Don't miss my NEW Bossypants review (under Memoirs & Autobiographies)
and The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes review (under the Fiction tab).
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Fiction Reviews

The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes
By Diane Chamberlain

CeeCee Wilkes, an independent teenager, makes a series of terribly bad decisions.  Caught up in the charming wiles of a blue-eyed handsome college-aged man, Timothy Gleason, CeeCee is easily coerced and manipulated into participating in a serious crime involving the governor and his pregnant wife. The lies snowball over time until CeeCee, now Eve Elliot, finds herself so far in that she can’t find a way out.  The story involves an underground world for convicts, kidnapping, murder and mystery.  But it’s really about CeeCee coming to terms with her own personal values, her own maternal instincts, and what it truly means to love and nurture others.  The story took a while to grab my attention.  I liked the book once it picked up the pace.  Then I was curious as to what would happen next.  At times, I was sympathetic to CeeCee’s situation especially when she was young and naive.  Most often, I didn’t care for CeeCee at all because she showed little personal growth for being portrayed as such an intelligent and caring individual. I’m sure CeeCee isn’t the first or last nice girl to be smitten by a good looking charming man, but most wouldn’t take it this far.  I hear there’s quite a following for Diane Chamberlain’s books.  I liked The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes well enough to consider tackling another sometime down the road. 

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
By Heidi W. Durrow
This is not Stieg Larson although the title makes you think that.  I was first drawn to this book because of the endorsement from Barbara Kingsolver on the front of the book.  A long time fan of Kingsolver, I thought this might be something worth reading.  The Girl (Rachel Morse) Who Fell from the Sky (terribly tragic story), starts out slow but picks up about 1/3 of the way through.  Rachel is the daughter of a Danish mother, Nella, and an African American military father, Roger.  As an 11 year old child, Rachel is the only survivor of an awful tragedy forced on her by her mentally unstable mother whom she calls “Mor”.  Afterwards Rachel is placed with her paternal grandmother in Portland, Oregon.  Rachel struggles with fitting in because of being a “light skinned-ed,” blue-eyed, white-talking young black girl in a town that clearly delineates between black and white. Rachel’s grandmother tries hard to direct Rachel away from picking up any of her mother’s wayward ways and to help her let go of any chance of reconnecting with her irresponsible uninvolved father. Later we meet Jamie who now goes by the self-chosen name of Brick.  Brick, as a young boy, was the only witness to Rachel’s tragic incident.  Because of this connection, Brick has post-traumatic issues that keep him withdrawn socially.  Because of this involvement, he is drawn to Rachel and becomes part of her life as the years unfold.  We get to know Rachel’s strict grandmother who instills tough values and teaches her about her African American heritage.  Rachel’s strikingly beautiful Aunt Loretta lives with them off and on.  Her aunt, her aunt’s boyfriend Drew and her grandmother are present and influential as Rachel grows through her ugly-duckling stage.  As she develops, she struggles with her feelings for her aunt’s fiancé and begins to explore a relationship with her young boss, Jesse, from the men’s center where she works.  There she bumps into Brick again (a resident of the center).   As a young woman now, she begins to explore the intricacies of womanhood, values, friendship and racial identity.   The tragedy piece is so huge; it’s hard to believe that anyone would recover as well as Rachel.  As a coming-of-age and racial awareness story, Durrow does a nice job.  Not Barbara Kingsolver, but Durrow’s debut is worth the read.   

A Visit from the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a story about growing up and facing life. It’s a unique contemporary storytelling which includes texting and texting jargon.  Each chapter introduces you to new characters or the same characters at a different stage in their lives.  You start out meeting Sasha, a kleptomaniac past-punker, in therapy.  As she analyzes her life, we bump into her former boss Benny Salazar who is now a record producer.  That rolls into a chapter about Benny and introduces his old Rock and Roll band from high school years.  Then we’re back in high school 1980’s and getting to know the band and the groupies.  Next, one of the old band members, Scotty (who still plays music), tries to reconnect to Benny as an adult.  Big record producer Benny feels as if Scotty is trying to take advantage of his position while Scotty is really just trying to get in touch as an old friend.  Scotty asks, "I want to know what happened between A and B."  And so the chapters go from one character to another like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon -- everyone is connected somehow someway.  You move from the past to the present, from A to B and everything in between.  We meet Stephanie, Benny’s wife who is having a difficult time fitting into the upper echelon clique.  And Jules, Stephanie’s brother just out of jail who is floundering at getting his journalism career moving forward. Kit a grade B actress trying to get back on her feet.  Lou, Benny’s old mentor. Dolly the public relations specialist who puts work before family even to the point of endangering her daughter. Ted Hollander, Sasha's uncle, who travels to Naples with an assignment to find Sasha, but puts his art and his own needs first.  A whole chapter in PowerPoint (one of my favorites) from Sasha’s daughter Allison to her Dad Drew explaining what her autistic brother Linc means when he tracks pauses in sound tracks and how understanding that relates to having a better father-son relationship. And so and so on. No chronological order. No finely woven love story.  Nothing is spelled out for you.  It comes together through analyzing those pauses in life.  What happened between A and B and realizing that the person in the mirror is you.  

