A LOOK BACK: RESHAPING THE EVENTS OF LOSS

Good morning!  I’m sipping another cup of coffee and visiting blog posts.  On one site, the blogger mentioned deleting old posts on her blog, and wondered how others feel about doing this.  Curious, I decided to go way back to the beginning of this blog, and instead of deleting the posts, I decided to reprint one of them:  a review of a favorite Elizabeth Berg book, Home Safe.  I got her newest one this week, Night of Miracles.

Here are my thoughts in that review, written back on July 26, 2009:

In Elizabeth Berg’s newest novel Home Safe: A Novel, we are almost immediately plunged into the world of loss. It begins in the preface, when, as a nine-year-old girl, Helen Ames experiences the death of a classmate: she describes everything she sees, up close, from the hands on a wristwatch to the top of the mother’s head and the sound of her weeping—and completely immersed in this experience, she becomes obsessed with these details. And then she describes: “Nothing helped until the day she took a tablet and pencil into the basement and moved the event out of her and onto paper, where it was shaped into a kind of simple equation: loss equaled the need to love, more. With this, she was given peace.”

Predictably, this is the onset of this writer’s life. And we meet her again, some years later, when she is struggling with losses all around her—from her husband’s death months before, to the elusiveness of her daughter, to the struggle she now faces to find the words that once flowed so freely—and we begin again. The journey to reshape the events of loss and make some kind of sense of her life in the present.

As I delved into this newest Berg novel, I realized again why I await each of her creations so eagerly. She has the uncanny ability to draw the reader in. Partly because her topics are cut from the cloth of daily life and shaped with such detail that we can immediately feel part of what’s going on with the characters—their innermost thoughts, fears, and even those negative emotions we all feel in some moments of our lives—and then we can watch as the characters struggle to reshape their world into a semblance of a new reality despite their losses.

So this is how we observe and learn about Helen Ames, her daughter Tessa, and the relationships that formed them—before and after these significant losses. Somewhat emotionally dependent on her husband, Helen begins to form an over-dependence on her daughter afterwards; Tessa chafes against the smothering bonds and moves further away emotionally.

Helen flails about, fearing she will drown in this new life. Sometimes she stays in her pajamas all day while she desperately tries to pound words out of the computer, to no avail. She even considers a job in retail sales, but thinks better of it. She goes to a speaking engagement—something familiar to her in the past as a writer—but cannot even connect with her audience. Her words seem to lie there in the air, with no visible reaction from the listeners.

Then, just when she thought nothing could get any worse, she learns that her husband drew $850,000 from their retirement accounts before his death. And her search for clues leads nowhere. At least she has an action to take, she thinks, as she plunges into trying to uncover the mystery. Then she receives a phone call, and the trail leads to California and a bungalow in Marin County.

Now what will happen? Will Helen finally be able to reshape the events of her life and begin again? And will she rediscover that bond with her daughter, or at least develop a new one? Then, for those of us who are writers, we wonder if she will regain her “words” to create again.

I was actually sad to turn the last pages to the book’s conclusion. As with all of Berg’s other novels, I felt like I belonged in the world of the characters and did not want to see the last of them. Definitely a must-read for any of her fans, and all those out there who love reading as “comfort” food.

***

Do you ever go back to your earliest posts, just to revisit them and to remember what you felt back then?

***

REVIEW: RIVER ROAD, BY CAROL GOODMAN

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Nan Lewis had just left a holiday party, upset because of the news that another professor, Cressida Janowicz, had told her: that she had been denied tenure. She had had some wine, but only a couple of glasses, she was telling herself as she drove. She was okay. She would make it home safely.

She had tried to talk to Ross, the department head, but a student Leia Dawson, had been monopolizing his time.

Now, as she drove along the river, and just when she reached a particularly difficult turn, with poor visibility due to the dying light of day, she felt the bump. She had hit something with her car. A deer, she decided, but she could find no evidence of it. She walked into the woods, exploring, she had sat down for a while…and later, realized she had fallen asleep.

Later on, she drove her car and parked at the turnaround, unable to get closer to her house. Inside, she went to sleep and didn’t awaken until she heard the knocks on the door….

So begins the saga of how Nan Lewis’s life unravels over the next few weeks, with police questioning, Internet gossipers speculating about her, and seeing herself becoming a pariah in the community. And then suddenly, it all switches to another suspect. But some cannot quite leave her alone.

River Road was a story that had me following my own clues throughout. Even as I wondered if this person or that one had run over Leia Dawson, the girl found dead on the road, I had my eye on someone entirely different. I was quite happy to realize that I was right to be suspicious of that person.

