Hadley and Grace by Suzanne Redfearn

Rating:           8

General Rating: This is Lucy and Ethel turned Therma and Louise.

Skip factor:  6%. I skipped a bit a quarter of the way through along with long paragraphs thereafter.

Who should read: Enjoy humor? You’ll like. People who need a break from deep should read this. 

Summary: Thelma—I’m sorry—Hadley is the wife of Frank, a bookie and small-time drug lord, Of course, Hadley has no idea of her husband’s extra-curricular job activities. She’s too busy planning her get away. She’s leaving Frank and his demanding, bad-tempered, chauvinistic personality.

Enter Grace.

The story begins slowly, but wait for it. WAIT FOR IT.

Grace works for Frank. In and out of foster homes all her life, Grace has done time for something unextraordinary (in other words, I can’t remember it). But she’s out and married, the mother of a colicky baby, and she’s landed the perfect job working for Frank. But when Frank reneges on a commission he’s promised her, she decides she’ll go to the office on a Friday night and remove the files she’s worked so hard on.

Serendipitously, Grace runs into Hadley, who’s there to steal Frank’s cash—she’s sure he has some cash somewhere—and leave him. Instantly and despite their common interest of getting back at Frank, the two womens’ personalities clash.

Ready?

They find and take Frank’s money and through a series of mishaps they find themselves on the run from the FBI, who have been watching Frank and his laundering-money doings.

Enter recently divorced, nice-guy, FBI agent ???.

From here on out, this story takes turns only an unhinged roller-coaster could take.

Characters:  Superb. I loved Grace, Hadley, Maddie, Skipper and ??? nearly the moment I read the first letter of their names. No sense belaboring the point. Redfearn has mastered character development.

Storyline: This story is cute. At about 30% in I lost interest, but again…wait for it… the storyline picks up speed and carries you to the finish. It’s the story of two who can’t take any more of the same man. One is leaving her marriage and the other her employment. It’s cute, different, and readers will find themselves smiling and saying, “Oh, no…” A LOT.

Writing:  Writing is good but the humorous flow of the story is better. I’ll have to go back and reread some. I don’t recall stopping to say, hey, this is a beautiful piece of writing, but then I was laughing too hard.

Read this author again?  I’d try another Redfearn novel. Yes.

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on Instagram, TwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Rating:           9.5

General Rating: Look inside the mind of an illegal immigrant. Why do they risk their lives to come to America? Read this. Seldom does a book impacted me like American Dirt.

Skip factor:  2%. I hate admitting this. I skipped paragraphs when I became so invested in the characters’ situations that I felt utter desperation and had to move on. Simply, I paged forward to find the outcome, many times returning to read Cummins’ great writing.  

Who should read: Those who long to understand why some risk their lives to cross the border, compassionate people, or readers who enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath.

Disclaimer: There has been disparaging of this fictional story for several reasons. (I learned this from my wonderful Farmhouse Book Club friends.) I did not read a single word of the controversy before finishing the book or writing my review.

Summary: Lydia and Luca are from a middle-class family, and they live in Acapulco. Lydia, the wife, and Luca, the son, are the immediate family of journalist Sebastian Perez. Lydia owns a book store, and Luca attends private school.

The story opens dramatically with a devastating shooting/killing of Sebastian and fifteen other family members. By chance, Lydia and Luca are able to hide until the cartel members leave, and their journey begins.

This book is about that journey.  

Characters:  Although the novel portrays the life of fictional characters, the author has skillfully created people who seem so real you feel you know them and are walking, step-by-step, beside them as they flee for their lives.

Readers will love the boys, Luca & Beto, the teenage girls, Soledad and Rebeka, and Lydia, the young mother, along with interesting minor characters introduced along the way.

Because the characters seemed lifelike, I googled the author and wasn’t surprised to see she had done extensive research. To read about people/organizations who truly do risk their lives to help immigrants, check out her site at https://www.jeaninecummins.com/how-to-helppre/

Storyline: Cummins captures your attention in the opening chapter and holds it throughout the book. You can’t let go. You must find out if Lydia and Luca survive.

This novel is entirely about Lydia and Luca’s journey, the people they meet, the atrocities they see, and the pain they experience. With the cartel on their heels, Lydia is forced to ferry her son as far from Acapulco as she can manage. She heads toward el Norte and this consumes the storyline.

