Book Reviews

Book Review: The Ones We Keep, by Bobbie Jean Huff

The Ones We Keep,

by Bobbie Jean Huff

Publication: Sourcebooks Landmark; January 18, 2022

About:

An emotional debut for fans of Elizabeth Strout and Diane Chamberlain, The Ones We Keep follows the splintered lives of four family members in the years following an unthinkable tragedy, and the choices they must make to find their way back to each other.

One family. One tragedy. One incredible decision to change their fate.

A quiet lakeside resort in Vermont seems like the perfect summer getaway for Olivia and Harry Somerville and their three young boys. But in a single moment, their idyllic family retreat becomes a mother’s worst nightmare. Returning from a solo hike one afternoon, Olivia learns from a passing stranger that one of her sons has drowned—but not which one.

In that moment, Olivia makes a panicked decision that will change her family forever.

If she never knows which son has drowned, can Olivia convince herself that none of them have? By shielding herself from reality, can she continue to live in a world where all three boys are still alive?

An emotional and heartfelt meditation on the nature of loss, the gift of recovery, and the bonds of love, The Ones We Keep tells the story of one family as they learn to face their grief and fight for hope.

**My Review**

Wow, I am struggling with the right words to describe my feelings about this book. I easily give this a 5-star rating, but I’m also conflicted about everything from beginning to end. Olivia, her husband Harry, and their three young sons – Brian Andrew, and Rory go to Vermont for vacation in 1971. Harry has tennis games scheduled one day when Olivia wants to go on a hike so they arrange for childcare for the boys. Olivia stops on a rock for lunch, falls asleep, and is very late getting back. When she is almost back to the resort she learns from two teenage girls that a young boy from New Jersey has drowned. Rather than face which of her children drowned while she was gone, Olivia chooses to disappear and create a new life which includes the daily mantra, “I have three sons.”

First of all, kudos to Bobbie Jean Huff for publishing her debut novel at 76!

But secondly, what the hell? Any reader that is a mother will struggle with this novel because of her decision to abandon her family rather than face which one died. She and Harry had a wonderful and healthy relationship, which I feel, would have survived this terrible loss. Brian, the oldest goes on to struggle with alcoholism and relationships his entire life, always feeling the loss of his mother. The youngest, Rory goes on to lead a successful and happy life, perhaps because of his young age and the mother-figure that was placed into his life shortly after Olivia’s disappearance. Olivia, on the other hand, goes on to lead a life of quiet solitude, slowly losing all recall of her previous life, including the birthdates of her children and her own birthday. Therefore, for the majority of this novel, I kept asking myself, “how and why is this woman doing this?”

My rating of this novel is not based on Olivia herself, but the writing. Despite being one of the saddest things I have read in my lifetime, I have nothing but awe and respect for Huff’s writing style, imagery, and character development. This book reads as if one of the greatest literary minds of our time has written it. Be prepared to feel the pain of every character and recognize the sounds, sights, and smells that are frequently mentioned. There is absolutely nothing negative that I can come up with about the writing at all.

Now, let me explain that this novel also frustrated the living hell out of me. Besides struggling with Olivia’s original decision to flee when she learned that one of her sons had drowned, the ending was just about my undoing. So much suspense was built and then the way it abruptly ended had me spewing so many four-letter words I felt I needed to go to church and beg for forgiveness. I cannot stand ambiguous endings like this one because I crave drama and a concrete resolution. Nevertheless, I can’t recall a book that conjured so many different emotions and made me stop and think so many times, wondering what I would do differently, or exactly as she did.

This novel is beyond amazing. Was I left feeling happy and uplifted? Good Lord, no! But I feel lucky to have read this author’s incredible work.

*Thanks to NetGalley for providing this ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

Book Reviews

Book Review: The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, by Erin Bartels

The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, by Erin Bartels

Publication: Revell; January 4, 2022

About: The best fiction simply tells the truth.
But the truth is never simple.

