When The Stars Go Dark

By Paula McClain

This book is literally un-put-downable! Anna Hart, a detective, has a marriage that is falling apart and a deep secret she is doing her best to cover up through pushing herself to the point of exhaustion. But did she return to working an unusual and many-layered missing persons case too soon after her own personal tragedy? And does the fact that the missing young woman was adopted play into Anna’s own childhood of abandonment and redemption? As Anna and the reader are drawn into this complex and suspenseful case, the layers of deceit and human kindness are difficult to separate and distill.
I am not a huge fan of suspense and mystery, but this novel had me hooked from the first ten pages! I picked it up because I love Paula McClain and her lyrical, poetry-like prose. This novel did not disappoint on that account as some of the book’s passages could stand alone as poetry. The language both softened the blows that occur, and deepened my connection to the book, and to Anna, by igniting my own senses of loss and love. It is not often a book packed with so much upheaval and pain can feel redemptive and hopeful, but Ms. McClain pulls it off with style and understated grace. I highly recommend this book.

An excellent read. Late-night warning!


Finding Freedom: A Cooks Story, Remaking a Life From Scratch

An excellent read about one woman’s rise from being a drug-addled mother with a horrible marriage and a lifetime of unmet expectations to rising to the top as a restaurateur, and perhaps the most highly rated “home cook” in the country.
Erin French tells her story in this forthright and poignant memoir that will make you think, make you tear up, and probably will make you hungry! Her descriptive prose hones in best when she explains the food she has loved and cooked, refined and garnished, from the simple to the sublime.
Her restaurant, located in Freedom, Manie, is arguably the most coveted reservation in America. With a band of friends and relatives that make up her staff, Erin has overcome so many obstacles laid in her path that this book is definitely about redemption, a very sweet dessert indeed after a long and ardent struggle to find both her true self, and “The Lost Kitchen.”

Book Review: A Very Punchable Face, By Colin Jost

During the first hour or so of this audiobook, I was convinced the book’s title might have been “How To Get into Harvard, Be A Loveable Nerd and Then Ascend the Heights of TV Comedy Without Really Trying.” But it was an audiobook, and I like to walk and listen, so I persevered. I’m glad I did so, because it got much better. Although the book still had a few too many “Aw shucks, I don’t know how I fell into… (An Elite high school, Harvard, “The Crimson,” Saturday Night Live, Scarlett Johansson’s arms, take your pick,) there are plenty of awkward and relatable moments to help balance the stories, all well told by the author himself.

There is an especially poignant portrait of his mother, a Firefighter MD and “911” First Responder. I shed a few tears over the humanity and humility of this mother / hero and her fellow responders. Colin is at his best when his voice chokes a little with emotion, and I think it was brave of him to recount this chapter on audio.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the audio version of this book is that Mr. Jost makes a few references to photos in the book version, suggesting each time that the listener go and purchase the physical book, so as not to miss anything. I found this a little condescending and unnecessary.

A few of the chapters are very funny and it is cool to try to imagine the goofy and odd predicaments the author gets himself into while trying, always, to live up to his version of a suave and composed young man. Warning: Explicit and funny bodily functions activity ensues in more than one section.

I would recommend this book in the audio version because it can be picked up and put down while walking, and it is companionable and sweet in many ways. Colin is no David Sedaris, but his take on life is both refreshing and funny. Very good for a debut comedic autobiography.

Four Stars out of Five!

Book Review: Long, Bright River

Author: Liz Moore

Mickey and Kacey are sisters bound by the early death of their young mother due to an Opiod overdose. Raised by their maternal grandmother, “Gee,” they rely on each other to fill in the missing spaces of their parents. Gee has a bitter heart after the loss of her daughter, and she only speaks of the girls absent father in derogatory terms, as she blames him both for the death, and her having to be saddled with the care of two young girls. She provides only the barest of necessities for the girls, who grow in very different directions.
The backdrop of the narrative is provided by the hard streets of tough neighborhoods in Philadelphia, where Mickey serves as a police officer and Kacey works the streets to feed her habit. Mickey is duty-bound to make a life for herself and her young son despite the hardships she has endured as a single parent with little support. Her job allows her to spy on the activities of her younger sister while keeping their relationship mostly under wraps.
I found this book very compelling even though I’m not usually a fan of this thriller type of genre. The believable characterizations and unusual conversational style made me pay rapt attention so as not to miss anything. I found some trouble with some character names interspersed with their nicknames, it was hard for me to keep them straight. Readers with a grounding on “Police Procedurals” may find this less distracting than did I.
In all of the darkness, I found hope and a deep sense of empathy for the flawed people inhabiting this surreal, carefully drawn story. I would highly recommend it for people who like domestic noir with a dash of generational chaos.

