Category Archives: General Fiction

Review: The Things We Wish Were True by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

2 Stars

Small town living where everyone knows everyone, but everyone has devastating secrets they are keeping.  It’s a soap opera complete with the vapid names.  Bryte, Lance, Zell, Jencey.  And the characters are just as vapid as their names.  Even with an okay plot, there is absolutely no one to root for except for one character who happens to be a child.   Everyone else inspires feelings from disgust to disbelief.

Jencey has come skulking back home after her husband turns out to be a rat.  She and her two daughters have moved back in with her parents.  She’s trying to escape not only her husband and his problems, but also the ghosts of her past that made her run away from her idyllic home town.  Bryte and Lance are now married.  Bryte was one of Jencey’s closest friends.  Lance was the first love of both women.  Bryte has a secret and one that could destroy her life and the marriage that she worked so hard to secure.

Zell is the nosy next door neighbor who has a finger on the pulse of the town.  She’s suffering from empty next syndrome and takes it upon herself to become somewhat of a surrogate mother to the two neighbor children after their mother ran away from her family and responsibilities.  She has a secret too, one that has been eating away at her.  After a devastating accident at the local pool, Zell takes in Cailey so that her working mother can take care of her little brother, Cutter.  She steps in and becomes the mother that Cailey always wished she had?

The town has another secret and one that is darker and more dangerous than anyone could have imagined.  This was the only piece of the story that felt real and I really wish more time was spent building up this portion of the story-line and less on the annoying soap opera drama.

I think one of the other absolutely annoying aspects of this book was the way that everyone seemed to look down on the ONE working mother in this book.  None of the other women work and they seem to think that Cailey’s mother is somehow beneath them because she works to keep her family together.  She barely has a voice in this book and the one that she does have makes her seem like she’s neglectful and selfish.Even the working dads were treated like crap.

Without the soap opera-like drama, this could have been a really good book.  As it is, it’s not much more than a quick beach read or something to read when you’re on a plane or cooped up in a car on a road-trip.  I really couldn’t get past the names, they really turned me off almost from the very beginning.

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Review: After You by Jojo Moyes

1 Star

I should have known better.  I don’t know if I’m a glutton for punishment or a masochist.  I didn’t like Me Before You, so I’m not sure what possessed me to check out the sequel, After You.  I don’t know if I thought it was going to get better or if somehow the characters were going to redeem themselves  I must have just been very hopeful.  Because it didn’t get any better and the characters certainly didn’t redeem themselves.  This is the first book in a very long time that I just wanted to be done with and I didn’t really care what happened to anyone in the book.  Dangerously close to a DNF, but I pushed through and was completely underwhelmed by the entire thing.

The story picks up a year and a half later.  Louisa is working in a bar in the airport, depressed and completely unable to move on with her life.  She’s miserable and she’s utterly devoid of any spark of life.  Gone is the vibrant and talkative woman that we met in the first book.  She’s been replaced with a wet noodle with absolutely no personality and seems to have even less coping skills than she had before.  She has fallen apart and doesn’t seem to be able to put the pieces of her life back together again.  She lies alone in a nearly empty apartment and one night finds herself drunk, on the roof yelling at Will and her life.  She falls.  Louisa goes back home to recuperate and has to convince everyone that she didn’t jump.  Even the paramedic who was the first responder.

She stays home for awhile and we get to hear more about her family drama and her family becomes a character in this book, something I think we could have done without.  They are all utterly annoying.  You want to slap all of them at several moments.  The story went nowhere and their involvement ended with absolutely no resolution, so I don’t know why it was made so important in the first place.

The romance that Louisa has with Ambulance Sam was actually quite nice at points.  But at other points it just lost it’s authenticity.  The additional drama of Lily was interesting in the beginning, but it soon just became another excuse for Louisa to just ignore her life and just dwell on someone else’s problems.  I mean who in their rational mind would turn down the chance to go to New York City to work for a millionaire and be a companion to a rich businessman’s wife?  Especially when she can work with her old friend nurse Nathan?

I know that I’m again in the minority when it comes to Lou Clark.  I know that both books received overwhelmingly good reviews.  This is just my personal review.  You might love it.  If you want to see what happened to Louisa after Me Before You, then you will probably like this book.  If you were as exasperated as I was with Louisa, then you might want to steer clear.