When novelist Kendra Brennan moves into her grandfather’s old cabin on Hidden Lake, she has a problem and a plan. The problem? An inflammatory letter from A Very Disappointed Reader. The plan? To confront Tyler, her childhood best friend’s brother–and the man who inspired the antagonist in her first book. If she can prove that she told the truth about what happened during those long-ago summers, perhaps she can put the letter’s claims to rest and meet the swiftly approaching deadline for her next book.

But what she discovers as she delves into the murky past is not what she expected. While facing Tyler isn’t easy, facing the consequences of her failed friendship with his sister, Cami, may be the hardest thing she’s ever had to do.

Plumb the depths of the human heart with this emotional exploration of how a friendship dies, how we can face the unforgivable, and how even those who have been hurt can learn to love with abandon.

**My Review**

A while back I was scrolling through available books on NetGalley and immediately stopped when I saw The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water. How beautiful is this cover? Erin Bartels is a new-to-me author and after reading the blurb I decided to give this one a try. However, now I am struggling to review and rate this one because of my own fault of reading another review of it that was posted on Goodreads. Let me explain…

Kendra returns to her small cottage on a lake in Michigan after inheriting it from her grandfather and to help deal with a serious case of writer’s block. Kendra is only months away from the deadline for her second book – one that she has not yet started – and is constantly stressing over an anonymous letter from “A Very Disappointed Reader” in regards to her first book. So after 8 years she finally returns to Hidden Lake to hopefully find inspiration, answers about who wrote the letter, and perspective on her memory of events that happened there during her childhood.

I must admit that the only reason that I didn’t give up on this by the 20-30% mark is Bartels’ exquisite imagery and descriptions of Kendra’s grandfather’s cabin. Told from Kendra’s POV speaking to her childhood best friend Cami, it almost reads like a letter. She paints such a beautiful picture of innocent times swimming, collecting rocks, and even being bitten by mosquitos that I was instantly transported to my own childhood summers spent out in the country with my grandparents and could vividly recall my own experiences with the heat, rain, bugs, and so on. Otherwise, I was finding this story tedious. But then, additional characters are slowly introduced. There is Robert, the famous author across the lake and father of Cami and Cami’s older brother Tyler. There is Beth, Robert’s wife and mother to Cami and Tyler. There’s a crazy old man named Ike that lives on the lake and has been around forever. Finally, there is Andreas, the German translator that shows up and surprises Kendra eager to get to work finishing the German translation of her first book.

As soon as Tyler appears in the novel, the reader quickly realizes that something happened between them all of those summers ago and it takes a lot of recollection and discussion to clarify if what happened between them was wanted or unwanted on Kendra’s part. Moreover, Kendra’s recurring internal conflict about whether she liked Tyler’s attention or not comes up again and again making the reader wonder about Tyler’s intentions. Kendra clearly says she allowed it to go on for several summers, so was it sexual abuse or shame? All of these questions are answered while there are many other revelations about Kendra’s family, Cami and Tyler’s lives, Robert and Beth’s past, and even admissions from Kendra’s own mother, Jackie.

At the end of the novel, I felt happy about the direction of Kendra’s life. I felt that I understood all of the characters including their motivations and shortcomings. Despite the difficult subject matter and themes in this novel, I also felt that I had read something beautiful and raw and emotional that took horrific events and turned them into an amazing story.

But then I read a review that spun this story in a different direction and confused the hell out of me! It is very rare that I read other reviews of a book after I have read it and before I write my own, obviously so my own opinions are not influenced in any way. I have no idea why I did it today but I reacted so loudly (yelling at my computer screen) that my husband rushed into the room to see what was wrong with me. If this reader’s interpretation is correct, then I got everything very wrong.

In the end, I am of course reviewing this based on what I read and what I felt. This is not a fast-paced novel and isn’t full of any steamy, romantic love scenes. But the vivid imagery and retelling of a childhood lost is one that I could not put down. I feel like I have now been to this imaginary place and that I know each of the characters as if they were my own friends and family.

*Thanks to Revell and NetGalley for providing this ARC in exchange for my honest review!

