REVIEW: LIKE FAMILY, BY PAULA MCLAIN

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What constitutes a family? Biological connections that are severed early on? Or the strangers who provide a kind of care for years, with no connection other than the physical proximity of living in the same house?

The author describes her journey through the foster care system in Fresno County in the 1970s and 1980s, and as she mentioned streets and places within the city and its surrounding areas, it all resonated with me. I had spent almost those same years as a social worker for Fresno County, and while I had not crossed paths with her or her sisters, Teresa and Penny, I could relate to much of what she wrote. However, my perspective came from the “other side” of the story. The side that represented the system, which I can readily acknowledge to be broken. Or at least severely damaged.

I had heard similar stories from the children in care, but in this author’s case, she kept most things secret. She did mention telling a neighbor some of her experiences, only to be dismissed.

As the years passed, there were good times for the sisters, and there were seemingly ordinary coming-of-age moments, but the lack of an emotional connection to a parent was keenly absent.

The sisters did share a strong bond with each other that lasted through their time in care…and afterwards, when they finally reconnected with their biological mother. But again, physical proximity seemed to be the main connection between the long absent mother and the sisters.

Like Family was an all too familiar tale to those of us who have worked in the system. Reading this story from a real life “graduate” of that system was inspirational. It is a testament to the author’s strength and resilience that she made it through to the other side, and can now share what she has learned along the way. 5 stars.

REVIEW: THE HURRICANE SISTERS, BY DOROTHEA BENTON FRANK

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The novel begins with a peek into an eccentric, dysfunctional family headed by matriarch Maisie, who, at eighty, is very much in charge. Her quirkiness and her current love, a man named Skipper, who raises llamas, are on full display during her birthday party event attended by many, but especially spotlighting her own family: her daughter Liz and husband, Clayton Waters; their daughter Ashley, a budding artist who lives in the family cottage on Sullivan’s Island; and their son Ivy, nicknamed thus because he is Clayton Waters IV. His new partner, James, captures attention from them all.

The Hurricane Sisters: A Novel is set in South Carolina, in Charleston and on Sullivan’s Island, with a little visit now and then to Clayton’s New York apartment, where some unsavory happenings are taking place.

Narrated alternately by Maisie, Liz, Ashley, and Clayton, we get an insider’s view of each family member, and before the tale has ended, we are rooting for the fun to be back in “dysfunctional.” Hurricanes are like another character in the story, and Liz’s work for domestic violence victims helps bring out some old secrets…and protects another potential victim.

The author does a great job of showing us what this family’s world looks like through great descriptions and internal monologues that made me feel that I was right there with them.

Cocky characters like a senator named Porter Galloway helped flesh out the issue of domestic violence, and the threat of an impending hurricane reminded us that bonding can occur at the most unlikely times. Another enjoyable story from a favorite author: 4.0 stars.

REVIEW: APPLE & RAIN, BY SARAH CROSSAN

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She was just three years old when she heard her mum and her nana yelling and shouting. It was Christmas Eve, and when her mother left, to head to NY and to find herself, Apple was sure that she would come back soon. She imagines her on Broadway, famous, and this fantasy helps her cope.

But it would be eleven years, and when her mum came back, she had a surprise with her. A ten-year-old daughter Rain, Apple’s sister.

Set in Brampton, England, Apple and Rain is a poignant story of family, loss, and redemption. It also shows, from Apple’s point of view, what her world looks like, with school bullying, friendships tarnished, and finding new friends. We get to feel what she’s feeling, and experience how poetry helps her reclaim her own uniqueness.

Rain’s obsessive attachment to a doll reminds us that sometimes the pains we hold inside are manifested in unexpected ways.

As I read this novel, a coming-of-age tale that reminded me of some of my own childish fantasies and fears, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. 4 stars.

REVIEW: BITTERSWEET, BY MIRANDA BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE

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When Mabel Dagmar, an ordinary girl, first met the privileged blue blood Genevra Winslow, the most relevant thing about her was how little she noticed Mabel. As if she were simply an annoyance to bear. Or an item of furniture, something she could overlook. Since Ev was her college roommate, Mabel tried to find a way to coexist with the strange girl.

So when Genevra (Ev) made an overture, offering an invitation to a special event, Mabel didn’t know what to make of it; she did notice, however, how Ev’s moods changed from dark to light, and that her occasional invitations afterwards were unpredictable. But the “intermittent reinforcement” had definitely hooked Mabel.

The invitation to the Winslow family summer retreat at their Vermont estate seemed almost like a gift that could then be quickly withheld. And what Ev did in the subsequent weeks, as Mabel found herself in the middle of a privileged world, was true to form. She alternately snarled, scowled, and withheld her attention, and then drew Mabel back to her with one kind gesture. To say she was spoiled and entitled would be an understatement. I did not like anything about this character, even though I realized that her parents had had a role in creating this behavior.

Because Ev was often unavailable, both physically and emotionally, Mabel found her own way among the family members, and developed a unique relationship with Ev’s aunt, Indo, an eccentric woman who made an unusual request.

Narrated in Mabel’s first person voice, the reader is drawn into the story, seeing the privileged world through Mabel’s eyes…and wanting to warn her as she becomes more and more hooked on the feelings this world engenders. Our narrator tells the story as if looking back on this time and these events. There is a sense of loss about her tale. And all the while, she, too, has a dark secret.

What did Mabel discover about the Winslows? How did what she learned change everything about her summer and her life? Did she rise above the evil she had inadvertently become a part of? And who would be an unexpected ally in the end?

Bittersweet: A Novel was a story about a family so dysfunctional that one would have to look very hard to find anything good about it. How Mabel turned things around in the end brought a satisfying conclusion to the dark and twisted history of this family. 5.0 stars.