Wednesday, February 24, 2016

THE TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy

The Turner family consists of an elderly, ailing mother Viola and her thirteen grown children.  Patriarch Francis is deceased, but the novel has frequent flashbacks to his early move to Detroit, leaving his wife and their first child Cha-Cha behind in Arkansas until he could get settled.  Drifting from job to job during this period and having an affair with his landlady, Francis seems unlikely to father twelve more children with Viola.  The author keeps us in the dark until the very end of the book as to how and when he reunites with Viola.  In the present, Cha-Cha and his youngest sibling Lelah occupy most of the novel.  Cha-Cha is now the defacto patriarch, and he has a dilemma.  The family home is in a rough neighborhood and is worth only a tenth of the balance of the mortgage.  It’s 2008, and the most reasonable solution is to short-sell it, perhaps to someone close to the family.  Lelah, however, unbeknownst to her siblings, is living in the house, having lost her job and her apartment due to her gambling addiction.  She’s quite a pathetic character who feels the call of the roulette table, even while she is living in her car.  When she finally has a supremely lucky day in the casino, I just felt that the positive reinforcement ensured that she would never straighten herself out, and I didn’t like this aspect of the plot.  It’s not that I wanted to punish her with another bad day of losing, but I felt that she wasn’t going to get help until she hit rock-bottom.  Now back to Cha-Cha.  He saw a ghost in his bedroom as a child, and the ghost has reappeared or perhaps been around all along.  No one, including his shrink, believes Cha-Cha or takes him seriously, and he refuses to believe that the ghost is a hallucination.  His growing torment over the ghost becomes an obsession that starts to erode his work life and personal life.  I wasn’t wild about the author’s resolution of this situation, either.  This book has a lot of characters, given that the Turner family is rather large, but most of them are glossed over, and the most mature of the fleshed-out characters is freaking out over a ghost.  I’ll remember this novel mostly for the use of the word “haint.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

HEART OF PALM by Laura Lee Smith

Utina, Florida, is a fictional town between Jacksonville and St. Augustine.  Since I live in the vicinity (just across the intracoastal), I relished the references to familiar places.  However, I found the plot and characters a little too clich├ęd, and the prose struck me as a little too folksy—like Joshilyn Jackson, maybe.  The Bravo family (what a name!)  is full of mischievous but charming boys, starting with Dean, who woos the beautiful, Arla Bolton, convinces her to marry him, and then chops up her foot in a water-skiing accident on their honeymoon.  Arla has certainly married beneath her social status, and now she has to walk with a cane.  Fast forward to 40-odd years later.  Arla’s son Frank, the conscience of the novel, is in love with his brother Carson’s wife and dreams of relocating to an out-of-the-way spot in the North Carolina mountains.  His opportunity arises when an Atlanta developer offers millions of dollars for the family property.  The tragic death of Frank and Carson’s brother Will at the age of fifteen still looms over the family and prompts Dean to abandon them not long after Will’s death.  To me, this novel descends into soap opera territory, and I found it neither funny nor engrossing, and the ending left me disappointed.  Also, I think it propagates the stereotype of Southerners as mean, drunk, or stupid.  Frank, Carson, and Dean all share some responsibility for poor Will’s demise, but their guilt, especially in the case of Carson and Dean, just drives them to behave badly, rather than to earn some level of redemption by changing their wicked ways.  Frank, on the other hand, has two nicknames—Saint Frank and Frank the Prank.  I get the first one, because he is the caring and responsible one, but I’m not sure what the author had in mind with the other nickname.  Sure, he likes to pull the occasional practical joke, and maybe the author just wanted to give Frank a little more personality.  He’s bighearted enough to bail an acquaintance named Tip out of jail, but Tip is back in the slammer before you know it.  I rooted for Frank all the way, but he was still your basic doormat. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston

This novel opens with the discovery of a body.  Is it that of Justin Campbell, who disappeared 4 years ago at 11 years old?  No, because a flea market vendor recognizes Justin from numerous flyers papering the town.  He returns home to his parents, Eric and Laura, and younger brother Griff, and his abductor is arrested.  The family handles Justin with kid gloves, never delving into his life as a captive, as they begin to dig out of their grief-stricken lives.  They are all more than a little apprehensive certainly about what unspeakable torture Justin may have suffered but experience even more anxiety about whether he might want to return to that life.  Justin’s therapist has warned the family members about Stockholm syndrome and that prying may do more harm than good.  Griff, however, as Justin’s only real sounding board, besides his therapist, gleans a little more info than his parents do.  Also, Griff has harbored a secret burden of guilt since Justin’s disappearance, because an argument kept him from accompanying Justin on that fateful day 4 years ago.  The giddy euphoria of Justin’s return is short-lived for the family, as developments in the criminal case bring on a new cloud of foreboding and the sense that things may be too good to be true.  I really liked this book, and I would have loved it if some activities near the end hadn’t seemed a little out of character and not quite up to the level of the first ¾ of the novel.  I also would have appreciated a little more insight into the actions of Dwight Buford, the abductor, but perhaps the author didn’t feel he could really get into the head of such a character.  Or perhaps the author didn’t want to sully this story of family mending with too much unspeakable evil.  Overall, the novel was gripping without being overly sentimental.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

ALL I LOVE AND KNOW by Judith Frank

Daniel’s twin brother Joel and Joel’s wife Ilana have just been killed in a terrorist attack on a coffee shop in Jerusalem.  Knowing that they lived in a perilous region, Joel and Ilana had told Daniel to take their two children, Gal and Noam, back to the U.S. if anything ever happened to them.  Daniel and his partner Matt, along with Daniel’s parents, travel to Israel to identify Joel’s body and mourn with Ilana’s parents, both of whom are Holocaust survivors.  The will grants Daniel custody of the children, as expected, and both sets of grandparents are shocked and hurt.  Then everyone learns that the Israeli government may not release the children to the care of a gay couple in the U.S.  This novel has more than enough thought-provoking conflicts to go around, including some between Daniel and Matt, and the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes their world seem to be a pretty volatile place.  Six-year-old Gal is a handful--bratty and difficult to manage--taking her cues from the bewildered adults around her, while Noam, not quite a year old, may have a developmental disability.  Daniel cannot come to terms with his own grief and refuses to seek help.  He struck me as petulant and sometimes impulsive as he grapples with his brother’s legacy and seeks the best situation for the children.  Matt, whom I liked much better, becomes increasingly more exasperated with Daniel, who is no longer the same man he chose as a partner 4 years ago.  Nothing seems to be easy for these two men, and after a particularly disturbing incident, this novel’s world became one that I did not want to inhabit any longer than necessary.  I found myself either wanting to slap some sense into Matt and Daniel or give them a hug.  The ending came as a relief, although I would have liked closure on a few unresolved issues.