Monday, December 2, 2019

Home for Erring and Outcast Girls

Title:  Home for Erring and Outcast Girls
Author:  Julie Kibler
Publication Information:  Crown. 2019. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0451499336 / 978-0451499332

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Even when Mattie's great big dreams had troubled Lizzie, she'd envied her something fierce, for Lizzie came from nightmares, too fearful to dream."

Favorite Quote:  "It's possible to long for home, even when you don't have one."

The Berachah Industrial Home for the Redemption of Erring Girls was founded in 1903 on the outskirts of Arlington, Texas by Reverend James T. Upchurch and his wife Maggie May Upchurch. The word berachah means blessing in Hebrew.

The concept was a revolutionary one. The home was to provide support and guidance for "erring girls" / "fallen women". The home took in young women, often pregnant, and provided a home, education, and work. There were two stipulations. The girls were to "err" no more, and the babies would not be given up for adoption but raised by the mothers. The home operated until 1935. All that remains of the home today is a cemetery which contains about 80 graves. Many are simply labeled "infant" to the point that the cemetery is referred to as the Lost Cemetary of Infants.

Inspired by this history, Julie Kibler brings to life the Berachah Home in this fictional story. The book uses the approach of two time periods - a current day character who stumbles upon the history of the home and two women - Lizzie and Mattie - who were residents of the home.

Cate Sutton is a university librarian with a history and a past that results in a solitary life. In her new job, she stumbles on to the cemetery that is the only remaining monument to the home. That sets her on a search to uncover more. At the same time, she stumbles upon a tenuous friendship with a student, who has a hidden history and past of her own.

Lizzie and Mattie come to the Berachah Home for the same reason that many others did. There was simply no other option if they were to survive and perhaps protect their children. The two form an instant bond that lasts throughout their lifetime. The two make very different choices for their lives, yet throughout, the bond of friendship - a family found - remains.

Through Lizzie and Mattie, the book explores the work of the Berachah Home - its workshops providing dignity of work, its faith based teachings, its sometimes contentious presence in the community, and its ability to create a family and a sanctuary for women who had no other. It also explores the other end of this story in that "everyone might be worth saving, but not everyone can be saved."

Both the current day story and the story of the past put forth an emotional connection. The "surprise" of Cate's story is not really a surprise. The only connection of her story to Lizzie and Mattie's stories is that of acceptance - by family, by friends, and by certain parts of society. That connection too is at best tenuous.

As is common with books using this structure, I find the story of the past the more compelling and more emotional one. In addition, that story does what I love about historical fiction. It introduces me to history I did not know, and it motivates me to go and research that actual history. The fiction creates the introduction, and the research teaches me the history.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Bad Axe County

Title:  Bad Axe County
Author:  John Galligan
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1982110708 / 978-1982110703

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The clammy hand of state representative Cyrus Johnsrud (R-Portage) has released her elbow and is drifting down her spine, stopping to savor each vertebra through the fabric of her gown."

Favorite Quote:  "... nobody is cutting you slack for your pain from the past. You're in charge here. You're the boss ... You can either do this job or you can't. We need you to do do it ... but if you can't separate the past from the present, even the people who support your are going to freak..."

Bad Axe County is place in rural Wisconsin. This is book one in what is planned to be series. The main character is Heidi Kick, the first female sheriff of the county - at least an interim sheriff. Heidi is Bad Axe County born and bred.

She is a police officer despite, or perhaps because of her traumatic childhood. When Heidi was in high school, her parents were shot dead on their farm. It was ruled a murder suicide with her father accused of killing her mother before he shot himself. Heidi never believed it, but she survived. Now, Heidi is a police officer, a wife, a mother, and she still does not believe the story told about her past. She wants to prove it otherwise. She may have survived the trauma, but she has never recovered.

That is the background and the past coming into Heidi's present. That present also holds secrets of its own. There are many in town who would like to see her fail. There are many with secrets of their own. It is Heidi's job and quest to unravel it all.

All this angst and intrigue manifests itself in an ice storm and in a missing teenager. That is the current mystery of the book. This mystery goes in a direction I completely do not see coming especially in a setting like rural Wisconsin.

Without saying where this book goes, I will say the topic really surprises me. I had no idea, and it sent me researching. It turns out that the issue is a very real problem in the area, and it endangers some of the most vulnerable in our society. The fact that the mystery centers around a missing teenage girl should give you a clue as to the nature of the crime. Trigger warning:  The book does depict horrific and violent treatment of young women.

