The Union Street Bakery, by Mary Ellen Taylor

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Abandonment issues can create a lot of confusion and conflict in a person’s life. They are often experienced by adopted children or children of divorced parents. They can continue long into adulthood. In Daisy McCrae’s situation, her abandonment issues go even deeper than most because she can actually recall the day it happened. She was three years old, sitting outside the Union Street Bakery with her mother. She was munching on a sugar cookie with red sprinkles. It was a day like any other. And then it wasn’t. Her mother was gone.

The Union Street Bakery, by Mary Ellen Taylor, catches up with Daisy 30 years later. Like that moment in her childhood, everything was fine until it wasn’t. Except that it wasn’t really fine, because that day her mother left became a heavy weight that remained shackled to Daisy ever since. She had tasted success, she knew the love of an adopted family, she even knew the love of a man, but the unanswered questions loomed like heavy clouds before a storm.

The story begins when Daisy’s professional life takes a U-turn, forcing her to return home to her family, the current generation of McCraes and owners of the Union Street Bakery. Part drama, part mystery, part romance, Daisy has plenty of choices to make. And, like with all of us, there are events she can control and those she cannot. And like all of us, there are emotions she can either indulge…or not.

This is a book that I’m still deciding how much I enjoyed. When an elderly, long-time customer leaves Daisy an old journal the plot takes some interesting, albeit confusing, twists. There are times when the author is trying to accomplish so much that I would’ve preferred a simpler story. Some Goodreads reviewers criticized the use of profanity. I agree on that point and will deduct one whole “star” because of it. If only Daisy had resorted to certain words I would’ve attributed it to her frustration, but that wasn’t the case and it was unnecessary.

Still, I’m curious to see what happens next and will probably read Sweet Expectations, the next book in the series. Daisy McCrae may not be the most likable protagonist, but she is compelling, and I still wish good things for her in the future.

7.5/10 Stars

 

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Good Sam, by Dete Meserve

51D1qb1-T9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Good Sam, by Dete Meserve, is a book that has been patiently sitting in my Kindle Cloud for months. It has positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and, as a reader who does not like wasting my time on a book that shows little promise, I decided to give it a try.

“Good Sam,” stands for “Good Samaritan,” a modern-day version of the Biblical character who is charitable for charity’s sake. Or is he? (Or she.)

Someone has been anonymously leaving bags of one hundred thousand dollars on people’s doorsteps throughout Los Angeles. The recipients come from a variety of neighborhoods and socio-economic backgrounds, so why were they chosen? The question of who is behind these seemingly random acts is the novel’s backbone. Kate Bradley, a 20-something beat reporter for Channel 11 has been assigned to the story.

Unfortunately, what could’ve been an inspired plot about true kindness in a fast-paced, metropolitan setting, was actually a flimsy romance. Kate is a protagonist who fails to earn my sympathy or appreciation. Alternately strong and independent, she acts weak and distressed in the arms of the right man. She claims to be someone who pursues and respects truth, but she is very selective in whose lies she forgives. Essentially, a maddening character who I found myself rolling my eyes at again and again.

In addition, as someone who was born and raised in Los Angeles, I found the city’s portrayal ridiculous and full of stereotypes.

I wanted to enjoy this book, but its initial potential quickly waned. As I said, I don’t like to waste my time as a reader, so I will say that the main redeeming quality of Good Sam was how fast I was able to finish it.  (I started it last night.) The zigzag ending only confirmed what I figured out less than halfway into the novel, and even that was barely worth my time. Sadly, if you are a reader in search of substance, I advise you look elsewhere.

6.5/10 stars

 

Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

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Once again, I had spoken too freely. I seemed too dense witted to learn the simple lesson: silence was a woman’s sole safe harbor.

These are the profound words of Bethia Mayfield, the voice in Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. Profound, because they sum up the expectation imposed upon Puritan women in the 1600’s. Be seen, not heard. Be dutiful, modest, productive, obedient, submissive, and grateful.

And what of happiness? Happiness was a luxury. Life at that time was about attending to basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. Intellectual pursuits were reserved for males, and on “the island” described in the novel, a few males of the Wampanoag tribe as well. Caleb, for whom the novel is named, is one of them. Although a supporting character, some of the questions he asks and the identity he adopts makes the reader re-examine which people are savage and which are truly educated and dignified.

