsibility for the outcomes. Urging Annie on would not be enough. Sadness follows these characters, but I felt hopeful for Lexie and the baby. By the end, I needed tissues to deal with the tearful finality of Annie’s choices. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE BAD DAUGHTER, BY JOY FIELDING

 

There was no shortage of words she could use to describe her father, almost none of them complimentary. Serves you damn right, she thought.

A voice mail from her estranged sister, Melanie, sends Robin’s heart racing and her mind spiraling in a full-blown panic attack. Melanie’s message is dire: Their father, his second wife, and his twelve-year-old stepdaughter have been shot—likely in a home invasion—and lie in the hospital in critical condition.

It’s been more than five years since Robin turned her back on her father when he married her best friend. Five years since she said goodbye to her hometown of Red Bluff, California, and became a therapist. More than two years since Robin and Melanie have spoken. Yet even with all that distance and time and acrimony, the past is always with Robin.

Now she must return to the family she left behind. As she attempts to mend fences while her father clings to life, Robin begins to wonder if there is more to the tragedy than a botched burglary attempt. It seems that everyone—Robin’s mercurial sister, her less-than-communicative nephew, her absent brother, and even Tara, her father’s wife—has something to hide. And someone may have put them all in grave danger.

 

My Thoughts: There is no better story than one created by Joy Fielding, in my opinion, and The Bad Daughter is no exception. From the beginning, I found myself rapidly turning pages, staying up late to read more, and then enjoying every surprise twist and turn until the very end.

The characters felt so real, and I had emotional reactions to them all. I couldn’t stand Melanie, Robin’s older sister, whose sarcasm seemed to come from a very bad place. But did she have good reasons for her behavior?

I wasn’t sure about Robin’s fiancé Blake, either, but I gradually came to see a different side to him.

Then there was Melanie’s autistic son Landon, who, at eighteen, had all the usual behaviors associated with his disorder…but there was also something about him that aroused discomfort. Was he keeping secrets?

The victims in the shooting all had plenty of bad qualities, except for the twelve year old victim Cassidy, who seemed like a sweet innocent. But was there more to her story? Robin was drawn to her, but often had a feeling of “what’s wrong with this picture?”

Until the riveting and surprising conclusion, I went back and forth about which character must be pegged as “the bad daughter,” but when the final reveal came, it all made sense. I loved everything about the story and it earned 5 stars from me.

***

 

REVIEW: THE IDENTICALS, BY ELIN HILDERBRAND

Harper Frost is laid-back, easygoing. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. She likes a beer and a shot and wouldn’t be caught dead wearing anything fashionable. She’s inherited her father’s rundown house on Martha’s Vineyard, but she can’t hold down a job, and her latest romantic disaster has the entire island talking.

Two beautiful islands only eleven miles apart.

Tabitha Frost is dignified, refined. She prefers a fine wine and has inherited the impeccable taste of her mother, the iconic fashion designer Eleanor Roxie-Frost. She’s also inherited her mother’s questionable parenting skills–Tabitha’s teenage daughter, Ainsley, is in full rebellion mode–and a flailing fashion boutique on Nantucket in desperate need of a cash infusion.

One unforgettable summer that will change their lives forever.

After more than a decade apart, Harper and Tabitha switch islands–and lives–to save what’s left of their splintered family. But the twins quickly discover that the secrets, lies, and gossip they thought they’d outrun can travel between islands just as easily as they can. Will Harper and Tabitha be able to bury the hatchet and end their sibling rivalry once and for all? Before the last beach picnic of the season, there will be enough old resentments, new loves, and cases of mistaken identity to make this the most talked-about summer that Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have experienced in ages.

My Thoughts: I loved the alternating narrators in The Identicals. Harper Frost, living on Martha’s Vineyard with her father Billy has been estranged from her twin Tabitha for fourteen years.

Something happened all those years ago that kept them apart. On Nantucket, Tabitha is struggling with raising Ainsley, her rebellious teen, and she would love nothing more than to escape.

When Billy dies, there is a reunion of sorts…but it does not go well. Someone mistakes Tabitha for Harper and throws a drink in her face.

Harper has definitely stirred up some animosity from the folks on the Vineyard, so when she and Tabitha change places, what could happen next?

I loved how they each stepped into the other’s life, sort of, and something about this exchange stirs up in me a bit of empathy for the other.

Finding love on the “wrong” island could be just what the two need in order to forge a reconciliation. I found myself rooting for each of them, as I stepped into the perspective of who happened to be narrating. A five star read for me.

 ***

REVIEW: BEFORE WE WERE YOURS, BY LISA WINGATE

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

My Thoughts: The alternating narrators in Before We Were Yours kept me intrigued throughout. Sometimes I couldn’t wait to get back to Rill’s storyline in the 1930s, as there was a lot of intensity as she described the horrors of her life in the orphanage.

