Book Review: The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

 

A twisty, compelling novel about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in murder…

From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana was exquisitely polite, and properly friendly, but Lucy knew that she was not what Diana envisioned. But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice who helped female refugees assimilate to their new country. Diana was happily married to Tom, and lived in wedded bliss for decades. Lucy wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.

That was five years ago.

Now, Diana has been found dead, a suicide note near her body. Diana claims that she no longer wanted to live because of a battle with cancer.

But the autopsy finds no cancer.
The autopsy does find traces of poison and suffocation.
Who could possibly want Diana dead?
Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her adult children and their spouses?

With Lucy’s secrets getting deeper and her relationship with her mother-in-law growing more complex as the pages turn, this new novel from Sally Hepworth is sure to add to her growing legion of fans.

The Mother-In-Law kept me guessing all the way to the end. What a ride!

Through chapters that alternate between the past and the present. we learn about Lucy’s highly charged relationship with her mother-in-law. Lucy’s mother died while Lucy was still young, and she’d hoped that Diana would be like a second mother to her — embracing, warm, someone to share love and secrets and confidences with. Diana is none of these things — a stiff, proper, upper class woman who seems more focused on the refugee women she helps than on her own children. And every time Lucy thinks they’ve finally made a connection, Diana’s coldness or insensitive comments push Lucy away one more time.

We also get chapters from Diana’s perspective, showing us the other side of the story. Diana would be no one’s definition of warm and cuddly, but by showing her background and her thoughts, we gain an understanding of why she behaves as she does, and how her internal thought processes run in very different lines that what’s obvious from the outside.

As the story opens, Lucy and her husband Ollie get the news that Diana is dead. While it initially appears to be a suicide, there is enough contradictory evidence at the scene to cast doubt on that assumption. Was it murder? If so, who would have a reason to want Diana dead? And why was Diana keeping so many secrets — about her health, and about her intentions for her fortune?

This book is completely absorbing and fascinating. Diana comes across as very unlikable at the start, but as we get to know her, we start to see how her core beliefs stem from the challenges and struggles she experienced as a young woman, and we see how her unwillingness to help her grown children comes not from being miserly, but from trying to get them to work for what they want. At the same time, I can easily imagine how painful it must have been for Lucy to constantly hope for a closeness that just wasn’t available to her, and the hurt she experienced as she perceived herself as being rebuffed and belittled time and time again.

I’ve read several other books by this author, all just as compelling and full of complex characters. The Mother-In-Law is a terrific read — highly recommended!

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:

The Things We Keep (my favorite!)
The Family Next Door
The Mother’s Promise
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The details:

Title: The Mother-In-Law
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 23, 2019
Length: 347 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Audiobook Review: Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Readers of Jodi Picoult and Liane Moriarty will also like this tenderhearted debut about healing and family, narrated by an unforgettable six-year-old boy who reminds us that sometimes the littlest bodies hold the biggest hearts and the quietest voices speak the loudest.

Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. A gunman has entered the building, taking nineteen lives and irrevocably changing the very fabric of this close-knit community. While Zach’s mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter’s parents, holding them responsible for their son’s actions, Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and art. Armed with his newfound understanding, and with the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach sets out on a captivating journey towards healing and forgiveness, determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion needed to pull them through their darkest hours.

Be careful reading Only Child. There’s a good chance it’ll rip your heart out.

As Only Child opens, six-year-old Zach is crammed into a closet in his classroom, listening to popping sounds from somewhere outside the door his teacher is desperately holding closed. When the police finally move in and escort the children to safety in a nearby church, Zach can see that there are some people lying on the floor in the school hallway, and he sees splashes of red, even though the police officer keeps telling the kids to keep their eyes forward and not look around. When Zach’s mother arrives at the church to get him, we hear the terror in her voice as she asks Zach where his brother is. At that moment, the world begins to fall apart for Zach and his parents.

Zach’s older brother Andy is one of nineteen fatalities in a horrific school shooting, along with many of Andy’s classmates and the school principal. The shooter is the mentally ill adult son of the school’s long-time security guard Charlie — a man who has cared for the children of McKinley Elementary for 30 years.

