A lookery at Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s “We Never Asked for Wings”

We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Ballantine Books

August 18, 2015

320 pages

$27.00

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From Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the best-selling author of The Language of Flowers comes a new novel, We Never Asked for Wings. It is a marvelous story in which Diffenbaugh takes on the challenges of today’s society. While weaving an absorbing tale of a family at risk, the author grapples with parenthood as well as the multi-generational connection between children, their parents and grandparents. She explores various styles of family units, young love and young love revisited, complicated adult relationships, the struggles of undocumented immigrants and the daily fight for a better future.

As the story opens, Letty is in a panic. Her mother has followed Letty’s father to the family home in Mexico. Letty has no idea how to care for her own children, Alex, nearly fifteen, and Luna, six. Grandmother Maria Elena raised the children while Letty held down several jobs to support the entire family. She is desperate for help.

So what choice does Letty have but to sneak out after the kids are asleep in their San Francisco Bay area apartment in the neglected Bayshore wetlands and drive to her father’s home deep in Mexico?

Alex awakens to find his mother and grandmother gone and determines that he and Luna should be okay on their own for a week until the women return. But the week stretches on, and it is getting harder for Alex to manage headstrong Luna and feed the both of them. He is much more interested in his blossoming relationship with his pretty neighbor Yesenia than playing babysitter. The young teen also has questions about his absent father.

When Letty returns home without her mother, she takes bold steps to improve her family’s position and future. Alex also takes a chance on bettering life for Yesenia. Trouble brews for the teens, and it is at this point that the support of family and friends becomes essential.

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is an extraordinary novel of relationships, love, hope and personal discovery. It is poignant, delving deep into the hearts, souls and minds of each of the individuals in the story. The author guides her characters with grace through their struggles, creating a realistic and strong story line that is believable and touches the reader. We Never Asked for Wings is destined for best-seller lists everywhere (and if you haven’t already done so, read her novel The Language of Flowers for further proof of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s talent as a writer and storyteller).

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

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A Mother’s Day lookery at “The Mapmaker’s Children” by Sarah McCoy

Mapmaker's Children

The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

Crown Publishers

May 5, 2015

320 pages

$25.00


In honor of Mother’s Day today in the United States, this lookery examines two women who redefine “mother” and “children” in Sarah McCoy’s The Mapmaker’s Children.

To be frank, the opening paragraph of this historical novel did not appeal to me. If I had picked up the book in a bookstore, it would have gone right back onto the shelf. However, because Crown Publishers were kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book in exchange for my honest review, I stuck with it — and I’m glad that I gave this novel another chance. The following pages were well worth reading.

Sarah Brown is a daughter of abolitionist John Brown. Her story starts in New Elba, New York in 1859. Although her age is not revealed, she seems to be in her teens. She has barely survived a wide-spread plague of dysentery, only to overhear her physician tell her mother that Sarah would never be able to have children. Mrs. Brown is devastated by the news. Who would love and marry her barren daughter?

Fast forward to 2014, New Charlestown, West Virginia, where Eden and Jack Anderson have moved into an older suburban home. Like Sarah, Eden is not been to conceive, in spite of years of trying and enduring various fertility treatments. As much as she loves Jack, Sarah’s mood swings and other treatment side effects have left her feeling hopeless and on the verge of proceeding with a divorce.

Jack attempts to enlarge their household with the addition of a dog. Eden is NOT amused, and rejects the pet at once. Jack travels for work, so he hires Cleo, a ten-year-old girl to care for Cricket until he can find the mutt a new home. Although Eden and Jack have lived in the small town for some months, Eden’s unsettled health kept them housebound. Cleo becomes Eden’s guide to life in the hamlet of New Charlestown.

The author alternates between Sarah’s and Eden’s stories. Sarah stumbles upon her father’s secret Underground Railroad (UGRR) activities late one night. She draws a map to guide an illiterate group of slaves to safety. John Brown and his select group of trusted friends of the railroad are so impressed by the simplicity and accuracy of Sarah’s map, that they swear her to secrecy and set her to work on creating pictures with hidden codes and symbols directing escaping slaves to freedom in the North.

Eden and Cleo become close friends as Eden drifts away from Jack. Soon the two are cooking organic dog food for Cricket. Keeping her strange eyes on the cooks is an antique porcelain doll’s head found when Cricket discovered a forgotten root cellar beneath Eden’s home.

