REVIEW: TERRIBLE VIRTUE, BY ELLEN FELDMAN

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Margaret Higgins Sanger grew up in a small town in New York (Corning), and in Terrible Virtue, the fictionalized tale of her life and her quest, we come to understand more about what drove her.

A hard-drinking father and a worn-out mother who had given birth to thirteen children would set the stage for the pursuits she followed. Escape from the small town life and from the destiny she would face if she chose to follow her mother’s path, Margaret’s obsession to help women choose when and how many children to have kept her outside the norm in many ways.

For in the early twentieth century, birth control was still illegal, and only the wealthy had the privilege of finding ways around the laws.

When Margaret began her nursing career, she also launched her studies of contraception, and set out to enlist those who could aid in her research and help her bring the knowledge to those who were downtrodden and impoverished.

Along the way, she met and married Bill Sanger, they had a brief time as an “ordinary” couple, and they had three children…but Margaret’s overriding passion would take her away from her husband and children on a regular basis.

Not only did she have a passion for her work, she was drawn regularly into sexual liasons, which set her apart from those around her as well. Her path crossed with the thinkers of the day, some of whom were also passionate about sexual quests. We see her meet up with John Reed, Emma Goldman, and ultimately, Havelock Ellis, who some would say was the love of her life.

How would Margaret reconcile her work with her family life? How would her losses fuel her passions? Would jail and fighting the establishment stop her, or spur her on? And how would one loss continually haunt her?

Narrated in Margaret’s first person voice, hers is joined by the occasional letters and thoughts of others, rounding out the tale for the reader. I could not put this book down, and while I thought I knew a bit about the movement, now I know a lot more.

These stories take me back to my own early days, after the pill and Planned Parenthood. In the 70s, volunteering in a clinic, there was still so much more to be done. We counseled women and girls in rooms no larger than a bathroom. I remember putting my clipboard across the sink while I filled in forms. We have come a long way! But even now, there are those who would take away some of our rights. Let us not forget the long hard journey. 5.0 stars.

REVIEW: LILA, BY MARILYNNE ROBINSON

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She was a neglected baby, then she was a rescued toddler. Clutched from the jaws of poverty and fear, she followed along with the woman who rescued her, accepting what was given and what she had to do to survive.

So how can she now be another kind of woman, the wife of the minister in a small town in Iowa called Gilead? How can she be pregnant with his child, fitting into his world, and somehow reconciling her new circumstances with what has gone before?

Lila is the kind of story that meanders from the past to the present, and even takes the reader into an imagined future, as we follow along with the character’s thoughts. What seems like a wonderful place of safety here in Gilead with the minister she has married, and who, through a good part of the book, she is still trying to adjust to, from his very presence to his philosophy on life and on existence, is also a place that arouses fears. Can she fit what she knows of her past into the present and future she is creating? What is the meaning of her existence, and what does her new situation mean about those she left behind?

This novel was challenging to read, since it moved all over the place, bringing some confusion as it did so, but throughout, this reader could sense that the philosophical meanderings of the young woman were bringing her to some kind of resolution. Finally. 4 stars.

REVIEW: DOMESTIC SECRETS, BY ROSALIND NOONAN

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Can close friendship win out over the secrets, lies, and betrayals of those who would threaten them?

Rachel Whalen and Ariel Alexander, both living in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, have enjoyed the bonds of friendship for years. They have had each other’s backs…and been there for their children as well. Or so they have thought.

Rachel’s second husband, Jackson, died a few years before, so she has been struggling. But she has managed to be there for her two sons, Kyle James and Jared, and also runs her styling salon.

Ariel thrives giving voice lessons, but secretly dreams about a return to Hollywood…and her four children get short shrift, according to the perspective of some. Her oldest, Cassie, away at college, is her biggest critic and the voice of reason. Younger children Remy, Trevor, & Maisy appear to be okay…but all will change when Ariel’s inability to stop from seducing every man in sight, including some inappropriate ones, takes her to a dark place. Is she still grieving the loss of her husband Oliver, or is something more going on? What predatory acts will lead to inexplicable violence, and will anyone survive the emotional storm?