Writing:  

Cummins’s tremendous writing draws readers into the journey. You are alongside them jumping trains, limping from twisted ankles, traipsing through the cold black nights or scorching afternoons. She writes so eloquently I couldn’t put it down. You hold your breath at times. Her vivid descriptions of situations and settings and the migrants’ inner feelings reel you in and you become completely invested in not only the two main characters, but several of the people they meet along the way.

Read this author again?  Yes, no question. I loved the writing.

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on Instagram, TwitterFacebookGoodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

The Light Through the Leaves by Glendy Vanderah

Rating:                              8

General Rating: An easy read but intense story about a woman who barely survives the tragic disappearance of her daughter.

Skip factor:  I skipped my normal amount, approximately 3-5%.

Who should read:  Avid readers, most women, and especially back-to-nature people. 

Summary: Ellis Abbey needs to decide what to do. She’s caught her husband cheating, and she’s trying to remain calm around her three young children. She takes them to catch tadpoles, so she can think. She decides she must divorce him, but then the trip turns disastrous. Her twin boys argue throughout the day, and when it’s time to leave, a raven is cawing, the boys are shouting, and a full jar of tadpoles spills in the car. Ellis tries to hurry along and horribly, leaves her daughter on the road in her car seat. When she realizes her mistake and turns around, the baby is gone.

The mental damage and blame she suffers spirals out of control. She convinces herself she’ll do her sons harm, too, if she raises them. She leaves the boys and their father, traveling the country alone, drinking, and attempting to forget.

After a few years pass, the story turns toward a secluded home in Washington. A girl named Raven lives with her mother. She’s cautioned not to speak to people from the outside world, but when she runs into boys playing in the creek on her mother’s wooded property, she strikes up a friendship with them, and her life changes.

Without spoiling the story, both Ellis and Raven must work through challenging lives, reach deep inside themselves, and survive their fate.

Characters:   Character development was good. The main character, Ellis, was likeable at the start. However, tragedy turns her into someone many people may not understand or be able to identify with. Despite the sadness of her life, I felt little compassion toward her because she left her boys. I did understand the importance of her journey but could not connect with her other than briefly in the beginning.

Other characters whom I did like were the children Raven, Jackie, and Reese, along with the neighbor, Ms. Taft. Introduced in light-hearted, childlike fashion, it was easy to like the children and Ms. Taft’s kindness and care for them made her immediately likeable.

I actually felt compassion for the woman who raised Raven. The pain she inflicted on the child was a consequence of her mental illness. Her strange beliefs and mental breakdowns damaged Raven mentally, but she protected her in other ways to the best of her ability.

Storyline: This is a unique storyline, told in an interesting manner. The author jumped from the grieving mother’s point of view to the abducted child’s point of view through sections, and it worked well. Kept my attention.

Writing:  The writing is good. Chapters flowed easily, yet I was surprised by the numerous 5-star reviews. I liked this book, truly I did, but I’m still not sure why I wasn’t dazzled by it like other reviewers. Yet…I did keep turning pages! I’m not completely sure why. The smaller storylines lured me and I found myself anxious to get back to reading it! Oddly, I’ve read better books with better writing that I enjoyed much less. I’m simply not sure why I liked this book so much, but I did and believe you will, too.

Read this author again? Yes, I’d love to see if I like her next book as well.

Read on!

To find more good books click here.

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Rating:  4

General Rating:  Kidd amalgamates narrative and dialogue to perfection in this  touching tale of a motherless girl who runs away from an abusive father.

Skip factor:  1% I skipped little. The writing was just too good.

Who should read: All women, all ages.

Summary:  This is the story of Lily Owens who must come to terms with the death of her mother. Lily, abandoned by her mother for a short time before she died, remembers the day her mother returned—the same day her mother was shot and killed. Now Lily is a teenager, feeling confused and unloved. Raised by an abusive father, she finds some affection in Rosaleen, the African American woman whom her father hired shortly after her mother’s death. When Rosaleen attempts to register to vote, she finds trouble with white men and she and Lily end up in jail. Lily’s father, T. Ray, bails Lily out, but she returns and helps Rosaleen escape.

They flee to a town called Tiburon because one of the few items Lily had from her mother was a picture of a Black Madonna. Tiburon, South Carolina was inscribed on the back. Lily asks around Tiburon about the picture and ends up at the house of three African American sisters—the very house her mother had run to when she first left T. Ray and abandoned Lily. The story is of Lily’s time spent there and her journey to come to terms with her mother’s abandonment and death, and her feeling of being unworthy of love.