How do we learn about these events? Through Zach. Only Child is narrated throughout by Zach Taylor, so we see all events unfold from this six-year-old’s perspective. We’re with Zach as he undergoes confusion, discomfort, misunderstanding, and terror. Zach’s first-person narration lets us into his thoughts, as he sorts through his feelings about Andy, who wasn’t always the kindest of brothers. We also can feel Zach’s terror at thoughts of returning to school, his boundless loneliness in his house, and his need for parents who are so wrapped up in their own grief and horror that they can’t always see what’s going on with Zach.

Look, this book is heart-breaking, no two ways about it. At the same time, I found it hard to spend the entire book looking at the world through Zach’s eyes. I had a similar response to Room. It’s a powerful story, but the limitations caused by having a child narrator can be frustrating. We never know more than Zach knows. We can only participate in conversations that Zach’s present for, so even though he does a fair bit of lurking in hallways to hear what his parents are talking about, we only ever get bits and pieces.

I had a hard time too suspending my disbelief in places where Zach recounts what he’s heard on TV or comments made by adults he’s overheard. His inner thoughts are a little precious on occasion, and maybe a bit more sophisticated for his age than is truly believable. My other complaint (sorry, I realize I’m being a curmudgeon): As you might expect in a story told by a six-year-old, I think I heard more than enough about pee, poop, snot, and puke. Oh my, little boys can be gross. (Sorry, truly.)

Still, I was very engaged by the story and the characters throughout. I had the unusual experience while reading this book of trying to analyze why I felt certain ways about characters, and forcing myself to embrace empathy even when I was having a visceral reaction against a particular person. For example, Zach’s mother comes across as pretty awful for much of Only Child, when viewed through the lens of Zach’s fears and unmet emotional needs. She’s unable to see past her own fury and loss to truly see Zach’s suffering, consumed by the need to get revenge on the parents of the shooter, pursuing TV interviews and making  lots of noise about their role and their responsibility for the children’s deaths.

Meanwhile, I typically have little sympathy for unfaithful spouses in novels, but despite the fact that we learn that Zach’s dad was having an affair prior to Andy’s death, he comes across as the supportive, loving, gentle parent who’s present for Zach and who attempts to find a way toward healing. I ended up liking the father much more than the mother, and had to continually remind myself that there’s no wrong way to grieve. She was not being a good mother to Zach following the shooting, but who among us can say how we’d behave in that unimaginable, terrifying type of situation? As much as I wished for better for Zach — like for his parents to be on the same page long enough to get him counseling — I couldn’t hate the mother for being swallowed up by her pain and grief.

Kudos to the talented young narrator of the audiobook, Kivlighan de Montebello, who does a terrific job with Zach’s voice, really giving life to Zach’s emotions. The audiobook is an immersive listening experience, and in places the raw emotions of the characters are almost too painful to hear.

I’m thankful to my book group, as always, for choosing terrific books to read and discuss. I finished Only Child right in time for our discussion, and can’t wait to share impressions and thoughts with my bookish friends. Only Child is a powerful, timely, deeply affecting book, and I strongly recommend it.

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The details:

Title: Only Child
Author: Rhiannon Navin
Narrator: Kivlighan de Montebello
Publisher: Knopf Publishing
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Print length: 304 pages
Audiobook length: 9 hours, 10 mintues
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

Shelf Control #153: Tending Roses by Lisa Wingate

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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A little note for 2019: For the next short while, I think I’ll focus specifically on books I’ve picked up at our library’s fabulous annual sales. With all books $3 or less, it’s so hard to resist! And yet, they pile up, year after year, so it’s a good idea to remind myself that these books are living on my shelves.

Title: Tending Roses
Author: Lisa Wingate
Published: 2001
Length: 288 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“The best times of my life, the times that have passed by me the most quickly, were the times when the roses grew wild.”

The lessons that most enrich our lives often come unexpectedly. That’s what Kate Bowman learns when she moves temporarily—with her husband and baby son—to her grandmother’s Missouri farm. The family has given Kate the job of convincing Grandma Rose, who’s become increasingly stubborn and forgetful, to move off her beloved land and into a nursing home. But Kate knows such a change would break her grandmother’s heart.