Domestic Secrets is the kind of tale that keeps the reader wondering what will come along next, and how the characters will figure out a way through it all. I could not stop reading, and despite the warning signs, I was stunned by how it all played out. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: VIRGIN RIVER, BY ROBYN CARR

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Fleeing the pain and loss of her life in LA, Melinda (Mel) Monroe is ready for a dramatic change in her life and where she lives it…which is why she responded to the ad for a nurse practitioner in the small country village upstate. She was promised a cabin rent free for a year, and the opportunity to use her midwifery skills.

She arrives on a stormy night, and her BMW doesn’t quite make it up the mountain…a grumpy passer-by hauls her out of the mud and leads her to the cabin. Stunned by what she finds there, Mel is just about to turn around and leave. Except there is the storm, her hunger, and the appearance of the “landlady” Hope McCrea, promising the derelict cabin will be cleaned up…and that they can find food in the diner.

The diner turns out to be a tavern run by a couple of intimidating characters: “Preacher” and Jack. And there at the bar sits the grumpy passer-by, who turns out to be the doctor she is there to assist. But the food offered is divine, and the ambience isn’t bad.

Still…she wants to leave, but when she goes to Doc Mullins’s place later, she discovers an abandoned baby there. She can’t leave just yet.

Virgin River reeled me in with the descriptions of the characters, the settings, the food…and encircled me with all the warmth a place like that can offer. Jack Sheridan, the bar owner, is brought vividly to life in all his hunky sexiness, and it doesn’t take long to imagine what could happen between him and Mel…if she lets it.

After all, she lost her husband Mark in a dreadful murder…and is still grieving.

Can Mel find what she needs in this off-the-beaten-path place? Will the friendly charms and homey goodness of the people help her heal? And will the darkness that hides in the woods ruin things, or will Jack and his cohorts defeat it?

I was eager to find out, so I kept turning pages until the very end, and still wanted more. I enjoyed how the author showed us the challenges of practicing medicine in such a community, while also revealing the unique charms of the people, which made the challenges worth the effort. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: BROOKLYN, BY COLM TOIBIN

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We first meet Eilis Lacey in her small town in Ireland: Enniscorthy, on Friary Street. The author sweeps us up into the world of the Lacey family: her sister Rose and her sad mother; the town, with some of the young people; and the shops. It is the 1950s, revealed to us in the styles, mannerisms, and expectations of the times.

Rose has a good job for the local mills, but there are few possibilities for Eilis, with only a dull job in a local shop to bring in a little extra money for the family. A situation which inspires Father Flood to begin talking about an opportunity for her in America, in Brooklyn, where many Irish people have settled.

Soon the plan is in place, and the details of how it all comes about bring the reader into the moments of leaving; of the passage, with all the sea sickness; the newness of a life beyond the village.

After her arrival, she moves into a boarding house arranged by Father Flood, which consists of Mrs. Kehoe, a rather controlling woman, and several young women.

Eilis has work in a nice shop, and soon is taking night classes to become a bookkeeper.

Dances, church, charity events…her life fills up and becomes routine. When she meets Tony, a young Italian boy at a dance, everything begins to change.

What happens near the end of the second year that changes everything for Eilis? How will she deal with revisiting the old village to see her mother after a family tragedy? What will become of her and Tony? What dilemma will Eilis face upon her return to Ireland?

Brooklyn was the kind of story that might seem quiet and even ordinary, on the surface, but the rich details and the vivid portrayals of the various characters kept me engrossed all the way through, experiencing a new life along with Eilis, feeling her awe at each new event. Like baseball, hot dogs, Coney Island. And love.

I felt swept away by how the author showed us Eilis’s inner thoughts as she came to some decisions. I enjoyed watching the interactions between the young women in the boarding house, and loving how Eilis was learning how to stand up for herself. And after her return visit to Enniscorthy, I appreciated how her time in America had changed her, how we could see her growth as she dealt with her demanding mother and her old friends. I could now imagine how her future would unfold. 5 stars.

REVIEW: DUPLICATE KEYS, BY JANE SMILEY

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The spacious Manhattan apartment was like a central meeting place for the group of friends who had all moved to the city around the same time. Within their group were members of a band called Deep Six. The three actual residents of the apartment were Denny Minehart, Craig Shellady, and Susan Gabriel. Others who came and went freely were Noah and Rya Mash and Ray Reschley.