The book does not depict the physical beauty or grand natural vistas of Wisconsin. Rather, it focuses on the human-created terror and despair. It leaves a one-sided image of corruption and violence. I hope future books show some of the peace and beauty the images of Wisconsin conjure up for me, if only to contrast with the actions of the characters. It would reinforce the point that good can survive in the most inhospitable surroundings just as evil can thrive in a serene, bucolic setting.

Both the story of Heidi's past and the current mystery of the missing girl lead to an action packed book travelling the back roads of Wisconsin. The two stories, however, travel in tandem and have only a tangential connection. Even Heidi's marriage and children become a background to the action of the book.

Perhaps, the back story is there to establish Heidi as a character. Perhaps, it is something that will be explored further up in subsequent books. Regardless, I find myself much more interested in the current day mystery and the social issues it leads me to research and learn more about. For that reason, I may look for the next in the series.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Call Your Daughter Home

Title:  Call Your Daughter Home
Author:  Deb Spera
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0778307743 / 978-0778307747

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It's easier to kill a man than a gator, but it takes the same kind of wait."

Favorite Quote:  "Listen to what I tell you ... If you reach a point in life where it feels there is only dark around you, that's 'cause there is. You got to find the light. A hole can be a haven, but you can't stay in a hole forever. What's dark must come to light. Every person needs the sun."

The 1920s in Brancheville, South Carolina was a time of racial and economic divisions. Those differences and divisions permeate this book but are not the story of this book. This is a book about women and about mothers. It is about mothers' love that transcends race, religion, and culture.

This is the story of three very different women and the heartaches they bear and the choices they make to protect the ones they love.

Annie is the lady to the manor born. She is the matriarch to the Coles family. She is mother to four grown children - two men and two women. She is a successful business woman in her own right and, at the same time, the Southern belle at the side of her husband. She has seen much in her life, and yet much that should have been evident escaped her notice until now. The question is what will she do now that she knows?

Gertrude is white and poor, married to an abusive drunk. She too is a mother to four children - four young children. Her single sole purpose is to survive and to protect her children from that which she has suffered. She is willing to do whatever she has to save her children.

Retta is a first-generation, freed slave. She works for Annie and is a friend to both Annie and Gertrude. She is in a strong, loving marriage made perhaps even stronger by the losses of their past.

Seemingly, these women have nothing in common, and yet, they are united. That is the theme of this book. What unites these women is their combined strength in standing up for and in protecting their children. "Can't always stand to the side... Sometimes you got to try to change what you don't like."

The story is told through the alternating voices of these three women. It is slow paced and character driven until towards the end. The ending is one I do not see coming but which connects the dots and seems clear when the revelation does arrive. Reader warning: This book does go into issues of abuse against women and children.

"Sheriff said to me, before he left, that maybe people get what they deserve. But I don't believe that's true. My mama didn't deserve to forget the family who loved her, any more than we deserved to see her suffer, any more than Retta and the Missus deserved their heartache. People get what they get." These women get what they get and yet manage to create a life and a family. It is the characters and voices of these women that make the book come to life and create the emotional connection that make this a memorable read. "Men can't bear what women must. They jump to cry insanity as cause for a woman's unhappiness; the utterance of the unutterable must be dementia. It's just too much to consider otherwise."


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Mrs. Everything

Title:  Mrs. Everything
Author:  Jennifer Weiner
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2019. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1501133489 / 978-1501133480

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Her cell phone rang as they were on their way out of the movies."

Favorite Quote:  "She'd lost her taste for fiction. Sometimes she thought it was because spending even a few hours in an imaginary world would make it too tempting for her to consider other versions of her own story, other ways it could have unfolded. A different ending, a truly happily-ever-after."

Mrs. Everything, as the title implies, is a story of women. It is a story of a woman trying to do everything and be everything that society expects her to. It is a story of that continuing for a long time until finally she cannot. It is a story of a woman making the choice to go her own way and of the impact that leaves on her family.

