Book Report: Motherhood is like playing with fire

51kgOTJWNXLLittle Fires Everywhere

Notions of motherhood and parenting play a central role in Celeste Ng’s second novel as they did in her first, Everything I Never Told You.  She explores this basic question: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” And what do we do for (and to) our children in our efforts to fulfill that duty. The book starts with a fire that destroys a home.

“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin. Possible use of an accelerant. Not an accident.”

A sample of the author’s words about parenting:

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches…. a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and asps it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it like and eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”
“Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed: if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
“Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less…. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”

Recommend.

Personal note: Although I have enjoyed talking about books with you, I will be taking a break from writing about every book I read. In the new year I want to focus my efforts on a major rewrite of my novel. <heavy sigh here> Ties That Bind needs my full attention if it’s ever going to get done. There may be an occasional blurb about something I’ve LOVED, but that’s it.

I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, and productive New Year! XO

Book Report: Secrets can kill

515uxhpBakLEverything I Never Told You

This is easily the most powerful book I’ve read in a long time. The author chose an omniscient point of view–God’s eye view—and begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

The suspense comes in finding out just how the teenage Lydia Lee died. Every member of this family has a theory and each has left things unsaid for years. Their unvoiced everyday desires and concerns resonated with me. I’ll offer Celeste Ng’s own words to give you a taste of this haunting novel.

 “How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mothers’ and fathers’ mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

“At the time, Marilyn had laughed. What secrets could a daughter keep from her mother, anyway? Still, every year, she gave Lydia another diary. Now she thinks of all those crossed out phone numbers, that long list of girls who said they barely knew Lydia at all. Of boys from school. Of strange men who might lurch out of the shadows. With on finger, she tugs out the last diary: 1977. It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can. Who she had been seeing. When she had lied to them. Why she went down to the lake.”

“Little bumps pocked the page all over, as if it had been out in the rain, and Lydia stroked them like Braille with her fingertip. She did not understand what they were until a tear splashed against the page. When she wiped it away, a tiny goose bump remained. Another formed, then another. Her mother must have cried over this page, too.”

“And Lydia herself—the reluctant center of their universe—every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within. Years passed. …Lydia knew what they wanted so desperately, even when they didn’t ask. Every time, it seemed such a small thing to trade for their happiness. So she studied algebra in the summertime. She put on a dress and went to the freshman dance. She enrolled in biology at the college. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, all summer long. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

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Author, Celeste Ng

I’ve just begun reading Ng’s well-reviewed next novel, Little Fires Everywhere.

Were you raised in a barn? I was.

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See that barn behind the baby? The baby is me and the barn became my house.

My younger brother and I often laugh at the fact that we were indeed raised in a barn. Or what used to be a chicken shed at the edge of an orange grove and next to the railroad tracks. No brag. Just fact.

You see, in the late 1940s, my grandparents purchased the remnants of the Valencia Dale Ranch on East North Street in Anaheim, California. The ranch included a few orange trees, a rundown farmhouse, and a large, albeit even more rundown chicken shed. My Irish grandmother always noted, even when viewing the most derelict and dilapidated of buildings, “Well, it’s got possibilities.” And she was stubborn enough to set about proving her point.

When I was born in 1950, my dad joined the Marine Corps Reserves for the little extra monthly income it provided. Little did he know that a few months later, war would break out in Korea. He was called up to serve for a year, until the regulars arrived. In preparation for that year of separation, my mom and I moved into a recently finished little room beside the barn, just across the driveway from my grandparents’ farmhouse.

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Mom and I lived in the room on the right while Dad was in Korea. When he returned, the conversion of the chicken shed began.

A year later, when my dad came home, my grandparents offered my parents what they could–that barn. And over the next decade, that sad shed became a warm and cozy home for me and my little brother, born nine months after Daddy’s return.

Both my parents and grandparents exhibited resourcefulness and inventiveness, converting what they had into what they wanted.

So, no. I don’t consider being raised in a barn an insult.