Themes of drug dealing, prison, loss, plagiarism, and alcohol abuse kept me reading. I also enjoyed Nan’s first person narrative that revealed her thoughts and feelings.

I felt sorry for her losses, that her daughter was killed by a hit and run driver a few years before. How her world had turned dark, and then, very slowly started to come alive again. Watching how she fought to find the truth kept me rooting for her throughout this riveting read. 5 stars.

REVIEW: ALL THE MISSING GIRLS, BY MEGAN MIRANDA

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Nicolette Farrell had been living in Philadelphia for years, having escaped her childhood home and all that she would like to forget. Cooley Ridge, North Carolina, was a place of secrets and lies, and now…two missing girls. Corinne Prescott, ten years ago, and the latest, Annaliese Carter.

Nic’s fiancé Everett, a lawyer, has been in her life for a year…and sometimes, she acknowledges to herself that they don’t really know each other, not deep down. But is he part of her escape plan? Her way of putting the past to rest?

So why is she headed back now, after all this time? She has occasionally gone back to visit, like a year ago when she and her brother Daniel moved their dad to a facility. His mind wanders and he seems to be failing.

They want to fix up the house and sell it, needing the money.

All the Missing Girls brings to life the town, its secrets, and those who would love to keep everything buried. But who are the guilty ones? Daniel, Tyler, Jackson…all persons of interest. They all had some kind of interactions with the girls…and they all are acting a little off.

The story moves backwards, starting at Day Fifteen, and by the time we arrive at the night Annaliese went missing, we are putting the pieces together. Stunning pieces that will reveal what happened to Annaliese…and to Corinne.

Could any of them move on, putting the past behind them? Could the secrets remain buried?

I loved this story and couldn’t put the book down. The writing style very successfully kept me guessing until the very end, rooting for Nic, Daniel, and Tyler…and realizing that sometimes, the truth needs to stay hidden. 5 stars.

***My e-ARC came to me from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: JUNE, BY MIRANDA BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE

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When Cassie Danvers’ grandmother June died, she left her the huge old house, Two Oaks, in St. Jude, Ohio, built in 1895.

Cassie left New York and the loft she’d shared with her ex-boyfriend, but once she took possession of the house, she seemed to be sleeping her life away. There was much that needed to be done to the home and the surrounding gardens, but she couldn’t seem to manage it all. Nor could she find the energy to pursue her photography.

At night, Cassie dreamed of colorful people and events occurring in the house, but her days were troubled by the encroaching weeds in the garden and the mail piling up in the foyer.

Until one day when there was a knock on the door, and a young man named Nick Emmons had come to share some news. Cassie had inherited $37 million from Jack Montgomery, a Hollywood star who had just died. Apparently in the summer of 1955, he and an entourage of actors had taken up residence in St. Jude to film a movie called Erie Canal. And during that time, June and Jack might have had a romantic liaison. Cassie’s father Adelbert could have been Jack’s son.

But…in order to inherit, Cassie has to fulfill a request made by one of Jack’s daughters, Tate Montgomery, also a Hollywood celebrity, and a suspicious one at that. They must take a DNA test. Soon Tate and her assistant, along with Nick, are living with Cassie while she decides how it is going to play out. She wants more information before agreeing, so they start going through letters and interviewing townspeople who might have known something.

How might June and Jack have connected? What was the significance of the friendship between June and her next-door neighbor Lindie in 1950s Ohio? How would several betrayals and secrets thwart the lives of the characters back then? And what tragic event would change the trajectory of all their lives? In the present, does Cassie finally find answers and a kind of peace?

June was a richly layered family saga that swept back and forth through time, showing us the characters who populated the town and Two Oaks back in 1955…and then fast forwarded to the present. As the story finally unfolded, and as more and more secrets were revealed, I could not stop wondering what would happen next. The story had many beautiful as well as some sad moments, but in the end, a rich tapestry of characters, from the present and from the past, encircled Cassie and wrapped themselves around her and kept her company in her beautiful old mansion. 5 stars.

REVIEW: MOST WANTED, BY LISA SCOTTOLINE

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Christine Nilsson had been wanting a baby for a long while, and finally, after she and her husband Marcus had arranged to use donor sperm, here she was, pregnant and saying goodbye to her teaching job. For now.

But on that wonderful day, just as she was enjoying her farewell party with her colleagues, a video shows up on CNN. A man is being arrested as a suspected serial killer, and he bears a striking resemblance to their donor: Donor 3319.

How could this be? And why are the doctor and the sperm bank refusing to tell them whether or not Zachary Jeffcoat is the donor? Of course, Marcus stubbornly persists, pushing away any obstacle he sees, and threatens to sue Homestead, the donor bank.