Shanghai Girls
by Lisa See
Shanghai 1937: Pearl Chin (age 21) and her younger sister May are models for a local artist Z.G. who paints the girls for “Beautiful Girl” calendars.  Their carefree life revolves around being the best dressed for every occasion and being in attendance at the most popular of events.  They spend frivolously and order around their hired help and rickshaw runners. While they’re not at the top of the echelon, they certainly consider themselves upper class.  Like many young people, they believe their parents are over protective and over bearing and certainly don’t understand today’s world.  One day their father reveals to them that his gambling debt has put the family in dire straits and the Chinese “Green Gang” is after him for collections.  The girls are then told that they have been sold to an arranged marriage to young Chinese men in Los Angeles.  From there, their lives become chaotic as the war begins to rage in their own backyard.  Their lives literally begin to blow up around them.  Their father is lost in his own problems allowing an opportunity for their mother, an otherwise proper and obeying wife, to take the situation in her own two hands.  The path they take to escape the harrows of war places them in a series of horrific war-related events and takes them on a journey of growth and appreciation of their Chinese upbringing.  While the sisters are close, they also have differences in personality and values that are the cause of a number of rifts and disagreements.   In addition there are secrets and unspoken opinions that get in the way of their happiness.  Their escape eventually leads them down a rough road to California, the Chinese internment camps, and a new life in Old Chinatown.  This is a realistic history of American immigration.  This is a woman’s story.  At one point, Pearl says, “We’re told that men are strong and brave, but I think women know how to endure, accept defeat, and bear physical and mental agony much better than men.”  Lisa See’s research and attention to detail makes this historical tale very believable.  The end notes are also worth reading.

The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder
By Rebecca Wells

Rebecca Wells crafts another lovely story in her Ya-Ya Louisiana.  A young girl, Calla Lily Ponder, grows up in a fairy-tale-like rural haven under the safe and secure embrace of the La Luna moon, her mother M’Dear, her loving father, and a host of colorful warm extended family.  Wells’ story unfolds gently like watching a flower bloom from bud to full blossom.  In her sweet slow Southern style, Wells paints a colorful abstract of a young girl coming into her own always amid a safety net of loving home, family & friends.  Through Calla Lily’s beautician (“rhymes with magician”) hands flows the mystical healing inherited from M’Dear.  She learns the ropes of business as she grows up eventually taking over her mother’s shop the Crowning Glory. We really get to appreciate Calla Lily’s depth most when she experiences grief.  Her grieving process feels authentic and true.  While the story wraps up a bit too neatly for me, the overall picture reads smoothly and is alluring like a piece of lovely mosaic art. By the end you’re full and feel as if you just had a big dish of your favorite comfort food.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The title was what caught my eye. The book started with a couple personal letters which made me page through the book only to realize that it was a book of letters! Ugh. It sounded tedious.  I stuck with it.  After figuring out who was writing to whom, the story began to pique my interest.  Next thing I knew, I found myself totally engaged in this unravelling story of the German occupation in the Channel Islands and the effect it had on this little town of Guernsey.  This rural backwards sea town was taken over by the Germans in the 1940’s.  The Germans took everything: their food, their homes, their wood, their trees, and even most of their books for kindling.  Guided by one resident foreigner, Elizabeth, some of the townsfolk send away their children -- to Europe for safety.  The Germans took their cows, their pigs, their potatoes, and, if they had it, they would have taken their “last can of Who hash.”  Through a series of intricate maneuvers, some townspeople held a clandestine pig roast.  On their way home, the full and merry team was cornered by the German militia. Elizabeth quick-wittedly claims they were coming from their Guernsey Literacy Society meetings.  Thankfully, the Germans were impressed with fine art and safely dismissed the group.  Thus the meeting of the townsfolk began.  With life imitating art, the author unveils a tender delightful story of an author searching for herself through the researching of a book idea in Guernsey.  The townfolks’ and the author’s hearts all grow three times bigger over the next few years as they gently expand their literary and personal horizons.  Unexpected friendships grow and new relationships blossom.  If only all history was taught with such finesse.  This is a story not to be missed…although I might pass on whipping up a Potato Peel Pie.

