Category Archives: Book Reviews

Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach

At 17, David witnesses his father’s public assassination for turning state’s witness, his mother collateral damage, his life spared due to spent ammo. He spends decades piecing together evidence to determine the killer’s identity, all while living his life as an NFL quarterback for the Dolphins, a random lover of the famous dancer Sylphide (who lives across the pond from his childhood home) and her protege Emily—introduced by him, and a restaurateur. His sister parcels out relevant information on rare occasions, spending her grief-stricken adulthood playing professional tennis, fighting mental illness, and searching for her parent’s killer against her boyfriend’s pragmatic advice. As Sylphide moves in and out of David’s life, secrets come unmoored and land at his feet every so often. Roorbach has built a fine cast of complex and extraordinary characters, nuanced to the hilt, integrity intact throughout the novel, all maddeningly non-forthcoming for page-turning tension. It can be awkward to follow the timeline back and forth, and David’s discoveries can be out of sync, as when he realizes his sister’s major secret years after his parent’s demise, and then in a following flashback is explicitly told the secret by his sister herself. No opportunity is missed to reference Emily as “the negress”—was that even used as late as the 70s and into the 80s? Her parents could have been a bit more rounded out as individuals instead of representations. These few distractions don’t detract from a unique story with an intriguing storyline and intense meta sex scenes. Roorbach is almost his own genre. He’s the Mainer Carl Hiassen in his dedication to untangling and tying up multiple storylines and presenting humans in all their glory and warts.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Marietta left Kentucky after high school, changed her name to Taylor, and become a mother through an unexpected incident, ending up in Tucson with a single mother roommate and a job as a tire mechanic for a woman who rescues undocumented immigrants. Selectively mute from obvious chronic abuse, her newly acquired daughter Turtle learns to trust Taylor, who learns to trust in her new friendships as she seeks a way to keep Turtle legally and build their life in Tucson.

Kingsolver carefully details a young woman’s journey to find herself, taking everything that comes at her and building a valuable life with it all. She’s brilliant at showing the depth of Marietta’s mother’s love at letting her daughter go and make her own decisions, including changing the name her mother gave her, and Taylor’s love in her determination to keep the daughter who was literally handed to her.

Fans of Willa Cather, Celeste Ng, and Elizabeth Strout will appreciate this novel and Kingsolver.

Something Worth Saving by Sandi Ward—pub date December 18, 2018

Lily loves Charlie more than any other human, for he rescued her when other potential adopters frowned at her limp. She’d been abused by her previous owner and her broken leg healed without veterinarian intervention. Now he’s being bullied and Lily must figure out a way to help him amid the chaos of Dad’s drinking, Mom’s sadness, his sister’s possible suspect boyfriend, and his big brother’s anger. The unique perspective of a cat gives readers a view from inside the family, but with a pure, some might say naive, but definitely less than jaded, outlook. Lily can be as surprised as a person by such things as Charlie’s choice of “mate” being another boy. Ward’s representation of a gender-fluid, gay teenager comes across as natural and inclusive, even as she shows the challenges he must face, especially from his own family. His mother and sister’s acceptance counter his father’s confusion and his brother’s resistance. Of course there’s a romantic interest for mom, who’s separated from dad and planning divorce. However, he immediately touches her intimately and insinuates himself into family issues, coming across as a bit creepy rather than romantic—too much too soon. This is the only part of the story that doesn’t flow organically, a small distraction. This story presents multiple serious subjects that are handled with compassion: alcoholism, addiction, chronic pain, divorce, and gender expectations. Ward takes her family down a path of resolution surprising, yet realistic. Readers who love main characters off the beaten path will appreciate this story; animal lovers will be vindicated.

Gardenland by Jennifer Wren Atkinson

This book is more than expected, with historical references, how gardening has morphed into a recreational activity in our industrial age, advances in gardening—for sustenance and pleasure, and a chronology of gardening literature. It’s about far more than planting, encompassing various philosophies and exploring gardening throughout fiction and non-fiction. I was fortunate to receive this wonderful book about the practicalities, aesthetics, and dreams of gardening from the publisher through NetGalley.

The Girl of the Lake by Bill Roorbach

This collection opens with a tale so convincing dear reader will be googling Count Darlotsoff of the Russian Revolution. Roorbach’s stories ramble along pleasantly, with wit and wisdom, from a unique perspective. Then BOOM! Something astonishing happens, sometimes indicated by a simple line, “And fell into a basement hole,” and sometimes portraying a much larger concept, such as patricide. The tales delve into history—the aforementioned Russian Revolution; plunges deep into socio-political culture—“His father was an important king or chieftain in an area of central Africa he refused to call a country, an area upon which the Belgians and several other European powers had long imposed borders and were now instituting ‘native’ parliaments before departing per treaty after generations of brutal occupation;” and parses human emotions and relationship dynamics—“sharks unto minnows.” There’s even a ghost story, with elements of land conservation, familial squabbles, and burgeoning love. As diverse as the themes are, and as broad the representation of people, one story stands out for its LGBT ignorance, as a main character tells the benefactor of her theater, a widower asking for a kiss, “Marcia had politely allowed just one, then explained that while being a lesbian might not mean she was entirely unavailable, her long-term relationship did.” He then proceeds to win over her wife, and they merrily cavort about town, all three holding hands, doing everything as a threesome. Lesbian relationships are real relationships, and lesbians are not toys for a man’s pleasure. That being said, this is a blemish on a set of otherwise fascinating and weird and brilliant stories. The book is dedicated to Jim Harrison, whose fans will likely appreciate Roorbach’s work.