Characters:  I loved this book partially because of the strong female characters Kidd created. They are flawed but loving and strong. I like every single one, loved a few.

Here they are in the order I liked them:

August – The strongest of the African American sisters, August has a deep understanding of life. She is a beekeeper and teaches Lily the craft of collecting honey from bees. August knew Lily’s mother, but she understands when and how to relay pieces of information to the girl. She is an old soul, and I came away wishing I had an August in my own life.

Lily – Kudos to the author in the creation of Lily. It took some time for me to like Lily. Raised by T. Ray, who never showed her affection or love, she herself was lacking in these elements. She had a flat personality that slowly came out through the novel, making the story real to me.

Rosaleen – Lily’s caregiver was also a hard character to figure out, although I liked her gumption right away. She’s enamored by the thought of registering to vote, and spits at prejudiced white men who insult her with no regard for what they would do to her. She’s tough. But because of that toughness, Lily often wonders if Rosaleen loves her.

May – Another of the three sisters is May, who brightened the story with her unique personality. Her twin sister died years before and left her in a nervous state. To calm her anxiety, her sisters encouraged her to write her fears/anxieties down and in doing so, they created a wailing wall for her made of stone. Every time May had an episode, she led was led off to leave a note in her wall.

June – The third sister, June, does not initially get along with Lily. She also has a beau who keeps proposing to her despite she constantly turns him down. June has a journey to make on her own. I enjoyed this character, too—another strong woman.

Minor characters – Kidd successfully had me liking minor characters (like Zach) and hating the bigots.

Storyline:  This is not a fast-paced, page-turning novel. It is contemplative—simple language with deep meaning. The story flows, and I found myself looking forward to reading more.

Writing:  Lots of white space makes me happy and this book, while having much narrative, never labored on. Paragraphs were short, clean, and interesting, so I never realized when there wasn’t dialogue for several pages. She writes simply and profoundly throughout. Like this: “I filled a bowl with Rice Krispies and milk, trying to think over the snap-crackle conversation it was having with itself.” And “…people can start out one way, and by the time life gets through with them they end up completely different.”

Read this author again? Absolutely.  

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

 

Educated by Tara Westover

Name:      Educated
Author:    Tara Westover
Rating:     4.5    This book challenged me. Yet, once I got past the Westover’s junkyard and herbal world, I was mesmerized by Tara’s journey.

Skip factor: 8%    At around 30% I called a friend and asked if the story improved. I did not like the junkyard or herbal lore at all. However, I hung in there and once I worked through that beginning section, I couldn’t put it down.

Who should read? Deep-thinkers, people inspired by education, hard-workers who themselves have risen out of poverty, and lovers of the English language—young and old.

Summary: This is the memoir of Tara Westover, the seventh and youngest child of Val and LaRee Westover. She was born in her childhood home which sat on the side of a mountain in Provo, Utah. The month of her birth was September of 1986, but the actual date is unknown. Her birth was unrecorded, as were most of her sibling’s births. She grew up in a Mormon family littered with racism and anti-Semitism. She worked in her father’s junkyard for much of her youth and often encountered dangerous, life-threatening tasks at his direction. She had no formal education until she was seventeen years old and received no home-schooling from her family. Her mother was well-versed in and revered for her herbal remedies and mid-wife expertise. Her father, along with her older brother Shawn, suffered mental illness and Tara and her siblings were often abused.

This is the story of a young girl’s metamorphosis, her rise from the ashes of her parent’s scrapheap despite all odds. Her father believed the end of the world was imminent and the government against him. His mental illness led to many hardships over the years, for not only him but his wife and children as well.

Inspired by a brother who left the family to attend college, she accepted a friend’s offer to teach her to read. She enrolled in college against all odds and was forced to choose between her family and her education. Despite her passion to learn and the education she eventually received, her mind sometimes led her back to the rudimentary fundamentalist viewpoint of her father, making her question much throughout her educational journey. She had never even heard of the holocaust until she was in college.

