Category Archives: Fiction

Review: The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan

Title: The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Length: 336 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

In The Weight of Him Billy Brennan undergoes an unforgettable journey in a startling attempt to resurrect his family and reignite hearts, his own most of all.

At four hundred pounds, Billy Brennan can always count on food. From his earliest memories, he has loved food’s colors, textures and tastes. The way flavors go off in his mouth. How food keeps his mind still and his bad feelings quiet. Food has always made everything better, until the day Billy’s beloved son Michael takes his own life.

Billy determines to make a difference in Michael’s memory and undertakes a public weight-loss campaign, to raise money for suicide prevention―his first step in an ambitious plan to save himself, and to save others. However, Billy’s dramatic crusade appalls his family, who want to simply try to go on, quietly, privately.

Despite his crushing detractors, Billy gains welcome allies: his community-at-large; a co-worker who lost his father to suicide; a filmmaker with his own dubious agenda; and a secret, miniature kingdom that Billy populates with the sub-quality dolls and soldiers he saves from disposal at the toy factory where he works. But it is only if Billy can confront the truth of the suffering and brokenness within and around him that he and others will be able to realize the recovery they need.

Told against the picturesque yet haunting backdrop of rural, contemporary Ireland, The Weight of Him is a big-hearted novel about loss and reliance that moves from tragedy to recrimination to what can be achieved when we take the stand of our lives.

Review:

The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan is a heartbreaking, poignant and uplifting novel of healing.

Following his oldest son Michael’s inexplicable suicide, Billy Brennan wants to make his son’s life and death matter.  Billy’s plan to raise money and public awareness about suicide is not well received by his family yet he does not let their lack of support stop him.  Publicly vowing to lose 200 pounds, he  puts up flyers and pledge sheets around town and embarks on his weight loss campaign.  Despite a few initial setbacks, Billy comes up with a diet and exercise plan that he sometimes struggles to stick to but with his new friend Denis Morrissey’s help, he begins shedding pounds.  While his ambitious undertaking takes a toll on his relationship with his family, Billy remains fully committed to his cause.  Will his efforts to raise money and public awareness for suicide prevention pay off?  Can he meet his weight loss goal?  Will Billy and his family heal from their terrible loss?

In the aftermath of Michael’s suicide, Billy and his wife Tricia are both trying to understand why their son took his own life.  Tricia just wants their life to return to some semblance of normal and she does not understand why Billy would do anything to bring more attention to their family.  Their children are, of course, struggling just as much as Billy and Tricia.  Fifteen year old John is angry and Billy is often a target of his furious outbursts.  Twelve year old Anna tries to play peacemaker as her parents’ relationship continues to deteriorate.  Nine year old Ivor is a lot like his father and harboring numerous regrets over his self perceived failings, Billy tries to help his youngest son make healthier choices.

Billy’s struggles with weight began during childhood and over the years, he has lost weight only to gain it back time and again.  Having finally given up on diets a few years ago, his weight continues to climb as he binges on his favorite foods in secret.  His relationship with food is complicated and at times, turning away from the comfort he derives from it is almost a herculean task  for Billy. The passages that detail Billy’s shame and low self-esteem from his excess weight are absolutely heartwrenching to read but they provide readers with a discerning glimpse into the struggles he is experiencing.

Equally devastating are effects that Michael’s suicide have on Billy and his family.  Everyone processes their grief differently but they are all grappling to understand why Michael took his own life.  No one is able to pinpoint anything in his behavior that should have been a red flag which makes it very difficult for them to move forward in the grieving process.  Trying to articulate their feelings for their loss is virtually impossible and Billy is helpless to bridge the growing distance between him and his family.  Even more bewildering to him is their lack of understanding for his need to raise public awareness in an effort to prevent another family from losing a loved one to suicide.

The Weight of Him is an emotionally compelling novel that is fast paced and engaging. Ethel Rohan handles very difficult subject matter with sensitivity and provides readers with an insightful perspective about the importance of eliminating the social stigma that surrounds both suicide and obesity.  An absolutely breathtaking journey of healing that is sad yet ends on a hopeful note.

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Filed under Contemporary, Ethel Rohan, Fiction, Rated B+, Review, St Martin's Press, The Weight of Him

Review: Of Stillness and Storm by Michèle Phoenix

Title: Of Stillness and Storm by Michèle Phoenix
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Genre: Contemporary, Christian, Fiction
Length: 336 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

“I felt torn between two worlds. Each with its own mystery. One more captivating than the other, but the other more real and breathing.”

