Elephants in the mist: Leaving Time (review)

Leaving Time
Jodi Picoult
Ballantine Books

From the first page of Jodi Piccoult’s new novel, we’re drawn into the story of Jenna Metcalf and her mother, Alice, separated in a terrible accident years before. Each narrates her journey as she searches and longs for the One Missing and the love they have for each other is palpable. Alice’s life’s work is researching the emotional lives of elephants, both in Africa and at a sanctuary in New England run by her husband. Jenna, following in her mother’s footsteps, knew elephants before she Leaving Timeknew playmates.

Jenna enlists the help of two unlikely characters in her search for Alice. Serenity Jones is a washed up psychic. Once a psychic to the stars, her fall from fame was fast and furious after she misread the fate of a missing boy on national TV. Reluctant at first to take on Jenna as a client, she can’t shake off the feeling that this is a case she must pursue. Virgil Stanhope was one of the detectives who first investigated the accident that separated Jenna and Alice. Jenna, winsome and all but orphaned, wins over this done-for detective just as she did Serenity. Together, they’re a rag tag bunch, each one trying to reclaim better days.

I could almost hear the voice of Wild America’s Marlin Perkins whenever Alice shares her elephant research. These are amazing creatures and Piccoult is clearly in love with them. I must admit I expected (and, being a believer, hoped) Serenity’s psychic gift would play a more important role—but, in true Piccoult fashion, we get a twist at the end that is so unexpected, I’m still thinking about it. Powerful stuff.

Before this, I had only read two of Jodi Piccoult’s twenty-three novels, but I’ve often seen her titles in the hands of my students. (In fact, I’ve promised a couple girls that I’d put House Rules on my reading list—and I did, of course!) Piccoult is chick lit with a message. (Piccoult, though, has some interesting things to say about her genre—or, should I say, the genre with which she’s been labeled. There’s enough fodder in that interview for another post, but you can read it here.)

If you want to explore the boundaries between this world and the next, or travel the length and breadth of timeless love, you must read Leaving Time.

A novel scrapbook: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt (review)

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt
Caroline Preston
Harper Collins

One of my most precious possessions is a “School Friendship Book” I found at a flea market several years ago. It is the real deal. None of this photos cropped, matted, and embellished with stickers stuff that we do today.  No, this is a leather journal-sized wonder with dusty manilla paper pages, warped with age and crammed with mementos. It belonged to one Avis B. from Elkhart, Indiana, Class of 1923. Pages are filled with handwritten notes, poems, and remembrances from teachers and students at Elkhart High School. But the fun starts about halfway where Avis taped and glued the following:
An invitation to Bea’s party (“Oh boy, oh joy, did we have fun!)
cut-out construction paper hearts (“Valentine’s party had a swell time”)
Elkhart High Athletic Association membership tickets
cut-out EHS cheers from the school newspaper (“Hit ’em on the elbow/hit ’em on the jaw/Cemetery, Cemetery/Rah! Rah! Rah!)
newspaper articles about sporting events, Jollies, and plays
curly lock of gorgeous auburn hair
Camel cigarette (“Lavon Holdeman June 1923”)
fabric shamrock (another “swell time–why? Oh that would be telling!”)
lock of her own “golden locks”
Christmas card
Halloween paper cupcake topper/favor
and a dozen or more circa 1921-23 photos of girls, and one photo of a saxaphone-playing young man. See why it’s so precious?

FrankieSo imagine my incredible delight when I found Caroline Preston’s The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt recently at my local bookstore–used, in great Frankie3condition, and only nine dollars! (It was also curiously mis-filed because it was in the Book Club section, not in the used books, which in my mind, means it was meant to be mine.) I’m often late to the party, so this is my first encounter with Frankie which was published in 2011. Oh. My-lanta. I might have even gasped aloud softly when I saw it. I bought it for the novelty, assuming I’d just look at the pretty pictures and layouts one afternoon and be done with it. Except it’s a novel. Really–the scrapbook actually reads like one. And of course I can’t help but connect Frankie Pratt to my Avis.

It’s not high literature. There’s no complex plot twists or turns. But if you’re looking for something to read just for sheer fun of it?  You’ll love Frankie Pratt, I’m sure.

Life After Daisy: Before I Go (review)

Before I go
Colleen Oakley
Simon and Schuster

“It’s back,” Daisy Richmond tells her husband Jack. And with those words, the young couple’s life takes another unexpected turn.

Three years ago Daisy battled cancer and, so far, seemed to have won. She and Jack picked up life where they left off—Daisy doing graduate work in counseling, and Jack finishing Before I go his veterinary internship. They even bought a house—a fixer upper Spanish-style bungalow from the twenties, all stucco and wrought-iron curlicues and red-tile roof. Daisy has done everything she can think of to keep the cancer away: yoga, green smoothies, meditation. Despite the shadow that hangs over them, life is good and they even start to think about having children.

Every year Daisy and husband Jack celebrate her “Cancerversary” with a weekend away. This year is no different. Except that only days before the trip Daisy discovers her cancer has returned. In a whirlwind of appointments with specialists learns she has four to six months to live.

