Archive for the ‘families’ Tag

Unlearned Lessons from the Past   Leave a comment

Although I’ve only read a few of Kristen Hannah novels, it’s clear she does her homework. This is true whether the novel’s setting is France during World War II, Leningrad or the Pacific Northwest; her writing evokes a strong sense of time and place.  The Four Winds, set in the 1930s Dust Bowl era, is no exception. Hannah’s work also features strong, independent women; here Elsa Wolcott follows the pattern.

At 25 Elsa is considered past her prime as a marriage candidate. When she meets Rafe Martinelli, seven years her junior, her life changes.  With no intention of a marrying Elsa, Rafe has no choice when she becomes pregnant.

By the 1930s, Elsa has settled in on the Martinelli farm, which in Northern Texas  does not escape the devastation of the drought and dust storms that wreaked havoc across the Great Plains. Rafe abandons Elsa, their two children and his parents. Eventually, Elsa makes the trek to California, where word has it life is better.

Hannah’s vivid descriptions of the poverty, prejudice and injustices faced by the flood of migrants could easily, and unfortunately, be applied today. Elsa and her children aren’t immune to the incivilities, but the family’s relationships grow stronger in its struggle to find a better life.

The weakest element of the narrative is the insertion of efforts by union organizer Jack Valen. He comes across as the hero the family, and all farm workers, need. Yet, in some ways this negates Elsa’s intelligence and inner strength.

The Four Winds

Four Bookmarks

St. Martin’s Press, 2021

454 pages

Bound by Generations   Leave a comment

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Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia is a novel I wanted to fall in love with. Unfortunately, despite it having so many elements I’m drawn to, that didn’t happen.

With the exception of a Mexican immigrant and her young daughter, Garcia’s debut work focuses on the women in a Cuban family, several generations removed. Immigration, abuse, mother/daughter relationships, addiction, miscommunication and loss are brought together through glimpses into each woman’s life. The result is a disjointed narrative.

Loss is the most dominant thread, beginning with Maria Isabel in a cigar-rolling company in rural Cuba in 1866. As the only female roller, hers was the most compelling story. To keep the workers engage, a man read either from a novel or newspaper until war made it impossible to continue.

The next chapter is a leap to Miami 2014, where Jeanette, Maria Isabel’s great-great granddaughter is a grown woman and substance abuser. She’s a much less engaging character; yes she makes poor choices, but more is needed than illustrations of her bad decisions. Although she briefly helps the young daughter of the Mexican neighbor who’s apprehended by ICE, there’s little else appealing about her.

The characters need to be fully developed. It’s as if they’re faded photos without any nuance.  While this is a work of fiction, the experiences the women endure are important because, unfortunately, they’re not unique.  The impact would be greater if, instead of multiple situations, more details were limited to only a few.

Of Women and Salt

Two-and-a-half bookmarks

Flatiron Books, 2021

207 pages

Mother and Son   Leave a comment

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Shuggie Bain, the title character of Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, is heartbreaking. But, don’t avoid it. The characters, notably Shuggie and his mother Agnes, are vividly portrayed with hopes and flaws.

The story is bookended by 1992 when Shuggie is a young man. By contrast, most of the narrative occurs in the 1980s.  The seamy parts of Glasgow are brought to life, complete with Scottish dialect, out-of-work miners, alcoholics and low-rent housing. The setting is as much a character as Shuggie and others.

Agnes is an alcoholic whose efforts at sobriety are rare. She left her first husband for Shuggie’s father, who in turn, leaves her. Her two older children find ways to escape the toxic home life, so Shuggie remains to care for his mother while dealing with her neglect. He’s optimistic she’ll change and be a proper parent. He also believes if this happens, he’ll become a normal boy.

Shuggie is effeminate, so he’s bullied, but never understands the insults nor reasons he’s taunted. In this regard, Douglas has crafted a beautiful character whose innocence is his downfall. When coupled with his devotion to Agnes as her caregiver, he’s not left with much of a childhood.

Because of her beauty, Agnes believes she deserves more in life but does nothing to attain it. Although it’s evident to everyone around her, she refuses to acknowledge her alcoholism. She’s also certain the right man will come along to save her. In fact, he’s been at her side all his life.

Shuggie Bain

Four Bookmarks

Grove Press, 2020

430 pages

Family Ties That Bind and Blind   Leave a comment

THE LAST ROMANTICS

The Last Romantics begins in 2079 when Fiona Skinner, a poet and climate awareness advocate, has finished giving a talk and opens the floor for questions. At 102, Fiona is taken aback when asked about the inspiration for one of her best-known poems. Her memory takes readers to 1981, the year her father died.

