Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville

those we left behind

As soon as I read Dennis Lehane’s praise for Stuart Neville’s books, I wanted to read this one. I figured, if Dennis Lehane can’t wait for Neville’s next book to come out, that sounds like something I’d like.

Holy crap, this is dark, powerful stuff. It reminded me of the video store that used to be in our town: the guy who worked there would recommend the MOST depressing films…my husband called them “all those Irish films” because they all seemed to be set in some gritty, grey part of Belfast during one or another period of “the troubles.”

And maybe it is partly because I am a former foster mother who really really feels sadness for both the people who work in and for the system as well as for the kids. The joy of someone making it out of the cycle of poverty, abuse, etc. is awesome, but all too rare, I’m afraid.

Here is the story told in this incredibly well-done thriller: In 2007, a pair of brothers, Thomas and Ciaran Devine, aged fourteen and twelve respectively, are found with the battered and bloody corpse of their foster father. Serena Flanagan is the young cop on the case, and she struggles to try to discern which of the boys killed their “father,” and why. The younger, Ciaran, confesses, but Serena has her doubts.

Seven years go by, and when Serena returns to duty after having treatment for breast cancer, she learns she has the Devine brothers’ case again, when the son of the foster father is killed following the release of the younger brother.

The victim, Daniel Rolston, has been obsessed with making Thomas and Ciaran pay for their senseless crime against his biological father, which he believed destroyed his and his mother’s lives.

The two siblings are completely incapable of empathy, and both are so thoroughly damaged that they are “doomed to exist on the fringes of society.”

Serena is now a forty-five year old Detective Chief Inspector, and she works with Paula Cunningham, Ciaran’s parole officer and a clinical psychologist, to try to help Ciaran. However, it seems it may not only be impossible, but also dangerous for both of them.

In the book, Neville goes back and forth from 2007 to the present day, and it got a bit confusing for me when the tense would switch when events were related from Ciaran’s perspective. Both Serena and Paula fight their own demons in their personal lives, and adding in their emotional entanglements as they try to help Ciaran just seems increasingly ominous as the story develops.
Daniel (the son of the original murder victim), Serena, and Paula all seem to want to do the right thing, but all of them let their emotions rule their actions. As events unfold, no one in the story appears to be able to accept the hand that he or she is dealt.

There isn’t any comic relief in this book, there is no friendly camaraderie among fellow officers, and really there was no hope that I could find in this tale.

I personally found this to be a bit darker I like (actually a whole lot darker), but the writing is terrific, and the atmosphere permeates everything. It is bleak, gritty, realistic, and sadly reflective of a segment of society that is often ignored – the “throwaways” among the foster kids.

I appreciate the opportunity to review this (thanks to NetGalley) and despite it not being my own personal favorite, for the storytelling and skillful way the plot develops, I give it 5 stars. (We all know people who love to read this kind of stuff – I predict my husband will not only read it, but then will look for other titles by Neville).

I still don’t know how to pronounce Ciaran…

Fear of Dying by Erica Jong

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Forty years ago, Fear of Flying made Erica Jong (and her protagonist Isadora Wing) household names, along with the infamous concept of the Zipless Fuck. In this not-exactly-a-sequel, Isadora is back as the sidekick to the protagonist Vanessa Wonderman, a past-her-prime actress who is coping with her husband’s illness, her parents’ aging, and her own confrontation with mortality. Vanessa suggests, “we all secretly believe in our own mortality” and ask “Do we hold on to our parents, or are we holding on to our status as children who are immune from death?” She recognizes that “it doesn’t matter how old they are. You are never prepared to lose your parents.”

As Vanessa copes with the specifics of the issues surrounding her parents and somewhat older husband, she reflects on many issues, including what aging means for women: “A man can look like he’s a hundred, be impotent and night blind, and still find a younger woman who never got over her daddy. But a woman is lucky to be able to go to the movies or bingo with another old bag.” So, she goes onto the Internet site “zipless” to meet someone with whom she can have a no-strings hookup (with some amusing results as she meets the various men who respond to her online quest).