Just when Kate despairs of finding answers, she discovers her grandma’s journal. A beautiful handmade notebook, it is full of stories that celebrate the importance of family, friendship, and faith. Stories that make Kate see her life—and her grandmother—in a completely new way….

How and when I got it:

LIBRARY SALE!

Why I want to read it:

My book group read this author’s bestseller, Before We Were Yours, about a year ago. I’d never read anything previously by Lisa Wingate, but based on how impressed I was by Before We Were Yours, I immediately grabbed Tending Roses off the paperback fiction table as soon as I saw the author’s name. The story itself sounds sweet and nostalgic — sounds like something to read outdoors on a porch in the summer…

What do you think? Would you read this book?

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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Book Review: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Could ten days at a health resort really change you forever? In Liane Moriarty’s latest page-turner, nine perfect strangers are about to find out…

Nine people gather at a remote health resort. Some are here to lose weight, some are here to get a reboot on life, some are here for reasons they can’t even admit to themselves. Amidst all of the luxury and pampering, the mindfulness and meditation, they know these ten days might involve some real work. But none of them could imagine just how challenging the next ten days are going to be.

Frances Welty, the formerly best-selling romantic novelist, arrives at Tranquillum House nursing a bad back, a broken heart, and an exquisitely painful paper cut. She’s immediately intrigued by her fellow guests. Most of them don’t look to be in need of a health resort at all. But the person that intrigues her most is the strange and charismatic owner/director of Tranquillum House. Could this person really have the answers Frances didn’t even know she was seeking? Should Frances put aside her doubts and immerse herself in everything Tranquillum House has to offer – or should she run while she still can?

It’s not long before every guest at Tranquillum House is asking exactly the same question.

Combining all of the hallmarks that have made her writing a go-to for anyone looking for wickedly smart, page-turning fiction that will make you laugh and gasp, Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers once again shows why she is a master of her craft.

Guys, I hate to say it. This book is kind of a mess.

An entertaining mess, most of the time… but a mess all the same.

For way too much of my read, I couldn’t figure out what this book wanted to be. Is it a thriller? Is it a character study? Are we meant to be worried about these people? Amused by them? Even now that I’ve finished, I can’t quite put my finger on what the point of it all was.

The plot here revolves around nine people who, for their own reasons, choose to spend ten days at a health resort that promises personal transformation as an outcome. Some seek weight loss, others rest and healthy eating, others peace and isolation. Over the course of the novel, we get to know more about these nine people as individuals — their challenges, their current situations, and their frustrations. The nine include Frances, the romance writer whose career is in trouble; Tony, a former athlete; Lars, a divorce attorney; Ben and Jessica, a newly rich young couple whose marriage is in trouble; Napoleon, Heather, and Zoe, a couple and their young adult daughter dealing with grief; and Carmel, a divorced mother of four with some serious body-image issues. The character development is somewhat uneven — while we spend a lot of time with Frances, not all are given time to become anything more than a bare-bones type, rather than a fully-drawn person.

The crux of the drama here is Masha, the enigmatic, charismatic owner of Tranquillum, who takes a fanatical interest in ensuring her guests’ transformations, and is determined to introduce her new breakthrough protocol, no matter what.

Masha is the most problematic part of Nine Perfect Strangers. Her actions are bizarre and ominous, and she comes across as almost a cartoon mad scientist/evil genius. Early on, we learn that most of the guests haven’t really done their homework before committing to this non-refundable, highly expensive health retreat, and the information online isn’t particularly helpful — the TripAdvisor reviews seem to be either 1-star or 5-stars, so love it or hate it, I guess. Here’s where I kept getting a thriller vibe — it’s implied from the start that something dark is happening behind the scenes, that Masha’s motives aren’t pure, that the people here will be manipulated or endangered in some way. But at the same time, we spend an awful lot of time learning about everyone’s personal problems and seeing how they hope to change their lives, so it’s never quite clear whether these people are benefiting from their experiences or if they should run screaming into the night.