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Review: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

3 Stars

If you cry easily, don’t read the beginning and ending of this book in public.  I did so and received very concerned looks from my co-workers as tears were streaming down my face and I choked back a sob or two.

The story is about Ted and his dog, Lily.  They have been together for twelve and a half years and she is the greatest love of his life.  Sadly, that love affair is about to come to an end.  Lily has an octopus on her head.  That is the figurative term that Ted has given the tumor that is taking the life of his dear friend, his companion.

The book starts so well.  Any pet parent can empathize with Ted and I’m sure we’ve all had different descriptions for tumors, cancers and other things that threaten to take them away from us.  Ted’s calling the tumor an octopus is a fairly apt description and I wasn’t bothered by it at first.  But then it got a little out of control.  I think the story could have done without Ted going overboard on the whole octopus allegory.  The “trip” that he and Lily take was really over the top and.  For me, this wasn’t a good thing.  I think it really took away from what could have been a very moving story about a man and his dog.

The character of Ted was also somewhat of a disappointment.  It was hard to feel a lot of empathy with him at several points.  He just seemed incredibly selfish and shallow at times.  He was at his sister’s wedding and was wondering why more people weren’t asking him about how he was feeling because Lily had just undergone surgery.  What?  Really?  And his interactions with his therapist, instead of coming across as amusing, came across as arrogant and downright rude.

There is redemption in the end.  The last chapters were the hardest to get through but were also the most enjoyable.  They felt the most real and the most genuine.  The pain was visceral and heart-wrenching.  The hope at the end was uplifting and joyful.  If the rest of the book had been as powerful as the last few chapters, this would have easily been a 5 star book.  I still recommend this book, especially to pet lovers and pet owners.  If you can get past the awkward middle of the book, you will be rewarded at the end.

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Review: The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes

3 Stars

March Wong is a fourteen year old tree expert.  He is a young man who believes more in trees than he does in people.  He’s comfortable around trees, he knows them all by their true names and he climbs them all.  March is more at home in the limbs of a tree than he is in the arms of his family.  March is a young man on the autism spectrum and you are immersed immediately into his mind, a glimpse of what it may be like for someone on the spectrum.

March and his mother live in the Pacific Northwest and have just recently moved into a new house.  You go through his struggle to learn a new routine and learn a new house.  His one saving grace, the trees.  He quickly learns all the trees near his home and while climbing his neighbor’s tree, he makes an amazing discovery.  He spots an enormous tree in the nearby forest, a huge Ponderosa Pine, known as the Eagle Tree.  A tree that doesn’t normally grow in the area, but somehow has thrived and dwarfs the forest surrounding it.  March decides right then and there that he must climb this tree.

Unfortunately, the land around the tree has been bought by developers who want to level the area and build homes and other infrastructure.  While March doesn’t fully understand the meaning of the developers and the notion of buying land, he knows one thing, he needs to save the Eagle Tree.  With the help of his family, friends and teachers, March comes up with a plan to save the tree that he has come to love and that he’s desperate to climb, even if it means that he will be taken from his mother.

I really enjoyed large portions of this book.  I enjoyed learning how March’s mind worked and how he processed the world around him and tried to fit in, but in his own way.  The interactions between March and the world around him felt authentic as did the characters who were in and out of his life.  The bond that he has with his family is strong, but you also see the tough side of that relationship, where the stress shows through.  The love is there, but you can tell how hard it is for everyone as they struggle to understand one another.

The book is also a very huge lesson in ecosystems and global warming and how we are destroying our planet as we destroy the forests.  While this was incredibly interesting and informing, at times, it felt like it was being shoved down my throat repeatedly.  I think that was the least appealing aspect of the book.  I understand the need for it and fully support the efforts being waged on behalf of the environment, but there were times that it felt preachy.

This was a very good book and I would definitely recommend this to anyone who loves trees, the environment and anyone who is curious to see what life looks like for someone who is on the autism spectrum.

 

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Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

3 Stars

This book has been compared to the Hitchcock classic, Rear Window.  I can agree with that description up to a point.  But this book really didn’t live up to the hype for me.  It took me far too long to get interested and I absolutely could not empathize with Rachel at all, there were too many times where I just wanted to smack her upside the head.  Unfortunately, I had this experience with many of the other characters too.