Back in the nineteenth century, John Brown is arrested for his part in ambushing the Harper’s Ferry armory. Sarah, her mother and sisters rush to Virginia to see the horribly wounded prisoner before his death sentence is carried out. The Hill family are their hosts in New Charlestown, and also trusted friends with an active role in the Freedom Train. George Hill and his son Freddy accept Sarah’s involvement as well, although her family remains ignorant of her activities. The Browns return to their home in New York, but Sarah and Freddy maintain a lifelong friendship and correspondence.

McCoy traces the life of Sarah and the Brown and Hill families based on documents and research into the families’ histories. She ties Sarah’s life to Eden’s, a century and a half later using compellingly believable creative license as well as historical facts. Both women’s stories are intriguing — one real, one fictional. With letters, newspaper articles and other devices, author Sarah McCoy has created an exceptionally readable novel of two women’s struggles to define themselves in their personal lives and communities. Meticulously researched, but never dry or boring, The Mapmaker’s Children is a testament to the abilities of women to take on the mantle of motherhood without being broodmares both one hundred fifty years ago and today.

A Lookery at: Laura Moriarty’s “The Chaperone”

The Chaperone

Laura Moriarty

Penguin Books (2012)

$26.95

The Chaperone, written by Laura Moriarty, is billed by many sources as one of this summer’s “must-reads”. This title was high on my reading list, so when it was featured as a Kindle Daily Deal at a fraction of the price of a hardback, I snatched it up and downloaded it immediately.

Setting off on an adventure of a lifetime, Cora Carlisle agrees to chaperone teenager Louise Brooks on a six week visit to New York City, where Louise intends to study dance with the famed Denishawn Dance Company. Thirty-six-year-old Cora is a well-regarded woman in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. She is married, the mother of twin boys bound for college in the fall.

Louise Brooks is fifteen, beautiful, arrogant and sexually precocious, and is anxious to leave the cultural confines of the Midwest. Louise sees no need for a chaperone, and defies convention from the moment she and Cora step foot in the Wichita train station. Her seductive nature and actions become even more pronounced as the women travel further east.

Cora has her own secrets and motives for visiting New York in the summer of 1922, known only to her husband. She explores both the vibrant city and her past – hidden from the conservative citizens of Kansas – while Louise practices with the dance company. But while Cora tries to keep Louise’s wild and artistic personality in check fearing that the young girl might sully her reputation, Cora’s eyes are opened to new possibilities for leading a more liberating life when she returns home.

After training for several weeks, Louise earns a spot in the Denishawn Dance Company before eventually heading to Hollywood. There she becomes a film star known for her beauty, her modern bobbed hair and her sex appeal.

Although it is Louise who moves on to great fame as a screen actress, it is Cora’s life that the reader explores in greater depth. Firm beliefs about hemlines, hairstyles, birth control (believe it or not, a well-known household disinfectant advertised itself as a prophylactic in the twenties), and racism are all tested while in NYC. Before returning to the Midwest, Cora makes a life-changing decision. She alters her outlook on the myriad of cultural possibilities taking place in American society. Louise is a flash-in-the-pan success in the film industry, while Cora seizes new opportunities. A respected woman in Wichita, Cora works to influence her community to embrace the progressive transformations emerging in more metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles.

Laura Moriarty has meticulously researched the material used in her novel The Chaperone. A bibliography illustrates how the author incorporates the tiniest of details into the fictional life of Cora, while staying true to the story of real-life film actress Louise Brooks. But rather than create a biography of Louise and her crash and burn career, Professor Moriarty shows how an average woman in the guise of Cora Carlisle – a mere chaperone – can change her life and that of others by an experience which exposes her to a life she might have never known as a privileged homemaker in America’s breadbasket.

An interesting look at the changes in society during the 20th century (particularly those concerning women), The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty has earned four eyes from thebooklookery. The bohemian life led by Louise seems more believable than the duplicitous life that Cora creates after her visit to the Big Apple, however; the overview of women’s history during the 20th century is excellent.

A Lookery at: “Saving CeeCee Honeycutt” by Beth Hoffman

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

Beth Hoffman

Pamela Dorman Books, publisher (2010)

$25.95

This month’s selection for the book club I belong to is Beth Hoffman’s first novel, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. Some of what we discussed about the book will be shared today, but bear in mind that personal information about my fellow readers will not be given. Also, any ratings are mine, and not necessarily those of the club members. In order to put the review into the right context, it is beneficial to know that the book club is made up of women of a “certain age”. Most of us did not know each other prior to forming the group about a year ago, and new readers are joining each month. This tiny glimpse into the composition of the club serves as a reference point for some of the thoughts shared about Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.