Book Reviews

Book review: 142 Ostriches, by April Davila

142 Ostriches,

by April Davila

Publication: Kensington Books; February 25, 2020

ostrichesAbout:

For lovers of stark beauty, 142 OSTRICHES, the debut novel by Pushcart Prize-nominated author April Dávila, explores the muddled love of a desert ranch family long mired in disconnect, addiction, and denial. At its center is Tallulah Jones, a young woman desperate to escape life on the Mojave Desert ostrich farm where her grandmother raised her. But when her grandmother dies under questionable circumstances, Tallulah finds herself as the sole heir to the ranch – just as the birds mysteriously stop laying eggs during the peak laying season. ..

Guarding the secret of the suddenly barren birds, Tallulah endeavors to force through a sale of the ranch, a task that is complicated by the arrival of her extended family. Their designs on the property, and deeply rooted dysfunction, threaten Tallulah’s ambitions and eventually her life. With no options left, Tallulah must pull her head out of the sand and face the fifty-year legacy of a family in turmoil: the reality of her grandmother’s death, her mother’s alcoholism, her uncle’s covetous anger, and the 142 ostriches whose lives are in her hands.

**My Review**

I am not sure where to begin with this review, but oh my goodness, what a gem! This debut novel from author April Davila is a beautifully written novel about a young woman Tallulah who has been living with her grandmother on her ostrich farm for the past 11 years. After being raised (or lack thereof) by a gypsy irresponsible mother, Tallulah’s grandmother Helen, whom she had never met, came to their apartment in Oakland and took Tallulah back to live with her and learn how to help out on the farm. Just as Tallulah is gearing up to leave it all behind and take a new job in Montana, her grandmother dies leaving Tallulah the farm, the house, and of course, all 142 ostriches. This is where the train makes a stop in dysfunction junction as a variety of family members come out of the woodwork for either the funeral or just the opportunity to share their opinions about Tallulah selling the farm. To make matters worse, Tallulah has found herself at a crossroads regarding her relationship with her boyfriend Devon and just as she is trying to sell the farm, all of the ostriches stop laying eggs. 

Tallulah had a wonderfully colorful variety in her family. There was her always pregnant, super religious Aunt Christine who is 8 months pregnant with her sixth child. There was her sometimes clean, but mostly not drug-addicted Uncle Scott. Then there was her mother Laura, always with a glass of whiskey in her hand that suddenly reappeared in Tallulah’s life after eleven years. For anyone familiar with craziness within your family – read this and I assure you that you will feel better about your situation. These people were exhausting! Actually, her Aunt Christine and all of her tons of nieces were o.k., but there was constant drama surrounding this family the entire time. Paired with running the ostrich farm, I felt tired for Tallulah the entire time

Speaking of ostriches – the best part of this novel – who knew running an ostrich farm was such backbreaking and dangerous work. Who knew how moody ostriches are? Also, who knew what creatures of habit they are and how meticulous they are about everything being on its normal routine? I am in love with these birds after reading this. I will never look at an ostrich the same after reading this and watching the author bring these animals to life. 

142 Ostriches contains some of the most beautiful and well-written words that I have read in quite some time. I was initially attracted by the cover and then I found the description unique, unlike anything I normally read. I cannot convey how happy I am that I decided to give this one a try. The imagery was remarkable and something I think most authors could spend their entire lives trying to achieve. Every single event and conversation held some sort of purpose and was never boring or repetitive. This novel evokes an enormous range of emotions so prepare yourself for laughter, anger, awe, and tears. Most importantly, it’s just an amazing book that you need to read for yourself. Although I devoured this in e-book format, this is one that I absolutely plan to purchase in paperback so I can enjoy it and share it with others again and again. It’s hard to believe that this is Davila’s debut and I have no idea how she could ever surpass this one, but I will definitely keep an eye out for more from her in the future. 

*Many thanks to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing this review copy in exchange for my honest opinion!