Compelling and deep.

Book Review: The Body Papers by Grace Talusan

I picked up this book on the way out of the library, just because it was new, short, and a prize winner! I am so glad I did. With “The Body Papers,” Grace Talusan gives voice to a vastly under-represented demographic, the woman immigrant writer. Although she came to the United States at Two years of age, Grace and her older sister were at risk of being deported after their fathers’ student visa expired. By then, she had three siblings that were naturalized citizens. Grace gives the reader a riveting account of what it feels like to be “other” while her surroundings and soul are grounded in America. Through her words, I imagined the grappling for a sound identity in the midst of two worlds. 
Ms. Talusan also illustrates her book with photographs from her life, some as a child, some as an adult, and others that are simply papers, the papers that tell the story of immigration from the Philippines, the threat of being returned at a moments notice, and the touching letter from her father, a man of few expressed emotions. 
I was struck by the brevity and punch of Ms. Talusan’s words. She begins to hint to the reader of abuse she suffered like this: “None of the doctor’s hypotheses explained the hives. But he was asking the wrong questions. It wasn’t his fault. Who would have guessed?”
As the inheritor of two family legacies, abuse and cancer, Grace takes us through her tribulations in a in a matter-of-fact way that leaves the reader stunned by her bravery and intelligence. Her hopeful and hard-working parents certainly endowed her with the correct name. “Grace” is not just her name, but the way she has chosen to live her wonderful terrible, human life. Above the conversely clamorous and calming atmosphere of her native land, Grace’s voice rings true, direct, and distinctly American.

Book Review “Where The Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

Although the photo on the back inside book flap depicts a woman author, older perhaps, with thick gray hair and a knowing smile, there is so much more to this conventional-looking lady than meets the eye. She writes with the kind of simplicity that has an undertow, a placid lake that has unknown depths, the kind of writer that has either read, or simply embodies Ernest Hemingway’s advice “Write one true sentence, the truest sentence you have ever known.”

 Women are gaining in voice in literature in a new way, a way that I haven’t read yet in my long history of reading books. Women characters have a changed voice, the inherent strength they possess is no longer silent, stuffed down and gagged by civility and social convention.  There is a new kind of heroine protagonist, the outsider that has no desire to fit in, the woman who likes herself as she is,with her own insecurities, demons, and determination. With the character of Kya, we see a female hero of the best kind, the person who cares enough about herself to defend her own honor, the honor born of many setbacks and a close relationship with her natural world.  

 Kya was born into an inherently unstable family, one in which the parents can’t evoke any sense of kinship and loyalty due to their own childish natures and intent self-focus. I would describe them as narcissistic survivalists, the father emotionally and physically abusive and absent, the mother fed up and mentally exhausted.  They raise their children in a shack on the marsh backwoods of the Carolina coast, keeping very few conventions, such as regular meals or schooling for their brood of five.

 Kya, the youngest, has honed her own survival instincts like a wild animal, looking for clues and hiding from strangers that could only mean trouble. Her deep connections to the marsh inhabitants include caring for the animals that appear to love her back.  Her ties to the land and her tiny world kept tight except for her trips to small-town Berkley Cove, and to “Jumpin’s” Marina, both which she kept to a minimum, only appearing when she is out of gas or basic food supplies.

 Kya’s itinerant, drunken father, her main touchstone to civilization, appears and disappears at the shack, so most of her time is spent alone.  She loves to sketch her surroundings and catalog the many varieties of flora and fauna in and around the marsh. Her brother Jodie introduced her to his friend, Chase, when they were children, and Tate was able to give her perhaps the greatest gift she has ever had, the ability to read. This ability drives her to enter the library on occasion, one more slight tie to town nearby.  As her caring for Tate grows, another man enters her life, and this one does not have the same values and sensibilities as she does. The result is a lyrical, page-turning tale of love, losss, and the ties that both constrain Kya, and set her free.