Cecelia Rose Honeycutt (CeeCee) is a young preteen who has lived all of her life in a small Ohio town. Her story takes place during the 1960s. Although CeeCee has some magical memories of her mother from her very young childhood, as CeeCee matures, she realizes that her mother, Camille, is not “normal”. By the time she is twelve, Cecelia recognizes that there is something wrong with her mother’s mental health, and that other people can see this as well.

Camille Sugarbaker Honeycutt is a transplanted Southern belle, whose greatest claim to fame was winning the title of Vidalia Onion Queen of 1951. Although watching beauty pageants is a guilty pleasure for millions, in some parts of the country, a woman’s entire identity often becomes determined by her success at achieving a beauty queen title. Mrs. Honeycutt finds it odd that “Yankees” do not place much importance on such achievements.

In fact, Camille feels that the Yankees of Ohio are cold people who live in cold weather, and feels terribly out of place away from her friends and family in Savannah, Georgia. Even when Camille is still somewhat sane, she is a free spirit in a land of conservative residents.

As her illness progresses, she spends more and more time and money purchasing used prom dresses (with dyed to match shoes, if possible) from Goodwill, and parades around town in her pageantry finery. In turn, her husband Carl, spends less and less time at home as a travelling salesman. It falls to young CeeCee to take on the role of parent to Camille, keeping her safe and bringing her home when she creates scenes in town. In time, CeeCee begins to resent her mother, and when tragedy occurs, harbors great guilt and remorse for her feelings.

Soon afterwards, Cecelia’s Aunt Tootie arrives from Savannah to take the young girl back to her mother’s hometown. CeeCee meets Tootie’s friends and relatives, and is drawn into a world dominated by unique, strong women characters. She is cared for by Tootie and her housekeeper, Olette.

Several of Tootie’s eccentric friends and family members show up to meet CeeCee, and introduce her to the warm and hospitable society of the South. Men are incidental to the story, and tend to be relatively weak characters.

Some of the points brought up by club members included a discussion about Cecelia being raised in a highly dysfunctional environment. Also, race relations are an important part of the story. Some incidents are fairly difficult to believe looking at the 1960s from the perspective of the 21st century. It was also mentioned that there are aspects of the movie Steel Magnolias and Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help in the book. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman is described by some readers as “sugar coated” or too saccharin. However, most members felt that was part of the charm of the book. Hoffman’s novel is definitely a feel good tale, in spite of the terrible life that CeeCee experienced in Ohio.

thebooklookery’s rating for Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is four eyes, for the depiction of family life with untreated mentally ill members, and yes, also because it is a “feel good” novel. thebooklookery looks forward to future novels by author Beth Hoffman.

A Lookery at: “Day After Night” by Anita Diamant

Day After Night

By Anita Diamant

Scribner Paperback Edition 2010

$15.00

You will find, dearreader, that I am particularly interested in both fiction and non-fiction about WWll. Not the battles or military side of it, but the social and psychological aspects of the era and the war, both here and abroad. Oftentimes, these books can be somewhat depressing. Today’s novel, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, based on historical facts and events that occurred in Palestine after the end of the war, is somewhat different from most WWll themed books that I have read.

To put the story and events into historical context for thereader, a brief history lesson is in order. Israel did not become a nation until 1948. From 1922 until then, Palestine (as the area was called), was under the administrative jurisdiction of Great Britain. Initially, Britain supported an independent Jewish nation. However, by 1939, the government of the UK reneged on its previous mandate allowing the immigration of Jews into Palestine. Only 10,000 people of Jewish heritage were allowed to immigrate to Palestine each year from 1939 to 1944. After that, legal immigration to Palestine for Jews was down to a mere trickle. WWll lasted from 1939 until 1945. Moving from Europe to Palestine could have saved millions of Jewish lives.

After the war was over, many of the remaining European and Middle Eastern Jews were homeless, or had no desire to live in countries that had turned their backs on them. In decrepit, dilapidated boats, and by some overland routes, Jews began arriving in Palestine with the help of the Haganah resistance movement. Most of them were “illegal” immigrants, without permission to settle in the country. These “illegals” were herded into detention centers by the British and languished there until decisions about their individual settlement rights were made.