 

Book Reviews

Book Review: The Best of Crimes by K. C. Maher

The Best of Crimes,

by K. C. Maher

Publication: RedDoor Publishing: September 1, 2019

best of crimesAbout the book:

Walter, a child prodigy who now works on Wall Street, considers himself a father figure to Amanda, his daughter’s best friend, and only child of a neglectful single mother. But when he loses his job after the 2008 financial crisis and his materialistic wife leaves him, taking their daughter, his relationship with Amanda enters a precarious new stage.

Walter struggles to give her the affection and guidance she needs, without succumbing to her budding sexuality. In the year before she enters high school, these two lonely souls will transform each other as Walter breaks out of his emotional shell, and Amanda blossoms into adolescence. In a world that has always failed to protect its most vulnerable,

The Best of Crimes is a new narrative and an unconventional love story that will challenge your perception of right and wrong.

**My Review**

Whether you want to compare The Best of Crimes to Lolita or Rust and Stardust, what an outstanding novel! This is yet another NetGalley download that has been patiently waiting to be read, and one that I regret not reading sooner. As stated in the blurb, this novel is about Walter, his marriage to Sterling, his daughter Olivia, and her best friend/neighbor, Amanda. Walter and his wife Sterling meet Amanda when she is very young and she becomes friends with their daughter. But as the years pass, things change. Walter, who used to only be into older women, finds himself completely enthralled by and obsessed with his daughter’s best friend. Amanda’s mother is never around and even in elementary school, Amanda is frequently left alone for long periods of time because of her mother’s job(s). When Sterling decides to leave Walter (temporarily, according to her) and take Olivia with her, Walter transitions into a caretaking role with Amanda, while also trying to suppress his true feelings for the young girl.

So, are you creeped out yet? Let me get the critical parts out of the way first. If you hesitate reading this novel for fear of reading about a grown-ass man being sexual with an adolescent girl, then don’t worry. This isn’t the case at all. With that being said, there are still some icky moments that make you want to set the book aside for a minute, take a deep breath, and prepare yourself for what could possibly come next. Does Walter have some issues? Oh yeah… Does Walter alter Amanda’s life and future intimacy with others because of their relationship? Most likely. Are the logistics of this story a bit far-fetched in our day and age? Certainly. The likelihood of a child Amanda’s age being left unsupervised for the periods of time that she was, without social service involvement is little to none. 

Now, for the good parts. I am truly in awe of this author’s writing. I was completely captivated from the first word until the last. She could have been writing about animals being slaughtered, and I think I still would have hung on to every, single word. Every once in a while I come across a debut author with this talent for writing and I am amazed, but it doesn’t happen often. Told from Walter’s POV (until the last chapter), Maher perfectly captures the voice of Walter and brings him to life. Furthermore, her development of the other characters is just as remarkable. 

Ignore the subject matter and read this for her writing! Even descriptions of lunch including cheese, olives, and pomegranate juice mixed with water sound better coming from K.C. Maher. 

Back to her characterization… Amanda is the most likable character in this novel. Prepare to hate Sterling and Cheryl (Amanda’s mother). Prepare to dislike Walter and Sterling’s daughter, Olivia, although most of her unpleasant characteristics are typical of girls that age. But most importantly, prepare to hesitantly like and admire Walter, despite his taboo affections for/towards Amanda. Does it make sense to like Walter? Absolutely not. Did I like him anyway? I couldn’t help it! He knew his thoughts and feelings were inappropriate and all he ever did was try to tell others that he had said feelings and knew they were wrong. What did everyone else do? They laughed it off and commended him for taking care of Amanda when no one else would. 

I’ll try to curb my increasing thoughts on this novel, but I want to leave you with this challenge. If you only read one book this year that is outside of your comfort zone as far as subject matter, then this is the one to read. The Best of Crimes is honest, raw, and uncomfortable – but some of the best-damned writing I’ve come across in a long time. Bravo to the author for taking a chance and bring these characters to life! 

*Thanks to NetGalley and RedDoor Publishing for providing this review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 

Purchase The Best of Crimes on Amazon!