Masha’s methods take a turn for the crazy, and there’s a huge issue around consent. Trying to be vague here, but once it’s clear what’s going on, the book becomes more and more difficult to read, because these people are in danger from a madwoman and it all goes on for way too long, with some really weird developments along the way. And then it all gets wrapped up neatly in a bow at the end, and the closing chapters focus on the transformations these people all went through… so it’s not really a thriller after all, even though there was a ton of crazy shit going down?

So yeah, a mess. Not to say it’s not readable — I was caught up in the story and tore through it pretty quickly. But still — the characters never felt like much more than cookie-cutter types, the plot veers into territory that makes it unbelievable, and the book as a whole seems to be having an identity crisis.

I’ve enjoyed other books by Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret), but Nine Perfect Strangers just isn’t a win for me.

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The details:

Title: Nine Perfect Strangers
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: November 6, 2018
Length: 453 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Let me tell you about our brother.
The fourth Dunbar boy named Clay.
Everything happened to him.
We were all of us changed through him.

The Dunbar boys bring each other up in a house run by their own rules. A family of ramshackle tragedy – their mother is dead, their father has fled – they love and fight, and learn to reckon with the adult world.

It is Clay, the quiet one, who will build a bridge; for his family, for his past, for his sins. He builds a bridge to transcend humanness. To survive.

A miracle and nothing less.

Markus Zusak makes his long-awaited return with a profoundly heartfelt and inventive novel about a family held together by stories, and a young life caught in the current: a boy in search of greatness, as a cure for a painful past.

My Thoughts:

Have you ever devoured a book in two days, not because you loved it, but because you wanted to be done? Yeah. That. Me. This book.

Bridge of Clay is long, and involved, and made me absolutely batty. At heart, it’s the story of a family of five boys — their odd, endearing home, their unbreakable bonds as brothers, the tragedies that befall their family, and the loss of their parents. There are elements that are powerful, sad, and moving… and it’s all buried beneath writing that is just too artful and precious by far. Some may find it poetic. For me, the writing felt like slogging through mud to get to the essence of the story, and it was neither satisfying nor enriching.

What a shame. I loved The Book Thief (didn’t everybody?), and was so excited to read the author’s first new book after more than a decade. Look, maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the wrong reader for this book. I like my stories straight-forward and clear — maybe I just lack an appreciation for something that feels more like a painting in words. The timeline is backwards and forwards, there are items and words that become practically holy but without explanation until the very end, and the author presupposes some knowledge of things like horse-racing which honestly, I knew nothing about and could barely follow.

I did enjoy some portions about the Dunbar brothers, reading about their strange wildness and the way they survived together as a unit, despite the truly lousy events that seemed to plague them. Some of the brothers’ antics are almost comical, except for the thread of sorrow that runs through it all, always casting a shadow.

Clearly, I’m conflicted about this book. It packs in a lot of emotion, and there are moments of great power — yet the plot itself, so disjointed and out of order, as well as the unusual, twisty writing style, kept me from actual enjoyment while reading.

I’d love to hear from anyone who read and loved this book. Stepping away, I might be able to be convinced that there’s something more, something valuable here… but I just couldn’t find it myself.

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The details:

Title: Bridge of Clay
Author: Markus Zusak
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 9, 2018
Length: 537 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

My Thoughts:

I read Little Fires Everywhere all in one sitting (on a flight from east coast to west), and that may not have been the best approach. I tore through the book to see how it would all work out, but didn’t give myself much breathing or digesting room. That said, Little Fires Everywhere is an absorbing read. I wouldn’t describe it as action-packed by any means — it’s really a character study, looking at families and neighborhoods and the strange and unintended dynamics that can overtake people and change their lives.

The story is a little too scattered for me to fully embrace. I would have liked to understand the characters better, especially the members of the Richardson family, but some of them are presented as sketches rather than fully formed people. This felt particularly true with Izzy — we only see her sporadically throughout the book, and I never felt that I truly had a sense of her as a person. Mr. Richardson is basically absent from the story, which maybe is indicative of his traditional father role — his realm is outside in the world, rather than in the domestic life of the family. Even Trip and Moody, the two Richardson sons, felt vague to me. I would have needed to know these characters in a more meaningful way to fully embrace the story and care about them.