Day After Night takes place in the Atlit detention center near Haifa between August and October 1945.  The four main characters are all Jewish women who have survived the war in Europe. Shayndel is a Polish Zionist who spent most of the war fighting Nazis along with the partisans in Poland’s forests. Tedi, the tall, blonde Dutch woman is the only survivor of her entire family. A French beauty, Leonie spent the war enduring her own indignities and horrors. The only concentration camp survivor is Zorah, an angry, bitter Polish woman who refuses to forget her wartime experiences. In the camp, “there was an unwritten rule… against asking survivors about their experiences” (p. 112). Although the reader learns each woman’s backstory, very rarely do the detainees share their stories with others.

The wartime encounters of each character are revealed in the novel, but not dwelled upon. The primary story is about life in Atlit – the arrival of new immigrants, the boredom, the anxiety, the waiting are all detailed. Palestine is so entirely different from Europe, that many find simple things, such as a cucumber and tomato salad for breakfast, the heat, real cigarettes and learning Hebrew to be amazing as well as confusing.

All of the women and camp residents are anxious to be released. Starting a new life free of barbed wire and foreign administrators is of paramount importance. Atlit is no picnic and is still confinement for each person. There is significant distrust among the detainees. Secrets abound. Spying becomes critical to the Jewish wish for freedom. Tedi, Leonie, Zorah, Shayndel and many others are possessed by the desire to break free of camp life.

While the women portrayed by the author are fictional, organizations, events and the incredible resolution of the story are not. Anita Diamant’s Day After Night is not your typical story of the Holocaust. It is a story about hope, new beginnings and the will to build the new, independent, Jewish nation of Israel. It is a very enlightening look into what life was like for the survivors of Hitler’s insane vision who arrive in Palestine. All the more so because the story is based on fact.

Another 3+ eye rating for a relatively unknown look into post WWll history.

A Lookery at: “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation

Jean Kwok

Riverhead Books (2010)

$25.95

It has been a long time since a novel has captivated me so completely that I have read it in one day. Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation did just that. Author Kwok’s debut novel draws on her own experiences to bring thereader the story of ah-Kim Chang and her mother, Ma.

ah-Kim and Ma are emigrants from Hong Kong who come to New York, desperate to leave Hong Kong before it reverts to Chinese rule in 1997. Sponsored by Ma’s sister Aunt Paula and brother-in-law Uncle Bob, mother and daughter begin their new life in a miniscule and squalid condemned apartment in a Brooklyn slum. Ma is employed at Uncle Bob’s piece-work sweatshop in Chinatown’s garment district, finishing clothing for one and a half cents per skirt. At the same time, Aunt Paula unwittingly provides ah-Kim with her first step toward a better future by giving her a false address that allows her to attend a better public school than the one nearest her home.

It is soon obvious that Kimberly (her new American name) is going to struggle academically in the US in spite of her scholastic success back home in Hong Kong. Likewise, Ma has an impossible quota to fill each day at the clothing factory. Kimberly must join her mother on the job after school every afternoon so that Ma can make her daily allotment of finished skirts.

Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob effectively become the jailers of their relatives and the other workers by paying them for each item shipped rather than a regular minimum hourly wage. In addition, each payday Uncle Bob deducts from Ma’s income, cash to cover her debt to him for medical treatment in Hong Kong, the plane tickets to America, the visas (plus interest on the debt) and utilities for their apartment. Not much cash is left over for food, rent and clothing.

There are others who treat Ma and Kim with kindness. And, once Kim’s talent at school is noticed, both she and her mother realize that Kimberly’s academic aptitude is the key to improving their lives. There will be no help coming from their own relatives.

The struggles of balancing school, work, finances and social situations become staggering for the two women. Both Kim and Ma are forced to make decisions along the way that will have an immense impact on their future together.

The challenges the Changs are faced with and the consequences of their decisions — particularly Kim’s — will have to be explored by you, dearreader. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is an excellent novel, great for personal enjoyment or even a book club selection. Easily a 4+ eye rating.

An Updated Lookery at: “Spring Fever” by Mary Kay Andrews

dearreader,

Please take a lookery at my previous post “A Lookery at: ‘Spring Fever’ by Mary Kay Andrews to listen to an audio clip from the audiobook edition of the novel. You can also link to it here:

http://media.us.macmillan.com/video/olmk/macmillanaudio/springfeverch1.mp3

Many thanks to MacMillan Publishing for providing thebooklookery with this bonus!