Along the way, there are some great lines as Vanessa/Erica muses about life’s journey:

  • “Death is always here in life yet willed invisible because we cannot bear it any more than we can bear news that our sun will someday go out.”
  • Once you have entered the hospital’s mythic maw, your life is no longer your own…everyone knows something but you—and if you protest you will know even less”
  • “When babies spend their days waking and sleeping, we’re not sad because we know their lives are going forward. Bout an old person’s slipping in and out of sleep is only a warm-up for extinction. We know it. Do they know it? And if they know, do they care?”
  • “You don’t really become aware of the body until its beautiful balance breaks down.”
  • “What was wrong with my generation of women? We thought we would get better and better forever…believed we had charmed lives somehow and that there was nothing Botox couldn’t fix”

Those are pretty reflective of Erica — I mean Vanessa’s state of mind. 

It’s a story about a particular fictional woman, but I believe it’s also all about Erica and her thoughts on aging, relationships, fidelity (or lack thereof), and women’s roles in relation to men, each other, work, sex, etc.

I didn’t love it, like I did Fear of Flying – but it’s definitely entertaining and thought-provoking (perhaps particularly for fans of both Jed earlier fiction and her poetry. I appreciate the opportunity to review this for NetGalley. Four stars!

 

 

Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain

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This book shares some things with another of Chamberlain’s books, in terms of a very similar protagonist ( a female who leaves the South, relocates to San Diego, etc. ) Although I had read the earlier book, I was quite eager to read this, although part of me now wishes that I had also read the short story “The Dance Begins,” which is a prequel to this book. In the book, Molly Arnette’s father is a man with serious physical limitations brought on by his MS, and we meet him in that state. He is such a warm and loving character, and such a wonderful father to Molly, I was thinking that in some ways it might have been nice to get a glimpse of him prior to him being nearly completely helpless physically. Although, not having read the story, I have no idea whether he was dancing in it or not, but clearly the characterization was adequately developed that I cared about him dancing or not!

In any case, there are two stories going on in this book: in the one, Moly lives in San Diego with her husband Aidan, and the two of them are going through the process of trying to adopt a baby, as they cannot have their own. In the other story, we see Molly as a teen, growing up on the family compound (“Morrison’s Ridge”) in North Carolina with her father, Graham, her mother Nora (who she has claimed for the twenty years since she left North Carolina following Graham’s death is dead) and assorted other family, both by blood and by choice. The family includes the fascinating character Amalia, who teaches Molly to dance, and we come to learn Amalia is actually Molly’s birth mother.

There is a mystery surrounding Graham’s death and the reasons why Molly has abandoned her roots…as the stories are woven together, various topics are addressed, including family relationships (father/daughter, mother/daughter, birth vs. adoptive parents, dying “with dignity,” and the idea of secrets among families and between spouses. We see Molly and her various family members (both blood and not) dancing together, singing together, and keeping secrets from one another.

Chamberlain has done a good job developing the characters into people we care about, and meshing the threads of the two stories together. I admit, I cared much more about the story of Molly’s childhood and Graham’s death than about Molly and Aidan’s quest for parenthood, but I appreciated both sides. I loved the way the young Molly was shown growing into a slightly more mature girl as she began to discover boys and to test the boundaries of her family rules, as she sneaks off to a rendezvous with a boy named Chris:

“He put his hand on my breast through my T-shirt. I was on my back and knew my breast was almost completely flat in that position. When I imagined being with Johnny Depp, I was always on my side exactly for that reason, but Chris didn’t seem to care.”

 As the story moved along, it reminded me in some ways of a Jodi Picoult novel, in terms of having interesting, well-developed characters whose situation revolved around and moved toward a climactic episode involving a social issue with a moral dilemma.

My expectations may have been a bit high, following my book group’s recent discussion of Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies. The result was that I was a bit disappointed after I finished this one, but as I said, that is likely due to overly high expectations on my part.

I won’t put DC into my list of favorite authors, but I did enjoy the book, and have recommended it to several people. I appreciate the opportunity to review it in exchange for my NetGalley review.

Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song by Ronnie Gilbert (foreword by Holly Near)

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Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song

This is a wonderful memoir of the woman best known as a member of the folk group The Weavers, who died a few months ago at the age of 88.

