WEAVING A COMPLEX TAPESTRY OF FAMILY LIFE — A REVIEW

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In the opening scenes of The Tin Horse: A Novel, we meet Elaine Greenstein, sorting through boxes that hold the memorabilia of her life and the lives of her parents.

Elaine has had a rich and full life as an attorney, and the causes she took on have made her something of a celebrity in her ranks. A young man named Josh, an archivist, is helping her decide which of her mementos to donate to USC . Because Elaine is finally leaving her home in Santa Monica for Rancho Manana, a retirement home that she has dubbed the Ranch of No Tomorrow.

Elaine’s wry sense of humor comes through as she tells the story in her first person narrative. A story that sweeps across the miles and the years to the homes where her ancestors lived, in the Europe of the Nazi years. Starting over in the Jewish communities of America would be like a fulfillment of their dreams. But what happened to each of them, including the struggles, the bigotry, and the reversals, would inform their lives forever.

Moving back and forth with the story, we are sometimes in the present as Elaine moves and settles into her new life. And then we move backward, watching as the answers begin to unfold. We learn many of the secrets, fears, dreams, and longings of the first and second generations of the Greenstein family. And when the secrets are revealed, we see the betrayals beneath them.

What has created the special link between Mama and Barbara? What is the significance of the tin horse? And how will Barbara’s impulsive behavior lead to something she does right after their high school graduation? How will her actions leave a hole in Elaine’s heart, and change the choices she makes from then on?

What will Elaine discover in the boxes that ultimately provides answers about her sister, and how will she finally discover what happened to her?

Richly layered with history, emotion, and the complex tapestry of family life, this is a story with true-to-life characters and settings that fully engaged me. Five stars.

A LIFE OF LOVE & FRIENDSHIP — A REVIEW

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Callie Perry is a happily married photographer with two wonderful kids, a lovable sister, Steffi, and a best friend, Lila. Problems are minor: Steffi can never settle down, Lila has finally found love but the guy has a nightmare of an ex, and Callie and Steffi’s divorced parents, Honor and Walter, haven’t spoken in 30 years. But then Callie, a breast cancer survivor, is diagnosed with a rare and incurable complication of the disease. Suddenly realizing that she has only months to live, she begins the painful process of saying good-bye.

For most of the story, I was caught up in the lives of these characters that felt like people I would love to know. While Callie seemed almost too good, I enjoyed Steffi’s quirks and poor choices in men, and loved seeing her slowly find her niche in the little country house in Sleepy Hollow. I enjoyed that she was a chef who reveled in her cooking. Her nurturing side flourished and added dimension to her character.

Another rewarding aspect to PROMISES TO KEEP was seeing Honor and Walter meet each other again for the first time in years and begin to appreciate each other despite the differences and the enmity between them.

How will Callie find a way to celebrate the rest of her life? What special joining together will help them all find a way to deal with her loss? And what unexpected joys and discoveries will come along?

Predictably, there was sadness and loss…and in the end, hope. As some of the characters found love and new lives, we could revel in the whole “life goes on” theme. The author’s epilogue and her final tribute to a friend, Heidi, who died and to whom this book was dedicated, left the reader with feelings of closure.

After each chapter, there were recipes: a kind of homage to Steffi and how she brought joy to her family and friends through her cooking. A feel-good story with moments that brought me to tears, I enjoyed this one, even though it fell into place quite predictably. Four stars.

ONE WOMAN’S PERSONAL ODYSSEY — A REVIEW

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From the very first page of Nine Months, the reader is immersed in the internal world of Sonia, a newly pregnant woman who already has two sons, ages 4 and 2. A Brooklyn housewife, she struggles against the dull sameness of her life. Having made some kind of peace with it, even hoping to resume her painting now that the boys are older, the unexpected pregnancy literally throws her for a loop, and from the very first weeks, the familiar nausea and hormonal imbalance add to the loss of equilibrium she feels and seemingly thrusts her into a war within.

What does Sonia do when the pregnancy advances and her ambivalence increases? Will the road trip she decides to take be like a personal odyssey for her, or some kind of escape from a life she is trying to cast off? Some might say she has abandoned her family, and even as Sonia herself seems to characterize it that way, at least in the beginning, I see it more as a woman’s struggle to make sense of her life, while dealing with the physical aspects of pregnancy.

While most women would not take such a dramatic approach to self-examination, I believe that the character was trying to find her own truth.