Hardship permeates throughout. The white men and native people try to coexist, but an undercurrent of determined hostility lingers. The word “sonquem” is used frequently. The best definition I could find of “sonquem” was “conquered.” In the novel’s context, the English buy or take land from the sonquem, the conquered people.

This is a novel which requires attention and commitment. The language is elevated, yet lyrical, and through Bethia’s eyes we come to understand that she is much more than what she shows others, and certainly much more than they acknowledge.

The characters experience great losses, disease, racism, indentured servitude, and public humiliation. At a time when most were endeavoring to be as Christian as possible, compassion and mercy were virtues rarely called upon. However, despite the bleak setting, we also see characters experience self-realization, regret, and love.

As the reader, I was motivated by Bethia’s fortitude and creativity during extreme trials of all varieties. At the end of the story, she calls Caleb a hero. In her eyes, perhaps he was. I think her modest nature and humble upbringing prevented her from realizing all that she accomplished, which you will see when you enter her world. I’m happy I did.

8.5/10 Stars

 

 

The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler

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I may be different from other people, but I’m no unluckier. I believe that.  Or I’m unluckier but no unhappier. That is probably closer to the truth.

Sometimes I think I am unluckier than other people but much, much happier.

Being crippled on one side of his body is not the most unique thing about Aaron Woolcott. Neither is the fact that his wife, Dorothy, recently died. That she died when a tree fell on their house IS unique. Even more so is that she appears to him when he least expects it.

The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler, definitely has an unusual plot. In addition, while I cannot pinpoint any specific depth, it still exists in an abstract kind of way.

Throughout the book we are guided by Aaron’s thoughts and voice. We learn about his childhood illness, his helicopter mother and sister, his odd courtship with his future wife, her death and reappearance, and how these events affect him and those who know him.

There is a quietness to the storytelling. The pace is ambitious, but the volume is quiet. So much so that, if Aaron didn’t occasionally remind us of the modern technology he’s using and other time-period benchmarks, the reader would probably think that the story was set in the 1950’s. I appreciate this about the book. The “old-timey” feeling in a present-day setting. I also appreciate it when an author writes in the voice of the gender that is not their own, which Anne Tyler does successfully.

Surrounding Aaron is a bevy of secondary characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies and reactions to his grief. The contractor working to rebuild Aaron’s home, nosy neighbors, concerned co-workers, and his passive/aggressive sister Nandina who insists that she has only his best interests at heart. (Every time I arrived at her name I found myself saying it slowly…Nan-DI-na.)

Because everything is absorbed through Aaron’s personal filter, the reader is privy to his realizations as time goes by. His epiphany after many months as a widower is not grandiose, but sensible, and one that the reader can apply to his/her own relationships. If any philosophy is to be gleaned from the novel, this is it.

Refreshing, also, was the complete absence of blush-worthy words and scenes that seem so prevalent in today’s literature. This is the first Anne Tyler book I have read. She is a celebrated, prolific novelist. I look forward to reading more of her work. The Beginner’s Goodbye was an excellent introduction.

8.7/10 Stars

Love Finds You in Martha’s Vineyard, by Melody Carlson

91c1a3a986bba3f51ef601c2defb9651Anyone who has loved and lost and loved again will appreciate that second chances are rare and welcome. Whether or not first loves ended in death or divorce, that second chance gives you an opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

I never thought I would be reading books in the Christian Romance genre, but Melody Carlson keeps churning out one delightful story after another. In Love Finds You in Martha’s Vineyard, we catch up with Waverly Brennen. Newly widowed, Waverly leaves behind her dead-end job in Chicago to take over “The Gallery,” newly acquired by her mother, Vivian, and Aunt Louise.

A recently divorced man named Blake moves in next door to Vivian and Louise. Grappling with his failed marriage and a daughter who is 9 going on 30, Blake has his hands full and is ready for some peace and quiet. When a pushy cousin of Waverly’s visits the island, everyone has choices to make about their futures.

Melody Carlson’s stories are predictable, but the journey is worthwhile. Relationships evolve with a fluidity that is both entertaining and natural. Best of all, the story is clean, with no gratuitous scenes to make the reader blush.

I find myself returning to this author’s works again and again. She is nothing if not consistent and prolific. Each of her books has been a pleasant read and this one is no exception.

8.5/10 Stars

All Things Bright And Beautiful, by James Herriot

{0EB76228-F8AF-4A23-847A-8EDB7B0E65F6}Img100I love books that I can put down for a while and then pick up again without guilt. James Herriot’s first book in his memoir series as a country vet in England is one such book. Each chapter is like a small short story in itself, chronicling his early years as a new veterinarian in a small farm town.

