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For a Dancer

Five Days Left (nook book)

Five Days Left

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer (Putnam, $26.95, 352 pages)

At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision, keeping her illness from them. She was in denial in the beginning, as loathe to admit to herself that everything was wrong as she was to admit it to them. But then, after her diagnosis, everyone around her became so overly concerned, so insufferably attentive that she started to regret anyone knew… (I)t was infuriating to watch herself deteriorate in the eyes of the people around her. Use the word “disease” and suddenly everyone will instantly treat you like you’re ill, Mara learned, even on days you feel fine.

Five Days Left is a close to perfect debut novel from Julie Lawson Timmer, whose background is in law. This is the story of Mara Nichols, a successful lawyer, wife and mother whose life is put on hold by a diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease. Mara fights to hide her symptoms from her co-workers and family members for months and years, but eventually realizes that her body is breaking down and out-of-control; the disease is going to take her life. So Mara decides that she will commit suicide on her next birthday. The narrative begins five days before the birthday on which Mara will end it all. Or will she?

(Her death by suicide) was a dreadful thing to do to a child, a husband, to such caring parents and friends, but really, who were any of them to judge? How could they ever truly know what she had gone through? Who were any of them to say they wouldn’t have at least considered the same thing?

Timmer does an excellent job of portraying how infirmity can make a coward out of the strongest individual. Mara goes from being a life-long workaholic to becoming a virtual invalid. Once proud, she eventually simply wants everything to be over with and no longer cares about how she’ll be judged upon her self-inflicted demise. It’s a timely, unique look at the mindset of a suicidal person.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

There’s a secondary character and story that’s not as strong, and that story is a touch unrealistic. But all in all, this is a stunning work from Timmer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“…this impressive debut novel heralds the arrival of an extremely talented writer.” Jodi Picoult

Five Days Left is a heart-wrenching drama about a world in which there are no easy answers… This novel feels as true as life.” Christina Baker Kline

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Five Days Left (Timmer)

A review of Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer.

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(A) Kiss from a Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 368 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and smartest one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s a beauty but not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story in flawless fashion – I kept looking in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone which is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in The Weird Sisters, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, naturally, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters in a play.

As the story unfolds, the three sisters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external (public) or internal (private) version of achievement.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no one wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was released in trade paperback form on February 7, 2012.   “Hilarious, thought-provoking and poignant.”   J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the novels Maine and Commencement.

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Kiss From A Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; $24.95; 336 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and the smart one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story flawlessly – I kept searching in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone – it is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in this tale, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, of course, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters on a stage.

As the story unfolds, each of the daughters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external version of achievement and an internal one.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no use wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was published on January 20, 2011.

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A review of The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam).

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Homeward Bound

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (Putnam, August 5, 2010)

“The person I used to be could have only made one choice; the grown up (me) might have made a different one.   That was how life was.   You only figured out the right thing after you were old.”

This is a finely told story of two persons and two cultures.   It may well appeal to those who loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford or The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz.   The many fans of Lisa See are also likely to be drawn to it.

This is first, the story of Shoko, a young woman in Japan at the end of World War II who marries an American G.I. – one of the many occupiers of her island nation – and then moves with him to San Diego.   In the USA she finds great prosperity, but also some loneliness accompanied by discrimination.   Her transformation is assisted by a guidebook, printed in Japanese and English, labeled How to Be an American Housewife.

The character of Shoko is based on the author’s mother, Suiko O’Brien, who told Dilloway that “her life would make a great book.”   It does, and Suiko relied on a book that her American husband had given to her called The American Way of Housekeeping.

The second story is the tale of Shoko’s southern-California raised daughter, Sue, a character who might be reflective of some of the author’s own experiences growing up.   Sue is a divorced mother who perhaps does not properly appreciate her own mother until Shoko begins to experience serious health issues.   Shoko understands that her time on earth may be short and she wants nothing more than to visit her estranged brother Taro in a village in Japan, one not too far from Nagasaki.

As children Taro and Shoko were told that they shared the blood of the Emperor’s royal family.   When Shoko, attempting to live on her own as a young woman, begins to spend time with a lower-caste man, Taro sees this as bringing shame upon their family.   He vows to never forgive her, and Taro also hates the Americans who bombed his country; thus, Shoko’s marriage to an American (a “Charlie”) is another sign of Shoko’s betrayal to family and country.