It took Lauren and her husband ten years to achieve their dream—reaching primitive tribes in remote regions of Nepal. But while Sam treks into the Himalayas for weeks at a time, finding passion and purpose in his work among the needy, Lauren and Ryan stay behind, their daily reality more taxing than inspiring. For them, what started as a calling begins to feel like the family’s undoing.

At the peak of her isolation and disillusion, a friend from Lauren’s past enters her life again. But as her communication with Aidan intensifies, so does the tension of coping with the present while reengaging with the past. It’s thirteen-year-old Ryan who most keenly bears the brunt of her distraction.

Intimate and bold, Of Stillness and Storm weaves profound dilemmas into a tale of troubled love and honorable intentions gone awry.

Review:

Of Stillness and Storm by Michèle Phoenix is a poignant, heartrending exploration of the devastating effect missionary work can sometimes have on families.

Living in the midst of poverty-stricken Nepal, Lauren Coventry and her thirteen year old son, Ryan, are struggling to cope with the difficulties of day to day life.  Lauren is trying to be supportive of her husband Sam, who is off for weeks at a time fulfilling his dream (and self-proclaimed calling) to spread the word of God while trying to improve conditions in outlying communities.  Although Lauren has a strong faith of her own, the isolation and growing distance in their family leads her to question Sam’s zealous pursuit of his ministry and his lack of conern for its effect on their family.  When a childhood friend reaches out to her on social media, Lauren’s viewpoint of her family’s sacrifice for her husband’s dreams begins to change and she grows increasingly concerned over the disconnect between her and Ryan.  When tragedy strikes, will Lauren find the strength and courage to do what is best for her family?

Lauren fully admits she is partially to blame for her current situation but she cannot help but resent Sam’s intractable beliefs and decisions.  She wants to honor her marriage vows and support Sam’s dreams, but at what cost?  The changes in Ryan were immediate and despite Sam’s pleas to give him time to adjust, two years after their move, he is growing more distant and unwilling to communicate.  Lauren is fed up with Sam’s edicts and she is frustrated with living without any conveniences that would make their life more bearable.  Unable to reach her son as he grows more despondent, Lauren is sinking under the weight of living a life that is not of her choosing.  But how can she reconcile her desire to put the needs of herself and her son ahead of Sam’s calling to do God’s work?

Sam’s need to do missionary work is admirable but his zealotry blinds him to the effect his work is having on his family.  He does not take Lauren’s needs or objections into consideration as he blindly follows his path.  His complete and utter disregard for his son’s downward spiral is incredibly frustrating as he puts his efforts into bettering the lives of others while ignoring the pain his family is experiencing.  Sam’s devotion to his cause, his fervent belief in God’s will and his expectation that Lauren submit to his will makes it impossible for her to have productive discussions with him about their fraying family.  His reactions and edicts are counterproductive to Ryan’s increasing despair and Sam absolutely refuses to take Lauren’s concerns seriously.

Of Stillness and Storm by Michèle Phoenix is an emotionally compelling and often times, heartbreaking, novel about the difficulties of balancing a family’s needs with missionary work.  This thought-provoking portrayal of family in crisis shows how easy it is to put service to God before family and the destruction such a decision can have when conviction blinds them to the needs of their immediate family.  An absolutely outstanding cautionary tale that is deeply affecting and will linger in readers’ minds long after the last page is turned.

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Filed under Christian, Contemporary, Fiction, Michèle Phoenix, Of Stillness and Storm, Rated B+, Review, Thomas Nelson Publishing

Review: George Bailey Gets Saved in the End by Ken O’Neill

Title: George Bailey Gets Saved in the End by Ken O’Neill
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction, Humor/Satire
Length: 352 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Same Holiday. Different George.

George Bailey, who has made a fortune selling Christmas ornaments, is having a rough few days. He’s thrown his back out lifting the Thanksgiving turkey; his father has died and his wife has left him. He’d turn to his best friend for support, but said BFF is having an affair with his wife.

Let the holiday season begin!

On the heels of all this misery George meets a new woman, and he also meets Jesus (or perhaps just an awfully nice guy named Jesus). As he scrambles to hold together his floundering family, he must figure out if these strange and wondrous events are miracles or symptoms of a nervous breakdown.

Review:

George Bailey Gets Saved in the End by Ken O’Neill is a humorous novel that is also poignant and surprisingly, uplifting.