Because my husband and I have had some very busy months lately, it was nice to have a book at the ready that I could immerse myself in or, if necessary, abandon for weeks on end, without feel like I was leaving a juicy story behind.

Around the years surrounding WWII, James Herriot was new to his profession, sharing an office with his mentor, Sigfried. Sigfried’s younger brother, Tristan, a skilled veterinary student with a wicked sense of humor, also worked there. Having 3 people with different levels of experience approaching the interesting animal cases and eccentric cast of characters in the town make for some pretty interesting stories. Dog, cats, cows, pigs, horses, you will read about them all. Most stories ended happily, but some do not. All add to James’ hands-on education.

Parallel to his adventures in the office and visiting various local farms is James courting his future wife, Helen. The chapter about the large collection of books he buys at a flea market and must, somehow, get home in order to impress Helen is especially hilarious.

There is nothing controversial or offensive in any of his stories. Just interesting, colorful anecdotes of a simpler time when hard work and appreciating the land took precedent over technology and greed.

It isn’t difficult to see why James Herriot’s stories have made a lasting impression on readers for decades. They are truly delightful.

9 out of 10 stars

Led By Example: The Missionary Influence of the Osmond Family, By Deborah Ann Griffin

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After 2 recent “Osmond” themed vacations, it was inevitable that I should read this book. I learned about it from one of the ladies whose story is featured and, at only 78 pages, it was a quick read on the airplane. Agatha Runyon, like many others, was impressed and influenced by this well-know family’s standards in a world that continuously calls such behavior “outdated.”

This is a family who has been in the entertainment industry for over 50 years and still strictly adheres to their religious beliefs. Sometimes they share those beliefs with others, but often it is their example and willingness to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk” that has piqued people’s interest in the Mormon Church.

In this compilation, 15 different people tell their personal stories of conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Because each story is told by a different person, it is impossible to critique the writing except to say that it varies between average and above. The common denominator is that each person was an Osmond fan during the 1960’s and 70’s. It was that pre-internet time when fan magazines were the craze and the only way for teenagers to learn about their pop idols’ personal lives. The Osmonds, to their credit, never hid the fact that they were a church-going family who put the things of God before the things of the world.

Many of the people featured came from homes of dysfunction or with no religious teaching. Besides their musical talent, the Osmonds–a large, loving family with two stalwart parents–attracted teenagers living in less-than-ideal situations.  “Mother Osmond,” in particular, was very generous with her time in reaching out to individuals who had questions about the Church.

Not all of the converts in the book have had personal contact with the family. Many simply admired them from afar and went seeking out missionaries and congregations on their own. The experiences are truly about conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not conversion to a famous family. The stories are often touching, with several of the people overcoming great obstacles prior to being baptized.

The main message, of course, is that whether we are famous or not, what we do and say gets noticed. If we are consistent, uplifting, and positive, those things can help to change lives.

8.5/10 Stars

The Ladies’ Room, by Carolyn Brown

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I should’ve gone to the ladies’ room before the service began. But my four cups of coffee and the 32 ounce Coke I’d drunk on the way to church hadn’t made it to my bladder until the preacher cleared his throat and began a eulogy that sounded as if it would go on six days past eternity…

And so begins the saga of Trudy Williams, our protagonist of The Ladies’ Room, by Carolyn Brown.

When I first read the premise of the story–a woman’s life changed because of some gossip she overhears in the ladies’ room–I thought it sounded cute and unique.

When I actually began the book a few weeks later I was immediately turned off by Trudy’s two cousins, Marty and Betsy, the perpetuators of the gossip at their Aunt Gert’s funeral. The whole thing felt very immature.

The final straw was when all of them, including Trudy, referred to Trudy as a frumpy, middle-aged woman and I realized that Trudy is 5 years younger than me. Ahem!

But I stuck it out, grasping to my first instinct that this would be a book worth reading. It was.

Whatever her age, I picture Trudy as a sister of Kathy Bates’ character in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, a put‐upon housewife whose husband of twenty-plus years sees her more as a cook and laundress than a romantic partner.

Between the gossip she overhears and the result of Aunt Gert’s will, Trudy now has the motivation and means to start fresh. Her one friend is Billy Lee Tucker, a childhood acquaintance and the town misfit, who also happened to be Gert’s next door neighbor.