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That’s me, at the front door a few years later. That bird on top of the porch lives in my kitchen now.
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One of many Christmas card photos taken at the Dutch door my dad and grandpa installed. The door later became a perfect stage for our puppet shows.

 

 

Book Report: A hero with a passion for public service

41nczJM0fwLThe Salvation of San Juan Cajon

Last month at my 50th high school reunion, I chatted with a Michael G. Vail, a classmate who had just published his first novel. And since I know how difficult it is for unknown writers to get the word out about their books, I bought it and read it.

The title and lack of cover art gave me no clue as to the genre or subject matter. A spy thriller? Historical fiction? A military saga? So, I just started reading, hoping I could review it positively.

I am relieved to say that I can.

It turns out to be a modern heroic tale. Think Don Quixote living in Southern California in the late 20th century. Our unlikely hero, workaholic Micah Wada, is a facilities planner for the San Juan Cajon School District which is facing the impossible situation of massive overcrowding and nowhere to grow. Contentious factions, including the school board, city hall, California State Legislature, and the diverse population of the community must come to consensus or lose funding for a proposed and much needed new high school. Economic, cultural, and racial issues are pitted against each other. And then there is a suspicious death of a prominent woman.

Micah is a widower and has built his very successful professional life around solving such problems, but his failure as a father gnaws at his conscience. His teenage son ran away four years ago and he has no idea where he is.

If you have ever worked for a school or municipality, or wondered why public projects take forever to accomplish–this story will likely resonate with you. Mike’s insider knowledge–borne of a career as a manager of facilities and construction for some of California’s largest school districts—illuminates the challenges of balancing conflicting interests for the greater good.

Mike even left room at the end to carry the story forward. Good job!

Book report: A lusty, time-traveling romance

51PrW27sXWLWhile my daughter has been a fan of the STARZ TV series for a while and I’d known of the books’ popularity, I had resisted starting the series. But when the Outlander series was named the second most popular book on PBS’s Great America Read poll, I decided to give it a try just to see what the fuss was about. Besides, I had several long trips and car rides coming up and could dedicate enough time to read its 642 pages. I loaded up my Kindle and set off on what turned out to be an epic journey.

Author, Diana Gabaldon’s skill as a storyteller is evident on every page–telling details, romance, adventure, sex, and history all leave a trail of breadcrumbs compelling readers to keep turning pages. And her judicious use of Gaelic and Scottish words, folklore, and culture immerse the reader deeply into the time and place.

The gist: A young and strong-willed British Army nurse, Claire Randall and her husband are enjoying a second honeymoon in Scotland after WWII when she is unexpectedly transported through a time portal at a stone circle. She finds herself suddenly in a time two hundred years in the past. Claire’s goal, at first, is to get back to her husband and her own time as quickly as she can. However, she is assaulted by a nasty Redcoat–who bears a striking resemblance to her husband—and then rescued somewhat roughly by a band of kilt-wearing Scotsmen.

And thus begins her adventure in which her nursing skills and knowledge of local flora are called into service repeatedly, mostly saving the life of the young, strapping, red-headed Jamie, who of course becomes her love (and lust) interest.

When at last Claire is offered a chance to return will she take it? Is she bound by her marriage vow to a man who hasn’t yet been born? Will she thrive as a physician or be burned as a witch?

So many scrapes. So much swashbuckling. So much sex.  All very enjoyable, but I think I’ll not read the rest of the eight-book Outlander series just now. There are simply too many other books out there winking at me and crooking their fingers. So many books, so little time.

We are always the same age inside

VHSThree weeks ago, I attended my fiftieth high school reunion and it was amazing. Simply amazing. Amazing that it’s been fifty years since graduation. Amazing to reconnect with those friends. Most amazing though, was that despite my advanced age, the friends I made at Valencia High School are still teaching me things or at least reinforcing lessons I’ve learned along the way.

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For over forty years, I have lived in Northern Nevada (near Tahoe, not Vegas) and 500 miles from my home town of Placentia, California just east of Los Angeles. However, because of the internet, I could serve as part of the “virtual” planning committee. I helped with social media posts, emails, and some cyber-sleuthing. I learned to search county assessors’ records for addresses, proving that you can indeed teach an old dog a new trick.

