“Count the Ways” by Joyce Maynard

Genre: Domestic Fiction/Coming of AgeCount The Ways
Publisher: William Morrow and Custom House
Pub. Date: July 13, 2021

A domestic saga set in the 1970s and 1980s that goes back and forth between past and present.  The novel opens with our protagonist Eleanor, returning to the farm she once found, owned, and lived on as mother and wife, before her divorce and life tore the family apart. In trying to be a good mother, she loses everything. The occasion for the return is the wedding of Al, Eleanor’s firstborn, who is a transgender man.  Eleanor’s past is a painful one. Her present day captures both suffering and joy. The pacing is swift and the plot turns seem authentic as the family evolves. I did think the chapters were too long, sometimes with repeating themes.  However, the book is 464 pages and one could say it needed that many pages to digest all the hurt that included two tragedies in Eleanor’s life.

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“I Couldn’t Love You More” by Esther Freud

Mini-Review

I couldn't Love you more

Genre: Family Saga
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pub. Date: June 25, 2021

First off, I accidentally bought this book. I thought I clicked, try a sample, I am glad that I made that mistake because this is a very good story. I was afraid that I bought myself a romance novel, which is a genre I do not care for. Instead, I bought a novel that examines illegitimacy in Ireland in the 1960s.  The reader follows the Kelly family from pre–World War II years to more recent times. The story is about mothers, daughters, and secrets, and it tells the narrative of three generations of women, their loves, and their decisions. The novel is narrated by three generations of women: Rosaleen’s mother, Aoife; Rosaleen herself; and Kate, Rosaleen’s daughter who was put up for adoption 10 days after she was born. Freud’s gifts for female empathy and fluid storytelling are fully evident in “I Couldn’t Love You More.” I will be reading more by this author.

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“All Adults Here” by Emma Straub

All Adults Here

Genre: Domestic Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Group
Pub. Date: May 4, 2020

“All Adults Here” celebrates families and the communities we live in. With humor and insight, the author creates a dysfunctional family worth cheering on.  Straub reminds us that we should not be so hard on ourselves, because aren’t all families a bit dysfunctional?  “Adults” has similarities to Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge.” In both novels, the protagonist is an older woman living in a small town where nothing and everything happens.  Both authors have a gift for zooming in on ordinary moments of ordinary people, which makes the reader reflect on the highs and lows in their own ordinary life.

In the present, she finds herself in a lesbian relationship that she has trouble admitting to herself, never mind to her children and to her friends. The novel is not about a lesbian partnership. Still, when the protagonist acknowledges her sexuality she grows as a person and her relationship with her children improves. Straub is exploring the fact that humans can grow at any age. This is the core of the novel. With a sharp eye for her characters’ shortcomings, she writes “Being an adult was like always growing new layers of skin, trying to fool yourself that the bones underneath were different too.”  

Although Straub takes on numerous issues:  sexuality, gender, politics, abortion, school bullying, the subject matter never seems heavy-handed. The writing is filled with a certain sweetness as well as moments of comic release. “This was the job of a parent: to fuck up, over and over again. This was the job of a child: to grow up anyway.” The only criticism that this reviewer can find is that the feel-good mood, optimistic view set in the tale suggests most things will work out in the end. In reality that is not always true. Still, this multi-generational saga is a very good heartwarming read.

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“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre:  Literary Fiction/Family Saga Night. Sleep. Death
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Pub. Date:  June 9, 2020

Joyce Carol Oates has long been a favorite literary author of mine. Just when I think that she can’t do it again—write another gripping family saga—she does. The book’s title comes from the closing lines of Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight.” The poem “refers to the moment of transition that happens from one day to the next. The moment is used as a metaphor from changing corporeal existence to the spiritual existence.” The interruption of the poem is from PoetAndPoem.com. Yes, I needed to look up its meaning. Once I got it, I could easily see how its message is used repeatedly throughout this weighty novel of 800 pages.

The theme of “Night” is familiar to fans of Oates. Once again, she is writing about love and loss, which most would agree are preoccupations in our lives as well as in our literature. Oates has lost two husbands, one after forty-seven years of marriage, and the other after ten. I read her 2011 memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” which she wrote after the death of her first husband. There she suggests that to get through the agonizing grief, “the widow should think I kept myself alive.” In this novel, the author holds nothing back when writing on the psychological effects of grief on Jessalyn, who is one of the main characters, and a grieving widow. The novel is filled with her emotions of shock, loss, feelings of unreality, and thoughts of never loving again. Oates didn’t write personally after the loss of her second husband. I can’t help but wonder if she chose to tell any of that story here. The author has said no such thing, to be sure.