Christine is frustrated with her husband’s behavior, and decides to take matters into her own hands. Which is how she ends up visiting Zachary in prison, pretending to be a reporter, and after a couple of interviews, she gets the information she needs. But then she has to find out if he is truly guilty, or wrongly accused.

From there, Most Wanted got really intense, and I rapidly followed along as Christine took us on a frightening rollercoaster ride while she utilized detective skills she didn’t know that she had. She aligned herself with Griff, the attorney she helped secure for Zachary, and plowed on through, in spite of Marcus’s objections.

Can their marriage survive? Will Christine find the answers she needs? Will Marcus set aside his ego and his pride for her sake? And in the end, what unexpected plot twist will change everything?

I loved this book, and the characters were so likeable, even those who were not, at times, like Marcus. Definitely a 5 star read for me.

*** My e-ARC was received from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: FIND HER, BY LISA GARDNER

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Who is Flora Dane, and what has happened to her during the time she was held captive? For 472 days, Jacob Ness, a long haul trucker, held her captive after kidnapping her in Florida while she was on spring break from her Boston college. Now, seven years later, she is attacked again, after two years home, and something unexpected happens during that event. Her Victim Advocate, Samuel Keynes, comes running when she calls. What is the nature of the special relationship between these two? Close-mouthed and hiding secrets, they know more than they are saying.

Or so believes Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren, who is called to a horrific scene near a garage in a Boston neighborhood. What she discovers is unexpected…and changes how she sees the “victim.”

As D. D. tries to piece together Flora’s story, from the past and now the present, we catch a glimpse of how she works, and what her life looks like these days. Felled by an injury, she is on “desk duty,” supposedly, but more often than not we’ll see her in the midst of the action. I always love D. D. Warren’s unique perspective on events, and enjoy visualizing a birds-eye view of how she pieces together the puzzles of her daily life as a detective. And then there is her home life. Her husband Alex, her four-year-old son Jack. These aspects of her world soften the hard edges she needs for her work. But at a moment’s notice, she is back in her detective mode, focused and skilled.

Keynes shares very little, but some believe that Flora has been on a mission to find other missing girls, specifically, Stacey Summers.

We learn more about Flora’s story through her first person narrative that takes us into the past and slowly reveals more about her very strange world. Then, after recent events, we watch current events unfold from her perspective. From inside a box to moments outside, rewarded with food and opportunities. Meeting others along the way. How would those meetings come back to haunt her in the future? Her narrative is vivid and descriptive, taking the reader into the box and captivity along with her.

Why, after this second attack, and after being home for two years, has Flora gone missing again? Who has taken her? Her first captor is dead. Isn’t he? And how is this latest event different?

Find Her is the kind of story that is both fast-paced and made up of slowly unfolding moments: first, there is the action going on in the exterior world, and then the detailed moments in Flora’s interior world. From Flora’s perspective, we learn some of her survival skills, like how she set aside her past life into a box. The memories of her life before captivity are inconsistent with her life as an inanimate object. Her advocate Samuel Keynes shares: “Survival isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. And most of the people I help, they’re still getting there.”

Stunning revelations provide the answers to all the questions, and the reader cannot help but rapidly read until the final denouement. 5 stars.

REVIEW: MULTIPLE LISTINGS, BY TRACY MCMILLAN

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Nicki Daniels, a single mother to 16-year-old Cody, has her life together in some major ways. Except for her relationships with men. Her current boyfriend, Jake, is eleven years younger, and even she knows that it won’t be long until it’s over. Because she keeps picking the wrong kind of guy.

Could her “daddy issues” have something to do with those choices? Her father, Ronnie, has been in and out of prison most of her life, with his last stint being seventeen years. Abandonment is definitely one of her emotional issues.

But life is about to change for them all: Ronnie is being paroled, and is on his way to Nicki’s house.

 
Before everything can get better, though, there will be a lot to sort through.

Multiple Listings is not what I expected. Yes, there is the real estate angle, since Nicki has a business as an appraiser. Plus, she loves going to Open Houses, and is in escrow for a big, beautiful dream house. But our story is mostly about making changes, learning how to deal with issues and relationships, and starting over. Our alternate narrators, Nicki and Ronnie, show us what is going on in their interior lives, and just when I think I am very annoyed with one of them, the other takes over, and we get to see another view of things.

Peaches is Nicki’s best friend, and she is another very annoying character who is blunt, abrasive, and makes a lot of mistakes. But instead of being remorseful, she acts judgmental with Nicki, as if she has all the answers. What will happen to change her attitude and behavior?