 The book is full of symbolic ritual, and through it, the reader is seeped in Kya’s way of life, her beliefs and convictions.  The early introduction the death of a Berkley Cove “Favorite Son” peaked my interest immediately. The resulting chaos and uncertainty that engulfs the town as a result is made palpable by Ms. Owens’ unspooling prose.  Kya’s life will be forever changed by the event, but was it a death, or murder? Was she involved, or simply a victim of small-town gossip and innuendo about the “Swamp Girl?”

 To learn the answers to these questions, you really must read every word of this book.  Be prepared for late nights, holding this delicious read until it slips from your hands.  That is the goal, after all, to become so immersed in a story that one lacks the ability to think about anything else.  Thank you, Delia Owens, for two sleepless nights. They were totally worth it!

Engulfing, Five Stars, excellent!

Book Review: Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt

This book appears to be one among many recent books that focus on the quiet, virginal female outsider with a simmering inner landscape.  This protagonist finds her place not by fitting in, but rather by performing outrageous acts of immorality and yet thinking no one is the wiser.  ( Bitter Orange comes to mind) Zoya Andropova, a penniless Russian immigrant who lost everything and everyone she ever loved in WW I feels fortunate.  While other children died of disease, she emigrated to an elite girls school in New Jersey after a harrowing ship’s passage on an “Orphan Boat.” Although physically sound, her mind has not quite remained intact after the journey.  The survival instincts she has been forced to hone are called into play immediately upon her arrival. As a poor child without clothing or command of the English language, she soon becomes bullied incessantly by her peers.

 Zoya develops a fascination for plants and flowers at the school’s greenhouse, which becomes a sanctuary for her.  Perhaps this is why she chooses to stay after graduation, becoming the assistant greenhouse keeper while having no choice over her living quarters: The first year, she remains in the girls dorm, subject to even more cruelty and even physical assault.  

 Things finally begin to look up for Zoya when she is able to move into her own tiny apartment.  She becomes involved with the institution’s local Lothario, married and with a storied past. Zoya lives a life of secrets and wraps her world around her lover while he continues on with his academic and philandering interests until he asks her to intervene in his life in a horrendous and calculated way.  

 Intriguing and engrossing, this book swallowed me as a reader with its’ incredulous plot points and mix of the mundane with the wicked, the ordinary day with the evil moment of reckoning.

I am reminded of text from an old psychology book that stuck with me.  “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” But what choices did Zoya make in the past that would lead anyone to believe she could act the way she does in the story?  You will have to read the book to find out, and then maybe we can discuss!

Burning desire!! 3.5 /4

Book Review: The Favorite Daughter by Patti Callahan Henry, 2019

I have really looked forward to reading this book by one of my fave authors, Patti Callahan Henry.  I loved her “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” as well as her other romantic, women’s fiction. This book was written before her huge breakout, “Mrs. Lewis,” a stellar book that surprised me with it’s clear and often poignant look at the life of a real, often-maligned, historical woman.  I knew not to expect the intensity and depth of that book, and so I went into this book looking for a story that would pull me into her coastal village vibe, and I wasn’t disappointed.

“TFD” is a love story which to me spoke of the love of family, especially the love between a father and daughter, with all of the nuanced feelings that come with this complicated and often fraught relationship.  In this book, there isn’t much conflict there, which I found refreshing. Instead, there is an undercurrent throughout the book of the main character, Lena, and her mothers’ ties. Her mother is gone, but the feeling that everything was never quite right between them is made clear to the reader in remembrances and in Lena’s very characteristics.  She is known as “A runner,” not in the physical sense, but in her emotional life, so much that when her sister told her she ran away from home once, Lena had forgotten it. Running appeared to be her main (and pretty much only) coping mechanism. She left her hometown of Watersend after a disastrous near-marriage, and has only returned sporadically since then, often “Sneaking” in and out of town.  

Lena’s new life in NYC is suddenly upended when her brother tells her she must come home.  It is a family emergency, a dire one which will certainly involve her estranged sister, and her sister’s family. Their father has been acting out of character, and his eventual diagnosis is not one that leaves him much time to spend with his children and grandchildren.  
This book explores family dynamics and the need for a home, a true place of relaxation and joy. and what it takes to build this place in the emotional sense.  The characters are mostly believable and the feelings they express as they wind through their journeys will easily relate to a female reader’s life. The character of Lena’s brother, “Shane” just misses having enough of a life to feel slightly shallow to me.  A young man who runs a bar, helps to take care of his father, and is the family peacemaker has no discernible flaws, no bad habits, and seemingly few of his own feelings about what is happening. He is like the family saint, but even saints have cracks. I would have liked to have read about them.  
For fans of Patti like me, this book is a send-back to the days before “Mrs. Lewis,” I especially enjoyed the small “Easter eggs” in the book that refer to places and people of the town from a previous book.
The story is an escape into issues that, like a two-hour Lifetime movie, you know will be resolved at the end in a satisfactory way.  It would make a great TV movie! I’m just saying it because it’s true. Calling Ms. Witherspoon!

