The Forgotten Guide to Happiness: review

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness
Sophie Jenkins
Avon (July 2018)

Lana Green writes romance novels–or at least one, the best seller Love Crazy. Her second romance, Heartbreak, has just gotten a thumbs Forgotten guide to Happinessdown from her publisher. The reason? It’s bleak and bitter, hardly the stuff of romance. Except Lana was just writing what she knew. And what she knew was that the hero of Love Crazy, photographer Marco, had dumped her the heroine Lauren, just as Lana’s photographer boyfriend Mark had dumped her. See where this is going?

And to be sure, for the first few chapters, Sophie Jenkins’ The Forgotten Guide to Happiness is chick lit, plain and simple. Numbing her broken heart in a pub, Lana meets a scruffy IT guy, Jack Buchanan. Over wine and a beer, she confesses she needs to find a new hero for her second book–and Jack sets out to become that hero. Romance ensues.

But, wait a minute … not so fast.

It turns out that Lana is also looking for a job and a place to live, what with the fact that she didn’t get her book advance and all.  And Jack has just the thing. His step-mother suffers from dementia and has become increasingly difficult to manage; social services is threatening to intervene. Add to the mix that his step-mom is none other than the famed feminist writer Nancy Ellis Hall, and Lana quickly agrees to become her companion and caregiver. At first, Lana is convinced that Nancy, who carries around a black notebook and scribbles in it furiously, is still writing. (In fact, Lana even thinks she might be able to help the ailing Nancy write a new book.) And while Lana’s denial is based on her infatuation of the writer Nancy used to be, she soon comes to love the Nancy who is–and that Nancy draped her head with sheets of toilet paper and insisted she was eight years old; she kept a pastry brush in her purse and set the table with clothes pins, a book, and a ruler; that Nancy quoted the bible as her own work and bit the woman who ran the London Literary Society where Lana tutored–Nancy, the woman she cared for and loved, might seem strangely out of touch, but Lana “knew what [Nancy] meant. Language is just a means of communication, and she could communicate and I could understand her.”

It’s got to be a tricky business to write about a character with dementia, but Sheila Jenkins handles the character of Nancy tenderly, lightly, always with compassion–just as Lana does. And I hope that someday, should my aging self need a minder, I encounter someone with just as much love.

And about that love story Lana is trying to write–Does Jack get a role to play? Does Marco return and win back Lana’s love? Will there be heartbreak or more crazy love? I think its fair to say The Forgotten Guide to Happiness has plenty of love (and happiness!) to go around.

A Fan Favorite: Catherine Ryan Hyde (review)

Heaven Adjacent
Catherine Ryan Hyde
Lake Union Publishing
June 2018

Heaven AdjacentWith over thirty books, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s fan base is deep. There are probably few who don’t remember the movie Pay It Forward which is based on her book by the same title; her novel Take Me With You is a favorite of mine. Hyde is a story-teller, plain and simple–her novels may not be high art, but the stories are compelling. Heaven Adjacent is no different.

Manhattan lawyer Roseanna Chaldecott has walked away from everything: her established law firm, apartment in the city, friends, and family. With the clothes on her back and a few things thrown in the back of her Maserati, she heads for the hills (literally) and runs out of gas next to a piece of property with a FOR SALE sign posted in the yard. The house (if you can call it that) is barely two rooms, unheated save for a wood stove. There’s an even smaller out-building and an unoccupied barn. Perfect for someone who wants to escape from the stress of modern life–for someone who wants quiet. Peace. Freedom. And little, if any, human interaction.

Except that’s hardly how it played out for Roseanna.

Before she knew it, Roseanna has a young veteran camping in the woods by the creek, a mother and her five-year-old daughter squatting in the out-building, and an elderly man living on her Adirondack retreat. Her estranged son shows up on her doorstep. Add a dog and an old horse and you see how things weren’t going as she planned.

Roseanna fled New York broken-hearted and shaken: her best friend and law partner Alice died of a massive stroke at fifty-three. Alice, like Roseanna, was working full tilt, waiting for the day she could retire. And then … gone. The work? The sacrifice? All for nothing. Roseanna becomes an evangelist, of sorts, nudging others to ask themselves: am I really happy? As you can imagine, that peace and quiet suddenly becomes less and less important, and Roseanna’s relationships with Nelson and Patty and Willa and Martin and Lance become what she was seeking all along.