Rachel rides the same train everyday and while on the train she passes by a particular house every day during the slowest part of her journey.  She sees a couple and imagines what their life might be like, how happy they are.  She has given them names and an amazing life.  Until one day she sees something that she wishes she hadn’t.  Something that shatters her illusions of the blissful life she was so sure this couple had.

Rachel learns that the missing woman in the papers is actually the woman she’s seen daily on her train ride.  Rachel believes that she’s seen something that’s relevant to the investigation, but due to her drinking, makes her an unreliable witness.  Instead of being a help to the investigation, she has tangled everything up to the point where no one wants to believe anything she has to say.  She’s also in trouble with her ex-husband and his new wife, who wants to keep Rachel out of her life.

The story is told from the point of view of three women.  Rachel, Megan and Anna.  Something connects all three women even though they may not know it at the beginning.  By the end of the book, all of the threads are tied together and you can see their connection.  But it does take a very long time to get to this point and you have to go through some fairly agonizing chapters to get there.

I will say that the ending did surprise me somewhat.  It was a fairly satisfying ending to the book.  I just wish I could have identified with the characters more and actually been invested in what was happening to them.

 

 

 

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Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

5 Stars

It’s not often that I will give a book 5 stars.  It takes a lot for me to hand out that extra star that takes a book from being really good to one that I not only liked but wanted to read again almost immediately.  I would heartily recommend this book to everyone, especially those of us who have been touched by Alzheimer’s Disease, whether a friend, family member or other loved one.  A glimpse for those of us who don’t have the disease to see into the mind of someone who does.

Dr. Alice Howland is a renowned psychologist, an expert in linguistics and teaches at Harvard.  She has written a book with her scientist husband and has three children.  She has the ideal life.  Alice is getting ready celebrate her fiftieth birthday when her world starts to unravel.  She begins to forget small things here and there, but doesn’t worry.  She chalks it up to menopause.  But then she gets disorientated in an area that she’s walked daily for over twenty-five years.  She doesn’t know where she is and nothing clicks, nothing looks familiar.  Alice knows that it’s time to talk to a doctor.

Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.  A devastating diagnosis at any age, but one that is even more difficult for a woman who is in the prime of her life and the top of her profession.  Knowing that not only is she going to decline, but she’s faced with losing everything that made her the woman that she is, her very sense of self.  What will she do when she can no longer remember the names of her children?  The name of her husband?  What happens when she forgets who the woman in the mirror is?  When she loses the ability to speak or communicate with her loved ones.  What is her disease going to do to those that she loves?

This book was engaging and also terrifying.  How many of us have had moments where we’ve forgotten what we came into the room to do?  Forgot where we put our keys?  Forgot what we had for dinner the night before?  And how many of us have lain awake at night wondering if those lapses in memory are the start of something more sinister than simply getting older?  This book was an unflinching look at the life of a woman with a terrifying disease that is eating away at her memories and watching the devastating effect that it has on her and those around her.

The book is told from Alice’s point of view.  You’re in her mind as she declines.  You ache for her as she goes from an active participant in life to living vicariously through the eyes of those around her as she nods and laughs in the appropriate places though she has no idea why.  But she is still there.  She is still alive.  She is Still Alice.

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Review: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: Stories by Stephen King

4 Stars

I wavered between 3 and 4 stars for this book and ultimately bumped it up just merely because the writing is really good and the little snippets between each of the stories is well worth the price of admission.  Getting a little insight into what went into the creation of these stories and a little peek inside Mr. King’s fascinating imagination is definitely worth an extra little star.  I will admit that it’s difficult to review this book as a whole because it is a collection of short stories.  They aren’t all show stoppers and some of them were groan worthy, but as a whole, I think they work well together.  I will pick out a few of my favorites.  But I would recommend this to any fan of Stephen King or anyone who is interested in a good collection of short stories.

In Batman and Robin Have an Altercation you meet Sanderson and his aging father.  He is the dutiful son, coming to take his father to dinner every week where he orders the same thing as though it’s the first time he’s ever been there.  But there will be times of absolute clarity where his Pop can see through that fog of dementia and have a lucid thought and a crystal clear memory of his past.  It was one of these memories that led to the altercation that they have one day at a traffic light.  The story was engrossing and the lead-in that Mr. King supplied was perfect.  This was one of my favorites.