On a morning in May, another friend, Alice Ellis, had stopped by to water the plants, as Susan had gone out of town to the Adirondacks for a mini-vacation. But when Alice entered the apartment, she was stunned to find Denny and Craig dead…murdered, apparently.

Duplicate Keys was a story set sometime in the 1980s, and the interesting aspect of it was how relaxed and even careless were the friends in this drama, apparently lending out keys to anyone and everyone. There had been discoveries of complete strangers to the core group having a copy of the keys.

Alice was an interesting character, the primary narrator of the story. Divorced, she still wondered constantly what had gone wrong in the marriage. She considered Susan to be her best friend, but throughout the novel, Susan seemed to be cold, aloof, and even condescending with Alice, apparently seeing their friendship in an entirely different way.

Detective Honey was the police detective, and his way of trying to solve the case seemed strange to those whose lives were most affected. Did he know more than he was letting on? Did he have any suspects? And why did he keep suggesting to Alice that she change her locks? She hadn’t lived in the apartment with all the duplicate keys.

It didn’t take long for me to decide on the most likely culprit, and at some point, Alice arrived at the same conclusion. With the detective’s help, she was able to assist in bringing about the conclusion to the case in a fascinating manner.

The characters were like leftovers from the hippie era trying to be laidback and living the artistic dream, but their behavior definitely put them in jeopardy. And Alice’s tendency to overthink things, while still arriving at erroneous conclusions, was a somewhat endearing quality, but also a little bit annoying. A well-written book that had me turning pages until the end. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: A LONG TIME GONE, BY KAREN WHITE

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When Vivien Walker Moise returned to her childhood home in Indian Mound, Mississippi, she had been gone a long time. She brings with her a nine-year legacy of pain and loss, with emotional scarring that needs to heal. Can she find healing in this old yellow house? In LA, she has left behind her cruel ex-husband Mark, but she has also lost her step-daughter Chloe, whom she loves. Mark has taken out a restraining order to prevent contact between them. Vivien developed a pill habit, partially with Mark’s help, as he prescribed the pills, but he has used it all against her.

As she arrives back home, she sees a group of people standing around the old tree, and she finds out that a skeleton has been discovered beneath it. Who could it be? What secrets have been hidden here for all these years?

A Long Time Gone is a beautifully wrought story of family, of secrets, and about the pain that drives them away, and the strength within each of the women that keeps bringing them back home.

They have a long tradition of leaving, these women, starting back with Vivien’s great-grandmother. Her grandmother Bootsie also left for a few years; then her own daughter, Carole Lynne, Vivien’s mother, spent years going back and forth, like a boomerang. Now Carole Lynne is home to stay, but her memories are going. She has been diagnosed with dementia, but sometimes she seems almost normal. Will Vivien find the lost connection between them, finally?

Our story is narrated by three women whose stories weave together a rich tapestry of secrets and loss. Adelaide, whose story begins in the 1920s; Carole Lynne, whose time in the 60s and beyond was all about trying to rid herself of the pain of being without her own mother for years. And finally, Vivien’s story, and how she strives to make up for her own mistakes by taking on Chloe, who has run away from her father. With the help of her childhood best friend/boyfriend, Tripp Montgomery, she searches for the answers to some burning questions: who is the skeleton in the garden? What happened to the women in this family that made them keep leaving? And what finally brought most of them back home again?

The canvas is full of richly drawn characters, from those in the 1920s to the present. With each of them, we learn how the stories fit together, and we finally discover the answers. I loved this book, which earned 5 stars from me.

REVIEW: REMEMBER MIA, BY ALEXANDRA BURT

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There is something profoundly troubling to me about Remember Mia.  A missing baby, a car accident, amnesia…all of these events are seen from the perspective of an unreliable narrator.  A woman probably suffering from Postpartum Depression, possibly even a psychosis. If we see the other characters from Estella’s view, they are very sinister, or at the very least, annoying.  Her husband Jack is so annoying as to be someone I might suspect of nefarious deeds.  Yes, he is cold, he is detached, and he is critical…from her view.  Then there are the various construction workers at the house where she lives, all alone, with a baby who never stops crying.  And the constant criticism she gets from her husband, from the neighbors, and from almost anyone she encounters.