Book Reviews

Book Review: Blood and Sand (The Collected Stories of Ramsbolt Book 1), by Jennifer M. Lane

Blood and Sand (The Collected Stories of Ramsbolt Book 1),

by Jennifer M. Lane

Publication:  Pen & Key Publishing (August 26, 2019)

blood and sandAbout the book:

Welcome to Ramsbolt, Maine. Home to one red light, one tavern, and one grumpy old man intent on making Logan Cole’s life hell.

After her father makes headlines for crimes against the country, Logan moves to Ramsbolt, the smallest town she can find, hoping for anonymity and relief from the social media storm. Trading a silver spoon for a cocktail shaker, she’s hardly prepared for work in a sticky bar, serving drinks to demanding residents and fending off the advances of the town’s charming plumber.

But pouring beers and making cocktails are the least of her worries. When tragedy strikes, she must choose between saving the town or saving herself.

**My Review**

I apologize for not getting to this review sooner because I have been eager to read Blood and Sand. However, work-life and reality have delayed this one. I first had contact from Jennifer last year and happily read and reviewed her amazing novel, Of Metal and Earth. Please see my review here, just in case you missed it. I was so moved and touched by that novel that I honestly didn’t know if she could recreate anything even close to as wonderful, but I was wrong. 

The blurb for Blood and Sand doesn’t do this novel justice, and that’s my only negative criticism. Imagine growing up as one of the most wealthy children in the county. Imagine living a life where your maid/housekeeper is your best friend and only true, loving family. Imagine all of that taken away, yet still mustering the strength and ferocity to make something of yourself. That’s what this novel is about. Logan Cole grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth, yet thanks to her housekeeper, Marta, she managed to grow up with compassion and humility. When her father is sent to jail for a series of white-collar crimes, the world turns on Logan as if she committed the crimes herself. What does she do? She moves to the middle of nowhere in Ramsbolt, Maine and makes a difference. 

When we meet Logan upon her arrival in Maine to hide out until “everything blows over” with her father, she’s never made her own meals or even purchased her own bedding or kitchen utensils. In the blink of an eye, she’s gone from flying to London for dinner if she so desired to lying to bar-owner Helen about fake experience in order to get a job. However, this isn’t a “poor little rich girl done wrong” story. This novel is about sucking it up, moving on, and stepping up to the plate for one’s self, as well as, for others.

Logan is a complex character with poise and charm, coupled with humility and utilitarianism. From her stubborn tenacity at the start of the novel to her confidence and peace at the conclusion, I loved everything about Logan. 

In addition to Logan and her internal and external conflicts is a wonderful cast of secondary characters. From bar-owner Helen and her arthritic hands and knees to the postman Riley, to the grumpy old man Arvil – everything and everyone seems so real and relatable that while reading, you feel as if you are a part of a real hometown filled with people you have known for your entire life. 

For those that have followed my blog, you know I love to find a personal connection to the books that I read. On a smaller monetary scale and for different reasons, I have been Logan. I know what’s it’s like to be accustomed to certain niceties, bail-outs, gifts, or whatever you want to call them and then have those monetary luxuries suddenly taken away. And guess what? We all survive, prevail, and reinvent the life that we want for ourselves! Logan is such an amazing character in my eyes because she didn’t pity herself, but instead, she rose above and challenged herself to overcome obstacles that she never knew existed

Jennifer M. Lane blew me away when I read Of Metal and Earth. I remember raving to everyone about this incredible new author and how touching and real her novel was. Blood and Sand has gone far beyond my hopes and expectations as far as my second time reading something from Lane. This author has an extraordinary gift not only for making her characters come to life or making them relatable but making you feel as if she was writing about you or someone you know. Whether it be her point of view, her imagery, or emotion – there is something about this writer that gets into your soul while reading her work. 

I hate to repeat things that I said in my review of her previous work, however, I can’t pinpoint a particular audience that I recommend this novel too. It’s another one that I feel that anyone, would not only love but feel honored to have read.

Many thanks to Jennifer M. Lane for gracing me with a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest review. 

Purchase Blood and Sand on Amazon!