In this big, sprawling tale, Oates takes her readers to a small town located in upstate New York. Along with examining grief, healing and a family coming undone, the author takes on race and class issues. The story revolves around John Earle “Whitey” McClaren, a successful 67-year-old husband and father with a big personality. He is the anchor of the family as well as the respected former mayor of the town. When he sees two cops beating a defenseless, nonwhite man, he stops his car to intervene. The police do not recognize him and they use their taser guns on him repeatedly. Consequently, he has a stroke. And that is it for Whitey. Oates has him die in the hospital soon afterward.

The rest of the tale centers around Whitey’s widow and five adult children, all with very different personalities.  All the kids lose their footing after their father’s death. Their fragile mental states are not immediately noticeable as with their mother, but they all experience life-altering changes. Oates writes the family’s pecking order at a pace that begins slow and controlled, but builds up angrily. Out of all of the kids, the youngest son is the most sympathetic character. He is the black sheep of the family and at the bottom of the pecking order. The author portrays him with bone-deep loneliness. The middle daughter is a high school principal. She transfers her anger onto her students. She actually (spoiler) sabotages some kids by editing their transcripts so they will not get into their first choice colleges. The author has never shied away from writing on the dark side of human nature.

“Night” has been compared to Oates’ 1996 “We Were the Mulvaneys,” which is a saga about another family living in a small, rural upstate New York town, which happens to be where she grew up. “Mulvaneys” is one of my favorite novels by the author. I believe that it is superior to “Night.” An argument can be made that “Night” takes on too many characters with too many details. It can leave the reader thinking that each character’s story should be a novel in itself, making the story feel bloated. Indeed, the master storyteller’s latest novel (according to her website, this is her 59th) is long. Whether it’s too long is debatable—at times yes, at times no. Still, the poetic quality of the author’s prose is worth your time. When all is said and done, the thing about Oates, is after reading her work, it becomes impossible not to notice when you are reading a mediocre novel. That is the power of Joyce Carol Oates.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett

Genre: Domestic FictionThe Dutch House
Publisher: Harper
Pub. Date: September 24, 2019

After reading a mystery, a feel-good story, and a psychological thriller, this reviewer felt overjoyed to sink my teeth into literary fiction once again.  I can and do appreciate some contemporary reads, but this mythical novel felt like coming home, especially since the story explores the meaning of home itself.  It is not a spoiler to point out that this is a family-saga disguised as a dark fairy tale revolving around a house. The author breathes as much life into the house as the characters. It is not farfetched to say that the house itself is the main protagonist.

The book begins in1946 when a real estate mogul buys a fully furnished, Gatsby-like mansion, as a surprise for his wife.  Turns out that she hates the house, but his five-year-old daughter loves it.  Their son is born 8 years later.  The narrative jumps around in time through the son’s voice.  When the boy is three-years-old, his mother deserts the family, leaving the siblings devastated.  This is how his older sister becomes his main caretaker.  The bond between them is unwavering, even when the boy is a grown man.  Their closeness puts a strain on his marriage. When the siblings are 12 and 19 years old, their father marries a young widow with two little girls of her own.  The wicked stepmother from Cinderella has arrived. When the older sister visits home during a college break, she discovers that her stepmother has given her bedroom—which is the best room in the house—to her little stepsisters. An unused room in the attic is now her bedroom.

The author does a good job of showing rage through humor throughout the novel.   When the older sister learns about the room change she laughs and says, “It’s just like ‘The Little Princess!’ when the girl (Shirley Temple in the movie version of the book), loses all of her money and so they put her in the attic.” She demonstrates this skill with all of her characters, including the loving and long-suffering nanny, cook and housekeeper. The only small room in the house is the kitchen. As the cook says, “that was because the only people ever meant to see the kitchen were the servants.”

It would be wise to remember that you are reading a fairytale, if not the book will feel unrealistic. Put in the fairytale genre the story is as fascinating as the author’s 2011 novel, “State of Wonder,” which also has a mythical feel.  “House” stayed with me after I finished the book. I deliberately did not read the initial reviews. (I missed the ARC reviewers’ suggested deadline on this one). I came to believe that the book is mostly a coming-of-age story, as well as a reflection on one’s childhood as an adult. The author seems to ask the question, ‘Why do we repeat the same mistakes as our parents?’ In addition, wonders, ‘Why do some of us have childhoods that could have been written by the Brothers Grimm?’ Finally, ‘What one may need to accomplish to change our life story’s ending?’

