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.

Open House by Katie Sise

Rating:                              9

General Rating: A fast-moving crime story about the disappearance of a college girl.

Skip factor:  1% I skipped very little.

Who should read:  Mystery and crime fiction lovers who enjoy novels that provide lots of suspects.

Summary: Katie is a medical student attending a school close to her hometown. Ten years earlier, her older sister, Emma, disappeared during a college party. Katie remains friends, somewhat, with her sister’s best friend, Josie.  When a hiker discovers a bracelet with Emma’s name on it in the area where she was last seen, the closed case is opened and a flood of the past rushes Katie.

Characters:  Oddly, I had to ask myself if I liked the characters to write this. The mystery of the story captured my attention from the beginning, and the clever way Sise introduced the characters had me suspecting everyone. It was a “Maybe it’s her. Oh, wait, maybe him. Oh, no. It has to be her. Or him,” sort of novel.

Katie is the medical student. Although this story is told from the perspective of several characters, Katie, Emma’s sister, is the main character and the most likable.

Josie was Emma’s best friend and roommate. I spent most of the novel trying to figure her out, which I loved. I never trusted Josie but couldn’t figure out if she was a good or bad person until well into the novel. Loved that.

Noah was Emma’s boyfriend at the time but is now married to Josie. I went back and forth about whether he was good or evil.

Brad is the bad teacher who is charismatic but untrusting. He had an affair with Emma. He is suspect right up front—almost too suspicious. But Sise constantly brings other guilty-looking characters in then leads back to Brad to keep you guessing.

Priya is Brad’s wife. She was pregnant with her son and engaged to Brad when Emma disappeared. Although seemingly too frail to commit murder, Priya takes medication for her nerves which quickly forces readers to check her off as a suspect, too.   

Minor Characters are introduced throughout. All add to the story.

Storyline: The is a typical disappearance story but written better than many. Sise introduces suspicious characters at exactly the right pace so as not to be confusing. She also infuses the past into the story smoothly, providing hints that slowly mount until the end. The storyline is believable. I found only a few questionable spots, one three-quarters of the way through and the other at the end. Generally, I couldn’t put it down. Any slow spots paled in comparison to the thrill of the read.

Writing:  Not too wordy and not overly descriptive, which I like. Sise engages readers by constantly pointing an accusatory finger at different characters, her writing clean. She jumps back and forth between POV in each chapter, adding Emma’s past story from ten years prior here and there. It works. As a reader, I wanted to figure out who the murderer was before Emma’s backstory revealed too much. Loved.

Read this author again? For sure. Already downloaded We Were Mothers.

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. See the video of Zahner’s inspiring paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here which inspired her Dream books. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Rating:           9

General Rating: Ng is an author to watch. The writing is fabulous—the best I’ve seen recently.

Favorite line: “Everything seems worse in the darkest hours of the night.” (So true!)

Skip factor:  2%. I skipped little.

Who should read:  While I believe this is more for women or young females, anyone who has experienced discrimination or who would like to understand the suffering of those discriminated against, should read. Because the novel includes a suicide topic, I would NOT recommend for YA.

Summary: The beginning reveals Marilyn’s and James’s oldest child, Lydia, is not alive, but the family doesn’t know it yet. An interesting premise, which hooks you immediately.

The novel tells the story of the Lee family who attempt to survive the devastating death of the favored child, Lydia. Each struggle with regrets. The mother, Marilyn, is an American who disappointed her family by marrying a Chinese man. James, a college professor, could not secure the type of position he wanted due to his Chinese ethnicity. Though they were in love when they married, Marilyn is disappointed that she never fulfilled herself. She leaves her husband and two older children to pursue her dreams but then returns, when she realizes she is a few months pregnant with a third child.

James and the two older children, Lydia and Nath, never mend from her leaving them, and when Marilyn returns, feeling she will never reach her full potential in life, she transfers her hopes and dreams to Lydia. Lydia works wholeheartedly to please her mother for fear she will leave them again.

Despite being the center of her parent’s hopes, Lydia is not the student Nath is. Overshadowed by his sister, Nath attempts to win his father’s support but always feels second to Lydia.

Both Nath and Lydia are ostracized for their ethnicity in school and learn to rely on each other. When Nath is accepted to college, Lydia has a hard time fathoming what her life will be like without him. Hannah, the youngest child, adores Lydia but hides in the shadow of both of her older siblings. She notices everything around her, possibly knows more about the family than anyone.

Characters:  

Lydia – I loved this character. Ng shows the inner struggles of teenagers who are discriminated against through this character.

Hannah – The sweet, youngest Lee child is ignored by the family. I wanted to know more about her throughout the entire book.  

Nath – Through Nath, Ng clearly depicts the cruelty of discrimination, because of both his and his father’s Chinese heritage.

Marilyn – I felt sorry for this character. The author makes her out to be a monster. And herein lies the reason I did not give this a 9.5 or even a 10 for the writing. This woman, clearly conflicted, was unintentionally too hard on her daughter. Yet she loved her. There was good and bad to her of course, but, maybe because I am a mother myself, I felt the overtone of the book conveyed only bitterness, no empathy toward her. (I wondered if the author had a rocky relationship with her mother and would love to see how she feels about Marilyn twenty years from now when she herself has grown children.)  

James – I liked the father but couldn’t connect with thim. James was hard on his son, adored Lydia, and ignored Hannah. He was a bit too business-minded for me. However, he too deserved empathy. He was a product of his past.

Other characters – Ng brought a few other characters into the mix when needed to enhance the family’s story.

Storyline:  This novel depicts the hardship and discrimination of an American Chinese family. The suffering of the Lee parents impacted how they raised their children. Neither were bad people, but they allowed their past to influence, harm really, their children—a characteristic often present in many families. While that family dynamics may be common, the effect that discrimination has on a family is explicitly told here.

Writing:  I cannot express how well written this novel is. The writing is possibly the best I’ve seen in years. I dawdled over it. The author told the story from an omnipotent view, which is tough and often frowned upon in today’s literary world. She makes the transition from POV to POV appear easy. This is one of those books that is so well written, you wish you had bought rather than loaned.

Read this author again?  Absolutely. I’ve already begun Little Fires Everywhere. Ng writes flawlessly. I’ll read anything she writes.

To find more good books click here.

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 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.