Fiona is the youngest of the four Skinner siblings: Renee, Joe and Caroline. Joe, the boy wonder, is idolized by the entire family.

Their father dies when Fiona is 4. His death affects each family member differently, but all recall their mother being emotionally absent. Fiona is too young to remember much about her father.  The siblings are close, protective and blind to each other’s faults, especially Joe’s until they can no longer be ignored.

Tara Conklin has created an epic in the sense the story spans nearly a century. The siblings relationships with each other, their mother, friends and love interests (some fleeting, others less so) are a combination of airing dirty laundry as much as highlights in a family holiday newsletter, but is more enjoyable to read.

The gripping narrative moves from childhood’s halcyon days to the heartbreak of unrealized dreams. Even at its most depressing moments (and, spoiler alert, there are several) the Skinner kids are ones you wish you knew. As with most families, their lives are full of joy and tragedy, humor and tears. Fiona’s account of her youth, like most memories is cloudy at times, but beautifully vivid at others.

The Last Romantics

Four+ Bookmarks

William Morrow, 2019

352 pages

Not Always Two of a Kind   Leave a comment

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How close can two people be while maintaining separate, distinct identities? This question and the power of language are the driving forces in Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians.

Anyone with an affinity for words, whether written or spoken, should find this novel intriguing. Twin sisters, Laurel and Daphne, share a secret language. Not only do they finish each other’s sentences, they do the same with one another’s thoughts. They are best friends. Yet, despite their closeness, perforations in their familiarity do surface.  Initially, this happens only occasionally but eventually evolves into something more significant.

The girls’ love of words is as much a part of their personalities as their twinhood. Thanks to Laurel, Daphne is promoted from her job as a receptionist in a New York City weekly to a copy editor. Laurel eventually becomes a poet, but not until her singular love for her daughter further separates the twins.

Most chapters begin with definitions of obscure words from Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Their father brought the dictionary home when the girls were young and it became something they pored over until they left home as young adults.

Identical twins hold a fascination to most. Laurel and Daphne are aware of this, but don’t always relish being the centers of attention. Schine has created two, well-defined characters in Laurel and Daphne. She has also crafted a world which has difficulty distinguishing between them.

The Grammarians

Four Bookmarks

Sarah Crichton Books, 2019

258 pages

Looks, Lies and Life   Leave a comment

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The Lying Life of Adults is Elena Ferrante’s new novel. Although it has similarities to her Neapolitan Quartet, notably the setting and a young female protagonist, it’s more introspective and a little less engaging.

Giovanna is a young teenager who overhears a conversation between her parents in which her father describes her as ugly. In fact, he says, she looks as bad as his estranged sister, Vittoria. Until this point, Giovanna has admired both her parents, felt secure in her family, and was completely unaware of any relatives, let alone her aunt.

The eavesdropping leads Giovanna to find Vittoria and discover not only a part of Naples she never knew, but also family secrets ultimately leading to a transformation of looking beyond the obvious. It’s not necessarily an engrossing narrative, but it is Ferrante. Adolescence is a difficult time; the author deftly illustrates this with the self-absorbed, manipulative youth and adults.

The author is at her best describing the class structure within Italy, in particular Naples. It’s easy to visualize how education plays a role in the lives of the residents of this southern Italian coastal city. References to dialect and coarse behavior further emphasize the line dividing social classes.

It is problematic Giovanna is not a particularly inspiring character. Yes, her independence does eventually surface, but her relationships with others are one-dimensional. Frankly, she’s a wimp. Granted, Vittoria is odd and her parents lose their bearings. Nonetheless, her efforts to find herself in their world of deceptions and accusations really should be more interesting.

The Lying Life of Adults

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Europa Editions, 2020

322 pages

Love, Ghosts and Family   Leave a comment

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is a terse novel involving ghosts, survival, and, at its core, familial bonds. All aspects are told from the perspectives of 13-year-old Jojo; his drug-addicted, negligent mother, Leonie; and Richie, the spirit of a young boy imprisoned years ago for stealing food. The three voices are distinct even as their experiences merge.

Jojo lives with his younger sister and grandparents on a rundown farm near the Mississippi delta. His grandmother lies dying, while Riv, his grandfather, tries to maintain an even keel for his grandchildren. Although, Leonie’s inconsistent presence in their lives isn’t appreciated by anyone, she insists on taking the children on a road trip to the state penitentiary where their father is soon to be released.

Richie’s connection is to Riv who did his best to protect the boy when they were imprisoned at the same time years ago. Jojo, the only one who sees Richie, knows part of his story but Riv has never told him the ending. Since it works to have one ghost, why not another? Leonie’s dead brother, shot down in his youth, makes his presence known only to her.

