Archive for the ‘family secrets’ Tag

Seeing What We Want to See   Leave a comment


Don’t be fooled by the fact that Erika L. Sanchez’s novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, falls into the Young Adult category. Family relationships, immigration, education and mental health are among the issues Sanchez addresses. These are matters that should be of interest to everyone, regardless of age.

Julia Reyes, a bright and funny 15-year-old girl, lives with her family in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Her parents entered the U.S. illegally years before and work in menial jobs. Julia dreams of being a writer and going to college in New York City. Her older sister, Olga, considered the good and obedient daughter, has just died in a freak accident.

Julia and her parents express their grief differently, but none are able to reach out to the other for support. Julia has always been at odds with her mother while her father has grown more distant. Much to Julia’s annoyance, Olga was idolized by everyone around her – especially her mother. Yet, Julia discovers some questionable items in Olga’s bedroom leading her to suspect no one in her family truly knew her seemingly perfect sister.

The author incorporates humor and has crafted well-developed characters to move the narrative beyond the life of a poor inner city girl. Julia is aware of the limitations around her, but doesn’t want them to define her. As she struggles to learn more about Olga, she learns things about her parents and herself. Fortunately, Sanchez uses a light hand when conveying such heavy themes.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
344 pages


Get Lost   Leave a comment


Watch Me Disappear is disappointing. Sorry. There’s no hemming and hawing on this one. Yet, I read all 300-plus pages waiting for some redeeming elements. Some surfaced only to quickly fade. It wasn’t exactly a slog, but it was far from a nice walk in the woods.

There is a hike, though; at least references to one, which is part of the story.

Jonathan and Billie Flanagan, with Olive their 16-year-old daughter, live in Berkeley. By all appearances they’re a happy family. He’s a workaholic for a hi-tech publication, Billie is an out-doorsy bon vivant, stay-at-home mom occasional graphic designer with a past, of course. Olive is a bright introvert at a private school.

The narrative follows the grief-stricken father and daughter dealing with the presumed-dead Billie who, nearly a year earlier, goes missing while on a solo backpacking trek on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Jonathan quits his job to write a memoir about Billie, the love of his life. Interspersed among the chapters are pages Jonathan has written. They reveal as much about him as about Billie. Meanwhile, Olive begins having visions of her mother offering hints as to her possible whereabouts. Thus, the two begin separate searches to find the missing woman.

Part of the problem with Janelle Brown’s novel is that it’s predictable; the few surprises are just that, too few. It doesn’t help that Olive is the only appealing character or that the ending – and this reveals nothing – is very tidy.

Watch Me Disappear
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Spiegel & Grau, 2017
358 pages

Family Knots   Leave a comment


Families can be so complicated and Anne Tyler has banked on this fact in all of her novels. Her most recent, A Spool of Blue Thread, is no exception.

Abby and Red Whitshank are the kind of folks that raise their four kids, go to work every day, are regarded favorably, pay their bills, have a peripheral connection to a church and know little about either each other or their family history. At one point, in a jesting tone, the omniscient narrator notes there are two family stories: one about the family home on Bouton Road in a respectable, comfortable Baltimore neighborhood, and the other about Red’s sister’s marriage.

Of course, there are more, many more. And Tyler slowly, almost teasingly, reveals them. There’s a good reason why she spends so much time describing the Bouton Road house built by Red’s father.

Initially, the novel appears to focus on Denny, the ne’er-do-well son who floats in and out of the family’s vision. Once he’s clearly established as unreliable and secretive, the focus shifts. Multiple times. Denny has two sisters, but they are the least developed characters. Stem, the youngest son, soon becomes a focal point, as do Red’s parents. Though separated by a generation, the secrets and pasts associated with these three are what move the narrative.

Tyler is not afraid to throw in surprises, which in retrospect were actually subtly foreshadowed. Her ability to show the strengths and foibles of family life are engaging, occasionally humorous and always insightful.

A Spool of Blue Thread
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
368 pages

An Allende Misstep   Leave a comment

Isabel Allende is among my favorite authors. I am reminded of how I feel about my kids: I love them even though they sometimes do things I don’t always like. Allende’s most recent novel, The Japanese Lover, is like that.

The story involves too many secrets, predictable plot lines and cardboard characters. Alma Belasco, a woman of means in her 80s, moves into Lark House, an unconventional nursing home. There she meets 23-year-old care-giver, Irina Bazili. The two bond, and soon Irina is helping Alma’s grandson, Seth, work on a book about Alma and the Belasco family history.

Of course, Irina has a past about which little is revealed, but Alma has secrets, too. As Seth and Irina learn more about Alma, it’s apparent there’s a lost love. Yawn. The younger couple believes the romance is still going strong, although this is all based on speculation.

