Tag Archives: dysfunctional families

All Summer Long – and longer

Beach Books – Good All Year Around

cocoa beach cover

Cocoa Beach: A Novel by Beatriz Williams (William Morrow, $27.99, 384 pages)

Ms. Williams is the author of six previous novels.  If they are anywhere as well-crafted as Cocoa Beach, readers may have an entire vacation’s worth of adventures from this author alone.  The U.S. Prohibition Era brings the Florida coastal town of Cocoa Beach more than just exciting parties and illicit drinking.

The central character, Virginia Firzwilliam, has endured years of abandonment by her secretive husband only to be called to Florida after his death in a house fire.  Virginia learns the hard way that she and her little daughter are at the center of a deadly deception.

Highly recommended.

all summer long cover

All Summer Long: A Novel by Dorothea Benton Frank (William Morrow, $15.99, 374 pages)

Get ready for a study in contrasts.  A popular and successful interior designer finds herself held to the promise she made 14 years prior when she married a college professor.  Nick, the professor, has has long-awaited retirement dream fulfilled – a move back to Charlestown, South Carolina.  Olivia, who is a fourth-generation New Yorker, has quite a task ahead.  She must adapt to the cultural differences of her new home and keep her design business alive.

all summer long back cover

Ms. Benton Frank has a beguiling way with words, especially when she’s describing her beloved Low Country.  Readers who enjoy this novel will be happy to know that there are 16 published works by this prolific author.

Well recommended.

beach at painter's cove

 

The Beach at Painter’s Cove: A Novel by Shelley Noble (William Morrow, $15.99, 432 pages)

Way up north in Connecticut, family estrangement is the theme of this novel set at the run-down mansion known as Muses by the Sea.  The interplay among four generations of a most dysfunctional family can be confusing as there are proper names, nicknames and strange last names.  The original family name is Whitaker.  Long ago, Wesley and his wife Leonore hosted an artist’s colony on the property of their rambling home situated on Painter’s Cove.

The drama of four generations coming together to decide the fate of the house and property is at best hard to follow.  Author Noble uses breathless dialogue and much scurrying about to tell her tale of jealousy and misunderstanding.  A family tree at the front of the book would have been a useful addition.

beach at painter's cove back cover

Despite the drawbacks, readers will connect with the message of enduring love that unites the family.

Recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Don’t Talk

Things Unsaid B&N

Things Unsaid: A Novel by Diana Y. Paul (She Writes Press, $16.95, 300 pages)

“She had a college-age daughter now who needed her attention. Her daughter’s dream choice was Stanford. Everyone deserved to have dreams. But in order to make her daughter’s dreams a reality, Jules needed to change. Now. And fast. And her parents had to change, too, or they would all be destroyed.”

Leo Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Things Unsaid is a novel about a very unhappy family; it’s a tale which may prove Tolstoy wrong as they appear to be unhappy in a common way. This is a typical American family in which each member cares far too much about what other family members think, do and say; for some reason, each member of the family is afraid of every other member.

Paul’s novel makes for an engaging, yet often disturbing, read. My suspicion is that readers who hail from highly dysfunctional families will get the most from it; they will identify with its characters. Those raised in emotionally healthy families – where people actually speak and listen to each other, and value each other’s hopes and dreams, may find it nearly incomprehensible.

Things is about a woman who sacrifices almost everything in her adult life, including her husband and daughter, to please her extremely demanding, elderly, parents. She must hit bottom before seeing that she’s throwing her own life away. It’s a valuable morality play, but I’d like to see Paul tackle something lighter and brighter the next time around.

Recommended for a select audience.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

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Crazy

Running With Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, $7.99, 352 pages)

Don’t you ever feel like we’re chasing something?   Something bigger.   I don’t know, it’s like something that only you and I can see.   Like we’re running, running, running?   Yeah, I said.   We’re running alright.   Running with scissors.

I was intrigued when my book club chose this memoir, Running With Scissors, as our first nonfiction choice.   Rumored to be both dark and humorous, it did not fit our typical book club culture.   However, our discussion was lively and laden with comments from “disturbing” to “hated it.”  

Those that grew up in the 1960s recognized some of the “character traits” mentioned in the book, while a younger group was left on the edge of their comfort zone.   Yet the discussion was one of the best we’ve had.   We found ourselves discovering the humor as we recalled particular details described within the book.   As a memoir it was, to me, a refreshingly different view of the typical, mostly not-so-interesting portraits of everyday life.