P.S. You mustn’t skip the authors’ touching end notes.

Healing Stones
A Sullivan Crisp Novel
By Nancy Rue & Stephen Arterburn
Healing Stones is a mystery romance – a story of human nature and forgiveness.  Demi Costanas is caught red-handed in a comprising situation which jeopardizes her marriage, family, her job at a Christian college and her boss’ position as president of that college.  Lost and alone, Demi ends up at a tiny apartment and a job at the Daily Bread – both run by Mickey Gwynne and her husband.  Mickey ends up being a new friend who encourages Demi’s healing through the power of healthy food, a strong shoulder, and spiritual support.  Soon, Demi’s boss Ethan introduces her to his friend Sullivan “Sully” Crisp, a psychologist who is on his own personal healing journey.  Sully uses a game show approach and some “healing stones” to help Demi move forward.  While there’s intrigue, drama, and mystery, too many coincidences and too many subplots made this somewhat unrealistic.  However, God does work in mysterious ways and does sometimes put us right where we need to be at the right time.  Armed with that, I continued through the story.  Demi certainly gets overly involved in Mickey’s family situation – as if she doesn’t have enough on her own plate.  But over time, all the pieces begin to fall into place. It was interesting enough not to put down.  It made me think of my own ability to forgive.  The story was a bit cliché and predictable, but overall it was still a good light read.   

Water for Elephants
By Sara Gruen
Did you ever wonder what it would be like to jump a train?  Where would it go?  Where could it take you?  Water for Elephants does just that.  Jacob Jankowski is at Cornell studying to be a veterinarian.  His father has big plans.  He and Jacob will be, “E. Jankowski & Son –Doctors of Veterinary Medicine.”  But tragedy abounds before graduation.  Jacob, lost and alone, runs away…away to a trip of a lifetime. Through a series of flashbacks, an older Jacob unveils his unbelievable coming of age story.  Young Jacob stumbles into an unlikely group of traveling circus misfits from the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  He gets to know the erotic dancing madam, bearded lady, tattooed man, sword swallower, the fat lady and the menagerie of exotic animal.  He learns the hierarchy of the circus which caters to the “kinkers” or the performers. Uncle Al head honcho of the circus learns of Jacob’s veterinarian prowess and moves him up the circus hierarchy.  He gets to know many of the circus characters and grows to love some of them like family.  He’s an intelligent young man in a rough peculiar setting.  But he’s a young man and, as young men often do, he follows his heart with no regard to danger.  When Rosie the elephant joins the team, he’s forced into closer relations with the bejeweled, sequined Marlena, lead performer of the dancing horses and her husband August, Uncle Al’s right-hand man.  With Rosie in the lead a fast-paced, high drama story rapidly unfolds.  Like a train wreck -- full of suspense, secrets, abuse, strange and unusual characters, murder, and intrigue -- you can’t walk away from this book.

Other Fiction Worth Reading...
These are piece-meal reviews...just a few thoughts about each book.  I would have to re-read each book to do a thorough review.  So in the meantime, here are just some basic thoughts on a number of books in my library:

The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
The topic is abortion.  The time is post World War I.  Dr. Larch is head of a boys orphanage.  He's a kind loving man.  He takes one orphan, Homer Wells, under his wing and teaches him doctoring.  As Homer grows older and more experienced, he assists the aging Dr. Larch more and more.  However, Homer is not a licensed doctor.  Clandenstine, late night visits by young women happen frequently...looking for quiet and quick abortions.  No matter your opinion on the subject, it does provide a unique perspective on the topic.  The women and boys are all treated tenderly by Dr.  Larch.  Homer learns more than doctoring from Dr. Larch's gentle ways.  Read with an open mind, this book will make you re-look at your beliefs.  A classic!  Not often do movies do the book justice.  But in this case, the movie is well-worth seeing. 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford
Personal Japanese family belongings are found in the basement of an old abandonded building.  Henry Lee watches as the items are shown, and begins reminisce about his childhood and a lost love.  In the 1940's Henry, a Chinese American boy, falls in love with Keiko Okabe, a pretty Japanese girl. He oversteps his father's expectations and social norms when he befriends this Japanese girl. Post war, Keiko's family is evacuated from one interment camp to another.   Henry bravely follows his heart and follows his friend -- stepping right over the discrimination and staying true to Keiko and her family. This historical fiction allows us to see some American history not normally covered in the classroom.  It gives you a good look at the prejudices of the time as it relates to the treatment of Japanese people in the United States.  

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
One True Thing, by Anna Quindlen
Sarah's Key, by Tatiana DeRosnay
A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams

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