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Monday, December 27, 2021

The Good Son by Jacquelyn Mitchard

The Good Son by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Published by MIRA, ISBN 9780369717559
Hardcover, $27.99, 352 pages

Author Ann Patchett said that if a book doesn't grab her from the first sentence or page, she will stop reading it. The first sentence of Jacquelyn Mitchard's novel, The Good Son, grabs the reader hard.
"I was picking up my son at the prison gates when I spotted the mother of the girl he murdered."

How can you not read on after that?

Thea was at the prison to pick up Stefan, her twenty year-old son who had just served nearly three years in prison for killing his girlfriend in a drug-induced haze. He was so out of it, he didn't remember what he had done.

As the story progresses, we discover that Stefan was obsessed with his high school girlfriend Belinda, and was distraught when she went away to college. They continued to see each other, and Stefan was planning on going to the same college when she was killed. 

Thea and her husband Jep saw that Stefan was obsessed, but didn't know what to do. For the past three years, Thea has visited Stefan in prison every chance she could, but her and Jep's life settled into a routine; Jep is a well-respected college football coach, Thea a professor. Other than the young women (organized by Belinda's devout and distraught mother) who protested about domestic violence outside of their home on a daily basis, life went on.

But things changed when Stefan came home. He had to adjust to life outside prison, and plan for a new life. No one would hire him. He was depressed, and Thea and Jep feared that he might harm himself. Stefan needed to find a purpose for his life or he was doomed.

There were repercussions for Stefan coming home. His release made people in the community uncomfortable, including the people at Thea's college. Now that people were face-to-face with Stefan and his crime, reactions to the family were different than when he was away in prison.

They were used to getting phone calls about Stefan's crime while he was in prison, but now a young woman keeps calling Thea saying that they don't know the truth about what happened the night Stefan killed Belinda. There is also a man who keeps showing up wherever Thea and Stefan are, trying to run them off the road, and even breaking into their home.

I liked the premise of the book- what if your child did something so horrible, it was unforgiveable? How do you live with that as a parent, and still love and support your son? Do you question what you did or didn't do as a parent? Mitchard does an wonderful job putting the reader in Thea's shoes.

There is the question of redemption, can Stefan redeem himself in his own eyes and the eyes of the community? And what does he owe the mother of the woman he killed?

Without giving away the ending of the book, I will say that I found the end disappointing. Up until the end, I liked where Mitchard had taken us with this book, but the resolution took it in a different direction. I really liked Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean, she knows how to write family drama that gets you right in the heart, and The Good Son does the same. I recommend it for that reason.

Thanks to Harlequin Books for putting me on Jacquelyn Mitchard's tour.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

The Most Compelling Books of 2021

Reprinted from auburnpub.com:

It’s that time of year for a list of the Most Compelling Books I read this year. It was difficult to whittle the list down to only ten because I read so many great books in 2021. These are the books I still think about, some long after I read them.

Lauren Willig’s Band of Sisters tells the fictionalized story of the all-female Smith College alumni who traveled to France during WWI to aid villagers displaced by war. Willig based her novel on letters written by the real women who risked their lives to help others, and it is a riveting tale of bravery and friendship. (My full review here)

Nancy Johnson’s debut novel, The Kindest Lie, is set just after the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Ruth Tuttle, a Yale-educated Black engineer in Chicago, returns to her small hometown to discover what happened to the baby she secretly gave birth to the summer before she went away to college. It’s a poignant tale of race, family, secrets, and class. (My full review here

Patry Francis’ novel All The Children Are Home begins in 1959, and centers on Louie and Dahlia and the foster children they take in and adopt. Dahlia is an unforgettable character, and this story of what it means to be a family is heartwarming, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful. (My full review here

Julietta Henderson’s The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman is a road trip tale about 12 year-old Norman’s quest to perform standup comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to honor his best friend Jax who died. Norman and his mom Sadie set out on a journey and meet some kind people who help them along the way. This lovely story will restore your faith in humanity. (My full review here

Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway is also a road trip story. Set in 1954, Emmett returns home to Nebraska to his eight year-old brother after a stay in a juvenile facility. He wants to move to California but is waylaid after two young men escape from the facility and convince him to drive them to New York. It’s an epic tale filled with many fascinating characters. (More on the book here

Damhnait Monaghan’s delightful debut novel, New Girl in Little Cove takes place in a small town in Newfoundland after Rachel leaves Toronto to teach there. The characters in this town take her in and make her feel like one of their own. If you like a good small town story, this one will make you smile. (My full review here) 

Another wonderful small town story is Katherine Heiny’s Early Morning Riser. When young second grade teacher Jane locks herself out of her house, she meets and falls in love with Duncan, the locksmith who comes to her rescue. Jane becomes involved with Duncan’s formidable ex-wife Aggie, Aggie’s quirky new husband Gary, and Jimmy, a young man who works for Duncan. The story moves from 2002-2018 as we see how a tragedy brings all these people together as a family. It’s such a lovely story. (More on the book here) 

Louise Erdrich’s new novel, The Sentence is about Tookie, an Indigenous woman who finds a job in an independent bookstore after her release from prison. Tookie is being haunted at the bookstore by Flora, a customer who died on All Souls Day. The story is set in Minneapolis from 2019-2020 and also deals with the pandemic and the fallout of George Floyd’s murder, which took place nearby. It is a thought-provoking, elegantly written story that will appeal to book lovers. 