After a series of life-altering events occur in fairly quick succession, George Bailey is forced out of complacency about his career and marriage. He works alongside his father, brother and to  some extent, his own children, in the family owned Christmas business. George has grown increasingly unhappy with his job but inertia and family expectations have left him unable to decide whether or not to leave his position.  Although not exactly happy in his 24 year marriage, he is content to stay with his childhood sweetheart, Tara.  As events continue to  snowball out of control, George has no choice but face his growing dissatisfaction with his life, but will he make better choices than he has in the past?

George is an endearing middle aged man who is content to maintain the status quo despite his increasing unhappiness.  He ignores problems until he has no choice but to face them and even then, he is hard-pressed to make decisions about how to fix them. With his life completely upended, George makes a few questionable choices but overall, he is making progress as he tries to figure out what will make him happy.  While he is definitely making progress in making positive changes in his life, he still has to force himself to explore his feelings and stop reacting passively to difficult situations.  Habits of a lifetime are difficult to break, but George makes considerable progress in affecting positive changes in every aspect of his life.

George Bailey Gets Saved in the End by Ken O’Neill is a charming holiday novel that is fast-paced and engaging.  The characters are multi-faceted with quirks that add to their overall appeal. An entertaining yet extremely heartwarming story of new beginnings that I greatly enjoyed and highly recommend.

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Filed under Contemporary, Fiction, George Bailey Gets Saved in the End, Humor, Ken O'Neill, Rated B+, Review, Satire

Review: We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun & Susan Mullen

Title: We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun & Susan Mullen
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Genre: Historical (80s), Young Adult, Fiction
Length: 304 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

It’s the summer of 1982, and for Scott and Cath, everything is about to change.

Growing up across the street from each other, Scott and Cath have been best friends for most of their lives. Now they’ve graduated high school, and Cath is off to college while Scott stays at home trying to get his band off the ground. Neither of them realized that their first year after high school would be so hard.

Fortunately, Scott and Cath still have each other, and it’s through their letters that they survive heartache, annoying roommates, family dramas, and the pressure of figuring out what to do with the rest of their lives. And through it all, they realize that the only person they’ve ever wanted to turn to is each other. But does that mean they should think about being more than friends? One thing is clear, Change is an inescapable part of growing up, and we share unbreakable bonds with the friends who help us navigate it.

This funny, extraordinary, and deeply moving book—set to an awesome ’80s soundtrack—captures all the beautiful confusion and emotional intensity we find on the verge of adulthood…and first love.

Review:

We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun & Susan Mullen is a humorous, poignant and heartwarming novel.  Set in 1982, lifelong friends Scott Agee and Cath Osteen exchange letters as Cath goes off to college while Scott stays in their hometown to work in his family owned clothing store.

Although Cath is excited about attending college, she is a little homesick as she settles into dorm life.  Through her letters to Scott, she fills him on her somewhat quirky roommate, freshman shenanigans and her surprisingly close friendship with Jane.  From her first college romance to struggling to keep up in her classes, she humorously and sometimes sarcastically keeps her best friend apprised of everything going on her life.  Her letters take on an unexpected serious tone as her first holiday visit home approaches and Cath finds out unsettling, life changing information about her parents.

Back home, Scott is adjusting to working in the clothing store and while he is not exactly overjoyed with his career path, he is appreciative that working with his dad has improved their relationship.  With self-deprecating humor, he minimizes his decision to coast through high school but as the months pass, he is rather contemplative as he tries to understand why he chose not to focus on going to college.  Forming a band with some of his friends provides Scott the opportunity to try his hand at songwriting and they reach a measure of success performing gigs at local establishments.  While the majority of his letters are light-hearted and humor-filled, they become much more serious after an unexpected loss.

Although Cath and Scott do talk on the phone and see one another in person, these events are only referenced during letters they write after the fact.  Their letters occasionally cross in the mail so there are a handful of slightly confusing out of sequence exchanges but the next letter helps make sense of things.  The more serious aspects of their correspondence are deftly balanced with their playful banter and  personal jokes.  The occasional misunderstanding sometimes leads to angry exchanges but their longstanding friendship easily survives these squabbles.

An absolutely charming novel with a nostalgic vibe due to music references, mix tapes and letter exchanges, We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun & Susan Mullen has a refreshingly unique storyline and a wonderful cast of characters. While the overall tone of the novel is upbeat, Cath and Scott also undergo serious, life-altering events that strengthen their friendship.  All in all, it is a captivating read that I absolutely loved and highly recommend to readers of all ages.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical, Historical (80s), Michael Kun, Rated B+, Review, St Martin's Griffin, Susan Mullen, We Are Still Tornadoes, Young Adult

Review: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

Title: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Genre: Historical (60s, 70s), Fiction
Length: 369 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Caroline Leavitt is at her mesmerizing best in this haunting, nuanced portrait of love, sisters, and the impossible legacy of family.