I had only one reservation. Hyde seems, at times, to use Roseanna as her own mouthpiece, and it comes off a bit didactic, even though fitting with the story. I want my characters to be human beings in their own right, not the writer’s proxy. But because I loved the story, I could forgive that flaw.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: review

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Nadia Hashimi
William Morrow

Be honest.

photo credit@National Geographic

How much do you really know about Afghanistan? That it’s the site of one of the United States’ longest foreign wars. That it was the seat of Osama bin Laden and el Qaeda. Maybe you read The Kite Runner, so you have at least a better-than-average understanding of what life in Afghanistan might be like. And everyone remembers the Girl With the Green Eyes on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. But if you’re like me, I’m guessing that’s the extent of it, right?

Nadia Hashimi’s novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell tells the story of Rahima, one of four sisters in a poor family at the turn of the 21st century. Her Pader-jan is off fighting with the war lord; the Taliban rules the streets. And without a brother to escort the girls to school and the marketplace, they are virtually prisoners in their own home. (What makes matters even worse is that Pader-jan is an opium addict who is–let’s just say–less than helpful when he is home.) Rahima’s Mader-jan suggests that the nine-year-old become bacha posh, a custom in which a young girl takes the role of a male child. After all, Rahima’s great-great-grandmother was a bacha posh, too, so there is family history to consider. So the girl’s hair is cut short. She wears pants. Barters with the shopkeepers. But even better? As Rahim, she plays soccer, walks freely down the street, looks neighbors in the eye, and gets out of any woman’s work around the house. A stranger on the street would think Rahima really was a boy.

Pearl that broke its shellHashimi alternates between Rahim’s story and Shekiba, her great-great grandmother–and reveals the lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in Afghanistan over one hundred years. We experience life in a family compound with farmers who barely eke out a living. We shrink at the blows overbearing mothers-in-law rain on young wives. We live in a war lord’s harem. We feel what it’s like to be number three wife and backhanded by an angry husband for some insignificant infraction.

Those stories laid a groundwork for understanding modern day Afghanistan, at least through the eyes of a the women. So readers learn how powerful husbands enter a wife’s name in the running for a seat Parliament because western powers had dictated that a certain number of ministers be women. How those female ministers had ‘minders’ who signaled to them how to vote. How even in 2007 women were not to watch television or use a computer. And how bearing children is still a woman’s greatest worth.

In every society, no matter how repressive, there are always women who slip through the gender-role cracks. In The Pearl that character is Khala Shaima , Rahima’s elderly spinster aunt who is old enough (and she herself would probably say ugly enough) to say anything to anyone and go where she wants when she wants to. Khala Shaima is always there to fight for Rahima and push her to think beyond the confines of her life–to some day find a way to a better life.

But exactly how that pearl breaks its shell is yours to discover.

So many books, so little time …

That’s actually not entirely true–while I do have many books on my TBR pile, I also have a lot of time now that I’m retired! But instead of reading and blogging in an orderly manner–posts planned and scheduled as good bloggers are wont to do–I launched myself into a frenzy of reading on June first. It must be the giddy freedom I feel staying up until (*gasp*) midnight with a book in hand. Or sitting on the deck with a cold drink in the middle of the afternoon, for goodness sake. To play a little catch up, this post is a two-fer.

The Figgs
Ali Bryan
Freehand Books

the figgsThis is a family who put the fun in dysfunctional. (And they’re Canadian! I thought those Canadians had their shi stuff together compared to Americans, that they operated on a higher plane–but apparently not.) June and Randy Figg live with their three twenty-something children under one roof. Tom, Derek, and Vanessa have finished at university. Or not. They are employed. Or not. And their parents are out of their minds with frustration. Or not. Because if any parents are just asking to have their adult children boomerang, it’s the Figgs. They cook the “kids” breakfast, lunch, and dinner on demand. Do their laundry. Pick up after them. And drive them to and from their (mostly) part time jobs. All the while complaining and lecturing the “kids”. (Can you say ‘enablers’?!)

