REVIEW: GOLDEN STATE, BY STEPHANIE KEGAN

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Natalie Askedahl grew up in Sacramento as the youngest of three children in a political family, regularly meeting up with the power brokers in the state’s capital.

Their parents were idealistic, but they reared their children with a kind of benign neglect, not really catering to them, but leaving them to their own devices. Natalie’s big brother Bobby was brilliant, sensitive, and looked out for her; she believed he would always be her hero, and he made her feel safe.

Now that Natalie is grown, with her own family, and enjoying her life in Berkeley with her husband and two daughters, she is distanced from her family of origin, which now consists of her aging mother, and her older sister Sara, living the hippie life in Potter Valley. None of them have seen Bobby in years, who lives in a small shack in Idaho, and he doesn’t answer their letters. But Natalie still idolizes him in her mind.

One day, her world is shattered when a bomb goes off on the Berkeley campus, where her fifteen year old daughter Julia is spending the day. Then, more bombs go off in the subsequent weeks, and while others are wondering about the “Cal Bomber,” responsible for numerous bombings over the years, Natalie is beginning to have a sinking feeling. She realizes that the bomber’s manifesto, as published in the newspaper, is sickeningly similar to a letter Bobby sent to their mother.

What Natalie does next will change everything about her life, until it is reduced to “before and after.” Promises were broken, and now Natalie and her family are in the eye of the storm, with reporters hounding them at every turn. Will her marriage be shattered in the wake of everything that transpires? Can she ever return to her job as a teacher again?

Narrated in Natalie’s first person voice, we see her horrific dilemma…and we also learn, through her memories, about how she grew up, and even some of the ways their family looked away from the hard realities in order to see themselves as good and dedicated people, with a loving family life. The challenges of facing reality, and the mental illness that has taken over her brother’s life, will be one of Natalie’s greatest tasks in the months ahead.

The characters were like real people, and I felt for everyone in the story, from the victims to the man at the center of the storm. Natalie’s husband Eric, however, in my opinion, was too focused on how others would perceive him, and how everything happening would affect his position as a partner in a prestigious law firm. He was less than sympathetic to what Natalie was experiencing. In fact, he railroaded her into taking the action that would lead to the train wreck that would become their life.

A slow build kept me glued to the pages, wondering if anything good could come of their lives. The drama unfolded and while there were no big surprises, Golden State: A Novel did pack a wallop, leaving me much to ponder. To consider how any of us could make a right choice in a situation like this one. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: THE POCKET WIFE, BY SUSAN CRAWFORD

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For many years, ever since her college days, Dana Catrell has had ups and downs. Her manic episodes and her depressions, all part of the diagnosed bipolar disorder, take over her life, especially when she is off her medications.

There are times when she can maintain, can control the ups and downs.

But the day that her neighbor Celia Steinhauser was bludgeoned to death in her home was not one of those days. That day, she felt very much out-of-control. And she was drunk. Her memory has blank spots, and for a while, she has an eerie feeling that she might have killed her friend. After all, she was presumably the last one to see her alive.

Her husband Peter, a lawyer, is not helping. Everything he does seems to increase her manic episodes, her feelings that she is going crazy, and his dismissive attitude makes her feel insignificant. As if she is something one could stuff in a pocket and forget about.

The Pocket Wife: A Novel takes the reader on the scary ride that is Dana’s life, with her mind teetering on the edge, as someone, including her husband, seems bent on making her feel crazier. And perhaps guilty.

But Detective Jack Moss, assigned to the case, is not so sure Dana is guilty. As he investigates, interviews persons of interest, and gathers evidence, the signs seem to point to more going on than what might seem obvious.

Who else had the most to gain by Celia’s death? Who is the woman in the photo with Peter, the one Celia showed Dana that day? What, if anything, does she have to do with what is happening now? And is Jack’s son, damaged by his parents’ divorce years before, somehow connected to the events of that day?

I did not figure out who had actually killed Celia until the story was nearing its conclusion. I had my suspicions about the person who was charged with the murder, but the denouement was definitely stunning. And worth the wait.

Peter was a slimy character, and so was Celia’s husband Ronald. There were a number of people who were unlikeable, but despite her flaws and her mental instability, and despite her unreliability as a narrator, Dana was someone I was rooting for throughout the story. I had high hopes that one of the sleazy characters would be guilty. Recommended for those who enjoy psychological thrillers. 5 stars.

REVIEW: WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU, BY SARAH CORNWELL

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It is summer when Olivia, newly single mom to Carrie and Daniel, takes them on a road trip to Ocean Vista, the place on the Jersey Shore where she grew up. A place where she is hoping to find something…she knows not what. But it might be the very thing that helps her understand and make sense of her world.

They are enroute to their new home In New York, a home that is half hers, and where she spent some of her teen years. It is where the moving pod awaits them.

In back and forth moments, Olivia’s past and present weave themselves around her, in a dreamlike manner. We see her as a teenager here at this very shore, exploring her independence and rebelling against her mother’s strangeness. Her mother’s psychic “otherness,” her disappearances, the very essence of her illness. Something that Olivia would not come to understand for many years. A thing that is part of her, and now is in Daniel.

He was diagnosed with his bipolar disorder the year before. Olivia blames the end of her marriage to Sam on his inability to cope. But she knows there is more to it.

So when Daniel disappears one day at the shore, Olivia’s search takes her into all the remote places of her life as she looks for her missing son. It is almost like a remembering and an exploration…a quest for herself, her mother, and now her son.

What is the meaning of Olivia’s flashes at the shore long ago? Those “sisters” she keeps seeing, who are fleeing from her? Are they her mother’s lost “twins,” the ones she described to Olivia? Are they ghosts? Or has she conjured them in her imagination? What will Olivia find when she goes to New York that summer as a teen? What unanswered questions will lead to even more?

A story about fractured families, mental illness, and one woman’s desire to know herself, while also rediscovering who her mother was, What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel is a disturbing, sometimes mystical, and oftentimes illusory tale about finding oneself. I loved some of the lyrical writing, although I was also lost at times; the shifting perspectives and scenes, going back and forth in time, were hard to follow. But I felt I had a complete grasp of Olivia’s first person voice, and really enjoyed this passage near the end, as she talks about her mother’s untreated illness:

“Here is what I would say to those people who would judge her, what I would say to myself on some days: What if all the transcendent moments of your life, the sound-track moments, the radiant detail, the gleaming thing at the center of life that loves you, that loves beauty–God or whatever you call it–what if all this were part of your illness? Would you seek treatment? I have, and sometimes I wonder if the greatest passions are just out of my reach. And sometimes I am so grateful….”

An unforgettable story….4 stars.