It’s 1969, and sixteen-year-old Lucy is about to run away with a much older man to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that will have vicious repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy’s default caretaker for most of their lives, Charlotte’s youth has been marked by the burden of responsibility, but never more so than when Lucy’s dream of a rural paradise turns into a nightmare.

Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, and explores what happens when you’re responsible for things you cannot make right.

Review:

Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam  War, free love and the Manson murders, Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt is a bittersweet novel about two sisters who discover that life very rarely lives up the their dreams.

After their parents’ death when they were young, Charlotte and Lucy moved in with their much older, distant relative Iris.  At one time extremely close, the sisters began drifting apart as teens and by the time Lucy disappears, Charlotte has no idea what is going on her sister’s life.  At the urging of Iris, she goes to college as planned but she is soon struggling to keep up academically with her fellow students.  Meanwhile, Lucy’s life with her thirty year old teacher boyfriend William Lallo is slowly falling apart as she grows increasingly unhappy at their remote home in rural Pennsylvania.  Iris is trying to come to terms with her empty nest while at the same time dealing with the realities of growing older. After Lucy’s life with William completely unravels, Charlotte tries to make sense of what happened to her sister in the year since she and Iris last saw her.

Oldest sister Charlotte is rather shy and serious but she is fiercely protective of Lucy.  Determined to get into a good college, she is focused on getting stellar grades and acing her SAT. Completely consumed by thoughts of her future, Charlotte does not even notice when she and Lucy begin to drift apart. After Lucy runs away, she realizes she knows absolutely nothing about her sister’s life in the months leading up to her disappearance but this does not stop her from trying to find Lucy. After her hard work in school leads to an academic scholarship to a prestigious college, Iris insists she follow her dream instead of remaining at home with her.  Charlotte is stunned by the reality of life on campus as her hopes of finally fitting in are quickly shattered and worse, she is struggling in all of her classes.  An out of the blue phone call from Lucy resurrects old resentments, but Charlotte puts aside her feelings to try to rescue her sister.

Lucy is a bit of free spirit who struggles to live up to her teacher’s expectations.  When popular teacher William Lallo takes a special interest in her, she is excited and thrilled to finally have a class she excels in.  When their relationship takes a romantic turn, Lucy sees nothing wrong with a thirty year old man loving her but she knows society will not turn a blind eye to their romance.  As the school year draws to a close, she eagerly looks forward to them leaving and starting a new life together in Pennsylvania.  Dismayed to find herself living in isolation with no friends and plenty of empty hours to fill while William is at work, Lucy soon falls out of love but with no money or job skills, she feels trapped by her impetuous decision.  Trying to find some measure of independence from William, she begins roaming the countryside where she befriends the owner of vegetable stand, Patrick.  Convincing him to let her work for him, Lucy’s yearning to escape William continues to grow but will she find a way to escape her controlling boyfriend?

Taking place during the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s, Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt is a compelling character driven novel that is beautifully written.  While heavy foreshadowing leaves little doubt how Lucy’s story will end, Charlotte’s story arc is less defined but just as intriguing. The storyline is somewhat poignant yet ultimately uplifting as it wends its way to a satisfying conclusion.

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Filed under Algonquin Books, Caroline Leavitt, Cruel Beautiful World, Fiction, Historical, Historical (60s), Historical (70s), Rated B, Review

Review: Karolina’s Twins by Ronald H. Balson

Title: Karolina’s Twins by Ronald H. Balson
Liam and Catherine Series Book Three
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Genre: Contemporary, Historical (WWII), Fiction
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: A

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

She made a promise in desperation
Now it’s time to keep it

Lena Woodward, elegant and poised, has lived a comfortable life among Chicago Society since she immigrated to the US and began a new life at the end of World War II. But now something has resurfaced that Lena cannot ignore: an unfulfilled promise she made long ago that can no longer stay buried.

Driven to renew the quest that still keeps her awake at night, Lena enlists the help of lawyer Catherine Lockhart and private investigator Liam Taggart. Behind Lena’s stoic facade are memories that will no longer be contained. She begins to recount a tale, harkening back to her harrowing past in Nazi-occupied Poland, of the bond she shared with her childhood friend Karolina. Karolina was vivacious and beautiful, athletic and charismatic, and Lena has cherished the memory of their friendship her whole life. But there is something about the story that is unfinished, questions that must be answered about what is true and what is not, and what Lena is willing to risk to uncover the past. Has the real story been hidden these many years? And if so, why?