But then I became caught up in Avery’s story as she began to put the pieces together and discover the connections between the past and the present.

How is May Crandall connected to Avery’s Grandma Judy? What brought them together, and what tore them apart?

As more and more discoveries are unveiled, I could not stop reading. A story that resonated, since I spent years as a social worker putting families back together again. Families torn asunder always tug at my heartstrings. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: EMMA IN THE NIGHT, BY WENDY WALKER

One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime.
My Thoughts: Emma in the Night was a story that began when Cassandra Tanner came home, three years after she and her sister Emma had disappeared. Jonathan and Judy Martin remained at the family home, and when Judy opened the door upon Cass’s knock, she didn’t seem to recognize her daughter. Or was she pretending?

Alternating narrators take us from the past to the present and back again, weaving together a tale of a narcissistic mother, a cruel stepfather and his equally cruel son, and two sisters who learned at an early age that love means playing tricks and resorting to emotional weapons. A bitter custody battle, a home that was a battleground, and uncertainty of one’s place in the world or in the family would create the kinds of scenarios that unfold in this novel.

Dr. Abigail (Abby) Winter and Leo Strauss are FBI agents tasked with interviewing Cass and her family. The stories Cass tells are interspersed with her reflections and thoughts about past events. She constructs a story that will capture the interest of the media and the agents…and then, at some point, the story starts unraveling as Abby realizes that some things about Cass’s tale feel contrived. They don’t quite add up.

I thought it was interesting that Cass referred to her mother as Mrs. Martin, even to her face. It was clear that there was no love lost between them, although Judy Martin, the mother, was good at putting a perfect face on things. Sometimes she could even fool her daughters, making them believe that she loved them. She definitely needed to “win” whatever battle they were playing, garnering all the attention from whoever happened to be in the room.

Very cleverly drawn, the characters felt real, while their actions had me wondering what to believe, even as I wanted everything to come together in a picture perfect way at the end.

Abby’s narratives were astute and it was clear that she had expertise with the narcissistic personality due to her own family life. Sometimes she worried that she wasn’t objective, but in the end, her assessment was spot on.

I liked how we slowly discovered the truth…and then were left with a bit of hope, along with some fear for the future. 5 stars.


***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: THE SWALLOW’S NEST, BY EMILIE RICHARDS

Three women fight for the chance to raise the child they’ve all come to love…

When Lilia Swallow’s husband, Graham, goes into remission after a challenging year of treatment for lymphoma, the home and lifestyle blogger throws a party. Their best friends and colleagues attend to celebrate his recovery, but just as the party is in full swing, a new guest arrives. She presents Lilia with a beautiful baby boy, and vanishes.

Toby is Graham’s darkest secret—his son, conceived in a moment of despair. Lilia is utterly unprepared for the betrayal the baby represents, and perhaps more so for the love she begins to feel once her shock subsides. Now this unasked-for precious gift becomes a life changer for three women: Lilia, who takes him into her home and heart; Marina, who bore and abandoned him until circumstance and grief changed her mind; and Ellen, who sees in him a chance to correct the mistakes she made with her own son, Toby’s father.

A custody battle begins, and each would-be mother must examine her heart, confront her choices and weigh her dreams against the fate of one vulnerable little boy. Each woman will redefine family, belonging and love—and the results will alter the course of not only their lives, but also the lives of everyone they care for.

My Thoughts: Lilia, Graham’s wife, and the woman who has been raising little Toby since he was three months old, was the narrator I came to root for. I liked the excerpts from her blogging posts, including her opening lines: “Feathering your nest with imagination and love.” I enjoyed her thoughts about family and growing up in Hawaii, and the feeling of betrayal she felt when she learned of Graham’s infidelity. Then I rooted for her as she came to love the little boy and eventually forgive Graham. She always seemed to put the little boy first, even when the challenges of the custody case sometimes made her struggle.

Despite the annoying characteristics we first see in Marina, the birth mother, eventually I started to feel a bit of compassion for her, especially after we were granted an up close look at her mother and how she grew up. But then she would do something that would make me wonder about her judgment and her ability to put the child’s needs first…and I would revert to disliking her, worried about what would happen to the child if she grew bored or frustrated with him.

The least sympathetic character, in my opinion, was Ellen, the paternal grandmother, whose coldness and judgmental attitude put me off. But then we caught a glimpse of moments from her past as she spent time in the home she lived in when Graham was a baby. The house she bought after they moved and which she hung onto for sentimental reasons, although she maintained that it was an investment. Despite the evidence that she regretted the mistakes of the past, however, I felt insufficient hope that she could make the child’s needs a priority.

I wasn’t sure how the custody battle would turn out…I had my wishes, and then I thought about how courts usually rule with regard to biological connections. Would The Swallow’s Nest end in a way that would serve the child best? Would the characters come to accept the decision? I couldn’t stop turning the pages, so this one earned 5 stars from me.

***