Then there is Melissa, the parole officer, who is totally unfit for her job, crossing all kinds of boundaries, but not accepting responsibility for her part in anything that happens. Until something brings her up short.

A novel full of realistic characters, set in the gorgeous Portland area, I felt myself completely immersed in this story until the very last page. Not predictable, although there were familiar moments that reminded me of life itself. 4.5 stars.

*** My e-ARC came to me from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: THE PASSENGER, BY LISA LUTZ

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Our story begins as Tanya Pitts Dubois contemplates the death of her husband Frank, as he lies at the bottom of the stairs. In her first person voice, we learn more about Frank than we care to know, and the humor underlying her narration, as well as my curiosity about her story, kept me reading.

Who is Tanya, and why is she running, taking on a series of identities, and moving from one place after another, always finding new ways to avoid whatever past events have propelled her onto this path?

Meeting a woman who calls herself Blue takes our protagonist on an entirely different trajectory, and her various incarnations become more interesting at this point. Will these two become cohorts on the journey? Or does Blue have a different agenda, one that will bring her onto Tanya/Amelia’s path again at some point?

As our narrator’s journey becomes more challenging, and as she encounters adversarial people and events, we also see a thread of narrative in the form of e-mails between “Ryan and Jo,” and come to conclude that these two represent moments from the past.

The Passenger was a story about mistakes, bad choices, wrongful accusations, and how one can never really correct those missteps. But sometimes one can overcome unthinkable obstacles with a little help. A shocking series of events draw the story to a close, with a final reveal that I did not see coming. 5 stars.

***My e-ARC was received from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: SHE’S NOT THERE, BY JOY FIELDING

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It was a glamorous ten-year anniversary celebration in a Mexican resort, and Hunter and Caroline Shipley, along with friends and relatives, planned a number of activities for that week. But on the last night, the babysitter did not show up, and a decision was made to leave the sleeping girls, Michelle and Samantha, ages five and two, in the room, just above their table outside…and they would check them every half hour. Hunter insisted, and Caroline went along with it.

But as all the best laid plans often go awry, that one certainly did, and a confluence of wrong things happened, leading to the kidnapping of two-year-old Samantha.

Now, fifteen years later, the trauma still follows them, with reporters showing up every time another year goes by. From the very beginning, Hunter presented well for the cameras, while Caroline’s stiff exterior made the press characterize her as cold and remote. She was vilified more than her husband, unfairly, in my opinion.

Caroline and Hunter divorce, and some of Hunter’s secrets surface, adding to the pain coursing through their lives.

But something unexpected happens in that fifteenth year. Caroline gets a call from a young girl who thinks she might be Samantha.

She’s Not There was a page-turning tale that swept back and forth in time, over the years, showing the lives of the characters, and reminding us of the pain that haunts them. Caroline blames herself for agreeing to leave the girls alone in the room when Hunter insisted on it; Michelle is belligerent and hateful most of the time, a sure sign of how events impacted her life, too. Could she be feeling overlooked? Invisible? Her behavior was annoying, but in the end, I came to feel more empathy for her.

Ultimately, I became suspicious of a number of people, and not totally stunned by the final revelations. How we learned of what happened that night did surprise me, however. I loved this story and could not stop reading it. 5 stars.

***My copy of the e-ARC came to me from the publishers via NetGalley.

REVIEW: ALL DRESSED IN WHITE, BY MARY HIGGINS CLARK/ALAFAIR BURKE

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Laurie Moran is pondering several topics for her next TV special on Under Suspicion, when a bereaved mother, Sandra Pierce, pleads her case. Her daughter Amanda disappeared five years ago on the night before her wedding in Palm Beach, Florida, and she still doesn’t know whether she is dead or alive.

When Laurie makes the pitch to her boss, Brett Young, he is reluctant…but then he is caught up in the idea of the wonderful setting and wealthy participants, so he gives the go-ahead.

After finding all the relatives and friends who were at the resort and gaining their participation, Laurie and her co-producer Alex Buckley, start gathering their information.

All Dressed in White was an engaging page-turner with a plethora of suspects, all of whom could have killed or kidnapped Amanda. Jeff Hunter, the fiancé, could be one. Or Amanda’s best friend Meghan White, who married Jeff only eighteen months after her disappearance. Then there is her jealous sister Charlotte…

Or the creepy photography intern who seems to stalk those he wants to capture on film.

While there was no shortage of suspects, it was impossible for me to guess the identity of the perpetrator until the very end. And then it was almost too late. Short chapters and tense prose kept me rapidly reading, satisfied by the denoument, even as I wondered what Laurie’s next case would be…and whether or not she and Alex would find their own happy ending. 4.5 stars.