REVIEW: UNTETHERED, BY JULIE LAWSON TIMMER

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Set in small town Michigan, Untethered paints a picture of an idyllic life for Bradley and Char, with Bradley’s daughter Allie as the centerpiece of their family. Allie’s mother Lindy is conveniently absent, living the California life.

But from the first page, the family is torn asunder in the aftermath of Bradley’s accidental death, leaving behind the sadness and the sense of a family adrift. Packing up Bradley’s desk, going through memories together, and trying to accept the condolence calls and casseroles, Char’s new life feels empty. Who is she, if not Bradley’s wife and Allie’s stepmother? Now that she has “lost” these roles, she is vulnerable to Lindy’s sudden demands for Allie, as well as to Allie’s behavior, which has turned distant, sullen, and rude. Her grades are slipping, she has chosen questionable new friends, and nothing Char can do seems to turn things around.

What is more challenging is that everyone seems poised, waiting for Lindy to call the shots regarding Allie, while she passively controls all of them when she keeps changing her mind. Yet when Allie visits her for spring break, she is mostly absent every day until late at night. Char feels at the mercy of Lindy’s whims, and believes that Lindy’s behavior is creating a wedge between her and Allie.

Allie has a unique bond with a ten-year-old girl named Morgan, adopted out of foster care. Morgan has mental health issues and a dramatic (and annoying) way about her. When Allie began tutoring her, they connected. Their relationship becomes a focus later in the novel when something happens to the girl. Something that will stun them all. Will Char and Allie’s bonding moments over Morgan’s trauma help connect them again? Will Lindy use the episode to tear them apart even further?

It was easy to empathize with Char, but she did have a tendency to sit back and let others call the shots, even the teenager, whom she seemed afraid to cross. The way she dealt with Lindy seemed too conciliatory, and I often wanted to yell at her. Allie’s rudeness and passive-aggressiveness was annoying, but she also seemed to be calling out for someone, anyone, to take control. Lindy, of course, was so unlikeable that I hurried through the pages that showed her condescending attitudes and inability to remember the names of everyone that she had known for years. She had a way of putting everyone down, which may have been a way of covering her insecurities in the mothering role.

Themes of blended families, the broken foster care system, and abandonment did keep me engaged, and I enjoyed the story. But after the intensity of Allie and Morgan’s traumatic episode, the ending was wrapped up a little quickly, fast forwarding to two years in the future. I would have preferred being shown how the events unfolded, but the conclusion was a satisfying one. 4 stars.

ratings worms 4-cropped***

REVIEW: SOMEWHERE OUT THERE, BY AMY HATVANY

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Jennifer Walker was a young and struggling single mother, barely able to feed her four-year-old daughter Brooke and her 6 month old baby Natalie. They are even living in their car, and the desperation of those circumstances catapult Jennifer down a risky path, leading to incarceration and the loss of her two children. Sadly, Natalie was adopted, but Brooke spent her childhood in foster care, tossed about from home to home.

Somewhere Out There, set in and around the Seattle area, is a story that weaves the past and the present together into a web of family dysfunction, showing us what happens when those familial bonds are broken. Bits and pieces of information are revealed in sporadic increments, bringing the story forward, until finally the whole is complete.

Jennifer narrates her tale in the first person voice of the past, and we see her back when she first loses the girls, and how those mistakes informed her life for many years. Brooke and Natalie take us into portions of their past with their narratives, bringing us into their present, and watching as they finally learn what happened to their family.

Will each of these lives reconnect? What hidden facts will come to light? Will it be too late for them to find a sense of family?

I love this writer’s style which kept me turning pages, wondering what would happen next. Not really a mystery so much as a collection of secret facts that eventually came to light, bringing this reader a sense of satisfaction…and even closure. The characters were flawed, struggling to find their way, and I felt a great sense of empathy for them. This is a story that reminds each of us how fragile family bonds can be, and what happens when connections are severed at an early age. Having spent years working with parents and children separated from one another, I could not help but feel sad at the impact of these huge losses, not just to the families, but to society. But I also felt hopeful…as sometimes the past can be healed. 5 stars.

REVIEW: THE OPPOSITE OF EVERYONE, BY JOSHILYN JACKSON

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Paula Vauss is a tough Atlanta divorce lawyer, associated with big name attorneys of the blue blood variety.

She lives in a spacious loft with an amazing view, yet she enjoys getting down with the gritty people when she takes on pro bono clients.

She comes from a very different kind of life from the one she now lives. Daughter of Kai, a gypsy-like woman who told mystical stories and moved from boyfriend to boyfriend, as geographically mobile as any gypsy. Paula was born Kali, and some of the stories are about her.

But with those choices Kai made came some serious consequences. The kind that landed her in prison more than once, with the last incarceration resulting in Paula’s placement in foster care. There she learned how to be tough.

Paula and Kai were estranged after a betrayal, but Paula had been sending checks every month. Until one came back, “return to sender,” with a note, hinting that Kai is on her last journey. What will Paula learn about some of her mother’s best-kept secrets? How will some of these secrets come home to roost and change everything about the life she has created?

I loved The Opposite of Everyone, eagerly reading at every opportunity. My favorite characters included Birdwine, her investigator and sometime boyfriend. I also enjoyed the flashbacks to her foster care experiences. My own tenure as a social worker made the foster care stories resonate with me. Knowing the importance of family and biological connections was at the heart of our case practice, so I was intrigued with how Paula’s story ended. However, it was not an ending, per se, but a new beginning. 4.5 stars.

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: WHAT I REMEMBER MOST, BY CATHY LAMB

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She had always known that somewhere, somehow, she had been loved. Fleeting beautiful memories, lovely images….those followed her through the years of her life. Run, Grenadine, run… haunting words that then abruptly ended with a concussion, a hospital, and endless foster home placements. And the dark images were there, too, inserting themselves into the beautiful moments, and leaving holes in her memories.

If ever anyone could have survived what Grenadine Scotch Wild had during the years in horrific foster home placements, it would have been a child who had known warmth and love at some point. Even a couple of the foster home placements contributed to her strength and her courage. And this legacy of love was also part of Grenadine’s history, even if she could barely recall it.

When What I Remember Most begins, we learn a little of the past…and then we see the young woman she has become, Dina Hamilton, betrayed by her husband and charged, along with him, for fraud, embezzlement, and money laundering. We also see her running for her life, changing her name because of the publicity, and then hoping against hope that her attorney can protect her from a guilty verdict.

In a small town in Central Oregon, Grenady, as she is now calling herself, starts over. Keeping her secrets, keeping her head down, and even sleeping in her car for a while, she finally is beginning to feel safe. What a handsome furniture maker brings to her life, and who helps her reinvent her artistic collages with her unique vision, makes the story into a beautiful exploration of love and hope.

Narrated in Grenady’s first person voice, we also see narrative entries from her time in foster care, providing some of that history. And we see the narrative of an unnamed psychotic individual who is part of her past, too.

How will Grenady finally escape the pain of the past? What will trigger the memories she had lost? And how will the new friends, including a wonderful woman named Rozlyn and her daughter Cleo, provide a sense of family?

As always, I savored the characters, the prose, and the wonderful settings that brought this story to life for me. My only issue was that the story bogged down, at times, but then the author always brought it right back up for me. Recommended for fans of the author. 4.5 stars.