On the other hand, I did really enjoy the parts of the story more focused on Mia Warren. Her backstory was the most interesting part of the plot. However, the adoption/custody battle seemed an odd choice as the event that divided the neighborhood and the families.

All in all, I did enjoy Little Fires Everywhere, especially the depiction of suburban life in the 90s — but the scattered feeling of the story and the lack of deeper character development keep me from calling this a five-star read.

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The details:

Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication date: September 12, 2017
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #140: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng
Published: 2014
Length: 292 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

How and when I got it:

I received a copy of this book in a holiday book swap. Score!

Why I want to read it:

This had already been on my radar, so I was delighted to receive it as a gift. I just finished Celeste Ng’s more recent novel, Little Fires Everywhere, and now I want to read more by this author! Plus, it really does sound like a fascinating story, and I’ve heard such good things.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: Promised Land by Martin Fletcher

 

Promised Land is the sweeping saga of two brothers and the woman they love, a devastating love triangle set against the tumultuous founding of Israel.

The story begins when fourteen-year-old Peter is sent west to America to escape the growing horror of Nazi Germany. But his younger brother Arie and their entire family are sent east to the death camps. Only Arie survives.

The brothers reunite in the nascent Jewish state, where Arie becomes a businessman and one of the richest men in Israel while Peter becomes a top Mossad agent heading some of Israel’s most vital espionage operations. One brother builds Israel, the other protects it.

But they also fall in love with the same woman, Tamara, a lonely Jewish refugee from Cairo. And over the next two decades, as their new homeland faces extraordinary obstacles that could destroy it, the brothers’ intrigues and jealousies threaten to tear their new lives apart.

Promised Land is at once the gripping tale of a struggling family and an epic about a struggling nation.

Promised Land is an ambitious novel about family and love, set in the aftermath of the Holocaust and tracking two brothers’ lives during the early years following Israel’s independence.

As the book opens, Peter and Arie are young boys living with their family in Germany as war looms. Their parents are able to send Peter to America, but the rest of the family can’t avoid the Nazi terror, ultimately being sent to concentration camps.

Peter spends his teens with a kind American family before fighting in WWII, then ultimately moving to the new state of Israel and joining its intelligence service. Arie survives Auschwitz, but the rest of the family perishes, and Arie too ends up in Israel, where the brothers are reunited. A meeting with an Egyptian Jewish refugee, Tamara, changes both brothers’ lives. Peter and Tamara have an instant connection and a moment of passion, but Peter is sent on a mission with no communication possible for months. Meanwhile, Arie woos Tamara, and by the time Peter returns home, Arie and Tamara are married and expecting a child.

Promised Land takes place over a roughly 20-year period, from Israel’s birth in 1948 through the Six Day War in 1967. As the brothers and their families build their lives, we see the country also build and develop. Peter rises in the ranks of the Mossad, known for his operational expertise and sense of honor, while Arie becomes an astute businessman, always ahead of the curve in seeing opportunities for making money and profiting from the growth of the nation. Peter marries a lovely woman, a fellow agent, and has a good life with her; Arie and Tamara, while becoming fabulously wealthy, have a rocky marriage due to Arie’s excesses and infidelities.

Eventually, the love triangle between Peter, Arie, and Tamara explodes, which isn’t surprising… the only surprising element is how long it takes to reach that point.

In terms of my reaction to the book, I was hooked from start to finish, but at the same, I felt that the emotional set-up of the relationships in the story was somewhat flimsy and not well-developed. Arie is a terrible husband, no two ways about it, and just isn’t a particularly good guy. Why Tamara chose to stay with him really makes no sense, and neither does his reaction to learning the truth about Tamara and Peter, other than demonstrating Arie’s possessiveness and selfishness.

Peter really is a good person, a devoted family man and brother, and he acts in Arie’s best interest even when Arie is engaging in shady, criminal behavior. He is a good loving husband to his first wife, and (spoiler alert) after her untimely death, denies  his love for  Tamara well past the point when there was a reason for either of them to think that her marriage was worth saving.

What this book does very well, and what makes it a deeper read than a typical love triangle story, is the positioning of these characters at such a distinct and eventful moment in history.  The author, a former news correspondent, uses his well-researched knowledge of the events of the time to paint a portrait of a people’s psychology.