That said, there were moments when she seemed quite unbalanced, and perhaps the physical changes were insufficient to explain what Sonia is experiencing. Her emotional health seems off kilter as well. Is she questioning the choices she has made? Or is she simply acting out from selfishness or boredom?

For those who have never experienced what Sonia has, or questioned their lives in the middle of it, this book would definitely not be one you could connect to. In some ways, Sonia’s journey seemed over the top, but at the end, I couldn’t help but wonder if she had to take matters to this extreme to finally find her way.

Four stars.

ONE WOMAN’S SOJOURN THROUGH THE GREAT RECESSION — A REVIEW

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In late 2008, the world as most Americans knew it folded in on itself. The Great Recession began.

For Amy Wolf, the author of Don’t Let Me Die In A Motel 6 or One Woman’s Struggle Through The Great Recession, a memoir, nothing could have been more shocking. She had been enjoying the good life, with a well-paid position at Washington Mutual; she lived in a big house; had many advantages; and had always counted on being gainfully employed.

Over the subsequent pages, we learn how the author dealt with events, passing through her days almost like someone in the stages of grief, from anger to acceptance. But along the way, she is tossed about through various degrees of homelessness, living hand to mouth, with occasional (but grudging) assistance from wealthy relatives. Her quest for full-time employment met with constant disappointment.

Her travails were not limited to the financial ones. Her battles with depression, near suicide, and ultimately, a return of the cancer she had fought years before were like a painful backdrop to her troubles with her out-of-control teenage daughter.

Almost like a female modern-day Job, the author plunges ahead, determined to survive. She tells her story with candor and humor, and when she describes how she came out the other end a nicer person, she shows us exactly what she means by that.

Not a tale for the faint-hearted, it was definitely one I won’t forget. Yes, there were poor choices along the way, but Wolf fully admits to all of them, and then demonstrates how she learned and grew from the experiences. 4.5 stars.

THE SLIPPERY NATURE OF MEMORY — A REVIEW

Both the title and the opening lines drew me in immediately, as I knew that this would be a tale about family secrets and the cost of keeping them.

Drowning Ruth [Hardcover] begins in 1919, with Amanda Starkey’s role as a nurse during the war. But from there, we weave in and out of periods of time, both backward and forward, learning the story of Amanda and her sister Mathilda, who drowned mysteriously one night in November later that year, and the subsequent journey of Mathilda’s daughter Ruth.

The details are slipped in during these moments of reflection, like “doses” of medicine surreptitiously fed to a resistant patient. Later we hear Ruth’s voice, as she ages, from the confused thoughts about family events and drowning to later moments of increasing clarity. For Ruth is convinced that she drowned.

We can see from the beginning that the relationship between Amanda and Mathilda (Matty) is conflicted. There is a close bond–they are almost enmeshed–and yet the rivalry is readily apparent.

Other important characters are brought forth almost casually, like Clement Owens: his role in Amanda’s life will not be apparent for awhile.

What really happened to Mathilda Starkey, and what secrets have kept Amanda from moving on? How does the truth eventually come out, and what ramifications will unfold?

In some ways, the slipping back and forth through time felt confusing, and yet it also seemed appropriate. Like floating thoughts that slip in and out of our minds, these snippets seemed to show us the nature of memories.

I had hopes that Ruth would finally detach from the enmeshed relationship with Amanda, but alas: she seems to become the clone of her aunt, falling into her same patterns, living on the farm like a recluse. An emotionally disturbing story, I know that I won’t forget it. Four stars.

EVOCATIVE PORTRAYAL OF TIMELESS CONNECTIONS: A REVIEW

 

Who am I? Where do I belong? Like an echo from the sea or a whisper in the walls of an ancient house, these questions form in the mind of Ava Whalen, a young woman questing for love and connections.

When Ava meets Matthew Frazier, a Savannah child psychologist, she immediately feels connected to him. Their marriage a short time later seems hasty and impulsive to those around them, but who can explain the bond they share?

After the marriage, the two move into an ancient house where Matthew grew up, and which somehow seems familiar to Ava. But also unfamiliar. Sharing the historic footprints of those ancestors like Pamela and Geoffrey Frazier, the house echoes with the longings of the ages.

When the secrets between them begin to unfold, however, will the bond that drew them together be enough?

The first big secret is Matthew’s first wife Adrienne, a midwife like Ava. How did she die? And what was she seeking just before her death and how does it connect to the past?