But no matter what we may wonder about “Amnesia Mom,” as the press has dubbed her, because she was in a car accident with a gunshot wound and no memory of events, we must ask certain questions: Who, if anyone, took the baby?  Why was every evidence that a baby had even lived there missing, too?  And who can we trust?  And finally, if Jack was so concerned about Estella’s state of mind, why did he set her up in a construction zone, literally, while he went to another city?

Committed to a psychiatric facility, Estella and her doctor slowly work to recover her memories. And when that happens, will there be a happy ending? The long, tedious journey kept me rapidly turning pages, my heart in my throat, hoping for answers. A book I could not put down, and despite my feelings about many of the characters, especially Jack, I felt a kind of peace at the unexpected conclusion. The middle section, and the psychiatric sessions were a little frustrating, especially since events flipped back and forth between the past and the present. In the end, however, I was glad I slogged my way through. 4.0 stars.

REVIEW: DUNE ROAD, BY JANE GREEN

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Kit Hargrove is starting over. After her divorce from Adam, a Wall Street executive, she sells the big fancy house in Highfield, Connecticut, and settles comfortably into a smaller Cape Cod in another part of town. Her two children, Tory, 13, and Buckley, 8, show some signs of the stress of transition, but other than the usual issues, they seem to be doing fine.

She hasn’t downsized to poverty…she is just not in the same social set. But Kit never enjoyed that scene anyway. She takes a job as an assistant to a best-selling author, Robert McClore, and finds a new mother figure in her next-door neighbor Edie. She still regularly socializes with her best friend Charlie, even though Charlie is still married and living in the big house.

Then along comes Tracy, and this is where things start getting interesting. Tracy seems like a con artist to me, and she is making some very questionable moves. What will we learn about her?

A new man suddenly pops up…compliments of Tracy pointing him out. Is there more to this story?

What appeared to be just the usual novel about new beginnings starts to take on a different premise, as more and more unexpected events are triggered, and Kit’s new life begins unfolding in unpredictable ways.

How do secrets from Kit’s mother’s past suddenly reveal themselves and begin to change everything Kit thought she knew about her and about her own life?

The characters that populate Dune Road were interesting, like real people who do annoying things to one another, while keeping potentially dangerous secrets. We see their vulnerabilities, their flaws, and watch how they deal with financial set-backs in the worst economic downturn in recent history. They are forced to question their attitudes, beliefs, and plans, and they must struggle to redefine who they are. The conclusion left me with a feeling of positivity. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: THE FROG PRINCE, BY JANE PORTER

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Holly Bishop had grown up on fairytales, and in the small Central California town where she lived, she definitely had learned to believe in happily-ever-after.

But when her gorgeous Cinderella-type wedding to handsome Frenchman Jean-Marc comes to a shocking end shortly afterwards, she is stunned. What happened? How did the fairytale betray her?

As she starts over in San Francisco as an event planner, and finds a cute single-girl apartment in a nice neighborhood, the answers elude her, even as she struggles to understand.

She really hates even telling people about the divorce, though. I like this excerpt in her voice:

“So now I don’t say anything about the divorce to anyone, and I just smile. Even though on the insides my eyes are stinging and my jaw aches because, honest to God, I don’t want my own apartment. I had a house—a home—with Jean-Marc. I had a squashy down-filled sofa and bookcases filled with books, yellow climbing roses on the trellis, flagstone pavers from the patio to the pool, and a perfect little gated side yard with lush green grass that would have been perfect for a child’s swing set.”

Before long, however, there is the push from others for her to start dating. Being set up on horrific dates with men who are boorish, self-centered, and just plain unappealing were situations that made me smile.

Her boss Olivia is a nightmare. Sometimes the critical tone she always seems to take is like that voice in your head when you don’t feel you are good enough. Will Holly be able to tune her out, and find her own thoughts?

When does starting over begin to feel like a new beginning? Was it the friendship with a really nice couple of work colleagues? Or the connection she feels with Brian, the newspaper journalist? Or perhaps it is the new voice clamoring to be heard. The one that reminds her that she deserves to be happy. What happens to finally turn things around for Holly? And how will she uncover the deceptive sabotage of someone out to derail her life?

Great and realistic characters grabbed my interest in The Frog Prince, and even the snarky ones, like Olivia, or Tessa, who felt as though they were real people, made me keep reading. This was a book that resonated with me for several reasons, including the familiarity of the settings, places I have lived in my life. 4.5 stars.