Characters: Lots of great books have unlikeable characters, and while I found myself rooting for Tara throughout the book, I wasn’t in love with any of the characters. I was shocked by many. Disgusted with others. Westover created very “real” people, but many confound me. I was baffled by them more than like them. Yet, they interested me. The characters that stood out the most to me were:

Tara: Of course, I rooted for her all the way, but I never felt close to her. She had an aloofness about her. Because of her upbringing, her personality held a protective emotional shield that prevented people from knowing her well—even, to some degree, her readers. Simply, I couldn’t get close.
Her mother: Simply put, I did not like her for the fact she sided with her husband, who had mental challenges, over her children. Period.
Her father: I couldn’t understand and felt no compassion for him whatsoever. Lots of people have a mental illness, but they are not as evil as this man. He hid his sins behind religion.
Shawn: The abusive brother I felt differently about. Although I adamantly disliked him at times for the pain he caused family members and women, every once in a while you’d see a spark of kindness. Confusing, as the results of mental illness can be.
Minor characters I liked: Brothers Richard and Tyler were compassionate. I was fond of both of them along with Tara’s Grandmother who offered to take her to Arizona and enroll her in school. I felt disappointed Tara didn’t leave with her. Just that she offered made me like her.
Other minor characters: I wasn’t drawn to any others, not one. (And especially not to her only sister, Audrey, who in the end hurt rather than helped her.) Because many of the minor characters were introduced to me through Tara’s eyes, they seemed impersonal. Toward the end of the novel, a softness seemed to develop in Westover. She looked at later roommates and people more compassionately, seemingly letting her guard down and consequently, I liked those characters a bit more.

Storyline: The story does come across as a bit unbelieve. I did read several online articles that stated fact-finding had been extensive. That the author herself included footnotes when her memory differed from one of her siblings, gave credibility to her story. That there is a Tara Westover, who was born without record, attended college, completed her master and doctorate degrees in England, further substantiates her story—at least in my mind it does. I’ll let the rest of you decide for yourselves.

Writing style: This woman’s writing is exquisite. Not much more to say. That she rose out of such poverty to champion the English language is remarkable.

Read this author again: Maybe. I’m not often fond of non-fiction, but Westover’s writing is superb, so I may attempt another.

Read on!
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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, and Dream Wide Awake and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a paranormal element. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Books I Almost Read

Read the Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex? Me neither.

Wandering through my seventh decade, I treasure time. I used to read the classics no matter how grueling and gut-wrenching, but now? Meh. Distinctions can be deceiving. Some of the smartest people I met over the years never earned a high-school diploma. Lots more swore off college. I’ve learned not to judge a book by its accolades.

So Pulitzer Prize and all, I’m pulling out the ladder, stepping up, and slipping Middlesex onto that top shelf I can’t reach, setting it alongside Hillbilly Elegy and Moby Dick. (Yes, it’s above me. Who cares?) I couldn’t take the Greek history or the multitudinously-lined paragraphs as I’m a fan of dialogue and white space.

My apologies to my book club. I really did try. This is only the third time they selected a book I couldn’t muddle through. The other two were Hillbilly Elegy, and (um, my sixty-two-year-old memory fails me) another one about a pig. Oh wait, there was a fourth. Some Steve Martin blunder. (Sorry, Steve. I love you otherwise.)

So now I add Middlesex to a perfectly wonderful list. These are all great books that have appealed to hundreds, thousands, of people. They just aren’t reading-in-the-backyard-with-a-cup-of-coffee worthy to me. Their skip factor was too high.

You’ll find my skip factor is what sets my reviews apart from others. I’m coming out of the bookstore closet and admitting I skip. (Gasp.) And, really, who cares if we skip a line or paragraph or book or two?

In alphabetical order, here are the books I almost read. (To see books I recommend, browse my review page.) My apologies to the authors:

Hillbilly Elegy – Skip rate 40%. I read more than half of this book. I believe the fall of the middle class is unavoidable, and I was anxious to read this story about the working-class Vance family. However, I could not get through it. Sorry to the author for what I am about to say. I felt this was a story of many Americans and the only reason this succeeded was because of the author’s ivy-league resume. He rambled on, and I kept asking myself why his thoughts were so important. (Confession: I earned straight A’s in my poor, menial, private-school college economic classes years ago but HATED the subject.) DNF (did not finish).

Middlesex – Skip rate 90%. As stated above, I just couldn’t wade through the long paragraphs and Greek history. I did want to read the story. Where it began, I do not know. For those of you who have more patience than me, carry on the read. I do think the author is a gifted writer and some will like. DNF.

Moby Dick – Skip rate ??. Honestly, I do not remember how much I read. This was years ago and I tried to read this monstrosity of a book several times. Never could. Not sure why. I went back and read the first few lines. Maybe because of the full-of-myself male voice? (The skies rumble as the Mel-admiring gods groan.) No desire to try again. DNF.

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, and Dream Wide Awake and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a paranormal element. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.