We come to understand the underlying needs, fears, and guilt of a Holocaust survivor. While despising much of Arie’s actions, I could also sympathize with his pain and understand why he acts the way he acts and what drives him to pursue wealth, power, and admiration.

We also learn about the psychology of the early Israelis, coming from the horrors of genocide, knowing that their new homeland may not be a safe place, and wanting desperately to find the security so long denied. The author does not sugarcoat the more unpleasant aspects of Israel’s creation, but does show a context and depth of understanding that’s often missing in today’s narratives.

At the same time, as the characters live through Israel’s cycles of war, we get a more in-depth look at the political machinations behind the scenes, thanks to Peter’s role in the intelligence service. It’s fascinating to read about the hidden reasons for Israel’s actions, the lingering impact of Nazi scientists on Middle Eastern politics, and the ways in which Cold War politics play into Israel’s strategies.

Overall, I found myself immersed in the story, fascinated both by the historical setting and the characters’ lives. Yes, I found the characterizations a little formulaic (good brother, bad brother, exotic love interest), but the story progresses in a way that kept me engaged and made me care about these people and their lives.

I did find the ending somewhat abrupt. The story seems to just end. I think even one more chapter, perhaps an epilogue, might have helped to create a better sense of completion and satisfaction.**

**While doing a final proofread of this review, I popped over to Martin Fletcher’s author page in Goodreads and discovered that this book is the first in a trilogy! I guess that explains why it ends when and how it does, and why I was left feeling that there was more of the story to be told.

Despite a few drawbacks that got in my way here and there, I’m glad to have read Promised Land. For anyone interested in Israel’s early years, this is a fresh take on the history of the time, and the characters in the story are memorable and relatable – you won’t soon forget them or their struggles.

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The details:

Title: Promised Land
Author: Martin Fletcher
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: You Me Everything by Catherine Isaac

 

Set in the French countryside on an idyllic summer vacation, a delicious, tender novel about finding joy and love even in the most unexpected places. 

Jess and her ten-year-old son William set off to spend the summer at Château de Roussignol, deep in the rich, sunlit hills of the Dordogne. There, Jess’s ex-boyfriend—and William’s father—Adam, runs a beautiful hotel in a restored castle. Lush gardens, a gorgeous pool, delectable French food, and a seemingly never-ending wine list—what’s not to like? Jess is bowled over by what Adam has accomplished, but she’s in France for a much more urgent reason: to make Adam fall in love with his own son.

But Adam has other ideas, and another girlfriend—and he doesn’t seem inclined to change the habits of a lifetime just because Jess and William have appeared on the scene. Jess isn’t surprised, but William—who has quickly come to idolize his father—wants nothing more than to spend time with him. But Jess can’t allow Adam to let their son down—because she is tormented by a secret of her own, one that nobody—especially William—must discover.

By turns heartwrenching and hopeful, You Me Everything is a novel about one woman’s fierce determination to grab hold of the family she has and never let go, and a romantic story as heady as a crisp Sancerre on a summer day.

I’m not entirely sure what led me to pick up this book at the library — I think I may have read about it on another blog sometime this summer, and something about that colorful cover just beckoned me to it when I saw it on the shelf. I’m so glad I gave into the impulse to pick it up and take it home!

You Me Everything is a sweet and surprisingly down-to-earth story about a single mother, her ten-year-old son, and unexpected second chances.

Jess spent a good part of her relationship with Adam feeling let down by him, and his failure to arrive at the hospital for his son’s birth was the last straw. Now, ten years later, Jess travels to France with William to ensure that the distant relationship between father and son has a chance to finally turn into something real. Jess expects little from Adam for herself, having been burned by his thoughtlessness so many times before, but she’s adamant that he finally step up and become a real presence in their son’s life.

The setting is gorgeous, full of fancy food, beautiful landscapes, endless sun, and great wine. William thrives, and is even willing to put down the IPad once in a while in pursuit of adventure with his dad.

At first glance, I was afraid this would be one of those chick-lit books filled with pretty people in pretty places doing pretty things, but without a whole lot of substance beyond that. Fortunately, my first impressions were wrong.