I admit I knew her only as a singer, someone who had originally performed with the Weavers starting in the 1940s. She was one of the founding members (along with Pete Seeger) and went on to perform with Holly Near (who wrote the forward) in the 80s and 90s. Frankly, I was not aware of the amazing life she led, with other careers including actor, playwright, and therapist. In this book, Ronnie shares her memories, bringing the incredible social issues she was involved in alive using song lyrics and personal stories. Along the way, she reveals the various things that defined her life: folk music in the 50s and 60s (featuring Pete Seeger), the Cold War blacklist that cost so many artists their ability to work, primal therapy, the women’s movement and lift-wing political activism.

The daughter of immigrants from Ukraine and Poland, Ronnie came by her activism naturally: at around age 10, her mother (a garment worker, union activist and member of the Communist Party) took her to a union rally where Ronnie hear Paul Robeson sing (she later called this event “transformative”).

The Weavers broke up in the mid-60s, and Ronnie focused energy on the theater, followed by becoming involved as a therapist after receiving her degree in Psychology in the 1970s. In 1980, a reunion performance of the Weavers took place, and later Ronnie and Holly Near traveled and performed with Pet Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.

One of the primary themes is the importance of women and the link to music. As Ronnie says: “That’s what the women’s movement was about for me: poetry, music, and passion. The message? The best message, the only message: Love yourself, your friend, and your lover. If possible, love your enemy. If not, walk away and love something else.”

Enjoyable solely as a memoir, this is also an amazing history of the women’s movement and women’s music that blossomed in the late 1970s and 80s. Ronnie’s passion is clear as she remembers people, events, and songs, and uses all to tell the story of her trailblazing life. I know several people who would love reading this: one is a lifelong activist, with no musical talent (or interest, actually); one is a musician who will devour the stories of singers and songwriters and the challenges they faced, often due to their activism; and a couple are women with a deep interest in women’s history. I am grateful to NetGalley for providing me with this copy in advance, in order to write a review. I can’t wait to see the final product, which will include tons of photos!

Older & Bolder: Life After 60 by Renata Singer

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This book, focused on women past the ago of 60, is a combination of stories told by the women themselves, interspersed with the latest research.When I was young, women in their 60s were…OLD. Not many of the ones I ever saw were vibrant – they were mostly sedentary and seemed resigned to being…old. Ms. Singer’s message is that “change is not just for the young, you can do something new at any age.”

For the stories, the author interviewed women (in-depth interviews, with follow-ups), and her subjects included women of various education levels, marital statuses, etc.

Considerable research is discussed and cited. One of the awesome findings discussed is brain plasticity, meaning that the anatomical composition of the brain actually responds to learning, thought and action. Researchers such as Dr. Michael Merzenich of UCSF believe that brain “fitness programs” can “help prevent, arrest or even reverse the effects of cognitive decline.” WOW!

While I enjoyed the stories and the research, I found myself bothered by the emphasis on the idea that retirement is a bad thing. The author suggests that women should stay ten years past when they thing about retirement. WTF? She suggests that “retirement can damage your health, and the longer you’re retired the greater the health disadvantages.” She also discusses the increasing numbers of women past the age of 60 who are returning to work as if it is totally because they WANT to be there. I am opposed to a mandatory retirement age, and if someone wants to work til they drop, fine. But I totally believe that the vast majority of older women who are working (paid employment) are there because they HAVE to, and not because they want to. To be honest, I don’t recall reading anything in the book that made me think otherwise.

Chapter 4 (“Money Matters”) was full of cautionary tales that tended to reinforce my feeling about women needing to work as they get older. The book is focused on Australian women, and there is discussion of the various pensions, etc. that women might get – but not much about the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US, which is financial ruin due to health costs. Likely that is due to the fact that Australian women live in a country that is enlightened enough to provide health care, and that’s a very minor quibble about the book.

I enjoyed Chapter 5, focusing on appearance, and the way women get past a certain age and suddenly they are invisible/ignored. I liked the way she advises women not be ashamed or feel guilty about caring how they look, and her advice that “if people aren’t seeing you or listening to you, drop them. Find a more appreciative crowd to hang out with.”

So many negative stereotypes are attached to aging! I appreciated the way both the stories and the research address them, and REALLY like they was the book highlights the place of friendship in the lives of women and the value of participation in the community.

It’s a valuable (and enjoyable) book, and is full of practical suggestions, inspirational stories and wise words. I give it four stars (would likely be five if it had more US focus and if the thing about retirement being unhealthy for you was more fully explained. In any case, I appreciate the opportunity to provide a review in exchange for my NetGalley review.