She cries. Gets an incredible case of the f-its and fills her cupboards with processed junk food. But Daisy rights her ship fairly quickly—at least in a state-of-denial kind of way. The to-do lists starts again: buy caulk, fix warped floor, call the plumber, find Jack a wife. Yep, Daisy is on a mission to a woman to replace her. Someone to pick up Jack’s socks, stock the frig with kale, have those babies. “I’mtyringtofindJackawife” she confesses to best friend Kayleigh. And so together they scope out prospects for Jack at work, in the bookstore, online dating sites. Daisy buys Jack Preparing for the Death of a Love One and leaves it on his bedside table. She’s got this.

Except she doesn’t. Because since she’s planning for Jack’s Life After Daisy, she retreats from Jack’s Life With Daisy. She withdraws. He worries. Life is pretty bleak. Until, as the publisher’s blurb says, “Daisy is forced to decide what’s more important in the short amount of time she has left: her husband’s happiness—or her own?”

I really, really wanted to love Before I Go. I mean, morbid though it may be, what wife hasn’t thought about this scenario, even briefly?  I know I have. Would hubby ever eat a salad again? Would he scrub the tub each week? Would he remember to buy the candles I love … and actually burn them? Who (surely, not would) he remarry? And on and on. But the novel never really came together for me until the end and the epilogue where the writing became more honest and less “chick-lit-y”. But those last chapters just might make Before I Go worth reading.

She’s got it all: The Perfect Mother (review)

The Perfect Mother
Nina Darton

Jennifer Lewis leads a perfect life—her Connecticut home is oh-so-shabby-chic, her lawyer husband handsome and successful, her three children active and popular. Jennifer herself gave up a career as a model and TV actress so that she could dedicate all of her time to family. Jennifer is the Perfect Mother.

Until a middle-of-the-night phone call threatens to destroy her reality. Daughter Emma, spending her junior year (from Princeton, no less!) abroad, calls from Spain—she’s in jail, claims rape, and is accused of being an accomplice to murder. As all Perfect Mothers do, Jennifer flies to her side, but is taken aback by Emma’s aloof, maybe even ungrateful, demeanor. The weeks that follow put Jennifer under the reader’s scrutiny, especially once dad Mark arrives in Spain and doesn’t fully believe Emma’s story—that the murdered boy followed her home and dartonforced his way into her apartment at knife point; that a young Algerian heard her cries and came to save Emma, stabbing her attacker in a struggle; that the Algerian, undocumented and fearful of being deported, ran away into the night. Jennifer and Mark fight; Emma and Jennifer argue.

Enter Emma’s lawyer, Jose, who reveals to the Lewis’s that Emma may have been leading a life on the edge. Her boyfriend, Paco, is a drug dealer who has vanished and the police want him for questioning. Emma swears Paco sells drugs only to send money to his home village as a kind of Spanish Robin Hood—she claims the police just want to trap him. Jose sets out to find Paco, discover the truth of the attack, and free Emma from prison. He also provides a shoulder for Jennifer to cry on, and their attachment becomes a little too close for comfort.

Young parents always worry that two-year-old tantrums and pubescent rebellion are warning signs that one’s parenting has fallen short. I think, rather, it’s those early adult years that prove the parenting pudding and writer Nina Darton captures this perfectly. When adult children get into trouble, like Jennifer one might have “this pathetic realization that you failed, that you made some terrible mistake that caused this.” And mothers especially, I think, blame themselves. Here’s Jennifer again: “I’m selfish, I’m pushy, I’m too optimistic, or I’m overly dramatic, or I’m too blind, or I’m naïve or see only what I want to see …”

Maybe being a Perfect Mother actually is a curse and not a blessing. Could it be that the time and energy and hopes and dreams we mothers invest into our children end up jinxing them … and ourselves? Darton’s Perfect Mother is rich and thought-provoking, torn straight from the front page ala Amanda Knox—and her plot twist at the end could lead to hours of book group heart-to-hearts.

Fun fun fun

What Nora Knew (NetGalley)
Linda Yellin
release date: January 20

Molly Hallberg is sassy. Looking  for that promotion. Longing for Mr. Right. Living in New York City. Lounging in the Hamptons. Just like we all want to do, right, ladies? Because that’s probably the draw of what’s sometimes dismissed as “chick lit”, isn’t it? A fun romp through a life to which we don’t (or won’t) have access. And Linda Yellin’s What Nora Knew is just that.

The “Nora” of the title is the famed Nora Ephron. Molly, a feature writer for an online magazine modeled after Gawker, is given an assignment: research love in the Big Apple and write her article in the style of Nora Ephron. The inimitable Nora Ephron, mind you. And even though Molly is witty and sardonic and oh-so-jaded, she’s also ‘lone and ‘lorn (to quote Dickens) and just can’t quite pull it off. Enter Cameron Duncan, a popular mystery writer–charming, available, and attractive–and my guess is you know the rest of the story (wink, wink!).

If you need what I call a “candy bar” of a read, What Nora Knew is a sweet choice.