The story begins with Jo. It is a story that begins at the end. It begins with a diagnosis that signals an ending. It offers a final opportunity to make things right, to impart lessons, to heal wounds, and to soothe a conscience:

  • "Women had made progress ... but she wondered whether they would ever not try to have it all and do it all all and do all of it flawlessly. Would the day ever come when simply doing your best would be enough? Her generation hadn't managed it, and neither had her daughters."
  • "We lose ourselves ... but we find our way back ... Wasnt' that the story of her life ... You make the wrong choices, you make mistakes, you disappear for a decade, you marry the wrong man. You get hurt. You lose sight of who you are, or of who you want to be, and then you remember, and if you're lucky you have sisters or friends who remind you when you forget your best intentions. You come back to yourself, again and again. You try, and fail, and try again, and fail again."
  • "She wished she'd spent more time teaching her girls that women should forgive themselves, showing them how to take care of themselves with kindness. The world was hard enough, would beat them up enough without them adding to the pain."

The story begins with sisters, Jo and Bethie. The names, of course, make me think of Little Women. Coincidental or not? I have no idea, but misplaced in this setting. The correlation, intended or imagined in my mind, does not work here.

The story is also Jo and her own daughters - the decisions, the choices, the heartbreak, and the love as it can only exist between mothers and daughters.

I appreciate the premise of this book. I even somewhat agree with the thought of women who still try and do it all and be everything to everyone. I even see the futility of that.

Yet, I end up not the reader for this book for a couple of reasons. I am not a reader for books with a lot of sexual display or discussion, and this book has both. I am also not a fan of the drug use and discussion that finds its way into this family story. Mostly, though, the book loses me because I find it to be over dramatized. To me, the need to include drama after drama and a little bit of everything that could face a woman in the book diminishes the challenges that the title of "Mrs. Everything" poses. There are challenges enough in daily life without reaching out for the extremes. The extremes leave the lasting impression rather than the strength of the women navigating the challenges.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Sunset Beach

Title:  Sunset Beach
Author:  Mary Kay Andrews
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2019. 432 pages.
ISBN:  125012610X / 978-1250126108

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Drue turned the key in the ignition and the white Bronco's engine gave a dispirited cough, and then nothing."

Favorite Quote:  "I'm afraid of lots of things ... I just hide it better than most people."

The cover and title of this book indicates chick lit, women's fiction, and a summer beach read. What this book delivers is that plus an actual, entertaining mystery.

An accident ends Drue Campbell's athletic career. Her mother dies. Her estranged father reappears at her mother's funeral. She inherits a dilapidated cottage, which just happens to be right on the beach. She is in trouble emotionally and financially. Her father offers her a job. It's a job she does not want but may be forced to take. Her car dies. She meets a new friend. Did I mention her father happens to now be married to someone she knew in middle school?

Let's just say life is not going Drue Campbell's way. So, what does she do? Sulk? Wallow? Nope. She picks up the pieces and keeps going. Her new job with people very much from her past lands her in the middle of a murder mystery.

It all begins with wanting to help a grieving family. Good intentions that open up a whole mountain of corruption, money, and cover ups. It turns out Drue Campbell has a penchant for adventure and a flair for detective work. Who knew?

This is actually the first Mary Kay Andrews book I have read. I understand that this book is a departure from her recent works, which have very much been summer beach reads with a Southern flair in the sense that the cover of this book implies. This book has caught some of her fans unaware because the expectations do not match the reality. Interestingly Mary Kay Andrews started her career as a journalist and wrote ten mysteries under her real name, Kathy Hogan Trocheck before changing directions into the work she is currently known for. After her success as Mary Kay Andrews, the original mystery series has been released under the pen name "Mary Kay Andrews writing as Kathy Hogan Trochek." So, a mystery is not really a departure for her but rather a return to her roots. For me, with this being my first book by the author, I have no expectations.

Getting back to this book... A likable main character? Not always. A created romance? Most definitely. A contrived set of circumstances that enable a rookie to solve a mystery that has been a cold case for years? Too much so. A quiet book about beach days? Not quite. A light entertaining beach read? Not quite in the way I envision based on the cover and title but yes. Quickly read, quickly forgotten, but fun while it lasts.

The only remaining question is... Is this the start to a new series and an introduction to Mary Kay Andrews, mystery writer?


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Ash Family

Title:  The Ash Family
Author:  Molly Dektar
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501144863 / 978-1501144868

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Bay and I approached the farm at dawn."

Favorite Quote:  "... time is not a daisy chain but a big stack, each moment stacking on top of the next. You're always watched over by your future self. So your departed ... are always with you, and a moment of love is as good as a lifetime of love."