Burroughs describes his eccentric and unconventional upbringing with incredible detail and honesty, yet with a large serving of humor that made it  hard to put down.   He describes his childhood, mostly under the guardianship of Dr. Finch – his mother’s Santa Claus look-a-like psychiatrist, following his mother’s series of mental breakdowns.   This was a home with high energy in which arguments were encouraged to dispense anger and to develop emotional growth.   Within Burroughs’s unpredictable daily life, regular off the wall adventures occurred and conventional standards like rules, discipline and structure were unheard of.

The problem was not having anybody to tell you what to do, I understood, is that there was nobody to tell you what not to do.

Burroughs’s story includes atypical details of his life such as his relationship with a patient of Dr. Finch’s, a man three times Burroughs’s age, and the witnessing of his mother’s psychotic breakdowns.   Many of the details are descriptive, vulgar and somewhat horrifying, yet the story is written in delightful prose with dark humor and such blatant honesty you’ll find yourself continuing to read…  If only to find out what else Augusten could possibly be exposed to, and feeling the need to find out what happens to these real-life characters.   (An update is contained in the Epilogue.)

While I truly enjoyed the tremendous writing skill and recommend Burroughs for sharing his eccentric story, I have to admit that the themes and facts were disturbing enough to impact my enjoyment of the book.   However, good books are created to challenge us with new perspectives.   They can challenge us with new, unique perspectives and force us to think outside of the box and outside of our comfort zones.   This memoir most certainly does that and, therefore, this book is recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   “Running With Scissors is hilarious, freak-deaky, berserk, controlled, transcendent, touching, affectionate, vengeful, all-embracing…  It makes a good run at blowing every other (memoir) out of the water.”   Carolyn See, The Washington Post

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Running With Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs.

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Things We Said Today

Things We Didn’t Say: A Novel by Kristina Riggle (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 352 pages)

As with her first novel, Real Life and Liars, Kristina Riggle presents an interesting story with well-defined characters in her recently released novel, Things We Didn’t Say.

Casey (Edna Leigh Casey) is attempting to reinvent herself while erasing her past by delving into a new relationship with her fiancé Michael and his three children.   While taking on her new role of step-mother-to-be, she believes she has escaped her former alcoholic life and the tragedy in her past that she still blames herself for.   That is, until her challenging teenage future stepdaughter Angel finds Casey’s personal journal and discovers the details of Casey’s past and her feelings about her current frustrations with taking on the role of stepmother.   This realization, combined with recent distance from her controlling, workaholic fiancé, leads to her decision to leave her current situation and – once again – start over.   However, on the very day that Casey decides to leave she receives a call that Michael’s son Dylan has gone missing.

The search for Dylan takes Casey, Michael, his children, and ex-wife on an emotionally charged journey that will change how each of them perceives their current situation.

Riggle writes with extreme clarity and develops her characters with variable dialogue that provide each of them with their own identity.   Each character’s challenges and reactions to a family crisis are believable, although a bit extreme, while presented in a modern-day blended family scenario.   Riggle also presents realistic themes such as the dangers of online communication and the prevalence of runaway teens.

However, as much as I enjoyed her writing, I have to admit that for most of the story I found the adults in her novel to be unlikable.   Casey is a meek, insecure individual who allows her fiancé to make all the decisions and accepts his criticism with silence, even when boundaries are crossed with his crazy ex-wife Mallory.   Michael is self-absorbed and so focused on the legality of child custody that he allows and even instigates ridiculous behavior from Mallory.   And Mallory is the stereotypical example of a woman with a horrid past experiencing bouts of mental illness.   I found myself entranced in the novel, hoping for a miracle that would give the children some sense of “normalcy” in their lives.

But that said, I found the book entertaining and the characters begin to redeem themselves as the story unfolds; and Riggle begins to fashion a more realistic view of a blended family undergoing a family crisis.   I have to commend Riggle for presenting her view of the possible and probable challenges that families in an atypical family structure might face.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Things We Didn’t Say was released on June 28, 2011.

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Rescue Me

Rescue by Anita Shreve (Hachette Audiobook)

Anita Shreve is one of my all-time favorite authors.   I have read every one of her novels.   This is my first time listening to one of her books instead of reading it the old-fashioned way.   I enjoy audiobooks and it was interesting to determine whether a Shreve novel would translate well to an audiobook.

Rescue is a novel that encompasses many of Shreve’s themes throughout the portfolio of her work.   Sheila Arsenault is a woman on the run from an abusive relationship.   After crashing her car in an alcohol fueled incident, Sheila is rescued by rookie paramedic Peter Webster.   Webster is taken by the beautiful young victim and searches her out after she is discharged from the hospital.   Webster is determined to help her and falls in love along the way.   Sheila is happy to be rescued, but finds that old demons are hard to leave behind.