Two girls, coming of age in a dangerous time, bearers of secrets that only they could share.

Just when you think there could not be anything new to ferret out from World War II comes Karolina’s Twins, a spellbinding new novel by the bestselling author of Once We Were Brothers and Saving Sophie. In this richly woven tale of love, survival and resilience during some of the darkest hours, the unbreakable bond between girlhood friends will have consequences into the future and beyond.

Review:

Based on real life events, Karolina’s Twins by Ronald H. Balson is a riveting novel about a Holocaust survivor’s search for her best friend’s twin daughters more than 70 years later.  Although this is the third book featuring lawyer Catherine Lockhart and private investigator Liam Taggart, it can be read as a standalone.

At 89 years of age, Lena Woodward might be feeling the physical effects of her advanced years but her mind is still sharp as a tack.  Realizing she is running out of time to fulfill a long ago promise, she contacts Liam and Catherine to help her locate her childhood friend Karolina Neuman’s twin daughters whom she has not seen since they were just a few months old.  Lena and Karolina are childhood friends whose lives were torn apart when the Nazis invaded their hometown in Poland.

Forced to work as seamstresses in a coat factory, the young women manage, with the help of Karolina’s German lover, to survive extreme conditions.  Not long after Karolina gives birth to twin daughters, the coat factory shuts down and the women are sent to Gross-Rosen concentration camp where they are forced to work as slave labor. Knowing the babies’ fate if they arrive at the camp, Lena and Karolina take drastic measures that will hopefully save the girls from a horrific fate.  After surviving Auschwitz, Lena marries and moves to the United State but the fate of Karolina’s twins weighs heavily on her mind.

Needing to know whether or not the girls survived, Lena hopes Liam and Catherine can trace the girls’ whereabouts. However, her son Arthur is convinced she is suffering from dementia and his efforts to have her declared incompetent could interfere with their efforts.  After so many years have passed and hampered by the impending court case, will Liam and Catherine uncover the truth about what happened to Karolina’s twins?

Lena’s life in Poland was rather idyllic in the years before the Nazi occupation.  Her parents are well-respected shop owners in the Jewish community where they live a rather comfortable life.  Her friendship with Karolina begins while they are attending public school together and although Lena eventually transfers to a private school, they remain close friends.

As the Nazis begin rising to power, Lena’s father starts making arrangements for the family to immigrate from Poland, but the Germans invade Poland before they are able to leave.  Stripped of their business and forced to adhere to the strict rules all Jews must follow, Lena’s father is a member of the Polish resistance.  After he and the rest of the family are selected for “relocation”, Lena, now a teenager, remains in hiding until their home is taken over by Germans and she begins searching for her missing family.

Finding shelter in the ghetto, she works in the coat factory where she is reunited with Karolina.  Conditions are almost unbearable as the young women live without running water, electricity and heat as they work long hours in the factory.  Food is strictly rationed and as winter descends, the harsh weather and  poor nutrition take a horrific toll on the people living in the ghetto.

In the midst of this unimaginable horror, the birth of Karolina’s twins is an unexpected bright spot but as the war continues, the Nazis put their plans in motion to exterminate the Jews.  More and more Jews are sent to concentration camps where children, the elderly and the infirm are separated and sent to their deaths.  Those who are healthy are selected to work as slave labor but their lives are often cut short as malnutrition, harsh living conditions and illness take their toll.  Knowing full well what will happen to the babies, the women make a split second decision to try to save them from certain death but this choice haunts Lena for the most of her life.

Interspersed with Lena’s account of her wartime experiences is Arthur’s effort to have her declared incompetent.  He is quite odious and it is difficult to ascertain his motives for  the case.  Is Arthur genuinely concerned for his mother’s health?  Or are his reasons financially motivated due to his mother’s wealth?  His heavy-handed tactics and sneering conversations certainly cloud the issue and leave everyone wondering what he hopes to accomplish with his actions.

Although some of the dialogue is a little awkward and the court case is a little overly dramatic (and unnecessary), Karolina’s Twins is an absolutely compelling novel about Lena’s experiences as a Jewish woman living in Nazi occupied Poland.  Ronald H. Balson deftly blends fact with fiction and brings this fictionalized account of actual events vibrantly to life.  This  poignant story is a gripping and educational read that I highly recommend.

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Filed under Contemporary, Fiction, Historical, Karolina's Twins, Rated A, Review, Ronald H Balson, St Martin's Griffin