In The Dune you meet the Judge, a nonagenarian who has a secret.  He has his own little island where he has been rowing himself as often as he can for the last 80 years.  This island has a special attraction.  On this little piece of rock there is a perfect sandy dune.  Even after hurricanes and erosion, the beach remains.  As pristine as it had been when he was first there as a child of 10.  Except from time to time, there are names inscribed on this beach.  And whenever there is a name inscribed on this beach, someone dies.  The Judge has never told this story to anyone but as he prepares his will, he brings in a lawyer and tells his story.  But why now?

In Morality a struggling couple is faced with an appealing offer.  It’s an offer that will get the creditors off their backs and allow them breathing room.  But is the cost of what they need to do worth the reward?  Can they live with their choice or will it destroy them in the process?  This one had me wondering what would I do in this situation?  Could I do it and would it change me?

I really enjoyed Afterlife and Herman Wouk is Still Alive.  I really couldn’t pick a real favorite out of the list, but I can pick out my least favorite.  And I think that it’s more because it’s been done before and done better, even by this very author.  Mile 81 has the undertones of Christine and Trucks.  It was still an okay story, but it wasn’t the strongest one in the bunch and since it was the story that led off the book, it very nearly turned me off from the whole thing.  But I am glad that I stuck with it.

Some of the stories really make you stop and think.  You are faced with questions of morality in several of the stories and you can easily slide yourself into the hot seat and try to answer the question of what would you do?  There is of course death in many of the stories, but not the gory, blood and guts variety.  In many of them, it’s the death that we’re all facing every day whether it’s by some crazy person with a nuclear weapon or the guy on the bus with a knife to your neck.  There are plenty of questions as to what happens after we’re done with this crazy life that we’re all living, what comes next?  You go from enjoying a nice little story to thinking about some really heavy subjects and you sit there going…wait…what?

This one won’t be for everyone, but for any Stephen King or lover of a good short story anthology, give it a try.

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Review: Worthy by Catherine Ryan Hyde

3 Stars

Worthy is the story of missed connections and surprising reconnections.  It’s ultimately one of those books that you read and you get warm fuzzies.  The story begins with Virginia, a waitress at a small diner in a small town.  The diner is being put up for sale and she’s devastated.  She’s begun a friendship with the hope for more with a local man, Aaron.  He comes into the diner regularly for lunch or dinner and they talk.  She’s fallen head over heels for him and for his 4 year old son, Buddy.  Virginia and Aaron share their first kiss behind the diner that evening and before they can explore where that kiss would lead, tragedy strikes and they are never given that chance.

Fast forward nineteen years and we meet Virginia again.  She’s recently engaged but has never forgotten Aaron or Buddy.  Her beloved dog, T-Rex, goes missing and unbeknownst to her, a young man who lives up in the hills has found him.  Jody sees a man dropping off a dog and turning him loose.  He knows that the dog will die if someone doesn’t help and after a short fight with his conscience, he brings the dog to the cabin he shares with his Grampa.  They begin to bond and he renames him Worthy.

Virginia and Jody soon meet when people put two and two together and realize that Worthy and T-Rex are the same dog.  Jody feels his conscience weigh on him and when he learns that Virginia never let him loose and it was her (now ex-) fiancée that did it, he feels the need to return the dog to its rightful owner.  Unfortunately they are caught in one of the worst ice storms that the area has ever seen and before he can just drop off the dog and leave, he finds himself stuck in the diner with Virginia.  A diner that makes him feel uncomfortable, thought he can’t say why.  Throughout their forced confinement, they begin to spark a friendship that opens up a surprising connection to their pasts.

I found myself wanting to continually reach through the pages and hug Jody.  He was a wonderful character.  You can painfully see how his losses as a young boy had such a profound effect on him.  He is awkward, direct, emotionally stunted but he’s incredibly inquisitive.  He’s protective and loyal.  I absolutely loved Jody and his story and his progression.  I liked the story too.  Was a good solid read and one I’d recommend for one of those cold days where you just want to curl up on the couch with a nice mug of tea and zone out for awhile.