Once its determined that the elderly Shoko needs a life-saving heart operation, she is set on convincing Sue to visit Japan in her stead.   She wants Sue to find Taro and deliver to him a request and a message.   This may be the final thing that Shoko asks of her daughter and Sue elects to honor her mother’s wishes.

On one level this is about persons of one culture trying to find acceptance and peace in another one, one that is initially alien (“San Diego had become a foreign nation…”).   This is true of a Japanese woman suddenly transported to the U.S. and of her daughter who, several decades later, finds herself in older parts of Japan.   Shoko eventually finds the peace to state, “I became an American…”   Sue makes a transformational journey to the Land of the Rising Sun with her own daughter and finds that she’s “homesick” for a place she’s never been to before.

On a second level, this is about the interest and spice that’s added to life when one accepts cultures, and the habits, traditions and foods of “the others.”   In the end, the differences between us add to our experiences rather than subtract from them.   Dilloway’s story is a much-needed tribute to multiculturalism.   It is a telling that is an extremely effective one precisely because it includes examples of the sad destruction brought about by hating and fearing those who are different from us.

And finally, this is a tale of forgiveness.   It is one thing for Taro to be asked to forget the mistakes he and his sister made while they were young; it may be another to ask him to forgive a nation whose planes shot at him and dropped bombs on his village during the 1940s.   Yet, because Shoko married an American serviceman the issues become joined in his mind and heart.

The best scene in How to Become an American Housewife is the one in which Sue’s Japanese relatives take her to visit the Peace Park in Nagasaki, ground zero for the dropping of the second atomic bomb.   When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Taro and Shoko were close enough in their nearby village to see the lights from the explosion and hear the sound.   As Sue walks through the park, she comes to understand the horror of war, the terror of how it ended, and the fact that nothing can change the past.

Dilloway’s characters come to understand, as we all must, that the pain of yesterday is no reason to destroy the present.   This debut novel is an impressive tribute to one woman, a mother, who lived a true and large life.   It is also a tribute to the best characteristics of people in two very different countries who, separately yet together, seek to find comfort within the noisy turbulence of life.

Well recommended.

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

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Playing hardball with Detective Warshawski

Hardball 6

Hardball: A V. I. Warshawski Novel by Sara Paretsky (Putnam Adult, $26.95, 464 pages)

Author Sarah Paretsky has set her latest V.I. Warshawski mystery in familiar territory, Chicago.   It’s easy to feel the atmosphere of the gritty windy city, both present and past (circa 1967) as the characters move about and around in a complicated story.   This book carries the theme of family, warts and all, amid a class war, politics Chicago hardball style, and V.I.’s memories of her father who was a policeman.

The task at hand is finding a long lost son and nephew for two elderly African American ladies, one of whom is on the verge of passing on.   To complicate matters, Lamont Gadsen has been missing for forty years in a plot angle that calls to mind the TV show Cold Case.   He was known to be present during a 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. rally in Chicago at which a young woman was killed.   To aid V.I. in her hunt for the missing man, Paretsky introduces a much younger cousin, Petra, who happens to be in Chicago working on a political campaign.

Cousin Petra gets in way over her head when she attempts to be a junior detective.   V.I. does not play favorites when she’s on a case as evidenced by her curt comments to Petra:   “You’re not a very convincing liar, Petra.   You don’t have the guts to come into a burned-out building on your own.   Who was with you?”

Reading this book – the 13th in the Detective Warshawski series – is like catching up with a long-time acquaintance.   Not a friend mind you, an acquaintance.   V.I. as she prefers – not Vicki or Victoria and only occasionally Vic – is portrayed once again as a brusque, nearly unisex character with conflicted identity issues.   Even at the age of 50, she’s far too tough on herself.   V.I. does some considerable soul searching while assuming the persona of a champion whose mission it is to right injustice.

The tale gets bogged down a bit with the intricacies of the multiple plot lines.   The reader may become a bit confused with the large cast of characters.   Yet halfway through the book Paretsky settles into her familiar and enjoyable rhythmic pace permitting V.I. to do what it is she does best – solve the mystery.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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