Learn more about author Jennifer M. Lane.

Book Reviews

Book review: True Places: a novel, by Sonja Yoerg

True Places: a novel, by Sonja Yoerg

Book Reviews

Book review: Stuck in Manistique, by Dennis Cuesta

Stuck in Manistique, by Dennis Cuesta

Publication: Celestial Eyes Press; October 29, 2018

stuckAbout the book: 

Near the midpoint of the Upper Peninsula, along a Lake Michigan bend of the shore, is the town of Manistique, Michigan. Mark had never heard of Manistique before the death of his estranged aunt, but as the sole beneficiary of Vivian’s estate, he travels there to settle her affairs. As Mark tours his aunt’s house for the first time, the doorbell rings.

Days after graduating from medical school, Dr. Emily Davis drives north, struggling with her illicit rendezvous on Mackinac Island. She never makes it—on the highway near Manistique, her car collides with a deer, shattering the car’s windshield. Stranded for the night, Emily is directed to a nearby bed and breakfast.

Maybe it’s a heady reaction, the revelation that his aunt, an international aid doctor, ran a bed and breakfast in retirement. Or perhaps he plainly feels pity for the young, helpless doctor. Regardless, Mark decides to play host for one night, telling Emily that he’s merely stepping in temporarily while his aunt is away.

As a one-night stay turns into another and more guests arrive, the ersatz innkeeper steadily loses control of his story. And though Emily opens up to Mark, she has trouble explaining the middle-aged man who unexpectedly arrives at the doorstep looking for her. 

Will these two strangers, holding on to unraveling secrets, remain in town long enough to discover the connection between them?

**My Review**

So, I’ve spent the majority of my day reading this novel and even after several hours invested, I’m still not sure what I think of it. I was immediately attracted to the title and the blurb, eager to read something different and quirky – which I did. Mark inherits his aunt’s house in the upper peninsula town of Manistique at the same time a recent medical school grad, Emily, is traveling to the area for a secret rendezvous with her lover. Upon arrival at his aunt’s home, Mark realizes that her home is, in fact, a bed and breakfast once Emily arrives asking for a room. After a car collision with a deer, Emily has nowhere to stay, arrives on Mark’s doorstep with an eye patch, and the rest, they say is history. Not a romantic, happily-ever-after history, but this sets into motion a series of odd encounters and events as people continue to show up at the bed and breakfast.

Considering that this is Cuesta’s debut novel, I have nothing but praise for his writing. He beautifully imagined a variety of characters that were all so different from one another despite being their being brought together by the B & B. Each had such unique personalities and stories that it was difficult to understand, yet wonderful, how each of these people came to know one another. I loved the randomness of the people and their interactions and especially loved the easy and funny banter that quickly developed between Mark and Emily. I admit that I initially felt that there would be a romantic connection, but you will have to read for yourself to find out if that’s true!

There were numerous twists and turns throughout the novel, but some of the biggest revelations and connections came from Mark’s deceased aunt Vivian’s books and letters left behind, which added a special twist element of the past and present coming together. Coincidences or moments guided by fate were plentiful and just added to the already enjoyable, quirky novel that it was.

O.k., so what did I not like? Again, I can’t exactly put my finger on it. But the first thing that comes to mind is that I tend to prefer novels with more solid and meaningful endings. I knew almost as little at the end of the novel as I did at the beginning regarding where Mark and Emily would go next with their lives, careers, relationships, etc. Call me dramatic, but I think I need some big resolution at the end of the novel to find it truly fulfilling. The other thing is, despite Cuesta’s completely oddball, entertaining, and funny characterization, I was still left with a bit of longing as if I never truly got to know the characters. I was given a glimpse, then given more, yet never truly got to the nitty-gritty of who they were.

Wrapping this one up, it’s a brilliant debut novel with its creative plot, unique setting, and the realistic, yet odd cast of characters. Personally, I needed a little something more overall, but this is a good read for fans of general/literary fiction that don’t need all the fireworks and such in the end.

*Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing this ARC in exchange for my honest review.