Shades of Blue by Amy Ferris

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Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue

By Amy Ferris

For starters, this book is amazing. Amy Ferris has gathered writings about a subject that is close to my heart, and the result is a powerful, gut-wrenching, piercing look into a topic that is too often stigmatized, hidden, shame-based, you name it, there just aren’t many positive terms that come to mind around this topic. And yet, people in the grip of this affliction (or living with someone who battles the “black dog” of depression) can really benefit from the realization that they are not alone. So why was I so negative about this book when I read it?

OK, so I guess it really IS all about me!! 🙂

And why do I think this book is amazing? A psychiatric nurse who wrote about this book put it this way: “The crushing isolation of depression gets a few shades lighter each time someone realizes…”I’m not alone. I’m connected to a bigger picture.”’ Thank you for this beautiful and necessary book.”

I couldn’t agree more. And yet, when I wrote in my journal about this book, after spending two full days with it while on vacation, I said:

Only 3 types of people would read this:

  1. Someone in prison who goes to the prison library and finds every other book is checked out
  2. People who are really into the topic of depression, falling into two categories:
    1. Therapists/caregivers
    2. Depressives

It is SO honest, and I found I became seriously depressed reading this book. Early on, I recognized myself in quotes such as “Among the many things that make me who I am is the fact that I am a person with a clinical disorder. I’ve been on five different antidepressants since I was a teenager…” And “I hate taking the medication. The idea that I cannot fully function without it breaks my heart on a regular basis, but I can’t stop taking it. I’ve tried.”

These are things that resonate with me, and I am sure with many people who have felt the slide toward the black hole. (NOTE: I am not identifying the authors of any of the quotes in this review—and confess I am somewhat afraid to go back and read it right now…having just recovered what feels like equilibrium following the deep despair I felt after reading it. Seriously, on the bright side (often an unfamiliar landscape for me), in retrospect I realize that it was equal parts despair (reading about the reality of this affliction) and hope (as I realized people CAN — and I often DO– recognize the “warning signs” and avoid the big slide toward the black hole).

Several of the writings captured the reality of the affliction:

  • “I now accept, without doubt, that depression is purely a result of the chemicals swimming in our brains, and we can choose those chemicals.”
  • “The stigma and shame of depression linger. No one brings you casseroles or calls you a heroine when you’re depressed.”
  • “Terrible things happen—they go on happening all your life, but here’s what I discovered: anguish, unhappiness, sadness, fear, loneliness, and grief are not the same as depression. It can all hurt as much as depression, but you are not paralyzed. You keep breathing. And the lovely surprise of growing older is that most of us get happier. If you’re lucky and have decent health, friends, a roof over your head, food on the table, and something you love to get up and do every day – you calm down. You no longer want to throw yourself off a balcony.”
  • “Sleep, when it comes, is full of nightmares. You awaken in the middle of the night, terrified, and filled with disgust at your terror. Morning arrives and you do not feel rested.”

 Despite being dragged down by the writing (admittedly, reading it ALL in two days may not have been the best idea), I also now realize after pondering it for a week or more, that I got hope from several statements:

  • one writer “found my ability to travel alone to the kinds of gorgeous places I had once only romanticized about: beaches and vacation and…”
  • I have had other bouts of depression, but I have learned to catch myself at the top of the spiral before I begin that terrifying descent. I heed those first warning signs—self-deprecating thoughts and debilitation anxiety—and, with the help of medication, I know I can stop the fall.”

Fundamentally, the book reiterated what I have come to admit: I am complicit in perpetuating the negative stigma that is all too real, even today. Several years ago, I decided that I would help break down some of the barriers, and talk about my experiences. I soon realized that my boss was emphatically NOT sympathetic, and that my workplace environment would be much less pleasant if I admitted to “having problems.” And that, as my aunt told me, some members of my family would not react well…my penchant for being “too straightforward” was not likely to be met with hugs and warm supportive responses. I decided it was all I could do to just maintain my hold on the life I had created as I learned to “deal with it,” and I crept back into silence. I have also learned from conversations with my niece that there really are people (even family members!) who understand and who can both benefit from my experience and provide support when I need it.