 

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Our kindergarten class in 1955. At least seven of these adorable little ones attended the reunion. Three of us even helped plan the reunion. Below is our committee enjoying a pre-reunion picnic.

43088532_10215165656848206_7160829016469929984_nAs plans progressed we were excited to reconnect with long-lost friends and enjoyed many virtual reunions on Facebook and via email. You see, some of us had started kindergarten together when our little town was a sleepy place in the heart of Orange County, surrounded by orange groves. Our downtown boasted a packing house next to the train tracks and a Rexall drugstore with a soda fountain. The population was less than 2K in 1950. By 1968 it had grown ten times to over 20K. Much of that growth was due to the burgeoning aerospace industry for which Placentia became a bedroom community. Today the population of Placentia is about 52K.

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Placentia’s iconic water tower.

And while I’ve been gone from Southern California for decades, others never left. They are still friends with and see each other in real life—not just on Facebook. A few married their high school sweethearts.

Over one hundred attended the party. Some flew in from across the country. One flew in from his home in Denmark. I’m sure there were many bionic hips and knees, and some spinal fusions and cataract surgeries, and surely a few heart attacks, strokes, and cancer scares. Still, it was surprising–given we are all the same age–the range of how old we looked. Some were still rockin’ on the dance floor–and playing in the band!–until midnight. Others used a cane or a scooter to get around. Some had changed so much that I could have passed them on the street and not known them. Others retained so much of their youthful selves that aside from wearing glasses and a few extra pounds, I would have known them anywhere. A few looked 45 at most. (I’m looking at you, Theresa, Judy, and Gail!) Some looked 80. Happily, I think I was somewhere in the middle.

I’ve learned that how we age is not only the choices we make. It’s not all about sunscreen, exercise, and low-carbs. It’s a matter of our genetics, what life throws our way, and how we weather those challenges. Illness, family tragedies, financial stresses, and access to healthcare all work to age us and make us look and feel older than we are. I know I’ve been lucky and am grateful.

I have to admit some trepidation about how we’d get along for an evening, consdering the horrific, hateful state of American politics–and the presence of alcohol. This was Orange County, after all. Reagan Country and the home of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. But I shouldn’t have worried. No one talked politics, at least not in my presence and I hopped from group to group all night. We were simply so happy to see one another that potential bones of contention just didn’t come up. Go figure.

Happily, I discovered that I would choose many of these people as friends again. They are still smart, kind, compassionate, and funny—the same qualities I look for in new friends. I had good taste, even in high school. A prime example is my long-time, long-distance friendship with Bruce who was one of my two handsome and charming “dates” for the evening. The other was my brother, one of my favorite people in the world.

I also learned that reminders of our mortality are everywhere. Of the nearly 400 members of the class of 1968, thirty had passed—that we know of. They had succumbed to the Vietnam War, suicide, AIDs, cancer, heart attacks, and accidents. Given our age, this will become much more common. In fact, three classmates have passed just since the reunion. I know there are more goodbyes in our future.

My biggest regret however, was that the reunion was simply too short. There wasn’t enough time to sit and visit with more than a few people. The cancer researcher who was in my wedding. Two retired nurses who moved across the country to live near their children. The she who used to be he. The surfer girl who settled in Idaho. And a dozen more…

Sadly, this reunion will likely be the last for many of us. Maybe we shouldn’t wait ten years to get together again at our 60th. At our age, just being alive is something worth celebrating, right? I think 55 years sounds good. Or maybe 51.

Book Report: Just one kiss

51Y+LLxP6nL“It Only Takes a Kiss” is the second in Wilma Counts’ “Once Upon a Bride” trilogy, in which she gives three familiar stories the Regency Romance treatment. Kiss is inspired by Sleeping Beauty, but in this tale both the hero and heroine have been asleep.

Hero Whitby is her physician father’s assistant in every way allowed in her time and place. Now in her mid-twenties, she is intelligent and compassionate, but mistrustful of the men of her class. Hero has buried the reason for her mistrust—a brutal assault by some upper class boys. She remains “on the shelf.”