There is nothing deep, profound, or even unique about The Ladies’ Room, but it will still speak to many women who have found themselves in Trudy’s situation, or, at least part of it. Some aspects of it reminded me of Melody Carlson’s Dear Daphne series, with Trudy being a slightly older, married, version of Daphne.

This is not a book you read for great personal enlightenment. It is purely “escapist literature” at its. The Ladies’ Room is endearing, clean, light, and thoroughly enjoyable.

8.5/10 Stars

All the Truth That’s In Me, by Julie Berry

All the truth that is in me

Silence is the method I’ve perfected, adaptable to almost any need. Silence and stillness. I wait.

In an undisclosed town during an undisclosed time lives a teenage girl maimed and muted by her former
captor.

These things we know:
• Society defines a girl by her virtue, or lack thereof.
• A girl defines herself by the way her mother treats her.
• A mother sometimes takes Society’s word over that of her daughter.

This is the tale of Judith Finch, our silent narrator and observer of all things around her.

Told in a present tense that forces the reader to shadow this wretched girl, we live Life alongside her, feeling her few joys and many sorrows.

There is great injustice in Judith’s story, the kind that only personal fortitude can overcome.
Judith’s test is to decide if that fortitude exists. Any opinions of her as a young woman before her abduction have long since evaporated. Gone for two years and returned for two, the town only knows her as the silent, probably simple, girl with the shamed and widowed mother.

Is it possible for such a person to have any allies? Happily, yes, but her greatest ally is surprising. He is the son of the man who took her and maimed her. Another is the son’s betrothed, who remembers Judith as a childhood friend.

With so much to overcome, both physically and within her broken family, the reader cannot help but root for such a protagonist. Being privy to her thoughts, elevated beyond what she can outwardly express, we know there is much more to this young woman than what the world admits.

Author Julie Berry has crafted a unique tale. Part Scarlet Letter, part Witch of Blackbird Pond,
part
Crucible. Clearly this is a Puritanical society. Church attendance is mandatory. The accused are guilty until proven innocent. Superstition and ignorance run high. Compassion is scarce, but can be found among a trusted few.

This is a book aimed at young adults, but appealing to anyone who understands the context and time period. The characters, feelings, and, especially, the injustices, resonate with the reader.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

10/10 Stars

Yellow Star, by Jennifer Roy

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The Holocaust.

It is one of the most grim events in recent world history. Families are still affected today by lives lost and relatives gone missing.

It is also an event with amazing stories. True stories. Stories that exemplify faith, determination, and strength.

In 2006, author Jennifer Roy endeavored to pen her Aunt Sylvia’s childhood experiences of living in a Polish ghetto during World War II. The “ghetto” was a crowded Jewish internment camp. A neighborhood with barbed wire around it as a way to contain the people Hitler saw as the “problem.” His “final solution” would come later, of course, in the form of concentration camps.

Miraculously, Sylvia (an American modernization of Syvia,) spent the entire war in a ghetto and was one of only 12 surviving children out of thousands. The others became sad, anonymous statistics.

Jennifer Roy is very truthful about her challenges in relating the story. How should she tell it? A narrative? In third person? After trying other methods unsuccessfully, she decides to tell it in Sylvia’s voice, a combination of an old woman’s memories and the simple, but profound, observations of a child.

What emerges are short chapters and efficient language that sound like young Syvia commenting on her changing world. She tries to make sense of things that are senseless.

Why a yellow star? Yellow is supposed to be a happy color.

Bright colors don’t exist in the ghetto, except for the yellow stars and puddles of red blood we carefully step around. “More shootings,” Papa says quietly. His face is gray.

What happened to my friend? She was here yesterday…

Hava is missing. She went for a short walk on the street and never came back. Gone, missing, vanished.

From the ages of 5 to 10, the ghetto, and all that went with it, was Syvia’s world.

It is a child’s honest interpretation of starvation, cold, fear, death, and the unknown. She is acutely aware of her surroundings and the sacrifices her parents make to ease her suffering and keep her safe. “Safe” equals “alive.”

This book would be an excellent teaching tool when discussing the Holocaust, a subject that is quickly disappearing from students’ knowledge of history. Parents should read it with their children. Teachers should read it to their pupils. It is clear in its statement of the times without being overtly frightening. The childhood version of Syvia is relatable and sincere, with that strong sense of fairness that exists in all young people.

Highly, highly recommended.

9.5/10 Stars