To sum it up: “To look at most of us, you’d never know. We compensate so well, we look so normal. We’ve kept the silence. We’ve perpetuated the stigma. “

<sigh> But I like to think that everyone does the best they can to get through each day!

I so appreciate this book…although it may not be easy reading, especially for those who see themselves in these pages, it really can help people realize they are NOT alone! Much gratitude to NetGalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my review. Again, powerful stuff, and not for everyone, or maybe just not necessarily at any time (for me, it’s a trigger, apparently, to delve so deeply into someone else’s anguish) but just for the honesty alone, it is worth five stars.

House of the Rising Sun by James Lee Burke

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My husband LOVES James Lee Burke’s books (particularly the Dave Robichauex series)…and, I admit that over the years I have tried (without success) to develop an appreciation for them. The House of the Rising Sun, while not a Robichauex, stars another of Burke’s well-known protagonists: Texas Ranger Hackberry Holland. I gamely jumped in, with an open mind, ready to discover (if nothing else) what it was about this author’s books that kept me from appreciating his work.

The book opens in revolutionary Mexico in the early 20th century. Following a violent encounter leaving several Mexican soldiers dead, Hackberry escapes and takes along an artifact (possibly the Holy Grail), which totally annoys an Austrian arms dealer. This complicates things, as Hackberry is in search of his son Ishmael, a captain in the U.S. Army, and the arms merchant involves Ishmael in his plot to recapture the coveted artifact.

Along the way, scenes unfold in brothels and bars in San Antonio (during the time of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang).

I admit, I skimmed quite a bit of the book, finding the action nearly comic book in its presentation, and I didn’t really care for Hackberry (or really any of the characters). I figured the only way to review this one was to sit and talk to my husband, who really enjoyed it. Apparently, Hackberry has much in common with other Burke protagonists:

  • he is a driven man, haunted by deaths for which he was responsible.
  • he is a raging alcoholic, alternating between sobriety and major binge episodes
  • he is verbally a wise-ass, and gets away with insulting and publically humiliating powerful people
  • he literally sees red when overtaken by his anger, and the result is an out-of-control violent outburst

(What’s not to like, right?)

Hackberry’s behavior reflects the above characteristics, and we see him interact with significant female characters that aid him in his quest for reconciliation with Ishmael:

  • Ruby Dansen, Ishmael’s mother and apparently Hackberry’s one true love
  • Beatrice DeMolay, a madam in a bordello
  • Maggie Bassett, former lover of the Sundance Kid

Perhaps if I had tried harder to understand the character of Hackberry rather than just reacting to his behavior with my own personal biases, I might have liked it more. I APPRECIATE it, and am grateful that I had the opportunity to read an advance copy, thanks to NetGalley. I will always buy Burke’s books and recommend them to people I know will appreciate them – they just aren’t my thing.

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham

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I have recommended Michael Robotham’s books to many people…so I was happy to have a new Robotham book to read/review. In his latest, the protagonist is London-based Detective Alisha Barba (who appeared as a minor character in Lost, published in 2005). As the story begins, Alisha is recovering from a terrible injury sustained at work. She is such an interesting character: A Sikh with low self-esteem, she has lost contact with her BFF Cate, who asks her in an urgent note to please attend their upcoming school reunion.

Despite feeling low and having an overall less than lofty self-image, Alisha decides to attend the reunion, a concept she isn’t totally wild about: “That’s the thing about school reunions – people only come to measure their life against others and to see the failures. They want to know which of the beauty queens has put on seventy pounds and seen her husband run off with his secretary; and which teacher got caught taking photographs in the changing rooms.” (I LOVED this, as I was reading the book while on a trip to Southern California for a high school class reunion!)

We quickly realize that Alisha’s background and family have a huge impact on her career and relationships: at work, “Everything else paled into insignificance alongside my skin colour and Sikh heritage.” She knows “all families have baggage but mine belongs in one of those battered suitcases, held together with string, that you see circling endlessly on a luggage carousel. “

 Alisha is tiptoeing around her relationship, but hesitant to dive in full bore for fear she will ruin a good thing” I have no experience of love. Ever since adolescence I have avoided it, renounced it, longed for it. (Such a dichotomy is one of they symptoms.) I have been an agony aunt for all my girlfriends, listening to their sob stories about arranged marriages, unfaithful husbands, men who won’t call or commit, missed periods, sexual neuroses, wedding plans, post-natal depression and failed diets. I know all about other people’s love affairs but I am a complete novice wen it comes to my own. That’s why I’m scared, I’m sure to mess it up.”