Berie is nineteen and on her way to college. Her mother has worked hard all her life to get Berie to this point and continues to make sacrifices to make college possible. Berie meets a random stranger at the bus stop and decides to take off with him in search of a different life. This brings her to a commune and the makeshift Ash "family."

So begins the story of this self-entitled teenager who goes in search of herself. Some of her internal dialogues express her level of maturity or lack thereof:
  • "But it was easier to love the Ash Family as an act of defiance, an act of scorn against all who had hurt me - rather than to love the Ash Family as a last resort."
  • "Oh, why couldn't I just be content with what I had? I was always looking for more. Maybe I would never be satisfied. The fake world was not enough, and neither was the real world, and I didn't know what to do; I hated myself."
  • "I reminded myself, 'Get relativity." Who was I to know whether something was good or bad? By what standards did we judge? The saddest moment might be the happiest moment. The thing and its opposite are kissing cousins. When you're sure that you're right, you're most wrong."
Not unexpectedly, she discovers that things with the Ash "family" are not quite as they seems and that this supposed, off the grid utopia may be hiding secrets more sinister than she imagines. The question is what choice will she make? Will she stay? Will she try and get out? Will she succeed?

Unfortunately, I find that I am not the reader for this book for many reasons. I find none of the characters likable. The main character is loved in her life; as such, I find her choices self-indulgent. The Ash "family" is a cult, and what they stand for unfortunately does not end up being a philosophical or ethical ground.

Perhaps, the biggest issue I have is the book's continuous reference to the "false" or "fake" world and the "real" world. The real news these days is a quagmire of claims of fake news and other such things. To me, it is a dangerous thing to see it mirrored in fiction, particularly in one that has a young adult as the main character and young adults as the potential audience.

The book may have been saved for me had there been a reckoning or a epiphany at the end. Unfortunately, that does not happen either. Rather, it seems to end just as randomly as it begins, with no apparent lesson learned. Sadly, I am really not the reader for this book.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Josephine Baker's Last Dance

Title:  Josephine Baker's Last Dance
Author:  Sherry Jones
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501102443 / 978-1501102448

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Sleep?"

Favorite Quote:  "People don't come to the theater for truth. Her fans want the dream, the candy coating:  a face with no lines, a heart never broken, a life free of cares."

Josephine Baker's Last Dance is another entry into the cadre of books that presents fictionalized stories of historical figures. So, who was Josephine Baker? Josephine Baker was an American who made France her adopted home. She was a woman of color who found greater acceptance and tolerance in Europe than in the United States as a young woman and even later in life during the 1960s and 1970s. She was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture. She was an entertainer. She was an agent of the French resistance during World War II. She was a civil rights activist.

Once again, fiction introduces me to a strong woman who I might never have met through the history books. I read the fiction and then go off to find out more about the history. However, I have high standards for the fiction as well. In this one, the lasting image of the book is not one of Josephine Baker, resistance fighter and activist but rather of Josephine Baker, a woman who survives a myriad of relationships.

The focal point of the book definitely is the men in Josephine Baker's life and the relationships - business and personal, loving and dysfunctional to the point of abusive. A lot of time is spent describing her childhood which ranged from neglectful to abusive. This felt like the most "real" part of the book as I feel for this little girl who wants her parent's love and is rejected time and time again. Her survival is a testament to courage and grit. Yet, the time developing this aspect of the story seems disproportionate to what comes after and how the rest of the story is told.

For example, the book tells briefly about the move La Sirene des Tropiques (The Siren of the Tropics) but focuses on one of her marriages which occurred at that time. It is only in my nonfiction research that I discover the significance of her role in that movie. The book makes it appear as a minor element of her career.

Similarly, later in life, Josephine Baker adopted children of different religions and ethnicities, hoping to create a "Rainbow Tribe" showing that we are one. The book speaks of the first adoption but focuses on her husband's anticipated and actual reaction more so than on her dream. Again, this aspect of her life is touched on and then passed over.

Along with the sometimes misplaced focus comes a feeling that I have throughout the book. It feels like I am being told a story. Something is missing in that the story never quite seems to come to life. It seems always from a distance. That is surprising as the woman and what I have read of her in historical sources seems larger than life with a vibrancy and spirit that should jump off the page. This fictional telling never quite gets there, but I am glad for the introduction it provides to this unique woman.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.