What does the scent of ashes have to do with Ava’s feeling of not quite belonging? How does her mother’s aloofness reinforce that sense of not belonging?

How do passion flowers figure into the mysterious dreams and memories that cling to Ava and hint at things untold?

Searching via hypnosis, Ava begins to uncover some of the past events that seem to inform her life in the present.

Told in the narrative voices of Pamela, Ava, and Gloria, Sea Change mysteriously evokes the spiritual and physical connections between them all.

In the end, Ava’s thoughts sum up the power of these connections wrought within the walls of a home:

“…the house with memories like an ocean’s waves with no beginnings and no endings, its sighs reminding me of how impossible it is sometimes to distinguish between the two.”

A beautiful and evocative portrayal of timeless connections, this story will remain with me for a long time. Five stars.

MEANDERING FAMILY SAGA — A REVIEW

Aaron and Madeline Maciver began their married life, just as many other couples from their time, believing they had many years ahead of them.

But one day Madeline was tragically injured in a bicycling accident that left her brain damaged, reduced to a childlike state.

After a period of rehabilitation, Aaron developed a relationship with Julia, the nurse who helped care for Madeline; their relationship morphed into a marriage—after Aaron terminated the marriage to Madeline.

What was most unexpected was Aaron and Julia’s decision to take Madeline into their home with them, where they cared for her as if she were their child.

Mac Maciver is the narrator of this family saga, moving back and forth in time to chronicle the stories that spotlight family moments, the connections that bind people together, and the flaws that often tear them apart. Set against the backdrop of the times, from the Viet Nam war to the Iraq conflict, Mac introduces a series of family members, from Cousin Buddy to his own wife and daughters many years later.

Through the years, Madeline is a constant presence, even though friends and neighbors find the family dynamics strange at best and bizarre at worst.

How does Julia cope with the “extra” wife in her home? Is her tendency to control things a way of coping, or is it something more? What will a romance for Madeline do to alter the dynamics of this unusual family?

Jane Hamilton’s prose is remarkable, revealing the emotions, the setting, and the characterizations with clarity. In this excerpt, Mac and his sister Louise are returning from a visit to their home, during which some events have forced them to see what they had not realized before:

“Below us as we lifted off lay the flat grid of the gray city, the desolation of the urban landscape. We were leaving it behind as we’d done before, but this time was different; this time the entire scrim had been pulled away from the home front, and we could see the outer world that all along had been part of us. I would have liked to return to our cozy, selfish ignorance, but that seemed no longer possible; from now on we’d walk hand in hand with our entitlements, nursing them along, feeding them up….”

As much as I enjoyed the characterizations, the prose, and the unusual plot of When Madeline Was Young, I found myself drifting off course, easily distracted, and losing my way as the narrator rambled and meandered in his effort to tell the stories of his family, some of which seemed irrelevant. Therefore, I’m awarding three stars.

A JOURNEY TOWARD REDISCOVERY — A REVIEW

Three women from very different circumstances have one thing in common.  They have all suffered financial ruin at the hands of a financial manager, and they all now share ownership in a ramshackle beachfront property in Florida.

When they meet to assess their property, they come to a seemingly untenable decision.  They will restore the historic home back to its original beauty, and then sell it.  But they must achieve this in a record amount of time and by doing the work themselves, under the guidance of a local contractor.

The journey brings out all the strengths they weren’t sure they had and forges friendships that will bring more than they could have bargained for.  What happens during the course of this amazing journey will be totally unexpected, with some sad and some victorious moments.

Avery, Nicole, and Madeline will end up with something else they hadn’t expected.  They will discover untapped resources inside themselves that they will carry with them into the future.  But what disasters and obstacles will befall them before they’ve reached their goal?  And what will sustain them in the days, weeks, and months ahead?

Each character was someone I could relate to, even though none of them had experiences I’d enjoyed.  Avery, an architect who had been reduced to a “Vanna White-like” role on the HGTV show she co-hosted with her ex-husband, is frustrated and full of anger; Nicole has a very successful matchmaking business to high-end clients, but something is missing from her life; and Madeline has been a homemaker all of her life, but her current empty nest has her seeking something new to do with her life.

In many ways, they are each ripe for the picking when fate throws them a few curves.  Isn’t it true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?  Each of them is forced to find out the truth of that on their new journey.  I loved that each of the women began to reach out to one another, despite the secrets they tried to hold tight within.  I felt emotionally drawn to them when obstacles popped up, as inevitably they would in such a situation.  None of the women has been trained to do an “extreme makeover” like the one they face.