There was, in fact, a lover. He started out as the youngest son of the Belasco family’s Japanese gardener and Alma’s childhood best friend. One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is when Ichimei and his family are uprooted from their San Francisco home and relocated, with thousands of other Japanese-Americans, to an internment camp.

Given his role as title character, Ichimei is one-dimensional. Even Alma could have been so much more – especially in Allende’s hands. Alas, this is one of those books I didn’t like much; nonetheless, I look forward to the author’s next work.

The Japanese Lover
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2015
322 pages

The Silent Treatment   Leave a comment



Florence Gordon is a crotchety old woman. Actually, she’s not that old (75), and bitchy is a better description. Yet, this title character of Brian Morton’s novel is certainly likeable – not lovable, but fascinating. Hers is a forceful, no-nonsense personality. Although she’s a writer and considered an icon among feminists, she’s a poor communicator.

Sure, she’s written numerous essays, has plans to write her memoir and speaks her mind. The trouble is she doesn’t share what’s in her heart. Neither does anyone else in her family: her son, Daniel; his wife, Janine who adores Florence; nor their daughter, college-age daughter, Emily. This is a family of secrets. They hold tight to the things that should be shared with kin. Sadly, they spend a lot of time interpreting, often erroneously, one another’s actions.

Florence is put off by Janine’s adoration and seemingly disappointed by Daniel’s career choice: a cop. Still, Florence and Emily slowly start to build a relationship beyond something perfunctory. Emily helps her grandmother with some research. The latter is surprised to discover that her granddaughter is intelligent and perceptive.

The writing is terse, yet the characters and New York City setting are well-portrayed. Morton does a fine job, especially with the females, of inviting the reader to see what’s inside the characters’ heads. An absent character, Janine and Daniel’s son, is alluded to as a talker. Perhaps he could have gotten Florence to open up. That would have made for a completely different, but not necessarily better, story.

Florence Gordon
Four Bookmarks
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
306 pages

More Than A Day on the Beach   Leave a comment


The Vacationers by Emma Straub is as bright as a day on the beach and also as gritty. Full of poignant, laugh-out-loud descriptions, Straub masterfully portrays a family in crisis.

Jim and Franny Post, with their teenage-daughter, thirty-something son, his girlfriend, and Franny’s best friend Charles and his partner are slated to spend two weeks together in a large rented house on Mallorca. Each chapter represents one day of the vacation and every day includes various perspectives provided by the connected tourists. These are separate views more than distinct voices. Each character hopes to project, or better yet protect, a certain image, because everyone has a secret – some known to a few, others hidden.

The Posts, married 35 years, are financially well-off, privileged. Their daughter, Sylvia, is set to start at Brown in the fall, and the trip was planned as a family celebration. However, in the interim from when the trip was conceived and actually occurs, Jim has had an affair and lost his job. Some know this; others don’t.

As the emotional baggage is shuffled around, the Posts direct their own disappointments to Carmen, the girlfriend. She’s perhaps the most honest among the group, but she is also subjected to the family’s rude behavior. Only Sylvia demonstrates fleeting moments of kindness and understanding.

Yet, the novel isn’t about being mean to others. It’s focused on what people do to live with themselves, even when they’re basking in the sun and have been out too long without sunscreen.

The Vacationers
Four Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2014
292 pages

Cold Crime   Leave a comment


The Ice Princess (Fjällbacka Series #1)

Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess is my recent discovery in Scandinavian crime genre. She’s touted as Sweden’s version of Agatha Christie. While I might not go that far, I did enjoy the mystery set in Fjallbacka, a Swedish fishing village turned tourist community north of Goteborg.

It’s no surprise that within the first few pages a body, an apparent suicide, is discovered. The twists come in the form of small town connections. Erica, the second (living) person on the scene is a childhood friend of the victim, Alex. The two had lost touch with one another long ago, but Erica has fond memories of their friendship.

Erica, an author of biographies, is asked by Alex’s parents to write what amounts to an expanded obituary. They are convinced Alex did not kill herself. The more Erica learns of her estranged friend, the less likely it seems that Alex would have taken her own life.

Plenty of characters populate Lackborg’s novel, and surprisingly few are extraneous. Besides Erica, a major player is Patrik, a local police officer. They, too, had known each other as kids. As a boy, Patrik was enthralled by Erica. Alex’s death brings them together in more ways than one.

Lackberg doesn’t rely on the mystery; she includes romance, domestic violence and long-held secrets. The result is an engaging story that moves at a comfortable pace. It’s not necessarily a rapid-page turner, but is likely to keep you reading later at night than you might like.

The Ice Princess
Four Bookmarks
Pegasus Books, 2010
393 pages