When a badly beaten, unconscious, and handsome stranger is brought to her father’s Devonshire clinic in the dead of night, Hero and her father patch him and wait days for him to regain consciousness. Hero finds herself drawn to him, and inspired by the fairy tale, kisses the sleeping patient.

When Alexander Stern awakens, he has no memory of his identity, although his nightmares are of bloody battles in Wellington’s army on the Peninsula.

Having read several of Ms. Counts books, I appreciate how she places her stories in the historical and social context of the period. She brings readers into the time not only with her skillful use of language but also with pertinent details of clothing, food, women’s issues, customs, and the workings of local estates. Estates were not merely grand houses, occupied by an oblivious upper class. Estates were economic centers that needed to be wisely managed and maintained. Farms, mills, breweries, mines, and all other industry worked together for the community’s well-being. The local aristocracy could make or break the system.

In Kiss, the town of Weyburn has for years been terrorized by Willard Teague, the estate’s evil steward. Teague exerts considerable power in the absence of the Weyburn heir who has been off soldiering on the Peninsula or whoring in London. Teague and his band of bully boys use the vacant estate, its mine, and farms in an increasingly violent smuggling operation. Teague employs fear and coercion to enlist the reluctant cooperation of the citizenry. And he’s got his eye on Hero as his next wife. <shudder>

Teague’s advances repulse Hero. After all, she treated his first wife for the abuse he dispensed. She also sees patients at a local home for unwed mothers, the unhappy result of men exerting their power.

“The young mothers were of two sorts: either daughters of upper class, even aristocratic families, or servant who had been seduced—or, in some cases, raped—by males in such households. The babes were most often placed with foster families.”

In fact, Hero has taken in one such child, raising little Annabelle as a member of her family.

As the story unfolds, most of what Hero holds dear in life is threatened–Annabelle’s place in her home, her position as her father’s assistant, the lives of her siblings, and her romance with the handsome stranger.

When all seems lost, Ms. Counts compels readers to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, complete with a little swashbuckling and, of course, a happily ever after for the newly awakened lovers.

 

Book Report: The President is Missing

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If this hadn’t been a book club choice, I might have overlooked The President is Missing, simply because of the hype—the teaming up of two bestselling authors. Seriously? I guess I’m a bit contrary. Besides, I haven’t read the much in the mystery/thriller/suspense genre for more than twenty years when both my husband and I read a lot of Tom Clancy. He read for the technology; I read for the story. Happily, this book is loaded with both.

President Jonathan Duncan is facing a congressional inquiry and possible impeachment when warning of a credible cyber-threat reaches him through his daughter. The book weaves foreign policy, cyber warfare, terrorism, political ambition, and infighting into the narrative through vividly drawn characters and taut action. Who is the assassin aiming at? Who hired her? Who is the traitor among the President’s closest advisors? Who developed this virus? And what would happen if all the collected data stored on the cloud and our computers simply disappeared? Would we find ourselves thrust back into the Dark Ages?

“I lower my head and close my eyes, shutting out the rest of the room. I have a team of highly competent, well-trained professionals advising me. But I am making this decision alone. There is a reason that the founders of our country put a civilian in charge of the military. Because it is not only about military effectiveness. It’s also about policy, about values, about what we stand for as a nation.”

Patterson is skilled at creating and maintaining suspense. Written in present tense, each scene feels visceral and immediate. And the little cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter that forces you to turn the page and stay up past your bedtime? Masterful.
Clinton, on the other hand, knows firsthand about the complexity and frustrations, the power and limitations of being the President of the United States. He sees the big picture as well as all the moving parts.

“Our democracy cannot survive its current downward drift into tribalism, and seething resentment. Today it’s ‘us versus them’ in America. Politics is little more than blood sport. As a result, our willingness to believe the worst about everyone outside our own bubble is growing, and our ability to solve problems and seize opportunities is shrinking.”

If you’re up for a thrilling and satisfying ride, this book is your ticket. Recommend.

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Co-authors, Bill Clinton and James Patterson