There are two nonfiction books on my list this year.  Eleanor Henderson’s Everything I Have Is Yours shares the story of her marriage to a man who suffers from a severely painful chronic condition that may or may not be psychological in nature. Henderson holds down a full-time job, cares for her two young sons and her husband, and maneuvers the maze that is healthcare in this country. This brilliantly written book illuminates what it means to be committed to your marriage and love so deeply. 

Amber and Lacey Ruffin’s You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey describes the many situations that Lacey deals with on a daily basis as a Black woman in Omaha. I shook my head in disbelief as they share with humor and dismay the things people say and do to Lacey, not realizing or perhaps not caring how hurtful or harmful it can be. It’s an eye-opener of a book. (More on the book here

I hope you read many great books this year as well. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Holiday Short Stories

The holiday season has begun and with so many things on our to-do list, sometimes reading entire books doesn't make the cut. This year, Amazon has short stories from four popular authors that will give you  snack-sized treats for the holiday season, stocking stuffers if you will. These charming stories are free for Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited subscribers and perfect for a quick read to wind down at the end of the day.

J. Courtney Sullivan's Model Home is one for fans of all of the HGTV home remodeling shows. Katie and Damien are the queen and king of home remodeling shows, delighting America with their snappy reparte√© and style. But Damien has told the Katie and the network that he wants out- of the show and his marriage- after this last holiday remodel special. 

Can Katie convince Damien to change his mind? The network is willing to renegotiate their huge contract, but Damien is adamant that he wants out. Their two young daughters are unhappy, feeling neglected by their busy parents, raised by the family assistant and social media. Katie is not willing to make a change in her lavish lifestyle just because Damien and the girls are unhappy. 

I really liked the clever twist at the end, one I did not see coming. I've always enjoyed J. Courtney Sullivan's novels (Saints For All Occasions is a favorite), and if you have never read any of her books, start here and you'll be hooked.

Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park) tackles the pandemic in her holiday story If The Fates Allow. Reagan has quarantined herself for two weeks and followed all COVID protocols so that she can spend Christmas with her grandfather, who lost recently his wife. Reagan's family has not followed COVID protocol, they don't believe in it, even though with their health issues they should.

Reagan's grandfather's neighbor's adult son Mason has returned home to Nebraska from Washington DC to ride out the pandemic. He and Reagan went to high school together, and the loneliness of being cooped up inside has brought them together, even though Mason thought Reagan was a mean girl in high shcool.

Rowell does a terrific job with her characters, she fleshes them out so well in such a short time; Reagan, Mason, and Grandpa grew on me in just a few pages. "Reagan was the person you called when you wanted someone to talk you into leaving your husband. Or when you needed someone to call the bank to straighten out your overdraft fees." That is great descriptive language there. 

In Suzanne Redfearn's (Hadley & Grace) story The Marriage Test, Ava has agreed to marry Justin after dating him for just a few months. Before they can marry, though, they have to pass the Marriage Test, which requires Justin to procure a frigate bird's egg from the Everglades to bake into their wedding cake. Only then can they be sure their marriage will last. 

Justin is up to the crazy task, and he, Ava, and Ava's business partner (and Justin's ex-best friend) Walton travel to the Everglades to retrieve the delicate egg from the bird's nest in the marsh. Why are Justin and Walton no longer best friends and does Ava really believe in this family superstition? You'll have to read the story to find out the answer to those burning questions.

The last story is Chandler Baker's Oh. What. Fun., about a family's traditional Christmas celebration. Claire is a retired schoolteacher who stays in constant contact with her two adult sons and adult daughter. She frequently texts them, mostly about the morning talk show host she adores. 

When it comes to Christmas, Claire does everything. She buys the groceries, cooks their favorite meals, babysits her two beautiful granddaughters, decorates the house, and buys gifts for all the neighbors. Her children love her, but Claire can be a little too much sometimes. And something seems a little off with Claire this Christmas. 

One of Claire's sons narrates this story, a story that any mom will shake her head in recognition of all the things Claire has to do to make Christmas run smoothly, and how Claire is treated for it. When Claire buys the entire family tickets to see Disney On Ice, all the fun the family has disappears when something unbelievable happens.

Oh.What.Fun. is the best story of the four. I found myself laughing and simultaneously feeling sad for Claire. I think every mom of adult children should read this story to her kids after she reads them The Night Before Christmas. 

Happy Holidays to all!