The contractor, Andrew, is an old family friend to Avery, but the way he seemingly condescends to her, calling her “Vanna” repeatedly, raised my ire.  I could identify with the plight of being diminished by a man who is in a position of power.

I thoroughly enjoyed how Madeline came into her own as the leader and go-to person for organizational skills.

As I turned the pages of Ten Beach Road, I didn’t want the story to end.  Even though I wanted to see what would happen, that satisfaction would come at the price of losing these friendships.  For by this time, I felt as though these women were part of my own friendship circle.  This book earned five stars from me.

****

Check out the Q & A With Wendy Wax

Author Bio:

WENDY WAX


“All of my class pictures from Sunshine Elementary School are displayed at the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum on Pass-a-Grille,” says Wendy Wax, speaking about her childhood in St. Pete Beach, Florida. “Fish Broil was the big event every fall and the best days were when we had recess or art class on the beach, but what I remember best is running loose with my friends and exploring every inch of the beach we called our own. Is it any surprise it’s still one of my favorite places in the world? Or that it ended up as the setting in one of my books? It was bound to happen someday.”

Someday came when Wendy began reading about how the lives of so many people, from so many different walks of life, changed dramatically as a result of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. It wasn’t long before she was imagining a scenario in which three women face bankruptcy at the hands of an unscrupulous money manager. At the end of the day, these three strangers discover that all that’s left of their savings is shared ownership of a once-glorious beachfront mansion. They’re faced with a choice. They can cut their losses and sell for whatever amount of money they can get, or—in a bid for solvency—accept the backing of a local contractor in order to restore the historic property themselves, bit-by-backbreaking bit.

The basics of her plot and the themes Wendy imagined—women facing adversity, making choices, redefining themselves and discovering the strength of friendship—gave her a wide range of possible settings for TEN BEACH ROAD. When it came time to embrace ambiance, architectural styles, and local color, she chose a
place she knows well, her hometown of St. Pete Beach. It was right for so many reasons. Its tropical climate, dual
cultures of vacationers and residents, and even the current real estate market fit her story well, and presented
challenges her characters might not have faced elsewhere. Of course, it also gave Wendy an opportunity to indulge in researching the Mediterranean-Revival architectural style she so admires and the history of the area, as well as to share her pleasure in magnificent Gulf sunsets and some of her favorite spots in Historic Pass-a-Grille.

Among her fondest memories are visits to her local library. Wendy read voraciously as a child, becoming fast friends with Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables. Her love affairs with language and storytelling paid off beginning with her first shift at the campus radio station while studying journalism at the University of Georgia.

Wendy returned home, graduated from the University of South Florida and then worked for the Tampa PBS
affiliate, WEDU-TV, behind and in front of the camera. Her resume includes on air work, voiceovers and production work on a variety of commercial projects and several feature films. She was best-known in the Tampa Bay area as the host of Desperate & Dateless, a radio matchmaking program that aired on WDAE radio, and nationally as host of The Home Front, a magazine format show that aired on PBS affiliates across the country.

The mother of a toddler and an infant when she decided to change careers, Wendy admits it may not have been the best timing in terms of productivity. “I’m still not certain why I felt so compelled to write my first novel at that particular time,” she says, “but that first book took forever.” Since then she’s written six others, including
Magnolia Wednesdays, the Romance Writers of America RITA Award finalist; The Accidental Bestseller and Single in Suburbia. Her novel 7 Days and 7 Nights was honored with the Virginia Romance Writers Holt Medallion Award. Her work has been sold to publishers in ten countries and to the Rhapsody Book Club, and her novel, Hostile Makeover, was excerpted in Cosmopolitan magazine.

Wendy lives in Atlanta, which she has called home for 14 years. A former broadcaster, she spends much of her non-writing time speaking to writer’s groups and book clubs, enjoying time with her husband and sons, and visiting her family in St. Pete. She continues to devour books.

