Tag Archives: grandparents

Take It All

The Bird House: A Novel by Kelly Simmons (Washington Square Press; $14.00; 272 pages)

“Every family has its secrets.”

“Don’t you know there’s a stronger thing keeping us together?”   Pete Ham (“Take It All”)

This is a novel about a family secret.   Ann Biddle is a grandmother with a big secret about something that happened in her past.   Her granddaughter Ellie is doing research on the family for a school project.   Despite declining mental resources, Ann seeks to assist her loved one in filling in the blank spaces in the family’s past while simultaneously hiding the dark event in her own past.

There is, fortunately, not much in the way of detail in the book’s synopsis; this is a plus.   The less you, the reader, know about the story before you arrive at the final, 272nd page the better.   The read was partly destroyed for me by an early release review that carelessly divulged the secret in question and other key facts.   But there will not be a repetition of that here.

“This was the heavy burden of secrets: the longer you held them, the larger they grew, the more people they entangled.”

Second time novelist Simmons has a no-nonsense style that calls to mind Anna Quindlen or Laura Lippman.   She neither needlessly embellishes nor writes too sparsely – she provides just enough detail to make you identify with the female protagonist.   And Ann Biddle is a real human being, with true strengths and also defects of character.   And yet, despite her rapidly failing mental skills, she’s one tough and clever cat; those who think they’re going to get the best of her discover otherwise.

“Things never turn out quite the way you expect, do they?   In love or in life.”

At its end, this a tale about honesty and love versus deception and protection.   It is also a story that touches upon human hypocrisy – the tendency of some to hold themselves out as one thing while living a life different from the facade they wear:  “He always said the right thing, but he didn’t always do the right thing.”   It is a novel about powerful secrets, which is why some will be reminded of Fragile by Lisa Unger.

This novel is well worth the read and is well recommended. Just don’t let anyone who has already read it share its secrets with you.   Tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “I was hooked from the very first page.”   Chevy Stevens, author of Still Missing.

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The Sins of a Family

The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers (St. Martin’s Griffin; $14.99; 320 pages)

murderer's daughters amazon

First-time novelist Randy Susan Meyers certainly knows how to draw a reader into her story while creating empathy for her characters.   Young sisters Lulu and Merry become orphans in July of 1971 when their jealous father stabs their mother to death.   The novel chronicles their major life events and experiences beginning with that fateful day in 1971 to December 2003.

The murder and the ensuing hardships shape the girls’ lives; however, Lulu and Merry are resilient and spunky kids who won’t succumb to being victims.   The first quarter of the book is nearly overwhelming with sadness.   Thankfully, the remainder of the book is rich with texture and emotion that are more easily processed.

murderers-daughters-back

Meyers gives the reader each sister’s perspective on what happens to them as they grow up via the chapter titles identifying whose narrative is being read.   This device is well employed and is not the least bit gimmicky.   The characters who factor prominently in shaping Lulu and Merry’s lives are their father, grandparents on both sides of the family and classmates.   Their relatives exhibit the characteristics we can all recognize as being either frustrating or endearing.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell (Knopf; $24.95; 256 pages)

“To be well-loved is to be free of the evil lurking around the next darkened corner.   Every child should know that feeling.”

The country music artist Rodney Crowell is known for his singing and songwriting skills.   His singing voice, often compared to that of Kris Kristofferson (but higher pitched), may leave something to be desired.   But the artist who has written songs like Shame on the Moon, I Ain’t Living Long Like This and (The Way You Burn Me I Should Be) Ashes by Now, has shown himself to be a bright star in this category.   Crowell is also known as being the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, which has presented other issues, such as coming off second in comparison to her singing, songwriting and writing skills.

It proves to be true again.   For while Chinaberry Sidewalks is interesting in some places, it does not hold the reader’s imagination and interest the way that Rosanne Cash’s brilliantly written memoir Composed does.   Cash displayed a skill for always finding the right interesting words to describe the happenings in her life; and her voice was just as unique as Bob Dylan’s in Chronicles.

Crowell never seems to find his voice or his style here, although he has stated that he felt freed from the strict rules of song writing in putting together – over a decade – this autobiographical account.

With my grandmother and Charlie (the shoe shine man)…  I experienced love as something tangible between myself and another human being.”

This is a tough read because much of it covers the sad scenes of a childhood filled with bickering parents and domestic violence.   No doubt Crowell is being brutally honest, but it is often difficult to wish to read about a childhood described as filled with nothing “but a primal instinct for survival, theirs and mine.”   In one of the hard-to-concentrate on scenes, Crowell’s inebriated mother hits his father whereupon his very drunk dad responds by punching his mother in the face.   The young Crowell intervenes by breaking a Coke bottle over his own head, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.   Yes, a few stories like this go a long way.

It must be noted that this memoir contains some near-charming stories of growing up as a boomer child (Crowell was born in August of 1950).   But the reader interested in tales of playing soldier, or cowboys and Indians, etc. will find better written accounts in the memoirs of Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City).

“…my parents’ deaths were unique to their personalities.”

At the end of Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s parents have found a sense of normalcy in their lives before they depart the earth.   And love in a marriage that somehow lasted for decades.   It is a comforting message but one that arrives only after a narrative that might have benefited from tighter editing.   Crowell’s narrative never equates to the level of his songwriting skills in this account.

This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed – such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time – is a far more interesting person than the one found here.

Joseph Arellano  

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Chinaberry Sidewalks was released on January 18, 2011.  

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Stray Cat Blues

Ginger and the Mystery Visitor by Charlotte Voake (Candlewick Press, $15.99, 40 pages)

Readers who are familiar with Ginger the cat will be happy that Charlotte Voake’s latest book is the perfect – or purr-fect – companion to Ginger.   They are the same size with very similar covers, which makes them a lovely set.   The cast of characters has expanded with the introduction of the mystery visitor.   The storyline involves a cat who sneaks into Ginger’s house to eat.   The tale is short and sweet with a built-in message or two.   It offers opportunities for the reader and listener to discuss what can happen when we feed other people’s pets.

The illustrations are charming and full of expression.   Clearly, this is a book to be read aloud to young children.   Later, it will be a good one for practicing reading skills.   Lastly, a grandma or grandpa who is creating a library for the grandchildren can count on Ginger and the Mystery Visitor as a welcome addition.

If we’re lucky, Charlotte Voake will create more books about Ginger.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Little Puppy Says Woof!

Little Puppy Says Woof! by Phoebe Dunn (Random House Books for Young Readers, $8.99, 14 pages)

As a cat, I’m not the biggest fan of dogs, but even I know that puppies are adorable!   Toddlers will love this story of Charlie the Cocker Spaniel puppy who is adopted by a boy named Tim.   We see that Charlie is at first lonely for his brother and sister puppies, but eventually he learns to sleep with a plush stuffed toy dog “brother”.   Tim’s a good kid who knows enough to take Charlie to the vet right away for a check-up.

Charlie learns to chase a ball, although he’s not perfect.   He does like to chew on house plants and run in piles of freshly raked leaves.   But he’s a natural swimmer, so he becomes the furry companion to Tim and his grandpa when they go out on the lake in a rowboat.   Charlie’s such a good dog that Tim knows that he and Charlie will be the best of friends forever.

Oh, I forgot to mention that this book comes with a button that can be pressed whenever you want to hear Charlie’s bark.   It’s a great feature that may not be appreciated by other cats.

This review was written by Munchy Arellano.   Yes, he’s a cat.   (Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.)

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