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Review: Gray Mountain by John Grisham

1 Star

Ok, I know that seems harsh.  One star for a John Grisham book?  Really?  Yep.  I very nearly didn’t finish this book.  For fans of books like The Firm, Pelican Brief and The Client, stay very far away from this book.  This is not the John Grisham that you remember fondly with twisting plots, interesting characters, strong leads and gripping courtroom drama.  I found myself not believing that this was the same author.  While the research was well done and the subject matter was interesting, the characters were abysmal and the story plodded along and the plot got lost somewhere along the way.

Apparently this was the first time that Mr. Grisham has had a female protagonist.  I’m not sure what he thought we would find appealing in Samantha Kofer.  She was a paper-pusher in Big Law until the recession hit and she was placed on furlough.  Her firm dangled a small thread in front of her.  Work as an unpaid intern doing pro-bono work, and maybe in a year we’ll bring you back into the fold of Big Law.  Maybe.  So, Samantha sends off inquiries to almost a dozen non-profit organizations offering her services.  The only person who responds is Mattie Wyatt with a legal-aid clinic deep in Appalachia, a tiny town called Brady, Virginia.  Deep in the heart of coal country.

Samantha packs up and moves herself down to Brady, Virginia to begin working “real law” with Mattie.  She’s never seen the inside of a courtroom and has never worked for anyone other than big businesses.  So she’s in for a real shock when she starts taking cases for domestic violence, unlawful garnishment and black lung.  She’s terrified of the courtroom and constantly reminds everyone that she’s not a litigator.  Everyone.  All the time.  I got so tired of her being a wimp that I just wanted to smack her.

The background was actually the best part of the entire book.  Not many people know or even care about the miners in Appalachia.  They don’t have any idea of the conditions they work in or the effect that mining has on not only the people but on the environment as well.  I wish more time had been spent on these cases, the cases of black lung where the coal companies keep these families tied up in litigation for so long that by the time that the cases are settled, the miner is either dead or nearly so by the time benefits are actually paid out.  The crooked mining companies and their crooked lawyers.  This would have been a much better novel if Mr. Grisham had stuck to the stories surrounding these mining families and their cases big and small.  It’s such amazing material that we should have had a huge tort lawsuit bringing down the coal companies.  But we didn’t get that.

The main characters are flat, uninspired and in some cases you just don’t care about them at all and they bring nothing to the overall story.  I don’t know why some of them were even thrown in there.  The romance angle is non-existent with some random sex thrown in for no particular reason.  The only interesting characters were the miners and their stories.  I can’t stress enough how much I was disappointed in how this material was handled.  Too many sub-plots and unnecessary story lines.  If he would have kept to the issues of strip mining, black lung and the environmental and economic impact of these crooked mining operations, it would have been an amazing story.

I struggled to finish this book and once again I was incredibly disappointed in the ending.  It was like he gave up.  There was no conclusion.  It was just a sad and depressing book with a semi-Hallmark ending.  I absolutely cannot recommend this book to anyone.  If you want to read a good courtroom or law drama, stay far away from this one.

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Review: Take Me With You by Catherine Ryan Hyde

4 stars

I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.  I went into it very skeptical because the premise seemed completely outlandish.  Science teacher on summer vacation, August, breaks down along the route to Yellowstone and is towed to a repair shop where the owner presents him with a very unique deal.  He will fix the motor home for free if August will take his two young sons, Seth and Henry, with him for the summer.  Why?  Because he’s going to jail for 90 days and there is no one else, other than the County, to take care of his boys.

Right away I was intrigued by the plot.  What kind of parent willingly gives his sons into the hands of a stranger and lets them go halfway across the country?  What kind of person willingly takes on the responsibility of two young boys that he’s just met?  What drives a person to have to make that decision in the first place?  Who are these people and what happens to them?  That’s why I picked up this book and started reading.  And I will say, once I started, I was unable to stop.

I found myself completely immersed in this summer vacation with August, Seth and Henry.  Each one of them came out of their shells and changed one another during their three months together.  They were real.  They were vivid.  They leapt off the page and became real people.  People I recognized from my own life.

Not only do you get to follow through their summer together, you also get to watch as they grow months and then years afterward.  How their summer together changed the entire trajectory of the lives of Seth and Henry.  How a chance encounter one day can change forever change a life.  How many times has that happened to any one of us?

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