And then the poop really hits the fan. Derek finds out a young woman he hooked up with is in labor. With his baby. It’s fair to say that chaos ensues and the Figg’s lives are turned inside out when the baby’s mother decides that she doesn’t want to raise baby Jaxx and Derek brings the newborn home. To mom and dad’s, that is.

Author Ali Bryan is a master at capturing the put-upon whining of millennials and their martyr parents and I found myself hooting out loud at times at the banter. But underneath the humor, Bryan asks us to think about the life-changing ramifications of adoption. Not too far into the novel, the reader discovers that June was adopted as a child. A little farther in, we learn that Randy has been keeping a painful secret–nearly thirty years ago, his high school girlfriend had given his baby up for adoption. Randy is determined to find his son, but June never had any interest in looking for her parents.

Until the arrival of little Jaxx.

It’s fresh. It’s funny. It’s a peek into a dysfunctional family who somehow make it work. Read The Figgs this summer.


Remind Me Again What Happened
Joanna Luloff
Algonquin Books

Claire wakes up in the hospital and she has no idea why she is there. She can remember very little of the fever that caused the seizures from remind me again what happenedwhich she still suffers and her husband Charlie is a stranger. She can’t even remember their first kiss. Frightened and very sick, Claire asks Charlie to call Rachel, her best friend–their best friend, really–because she senses she “needs an ally”. Charlie seems always angry with her. He is at once controlling and distant.

But like many who suffer brain trauma, Claire’s distant memory is fairly intact. She can describe the bedspread in her room when she was eight. She remembers the snack her mother made her each afternoon. And she can tell the story of her grandparents courtship when she searches through a box of old photos. The gaps in Claire’s memory frustrate them all.

We learn early on that Claire and Charlie had lived apart for a few years before her illness. And while Claire doesn’t remember any of this, she does have flashes of memory: Michael; Pondicherry, India; Turkey. What do those fragmented memories mean, if anything? Her apartment in New York was packed up and boxes are waiting for her to sort through: Work. Grad school. Childhood. Boxes that might answer Claire’s questions.

And although the story of Claire’s memory loss does capture the reader, it is the questions author Joanna Luloff asks about memory that are most compelling. The story is told alternating narrators, so we hear the same story told by three different people. Except the stories aren’t the same at all–so what is reality? How can we determine if what we remember is accurate or not? How can three people remember the same incident so very differently?

If like your novels tied up with a neat bow at the end, this book probably isn’t for you. But if you want to ponder some Deep Thoughts and wonder if you really remember what caused the end of a love affair or the loss of a dear friend, I’d give it a go.

An evening with Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

Anyone can write a book. Just tell yourself a story a pebble at a time.  Stephen Mack Jones
Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

In most circles of friends there’s that One. You know, the one who tells great stories–and acts out all the parts. That friend who is self-effacing, no matter how successful they might be. The one who has a strong moral compass, yet never acts holier-than-thou. The one who is often the butt of the jokes they tell.

The Grand Rapids Public Library recently hosted An Evening with Stephen Mack Jones as part of their summer GR Reads program. Jones is the author of August Snow a crime novel that pairs a rollicking whodunit with insightful social commentary all set against the backdrop of Detroit. (Read my review of the novel here.) And if I had to guess, Jones is that One for his family and friends.

Dressed casually in jeans, a black tee, and sport coat, Jones began the evening by talking about the process of writing the novel. Joking that after he retired (Jones was a copywriter by trade) there was never anything new on Netflix, he set about to tell himself a good story. While mowing the grass one day the words “August Snow” popped into his mind, but it meant little to him at that moment. When he later looked back at some ideas he had jotted down for a story, he realized that August Snow was the hero’s name. Jones said as he wrote, the story moved him, making him laugh … and cry.

Readers of August Snow know August holds dear the memory of his parents and feels their influence daily. Jones said that during an early interview when asked who the story is about, it came to him that August Snow is the story of his father, the hero “that makes the hero yet never asks for any glory.”

After Jones told the story of writing the novel, he took just as long to answer audience questions. This is one author who was not stingy with his time, one who thanked the readers sitting in the audience again and again as being the source of the book’s success. Of course he was asked about a second novel (Lives Laid Away set to be released in January 2019), and of course he was asked about a film version of the novel (and the answer is probably–the novel was recently optioned).

Now to wait six months for that second August Snow novel …