 Robotham does a great job getting into the head of female characters, as in this scene between Alisha and her boyfriend: “Propped on one elbow, I study him. His hair is soft and rumpled like a tabby cat, with tiny flecks of blond amid the ginger. He has a big head. Does that mean he would father big babies, with big heads. Unconsciously I squeeze my thighs together.”  Later, her ambivalence about motherhood is evidenced by her comment “I’m not good at describing newborn babies. They all look like Winston Churchill. “

 While Alisha continues to dance around the relationship with her boyfriend, her mother is somewhat determined to push her toward a traditional arranged Sikh marriage: “My mother says the truth is unimportant when it comes to love. An arranged marriage is all about the fictions that one family tells another. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps falling in love is about inventing a story and accepting the truth of it.”

 As she arrives at the reunion, Alisha finds Cate but, before they can have an in-depth conversation, what seems initially to be a tragic accident leaves an apparently pregnant Cate dead – but it turns out she is faking her pregnancy, and her comments to Alisha right after the accident suggest foul play. The plot weaves its way through London, the U.K. and Amsterdam, and involves human trafficking, babies for sale, and desperate migrants (which resonates with the current refugee problems in Europe).

The character of Cate is a bit puzzling, but her personality leaps off the page as Robotham reveals that Alisha thinks Cate “treated love and friendship like a small creature trapped in a blizzard, fighting for survival. “ Alisha and a sort-of-retired detective named Ruiz (protagonist in Robotham’s Lost, where we were first introduced to Alisha) go to Amsterdam in search of answers, and Robotham’s skill at setting a scene is on full display: …” red-light district is different at night. I can almost smell the testosterone and used condoms. “ Ruiz is skilled at working with people (particularly Alisha), not always in alignment with the Metro Police’s official rules, as seen when he talks another cop into skirting some of those rules, telling the other cop: “You’re a credit to the Met. You’re not frightened to have an opinion or act on a hunch.” Alisha marvels at his skill, noting, “It’s like watching a fisherman casting a fly.”

The revelation about Alisha’s insecurity and possible overcompensation due to feeling devalued as a detective (perhaps due to her Sikh heritage) is skillfully done, and aligns with her overall self-image. For example, she notes she has “…faced off suspects, pursued cars, charged through doorways and walked into abandoned building but have never thought that I might die. Maybe that’s one of the advantages of having little self-value.”

Along the way, we learn more about Alisha, and there are some terrific revelations about her character: “Regret is such an odd emotion because it invariable comes a moment too late, when only imagination can rewrite what has happened. My regrets are like pressed flowers in the pages of a diary. Brittle reminders of summers past; like the last summer before graduation, the one that wasn’t big enough to hold its own history.”

What really set this book apart for me, in addition to Alisha’s unique character, are the geopolitical messages that are integral to the story. For example, Alisha notes that “We in the West like to think it can be different; that we can change these countries and these people because it makes us feel better when we tuck our own children into their warm beds with full stomachs and then pour ourselves a glass of wine and watch someone else’s tragedy unfold on CNN.”

 One of the refugees they encounter, a young woman named Zala, is described: “The smudges beneath her eyes are signs of the premature or the beaten-down.” Another young female refugee, telling of the life in Afghanistan that had prompted them to flee, notes ” … Americans dropped leaflets from the sky saying they were coming to liberate us but there was nothing left to free us from. Still we cheered because the Talibs were gone, running like frightened dogs. But the Northern Alliance was not so different. We had learned not to expect too much. In Afghanistan we sleep with the thorns and not the flowers.”

 A man named Hokke is part of the action in the Amsterdam. When talking to Alisha and Ruiz about issues related to the hidden refugee population they are desperately working to help as they search for the link to Cate’s situation, he tells them the scope of their challenge: “There are half a million illegal workers in the Netherlands – Iranians, Sudanese, Afghans, Bosnians, Kosovars, Iraqis. They work in restaurants, hotels, laundries and factories. Newspapers wouldn’t be delivered without them, hotel sheets wouldn’t be laundered, houses wouldn’t be cleaned. People complain, but we cannot do without them.”