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Genre:           Family Saga/Historical FictionUnsheltered
Publisher:    HarperCollins
Pub. Date:    October 16, 2018

Barbara Kingsolver is a powerhouse of a writer and one of my preferred authors.  “Poisonwood Bible” remains a favorite book of mine.  In her latest novel, she sticks with her familiar themes—environment, religion, and social issues.  The setting goes back and forth between America’s current troubles to America’s troubled past.  In the present, we meet a fictional college-educated, middle-class family who live in the real-life city of Vineland, NJ.  To their shock, a few career setbacks and an ailing parent’s medical bills have caused a downgrade in their economic status.  Kingsolver is at her best when asking “how could this have happened to us?…we did everything right.”  She makes it easy to realize that your life too could turn on a dime.  To add to the family’s woes, their centuries-old house is literally crumbling around them.  Willa, the family matriarch, has learned that their house may have once been the home to real-life Mary Treat. Treat was a self-taught naturalist and correspondent with Charles Darwin.  Willa begins to write a historical preservation grant in hopes that the grant will pay for the house renovations.

In the past, Kingsolver takes us back to when Mary Treat was a working naturalist, which was immediately post civil war.   Her reasons for this time period are clear and very clever.  The troubles for the family in current times begin when Trump announced he was running for president.  Donald Trump’s name never appears in the novel but it is clear that he is “the Bullhorn…who promises to restore the old order…the billionaire running for president who’s never lifted a finger in work…the candidate who brags that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.”   The past is my favorite part of the book since it is such a classroom experience without the homework assignments.  I was fascinated to learn that back then, Vineland was created to be a utopian community.  It was founded by nonfictional Charles Landis.   He was a Trumpian-like real estate developer who really did shoot someone in the middle of the street and get away with it.   Landis had a strong dislike for Darwin since the opinion of the times was that Darwin was threatening religious beliefs.  He did not want Darwin’s theories, or any already proven scientific facts to be taught in Vineland’s schools.  Sounds familiar right?  Trump’s (so-called) Christian anti-science moves are spelled out loud and clear.  In an interview with Kirkus Reviews, Kingsolver states, “I chose the 1870s as my alternate world because I knew it was a really difficult, polarized moment in our history…..Racial divisions, urban/rural divisions, North/South divisions—those rifts were ripped open by the Civil War.”

I left out reviewing a few very good subplots for they would be spoilers.  Between the alternating timelines, I preferred the story in the past.  The present-day timeline borders on preachy.   How we long for careers that ultimately fail to bring happiness or sometimes not even financial stability.   How spoiled we can be.  How we want and waste.  All true, but no one likes a lecture in the middle of a story no matter how much you may like the plot and the characters.  Oddly, the past felt fresh.  I enjoyed reading about young America’s growing pains.  How hard the scientific minds had to fight to be heard.   I do have a rather petty criticism on the writing.  The words “sheltered” and “unsheltered” come up repeatedly.   It felt as if Kingsolver didn’t think her audience capable of making the connections.   I don’t believe that in her book ‘Poisonwood Bible,’ (which is about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo) the title words pop up at all.  She trusted that her readers would make the connection that, like a poisonwood tree, religion too can become dangerous when mishandled.   This does not mean that I didn’t enjoy “Unsheltered,” for I very much did.  And, will not think twice about recommending the book.  As usual, Kingsolver gives her readers plenty to wonder about.  In this novel, she does an amazing job of penning an engaging story about human existence combined with a well-researched tale on past and present American politics.

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“The Rain Watcher” by Tatiana de Rosnay

Genre:           Historical and General FictionThe rain watcher
Publisher:     St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:     October 23, 2018

To begin with, let me tell you that the real characters in this family saga are not the characters, but rather Paris itself and the weather.   I read and enjoyed Tatiana de Rosnay’s previous historical novel “Sarah’s Key” which also takes place in Paris but during WWII.   I found her soon to be published novel, “The Rain Watcher” less enjoyable.  The story mostly takes place in the present.  The author’s descriptions of the city in a natural crisis will take your breath away.  Unfortunately, the rest of the plot will not.