Enjoy!

A Lookery at: “Spring Fever” by Mary Kay Andrews

An Audio Clip from “Spring Fever” by Mary Kay Andrews

Spring Fever

Mary Kay Andrews

St. Martin’s Press (2012)

$25.99

In Mary Kay Andrews’ latest “escapist novel”, Spring Fever, Annajane Hudgens is about to say good-bye to the only life she’s known in the quaint lakeside town of Passcoe, North Carolina and move on to a better future in Atlanta. She’s sold her loft, quit her job at the Quixie soda pop company, and is engaged to bluegrass musician, Shane. Proving that she is over her short-lived marriage to Mason Bayless, Annajane attends his wedding to the perfect-in-every-way Celia shortly before leaving town.

But the wedding doesn’t go off quite as planned, and Annajane finds herself and Mason Bayless coping with a family crisis instead. For years following their acrimonious break-up and divorce, Annajane and Mason continued to work together at the Bayless family’s specialty cherry soda soft drink corporation, the largest employer in the small town of Passcoe. They have managed to keep their working relationship professional even after the arrival of wunderkind Celia. Now, the formerly married couple are trying to manage a situation that Celia’s stellar business skills cannot control.

Annajane’s departure date arrives sooner than expected. She packs in a hurry and leaves her hometown for her fiance’ Shane, and the big city of Atlanta.

What follows is a fairly predictable “girl meets boy; girl loses boy; does girl want boy back?” story, set against a backdrop of corporate and familial backstabbing, deceit, betrayals, and eventually, an outpouring of closely held secrets. Much of the plot is easy to foresee; however, there are enough twists and turns at the end to forgive the novel’s somewhat unexceptional plotline.

Definitely not highbrow literature, Spring Fever is a fluffy, fun summer frolic that is easy-to-read and entertaining. It has an element of romance to it, but enough intrigue to keep the book from becoming overly sappy. Mary Kay Andrews has served up a novel as refreshing and as bubbly as an ice-cold bottle of Quixie cherry soda, and for that, I give it a rating of 3+ eyes.

A Lookery at “The Wednesday Sisters: A Novel” by Meg Waite Clayton

“The Wednesday Sisters:  A Novel” by author Meg Waite Clayton begins by settling the reader on a bench in the middle of Palo Alto’s Pardee Park, next to Frankie (or Mary Frances, rather) O’Mara, the narrator of the story. It is late 1967, and Frankie and her her husband, Danny, are contemplating a move to California from the Midwest.

While watching her children play, Frankie meets another young mother, Linda Mason, an aspiring runner. The women introduce themselves and gossip about another park mom whom they haven’t yet met, Brett Tyler, who wears white gloves to the playground.

By mid-1968, the O’Maras have moved into the Pardee Park neighborhood. A friendship is formed between Frankie, Linda, the brilliant Brett, Southern belle Kath Montgomery and eventually, BoHo Ally Tantry. The friends discuss their favorite writers and books as they watch their children play.

Fall approaches and the Wednesday Sisters, as they have chosen to call themselves, gather to watch the Miss America Pageant. The pageant’s talent competition inspires the sisters to challenge each other to pursue their personal goals and produce their own writing projects. Some of the women are more reluctant to expose themselves through the written word, but eventually, they all tackle the task of writing and critiquing one another’s work.

The turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s in the Bay Area provide the backdrop for the story as the friends experience and participate in the social upheaval taking place around them. These women are bright, and mostly well-educated, but were raised to be housewives and mothers. The world around them is changing, as are the expectations of their roles in society.

Infertility, illness, in-laws and infidelity, as well as partners, prejudice, and progress all leave a lasting impression on the Wednesday Sisters who pursue their writing and friendship with passion.

“The Wednesday Sisters:  A Novel”, rates four eyes (no pun intended) with yourstruly. It is particularly interesting to observe the changes that took place in the US from the point of view of young mothers as opposed to having experienced this era as a child.

I look forward to reading more work by Meg Waite Clayton, such as her novel about law students known as “The Four Ms. Bradwells”.

“The Wednesday Sisters:  A Novel” by Meg Waite Clayton is available in paperback from Ballantine Books (2009). http://www.amazon.com/The-Wednesday-Sisters-A-Novel/dp/0345502833/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1339410192&sr=1-1