Everyday Enchantments by Maria F. DeBlassie

This is a light and breezy book about the small joys of life, from gardens to books to sweaters to tea time. Even if one doesn’t share the same passions, DeBlassie writes with such verve that dear reader feels the warm fuzzies. If all is not going well, a chapter from this lovely book could help reframe the day. I was fortunate to receive a digital copy from the publisher through NetGalley of this book that reminds us that the small things matter, and that we choose how we view our world.

Lemongrass Hope by Amy Impellizzeri

Kate chose a lifemate over a soulmate. Her marriage comes to a crossroads in her mind, and she is given a literal chance for a do-over, a gift of time shifting via the Devil’s Triangle. She must choose between her soulmate and her wrecked life as a disillusioned wife and mother. Impellizzeri brilliantly portrays a woman who inadvertently contributes to the misery in her own life by refusing to let the past be and give herself fully to her present. She learns that no matter what choices are made, and invested in, some things cannot be controlled. There are so many layers to this story, including the parallels of the legendary tale told by the ship’s captain to Kate’s life and the tricky ending to her circular thinking, both impossible to escape from…or not. That ending, circling back to the beginning, is so clever. Fans of time travel, star-crossed love, and characters whose hearts grow three sizes will love this story.

Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

Their mother’s death sends Jazz and Olivia Moon on figurative and literal journeys of grief. Olivia, a synesthete with multiple sensory connections, sets off to see the ghost lights of the bog, an elusive dream of her mother’s for finishing her fantasy novel. Jazz grew up with a different mother, a colder mother, with misplaced expectations of being her sister’s keeper, this heightened sense of responsibility forcing her to “escort” Olivia on her quest. Secrets are exposed that rile and enlighten, urging them to look closer at each other, and determine what family means.

Walsh portrays a hidden trauma of a daughter, who passes on this pain to her own daughters, so well that dear reader readily sympathizes with all of the characters. Many real-life lessons are learned, on family, relationships, communication, expectations, and loss. This is a gorgeous story of living life differently, accepting others as they are, and being true to yourself. I was fortunate to receive this wonderful novel in an author giveaway, and I highly recommend it to fans of Heather Burch, Kristin Hannah, Diane Chamberlain, and Kerry Anne King.

The Secrets Between Us by Thritty Umrigar

Bhima recovers and moves on after her friend Sera’s betrayal, though she cannot think evil of her, even if her granddaughter Maya holds Sera in contempt. The sequel to The Space Between Us follows Bhima in her struggle to keep her emotions and memories from derailing her plans to put Maya through college. Her new jobs open up opportunities for both of them, and expose Bhima to a new Mumbai. She ends up with partners in a new venture. Bhima is always evolving and accepting new paradigms in her desire to remain relevant in her granddaughters’ world. Umrigar brilliantly represents a woman who holds herself above the slum in which she lives, who believes if she hasn’t dignity, she has nothing, that circumstances do not define her. This next chapter in the life of an Indian woman whose life has unraveled delves deeply into the cultural mores of socioeconomic levels and the caste system, and the slowly shifting philosophies of those mores that question the caste system. Secrets come to light and Bhima goes with the flow. She truly is an extraordinary character, and a continuation of her story would be a joy. A trilogy would perfectly round it out (hint, hint Thritty). Readers of Lisa See, Isabel Allende, and Louise Farmer Smith will appreciate Umrigar’s work.

The Secret Ingredient of Wishes by Susan Bishop Crispell

Rachel wished her brother would get lost. And he did. So lost that their parents forgot him and explained him away as Rachel’s imagination, and then as her illness. Having repressed her wish-giving ability through to adulthood, Rachel runs away from her life when the wish-granting bursts forth to affect her best friend’s family. She ends up in Nowhere, NC, where she discovers others’ magic and how to control her own. Crispell’s talented in creating complex characters, with their roller coaster emotions and love-hate relationships with their talents. Like Sarah Addison Allan, the magic is a part of everyday life, including emotional trees and sometimes challenging townspeople. Readers who daydream of having magical capabilities can live out their fantasies through Crispell’s stories. Check out her website http://www.susanbishopcrispell.com/ to learn more about her and purchase her books.