Eighteen years later, Webster is raising their daughter, Rowan, alone.   Rowan unfortunately seems to have inherited some dangerous addictions and traits from her mother.   Will Webster be able to save his daughter or is it already too late?

I enjoyed listening to this audiobook.   Dennis Holland did a fairly good reading of the novel, although I found his attempts at a Boston accent to be rather jarring.   I almost wanted to do the dishes every day so I could listen to what was going to happen next.   I found the plot to be compelling, but the best thing about the novel was the in-depth character studies.   Rash decisions that were made in one’s youth can lead to consequences that can last a lifetime.

I also found Webster’s job as a paramedic to be very interesting as were the stories of his rescues.   I’ve never read a book with a paramedic as the main character and I really enjoyed it.   It left me wanting to know even more about the profession.   I think it was a great way to talk about how Webster rescued people as his job in life, but that he had troubles with rescuing his wife and his daughter.   It’s not as easy to rescue those you love from addictions and bad behavior.

Anita Shreve is a gifted writer.   I love her style of writing.   That being said, while Rescue was a good book, I still hold some of her earlier works such as The Weight of Water and Fortune’s Rocks in much higher regard.   I miss her historical books!

Overall, Rescue was a compelling read with characters that I enjoyed listening to. This review was written by Laura Gerold and is used with her permisson.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a recommended position on this novel.   You can read more of Laura’s fine reviews at http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/ .

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You’ve Got Your Troubles

The Neighbors are Watching: A Novel by Debra Ginsberg (Crown; $23.99; 325 pages)

“It was as if Gloria was sabotaging herself, Sam thought.   Well, they were both sabotaging themselves, just going about it from opposite directions.”

Debra Ginsberg has populated her latest novel with a score of self-sabotaging and dysfunctional characters.   This is the story of Diana, a young pregnant woman who is thrown out of her mother’s home and forced to live with the father she’s never known.   Dad Joe lives in the suburbs of San Diego near the ocean with his second wife, Allison.   Joe made Allison abort her only pregnancy years earlier, and Allison knows nothing about the existence of Diana.   Therefore, when she appears on Joe’s driveway the marriage is suddenly in serious trouble.

But it turns out that everyone in the neighborhood is in trouble as the fires of late October and early November 2007 approach.   Fourteen people died and at least 70 were injured when a half-million acres burned.   One million San Diego County residents were evacuated, the largest evacuation in California history.   This is the not-so-pleasant back-drop for Ginsberg’s troubled tale.

It appears that all of the neighbors in Joe’s suburban community have their serious quirks and troubles.   There’s a sometimes-happy and sometimes-bickering lesbian couple, Sam and Gloria, and a heterosexual married couple, the Werners, whose son Kevin is a lazy weed smoker with no intellectual or athletic skills.   This is a ‘hood that is seemingly over-populated with drug users and abusers.   One has to wonder how accurate a reflection this is of America’s Finest City and its residents.

The one exception to the group of losers is an Asian couple, whose quiet son shoots hoops and practices the piano for hours on end.   This is a stereotype of sorts, although it’s one that was likely not meant to be offensive.   However, Ginsberg includes a highly troubling reference to Diana, who happens to be half African-American.   Early on, Kevin’s mother refers to Diana as “an uppity pregnant girl who had no business even being in the neighborhood in the first place.”   This is offensive on two counts – first, in using a term that is knowingly offensive to African-Americans, and also in the implication that there’s a “place” within which people of a certain color are not welcome.

Perhaps Ginsberg intended this non-P.C. reference to serve as a reminder of the destructiveness of racism, but she could and should have adopted a more subtle and temperate way of expressing that notion.   Another flaw with the telling is that Ginsberg chooses the rather unfortunate name of Joe Montana for Diana’s father, which makes it seem like some kind of inside joke.   “Joe Montana, like the football player?”   Yes.

One of the key problems with Neighbors is that the story is made needlessly complex.   When Diana surfaces with disastrous consequences for her father’s and stepmother’s marriage, the storyline seems logical.   But then Ginsberg takes it further – Joe suddenly has an affair with a young neighbor and Diana hooks up with Kevin, the worst possible choice for her.   More is not always better.

There’s this dividing line…  A dividing line between the fictional account which feels to a reader like real life, and the feeling that it’s a good effort but there’s a sense of magic that’s lacking.   Ginsberg produced a fine attempt in this novel but it struck this reader as a manuscript rather than as a fully developed work.   It needed some editing, trimming and rethinking.   All in all, the author seemed to be sabotaging herself like the characters in her dysfunctional fictional neighborhood.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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