Sweet story!

Book Review: Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

 I took Daisy Jones & The Six with me to the beach last week, and I must say, she was amazing company! Although I could have swallowed the book whole in one day, it was fun to pick it up while at the pool, and then return to it for the last thirty minutes before I closed my eyes at night.  The format of the book, short interviews with people in and around the band during their mediocre times and meteoric rise, gives a unique portrait of each character in tiny morsels. I liked being able to put the book down and pick it up only to be right back into the character studies, and thus the action.

 One of my favorite passages from the book is not a spoiler at all, but a clear indication that the setting was California during the turbulent and expressive late ‘70’s:

EDDIE: “Just One More” was written and recorded in one day when somebody sent over a batch of grass baked into cookies.  The whole song, written mostly by Billy, with my help, seems like it shows wanting to sleep with a girl one time before you hit the road.  But it was about how we’d eaten all the grass and just wanted one more cookie.

WARREN: I took three of the cookies myself, and I hid one of ‘em for later and as Billy is writing this song about wanting one more, I thought  “__it, he knows I have one more!”

GRAHAM: It was just a great time.  We had a great time back then.

The authenticity of this book will have some readers searching for signs that the band was real. (I admit to nothing.)  The narrator’s voice appears to have crawled into the soul of each character, and indeed appears to be both omniscient and real.  You will have to read the book to discover why.

 People in touring bands have loose ties with loved ones far away and tight, almost constricting bonds with others on the road they travel daily.  Do the songs come from life, or does life come from the songs? “Daisy Jones & The Six” shows the reader just how complicated this question can be for the writers, and how a singer’s interpretation can change or intensify the meaning of a song.  

Legend and myth build to a crescendo in this engrossing tale of the rock-solid basis of love that builds and then sustains the protagonist’s to a hard knock romance that eventually leads to an imperfect, sustainable fairy tale.

I highly recommend this lovely book! Great for the beach….  

#TallPoppyBlogger #DaisyJones&theSix

Read this book!

Book Review: Woman last seen in her Thirties by Camille Pagan (And a few side notes about the movie “Gloria Bell”)

2018, 246 pages

It struck me today after I watched the movie “Gloria Bell” starring Julieanne Moore that this book and the movie have similar heroines, both women in their mid-fifties facing life without the husbands they once relied upon. Gloria is much more in-your-face than Maggie of the book, but they both struggle with what it means to be a woman of “A certain age” with needs and desires, both portrayed as young (ish) and attractive, yet certain parts of their psyche remain damaged and afraid to foray into love, lust, and the whole damned man-thing again.

Maggie is despondent and unable to believe that her husband is really gone until she shakes herself out of her funk by making the decision to take a trip planned for two by herself. Her trip is fortuitous in many ways, and I liked that Ms. Pagan didn’t tie Maggie up in a foreign-so-impossible love affair for the rest of the book. The trip is a catalyst for Maggie to begin to step out of her box a little more when she returns home. Unlike Gloria, (of the aforementioned movie) she doesn’t step too far out of line. However, like Gloria, she is a mother who has a deep and abiding affection for her grown progeny, and the relationships are one of the steadying factors in the lives of both women. Both know who they are and what they stand for, but each have an adventurous side that becomes apparent pretty quickly. (And neither have screwed-up kids, which is refreshing.)

Maggie is a fully-formed character, sketched with a deft hand by Ms. Pagan. I would not have minded at all if she had a few more quirks, just to show and not tell the reader that she is a real person facing real issues in her life. She is a character I can relate to, and I like that the author moves her along in her journey through despair to a hopeful future. There is not much melodrama here, Gloria could show Maggie a thing or two about character flaws! However, the overall feeling I got from the book was warm and sweet, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Yes, this review is mainly about the book (So if you love women’s fiction / romance, read it) and just in case you didn’t guess already, I loved “Gloria Bell.” If you love flawsome (Flawed and awesome) women characters, you will really dig this movie!

Good for romance/ women’s fiction aficionados 3.5/4