Robotham is skilled at writing complex plots with characters that become real. Although it is difficult to write about this particular story without spoiling the mystery, suffice it to say that it is a terrific read, with messages that are relevant to current world events. Michael Robotham is one of my new favorite authors…and I am grateful to have been provided a copy of The Night Ferry by NetGalley in exchange for my review (apparently a re-release as it was published originally in 2007, according to Amazon).

The Lake House by Kate Morton

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I admit it: I’m a sucker for a good book cover. And the image of the cover of Kate Morton’s The Lake House leapt off the page so, ignoring any memory of having read other titles by this author or (more importantly perhaps) what genre this title belonged to, I dove in.

First off, I love reading mysteries, and this book opens in 2003 with the protagonist, Detective Sadie Sparrow, on forced leave from the job she loves in London, due to a huge mistake she made working a case involving a mother who disappeared, leaving her young daughter alone. Sadie zips off to Cornwall to stay with her beloved grandfather Bertie, who has relocated there following his wife’s death. As Sadie is exploring the neighborhood, she stumbles upon both an abandoned estate (Loeanneth, or “Lake House”) and another mystery involving a child – in this case, Theo, who is an 11-month old boy, the 4th child and 1st son of the Edevane family. Following Theo’s disappearance in the early 1930s during a large party at Loeanneth, the family moves to London, never to return. So, voila! More than one mystery! Looks promising.

The story shifts to 2003 London and the author Alice Edevane, who is the middle daughter who was 16 at the time her baby brother Theo disappeared from the family home at Loeanneth. Sadie contacts Alice, wanting permission to investigate the cold case (and the house itself, which is a significant presence in the story). As things unfold, we learn the backstory of the family and follow a number of what seem like loose ends, but somehow we know it will all be pulled together at the end (part of which I guessed at about 40% of the way through the book, and I am TERRIBLE at solving mysteries).

The Lake House has much in common with The Secret Keeper, Morton’s earlier book, which I read awhile ago: both include a country house, a teenage girl, family secrets and a narrative split between past and present. There are some cliffhangers, tons of description and artfully drawn settings. There are also strong female characters, particularly Alice and Sadie, both of whom are haunted by secrets.

Alice is amazing: in her 80s, she is sharp and feisty. “She had found that there were few genuinely dull people; the trick was to ask them the right questions.” And I loved the line: “To age was contemptible, but the single silver lining was the cloak of invisibility gifted by the years. Nobody noticed the little old lady…”

Sadie is struggling in more than one area and I was never clear on her self-perception, as she states”…would never have guessed in a million years that a person could gain this sort of satisfaction from a visit to the library, certainly not a person like her” (emphasis mine). What does that mean? She is, like Alice, inquisitive and determined. As someone who has for years felt answers would be found in books, what better place to hang out than a library? (OK, my librarian background and bias are showing) I did love her comment that …it was a berry brave thing to do, to write one’s feelings down on paper and give them to another person.”

So, as I look at the complex plotting, setting, etc. I see it was well done…so why, then, did I have such trouble with it? Two reasons, I think. One is that things were just way too neatly wrapped up. The other is that my own bias regarding genre must be stronger than I realized (or I am just older and crankier than I realized). Morton “has degrees in dramatic art and English literature specializing in 19th century tragedy and contemporary gothic novels (again, emphasis mine). This kept feeling like it was about to slide into a sloppy romance wrapped in a tinge of mystery. Seriously, when I read this line I nearly threw my Kindle across the room” He kissed her, and she sand into his embrace.”

To be fair, this is decidedly NOT my genre, and I know that people who enjoy the family-secret-romantic-mystery thing are going to ADORE this book. If I were still working in a public library, I would love to have this to recommend to the large number of people who fit that category. I will definitely recommend this title to some women I know, and while I doubt I will leap at the next book by Kate Morton, I do appreciate the opportunity to provide an honest review of this title in return for a copy from NetGalley.