The phantasms are neither spooky, nor superfluous. Their presence propels the narrative focused on the family ties that bind and those that never do. Jojo is an insightful, caring character much older than age. His closeness to Riv compensates for much that’s missing in his life, but Ward ensures the reader never overlooks the loss they shoulder.

Sing, Unburied, Sing
Four Bookmarks
Scribner, 2017
289 pages

Little Fires Everywhere: Read the Book First   Leave a comment

*This review was written in 2018. I thought I’d posted it, but turns out it’d been languishing in my Documents folder all this time. At least I remembered I’d read the book before watching the first episode on Hulu….

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The way families communicate with each other and the rest of the world is at the heart of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This novel falls into the can’t-put-it-down category. The characters are haunting in their embodiment of what they believe is right and wrong. When those lines are blurred, they become even more real – like people we know, or like the people we are.

Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl arrive in the upscale, planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. They rent an apartment owned by Elena Richardson, the mother four high school-aged children. Elena, who’s mostly referred to by the author as Mrs. Richardson, has lived her life as if following a recipe: step-by-step never considering substitutions or variations. Mia is an artist. She and Pearl move from place to place with the regularity of seasons. Mia promises Pearl this time, they’ll settle down.

That the families become intertwined is no surprise. The narrative opens with the Richardson’s manor-like home burning to the ground. Like bookends, this is where things wrap up.

Pearl and Moody Richardson become best friends. These are like-minded, intelligent kids who don’t quite fit in with the popular crowd like Moody’s older brother and sister. There’s also his troubled sister, Izzy, adding to the dynamics.

Little Fires Everywhere
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Penguin Press, 2017
338 pages

A Puzzling Title   Leave a comment

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Family dynamics, as much as cultural expectations, are at the heart of A Place for Us. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel follows an Indian-American Muslim family. Years ago, parents Layla and Rafiq left their homes in India to establish a new life in Northern California and raise three children. Their faith determines their lifestyle, much of their social interactions, fashion and appearance.

The story begins the day before Hadia’s wedding. She is the elder sister of Huda and their brother Amar. His presence is both a reason for joy and a cause for concern. He’d been estranged – for reasons which are exhaustively detailed in the subsequent sections/chapters.

Mirza’s narrative moves to the past. First, summarizing Layla and Rafiq’s marriage; then focusing on the children as they grow up. Initially, the focus is on Hadia, but slowly shifts to Amar. Rafiq’s expectations of his daughters are few. Both sisters are obedient, studious and observant of Muslim practices; yet they have dreams and goals beyond what their parents envision.

Amar is intelligent and sensitive, but he struggles in school and questions some Muslim principles. A forbidden romance, a long-troubled relationship with Fariq and more contribute to Amar leaving his family three years prior.

The penultimate chapter returns to the wedding day, which is filled with tension felt by all the characters. In an interesting, and unexpected, change of narrator, the final chapter provides Fariq’s perspective, most notably his love for Amar. Unfortunately, slow pacing and some predictable consequences are the book’s downfall.

A Place for Us
Three Bookmarks
SPJ for Hogarth, 2018
377 pages

Breaking the Rules   Leave a comment

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A Rule Against Murder is the fourth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. I’ve been told to read the canon, comprised of 16, in order. Clearly, I have a ways to go, but what a fun journey to undertake. The problem lies in wanting to pick up the next book immediately after putting down the last.

Armand Gamache is the kind, intelligent, perceptive, chief inspector on vacation with his wife celebrating their anniversary. They are at a luxurious, remote inn where they’ve often stayed. However, this time a death occurs, which isn’t initially clear as accidental or murder, but since he is already on the scene, Gamache oversees the investigation.

Penny writes mysteries, so it’s no surprise there will be something for Gamache and his team to uncover. What’s most engaging is the slow, methodical, yet lyrical, manner the author incorporates to arrive at a possible crime, which isn’t immediate. Instead, the author describes the calm, rustic setting, the inn’s staff, the guests and, most fun of all, the Gamaches’ relationship. The scene unfolds like a travelogue for a get-away to a relaxing resort, complete with vivid, mouthwatering descriptions of the food served.

Also staying at the inn is an extended family, most of whom prove to be as unlikable as Gamache is charming. When a family member is found crushed beneath a newly erected statue commemorating the patriarch, clues are sought to determine the cause. There is no shortage of possible suspects and motives, although deciphering who remains in question.

A Rule Against Murder
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Minotaur Books, 2008
322 pages