AUTHOR WENDY WAX WEBSITE

TEN BEACH ROAD/Berkley/Trade Paperback
On Sale May 3, 2011/$15.00 ($17.50 Canada)/0-425-24086-X . 978-0-425-24086-1
Includes the Readers Guide
.
MAGNOLIA WEDNESDAYS/Jove Books/Mass Market/Reprint
On Sale April 26, 2011/$7.99/0-515-14984-5 . 978-0-515-15984-5
Contact: Joan Schulhafer, joan@joanschulhafer.com, 973-338-7428

or Erin Galloway, erin.galloway@us.penguingroup.com

THE TRUTH SETS THEM FREE — A REVIEW

After Nora MacKenzie’s husband Mike’s suicide, and the overwhelming debts threaten to turn her world upside down, she escapes to the Vermont sheep farm—the one holding she has managed to salvage—and the promise of a new future.

A mysterious man has taken up residence at the farm as a hired hand. And “C.W.” somehow manages to gain her trust over the months that follow, despite her initial resistance, as he teaches her how to run the farm and learn how to navigate this new life.

Back in New York, the attorneys that are in charge of the MacKenzie estate arrange the upcoming auction that will either bring in enough to clear her debts…or not.

Meanwhile, what effect will the secrets C. W. is keeping from Nora have on her plight, and will these doom their budding relationship? Will the trust she has placed in him be her undoing?

The long journey toward love, hope, and a new life can lead to joy or it can turn into another disappointment.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Nora and C. W., and kept turning the pages as the characters made one choice after another that could have turned out well or badly. The characters were very real and likable, and there was that hint of mystery that kept the story from being just a romance. Themes of right vs. wrong, peace vs. chaos filled the pages and created a tale that will hold the interest of anyone who loves these kinds of issues.

Four stars. Some parts of the story, like the detailed descriptions of farming and financial maneuvering, were a little tedious, but not enough to spoil my enjoyment of The Long Road Home.

THE EGGSHELL FRAGILITY OF MORTALITY & FLESH — A REVIEW

Sweeping across the gorgeous landscapes of Charleston, South Carolina and the South from the sixties to the nineties, this story chronicles tragedy, loneliness, and a tightly-knit group of high school outsiders who withstand the tests of time, racism, and the unexpected dark legacies of racism and class divisions—until one final test that forces them to face the unexpected.

Leopold Bloom King is at the center of this tale, South of Broad: A Novel, and is the first person narrator. His parents are Dr. Lindsay King, the high school principal and a former nun, and his father, Jasper, who teaches high school sciences. Leo grows up in the shadow of his older brother’s suicide. Steve, the golden boy, who was beloved by everyone and especially his mother, cannot be replaced in any of their lives. His absence leaves a hole in the fabric of the family—something that can never be repaired. Leo’s reaction leaves the family even more devastated, and Leo himself spends the next several years dealing with the consequences.

The first of the tightly knit group begins with the twins who move across the street from Leo in the summer of 1969. He greets them with cookies, at his mother’s insistence. She is big on manners. Sheba and Trevor are totally outside the realm of what Leo expected, and their presence in his life will change everything. Then he meets the orphans, Niles, Sharla, and Betty. And later, in football practice, he connects with the coach’s son Ike, the first black person he will become friends with. Later, other unexpected connections will be formed, from Chad Rutledge and his sister Fraser, to Molly Huger—wealthy children who have fallen from grace and now find themselves attached by fate to this rag-tag group.

Over that summer and the subsequent years, we follow the adventures, the struggles to overcome the race and class distinctions, and on a hunt for Trevor in San Francisco. Back in Charleston, another unexpected tragedy begins to unfold. Just when we think that we’ve seen everything, we are sucker-punched once again.

The author takes us on a journey from the sixties to the nineties and then back again to fold together some additional layers of the story and the characters. We come to learn about the events that shaped them all in this gradual fashion. I like that we do not know everything about the characters all at once; as in real life, we come to know them in a natural progression of events, but with the fast-forward feature to give us a peek at their grown up selves.

Conroy’s language is beautiful and eloquent and his characters are rich, with all the quirks one might expect from such a group.

In the end, I like this passage, which illustrates this for me.

“Trevor is flying out in the morning for San Francisco, his future uncertain. But so is mine, and so are the fates of storms and the wrath of an angry, implacable God. But that is what it means to be human, born to nakedness and tenderness and nightmare in the eggshell fragility of mortality and flesh. The immensity of the Milky Way settles over the city, and the earthworms rule beneath the teeming gardens in their eyeless world. I am standing with my best friends in the world in complete awe at the loveliness of the South.”

There are many passages throughout that leave me in awe at the beauty of language and the connections between friends. I had no choice but to give this one five stars, although I would have awarded more if I could. A story that one can savor, connect to, and remember long after the final page is done.