In this tearjerker, you will meet a family whose members are filled with pent-up tensions along with secrets (sounds like most families to me).  The adult daughter and son are joining their parents in Paris for their dad’s 70th birthday.  Both offspring suffer from Post Traumatic Stress for different reasons.  The son is gay and was bullied as a child.  At almost 40, he still has not come out to his dad.  The daughter as a teen was in a car accident where she was the sole survivor.  The mother has her own secrets.  The son is a well-known photographer.  The story is narrated in the first person through his photographer’s lens—good descriptive writing.   In a nutshell, the dad has a stroke and the mother gets pneumonia.   Somehow, while taking care of their parents, they all heal as a family.    If only it is this easy in real life.  Not even one shrink makes it into the plot filled with dysfunctional characters.  I didn’t expect to find such a worn out cliché from this talented author.

Now here is the interesting part of the novel and why the book can be marketed as historical fiction:   In between the soap opera, we learn about the evocation of Paris in 1910 when the actual Seine River flooded.  The powerful event is well researched and horrifying.   In “Rain” we read a fictional story that’s set in midst of a real disaster.  The father is now in the hospital.  He cannot communicate but is aware of what is happening as the evacuation begins.   This is the best writing in the book.  The water floods the first floor of the hospital and panic sets in.  The City of Lights is now without electric light.  You will feel the father’s terror as he is moved in a coffin-like sealed casing.  Think of the movie, “The Poseidon Adventure” but in a building filled with sick, helpless people.  Unfortunately, this chapter is not enough to save the novel, with its ceaseless rain, which gives the whole book a dreary feel.  Although much happens, it is still a slow read.  As I said, all in all, this is a story about Parisian weather and not much else.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Father Figure” by James J. Cudney

father-figure-main-fileGenre:             Contemporary Fiction
Publisher:      Creativia Publishing House
Pub. Date:      April 2, 2018

Picture a story that cuts between two teenage girls living in very different places and times, without explaining their relationship to the reader.  This is just the puzzle that the author, James J. Cudney, goes for and solves.  One heroine lives in the Deep South, in a shoddy town in Mississippi.  She grows up with an abusive mother, that I promise you will hate.   The other girl lives in hip NYC, the Big Apple.   She grows up with a loving mother who you will like and admire.  She is a wonderful mom even though she struggles with single mom issues such as financial strain, social isolation, exhaustion, and guilt.   You will wonder why this lovely mom keeps secrets from her daughter.  Both girls go off to college in Pennsylvania where their young adult lives begin.  However, first, the author teases us with a few pages of the mystery that the reader is about to be swept up in.

The story goes back and forth in time.  We meet the sweet and completely naïve Southern girl in 1984.  How she remains such a nice person while living with daily abuse is another mystery for this reviewer.  As a retired social worker, I wish her personality traits could be bottled to be shared with real life abuse survivors.  You will fall in love with her.  Then we meet the feisty and rebellious Northern girl in the year 2004.  The city teen does not realize how good her life is because her constant focus is on wondering who her father is.  Her mom refuses to say a word.   Choosing to write this tale from past and present in alternating chapters keeps with the plot’s main mystery: just what is the connection between the young women?

Cudney does a great job of nailing female teenage angst, especially since one of the girls is struggling with her sexual identity.  I am thinking of one particular scene where this girl decides to lose her virginity to help her decide whether she is gay or straight.  The author has a nice little twist here, which I never saw coming.  I will not spoil your pleasure by discussing the other shockers.  But, I will share that I did guess the link regarding one of the mothers, although it took me awhile.   Here is my own teaser: there might be more than one father figure in this book, but whom?  I hope I am leaving you purposely confused.

For me as a woman, this book was particularly interesting because of the insight it gave into the young female psyche who want nothing more than to experience a mutual adoring relationship with their dads.

FF image

Not many male writers can achieve success in writing in a teen female voice.  I enjoy that the city girl does not try to be a “good girl” (though deep down I feel that she really is).  Although the characters can feel a bit too one-sided, being all good or all bad, this is a fine family saga page-turner.   I didn’t get that feeling of “not another YA book posing as an adult work of fiction.”  Expect your emotions to be all over the place.  You will read enough abusive horrors, in more ways than one.   Be prepared to cry.   There are also enough moments of love to put a smile on your face, and enough suspense to keep you turning pages.  When all is said and done, the novel has a real Agatha Christie feel to it.  I recommend “Father Figure” to all who enjoy contemporary fiction filled with twists.

The author has given a copy of his book to me for an honest review.   I have been in friendly contact with him through our book blogs and Goodreads, but in no way does this influence my review.

“Father Figure” is on Amazon at:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BW77CWQ?tag=creati0a5-20

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