The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan

gratI have a dilemma about this book: first off, I WANTED to love it. I wanted it to teach me how to be constantly grateful and not to be a whiny, self-involved depressive who suffers bouts of envy and sadness (despite having an awesome life living in Paradise with few actual problems). On the other hand, I wanted to be dismissive – to finish it and say (as one reviewer did) it was just fluff, written on a fourth-grade level, and it certainly had no substance or meaning to offer the reader. Being able to blow it off would confirm that my ongoing lack of a gratitude habit was not diminishing my odds of happiness.

The author certainly seems to be someone for whom gratitude would be natural: she is a Yale graduate, has homes in New York and Connecticut, has been a successful author and editor, and has an apparently amazing husband/family. So of COURSE she would be grateful, right? Yet she found herself making a commitment to spend a year of her life consciously being grateful along with researching the topic of gratitude. As she put it “I’m going to try to be more grateful from now on. It’s my plan for the year. I think it will make me happier.”

As Kaplan begins her year, she quickly realized that “gratitude wasn’t the same as happiness; it requires an active emotional involvement – you can’t be passively grateful.” Which is where her journaling comes in (a consistent finding is the value of a gratitude journal), something she does throughout her year, as she begins to actively practice being grateful.

In addition to her practice, she did a significant amount of research into the topic, including working with comedians (Jerry Seinfeld), philanthropists (including Matt Damon) and researchers such as Dr. Robert Emmons of U.C. Davis. Emmons’ research findings include what seemed to me to be a profound revelation that “you don’t need good events in your life in order to feel gratitude. Instead, grateful people reframe whatever happens to them.” Logical? Yes. Intuitive? Not to me.

Many people think if they only had more, they would be happy. More money or more things or more success at achieving a goal, such as weight loss. She covers all three of these things, each quite significant to me as I read:

She decided her mantra could be “enough,” that she would be grateful to just have enough!

MONEY:

  • I loved reading that studies showed that given a choice between earning $100,00 a year if most people were earning $75,000 a year and getting a raise to $110,00 a year if most people were earning $200,000, most people would be happier with the $100,000.
  • Kaplan said she felt she didn’t need a lot of money to be happy, just “enough money so I didn’t have to think about money.” (keep in mind, this is a woman who from outward appearances is quite successful, with multiple homes and a prestigious career, so it might be easy for her to say this).
  • She found that money gave people an undue sense of entitlement, with little attention on compassion or ethics.
  • In the US, the “magic number” seems to be $75,000: that is the annual income level beyond which more money doesn’t really matter. Whether you earn $100,000 or $300,000 it is about equal in terms of happiness.

THINGS:

  • When people were asked how grateful they were for a variety of things, “your current job” finished dead last, always.
  • Material possessions are never quite as satisfying as people expect they will be. Turns out that experiences provide much more lasting happiness.

ATTAINING GOALS:

  • She has had an ongoing battle with weight, and she practiced being grateful for her food, appreciating the food. I am not sure how successful she was, but she did learn that mood affects what we eat (not surprisingly).

Kaplan learned that it is all about perception. As she learned from Tony Robbins, “if you trade your expectations for appreciation, the world instantly changes.”

The biggest lessons were to be grateful for what you can do, especially when you can’t do everything. Also, if something is done, gone, or irretrievable, get over it! Be grateful for whatever life has brought you, and if you CAN change something that makes you unhappy, do so, but otherwise, get on with your (grateful) life.

Kaplan claims that her year was extremely successful, but she hasn’t come to believe tat everything happens for the best. Bad things do occur, and our lives are not any better for them – but they can feel better, depending on how we choose to respond to those things.

The resolution of my dilemma is that I have resolved to be more CONSCIOUSLY grateful. In complete honesty, my life is unbelievably good, but I have a history of depression. It has been under control in recent years, but still emerges and threatens to drag me toward the black hole from time to time. Since I have had more free time, I have been working to live more in the moment, appreciating the things, people, experiences and situations that make my life great. Avoiding the things that might tend to drag me down (such as intolerance, cruelty, violence and greed) takes a bit more effort, because it seems so pervasive in the media…and I recognize that my inherent tendency to be Debbie Downer means I need to be more vigilant or at least active in my pursuit of happiness. Couldn’t hurt, right?

An enjoyable read, with lots of entertaining anecdotes and experiences combined with the facts and research. Extremely grateful to have received a copy of this title from NetGalley in return for my honest review.