You Me Everything has deep feeling at its heart. I don’t want to reveal too much here, so I’ll just share that there’s a reason why Jess’s parents push her to spend the summer giving Adam a new chance with his son, and a reason why she agrees. The book has some real sorrow in it, but it also manages to be life-affirming and hopeful. Adam and Jess’s past is complicated and not without plenty of fault to go around — mostly, but not exclusively Adam’s. There’s hurt and miscommunication and some bad times to get past, but as we see through Jess’s memories of their earlier years, Adam was not always a selfish jerk, and they did truly love each other at one point.

The writing conveys the characters’ emotional states while maintaining a sense of fun and good humor, even in the more serious and difficult moments. Jess is a terrific lead character — a devoted mother and daughter, a good friend, and a woman who strives to do the smart and sensible thing. While I thought Adam was worthless at the beginning, we grow to learn more about him, his childhood, and what’s in his heart, so I couldn’t help warming to him over the course of the book. There are some funny scenes that depict parenthood in all its messy, occasionally infuriating, often exhausting glory. And the dynamics between the family members and associated friends who come together throughout the story are priceless.

I ended up really enjoying You Me Everything, and tore my way through the book in about a day and a half. Once I started, I just didn’t want to start. This book is the author’s US debut — I’d definitely want to read more of her work.

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The details:

Title: You Me Everything
Author: Catherine Isaac
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

 

Two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice in this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, for readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale.

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.

The story of Before We Were Yours is all the more shocking and heart-breaking when you realize that while the main characters are fictional, the tragedy depicted is all too real.

In this powerful work of historical fiction, we follow the story of 12-year-old Rill, a girl growing up poor but happy on a riverboat with her parents and four younger siblings. But when the children become separated from their parents due to complications of labor and an emergency trip to the hospital, their lives become dark and dangerous. Stolen away by the notorious Georgia Tann, the children are taken to a children’s home, where they’re starved, neglected, and abused before ultimately being adopted out, one by one, to wealthy families who are willing to pay.

In alternating chapters, we follow a modern-day story, as Avery Stafford comes home to South Carolina to support her ill father, a politician from a powerful family. Avery stumbles upon a woman in a nursing home, May Crandall, who seems to have some sort of connection to Avery’s family. What starts as a curiosity for Avery turns into a quest to unravel the mystery of May’s strange tie to Avery’s grandmother, now suffering early stages of dementia. As Avery digs deeper, she begins to see that her family’s hidden past may have intersected with the schemes of Georgia Tann, and Avery must decide if it’s wiser to uncover the truth or let the past stay in the past.

While Avery’s search for answers is interesting, it’s the story of Rill and her sisters and brother that’s truly stunning. The children grow up free and open to adventure, never minding that they’re looked down upon as “river rats”. On board their boat and with their parents, they live in a kingdom of their own. Reading about how this family is torn apart is shocking — it’s amazing how much cruelty was inflicted upon these young children, especially as the story drives home the fact that this happened to thousands of chlidren over a period of more than 20 years.

The mystery of how Avery’s grandmother is connect to May is not revealed until close to the end of the book, and while there are hints along the way, the answer isn’t entirely obvious. Meanwhile, while we see how Rill grew up and changed from the river girl to a woman with a family of her own and a new life, the journey she makes isn’t easy and is no fairy tale. Not all the loose ends are tied up, which is fitting, given that in the historical records of the Georgia Tann scandal, many families never did find their missing children, and many hundreds are believed to have died under the “care” of this awful, twisted adoption industry.

Before We Were Yours is a compelling read, although I was less engaged during the contemporary chapters, particularly when the focus shifted from Avery’s search into family history to dwell more upon Avery’s romantic life and her career choices. Other than that, I found it a quick, fascinating, and terribly sad read.

This was a book group pick, and I’m so glad it was! As with all of my book group’s books, I can’t wait to hear from my bookish friends and to exchange reactions, ideas, and questions.

If you’ve read Before We Were Yours, I’d love to hear your thoughts too!

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The details:

Title: Before We Were Yours
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: June 6, 2017
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

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