Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review of "Don't You Cry" by Mary Kubica

Quinn Collins and Esther Vaughan are friends and roommates that share a Chicago walk-up apartment. After Quinn returns home from a drunken Saturday night out she finds Esther gone. Quinn is troubled but reluctant to call the police. Instead she waits for day after day, hoping Esther returns. She also ransacks the apartment for clues to Esther's whereabouts and calls a mutual friend, Ben, for help.

During her exploration of Esther's things Quinn discovers that her roomate did some odd things before she vanished. Esther legally changed her name; took a lot of cash out of her bank account; got a passport; advertised for a new roommate; arranged a mysterious meeting; obtained the card of a psychologist; wrote some strange letters; etc.

Try as she might Quinn can't quite make sense of all this. However, she does admit (to herself) that her inability to pay her half of the bills and sloppy habits might make her a bad roommate - and Esther may have wanted to ditch her.

Meanwhile, sixty miles away in a Chicago suburb, 19-year-old Alex Gallo works as a busboy/dishwasher in a diner. One morning Alex's attention is arrested by a new customer - a pretty, petite, exotic-looking young woman he calls 'Pearl' because of a bracelet she wears. The reader soon learns that Pearl matches Esther's description.

The story is narrated by Quinn and Alex in alternating chapters. In Quinn's sections she talks about fun times with Esther; how considerate Esther is; Esther's studies; Esther's reluctance to talk about her family; and more. Quinn also details her increasing worries about Esther and reveals her secret crush on Ben, who has a girlfriend.

In Alex's sections he talks about taking care of his alcoholic father; his grief over the desertion of his mom; his exacting boss and crappy job; the agoraphobic woman living near the diner; and his obsession with Pearl, whom he secretly watches and follows. Additonally, Alex talks a lot about the 'haunted house' across the street from his residence, said to harbor the ghost of a deceased five-year-old girl.

Though I was curious about the unfolding events in the story this wasn't a riveting book to me. I became impatient with the snail's pace of the narration and didn't empathize much with the characters, though I did feel a little sorry for Alex - a bright boy who declined a college scholarship to stay home and support his drunken father. I also thought the book's ending was somewhat predictable and not very interesting....but by the time I got there I didn't care much.

For me this is just a so-so book.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "My Girl" by Jack Jordan

Paige is on a self-destructive slide that she seems unable to control. Paige's 14-year-old daughter Chloe was abducted and killed ten years ago, and Paige had to bury an arm - the only part of Chloe that was found. Now Paige's husband Ryan, unable to cope with his grief, has committed suicide.

Paige, already distraught, is completely upended by Ryan's desertion. She drinks bottle after bottle of wine, lives on sedatives and pain killers, and smokes too much. Paige's house is filthy - covered with empty bottles, smelly ashtrays full of cigarette butts, soiled clothes, and dried vomit. Paige doesn't eat much, hardly showers, drives drunk, gets arrested, and performs humiliating sex acts with her doctor to get extra pills.

The author's depiction of Paige as a grief-stricken drunk/drug addict are very authentic, and I empathized with her pain.

Paige's relatives try to help. Her mother-in-law Greta, who has a house key, brings food and tidies the home. Paige's brother Maxim - a pastor - bails her out of jail and provides casseroles. And Paige's father offers to help clean out Ryan's home office. While emptying Ryan's desk Paige discovers a gun and a secret cell phone in a hidden compartment. What?? Why would Ryan have a gun? Paige's attempts to learn the truth get her into bad trouble.

Meanwhile, strange things are happening in Paige's house. She wakes up to old videos of Chloe playing on the TV; all of Ryan's clothing and possessions disappear; Ryan's face is cut out of all the photos, including albums; and then there's a fire. Is Paige doing this herself, in a drunken stupor? Is she going crazy? Is Paige's mother-in-law the culprit?

All this leads to Part 2 of the book, which starts with a bang. For me, the second section of the book is less successful than the first. I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just say that the characters behave in a fashion that's completely inauthentic and unbelievable. Moreover, this part of the story feels like a derivative version of other books I've read. Finally, the finale doesn't wrap up the loose ends that have to do with Ryan.

From other reviews I know that lots of people really liked this book. For me though, it was just okay (and that's mostly because I think Part 1 was well-written). I would mildly recommend the book to thriller/mystery fans.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for a copy of this book.

Rating: 2 stars

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich

Welfare reform in the mid-1990s was meant to get people off the welfare rolls and into the workforce. As the U.S. had a strong economy at the time, and jobs were plentiful, this was supposed to work out pretty well all around. The problem was that most 'unskilled jobs' paid minimum wage (which was six to seven dollars/hour at the time) and this just wasn't enough to support a parent and child - much less a larger family.

In 1998 Barbara Ehrenreich - a political activist and writer - decided to try to live like the 'working poor.' She planned to obtain low paying jobs and see if she could live on the resulting wages. Ehrenreich then wrote a book about her experiences - this one.

As Ehrenreich points out in the book, she didn't really start on a level playing field with the economically deprived. She was well-educated, in good health, and had no small children. Nevertheless her experiences provided a peek at what it was like to be a member of the working poor.

Over the span of a couple of months Ehrenreich lived in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. In each location, she rented (or tried to rent) an apartment, took one or two low-paying jobs, and attempted to live on the wages she earned. The first problem Ehrenreich encountered was finding a place to live. Without funds to pay a security deposit and first month's rent, it was very difficult to rent an apartment - even a cheap crappy one. Thus, some minimum wage earners (including Ehrenreich at times) had to live in shabby motels, which actually cost more than an apartment. One of Ehrenreich's co-workers lived in a van. Ehrenreich describes the various places she lived, most of which were ratty, uncomfortable, minimalist, and sometimes dangerous. On occasion she had no refrigerator or cooking facilities.

Ehrenreich's next order of business was obtaining a job or two in each state. This often required submitting applications, going to interviews, passing personality exams (would you steal; would you report a co-worker for theft; do you follow rules; and so on), and getting drug-tested. Upon obtaining a job, Ehrenrich had to buy appropriate clothing (generally slacks and polo shirts) and travel to work and back. Unlike some low-income workers Ehrenreich allowed herself a car in each location, a rent-a-wreck - which also skewed her 'authentic experience' a bit.

During her experiment Ehrenreich worked as a waitress; a caregiver for Alzheimer's patients; a hotel maid; a house cleaner; and a Wal-Mart ladies-wear employee. Each job was physically difficult, exhausting, and demoralizing... since the workers were closely monitored and generally not trusted by the employers. While at Wal-Mart Ehrenreich had to make a couple of phone calls to line up a new place to live. To achieve this Ehrenreich had to sneak out of Wal-Mart to her car (using maneuvers similar to Keanu Reaves in The Matrix), get the phone numbers, and use a public telephone. Caught by a manager, Ehrenreich (falsely and nervously) stated she was on an official break. All this would give a person heartburn for sure.

Ehrenreich also ate badly most of the time for a variety of reasons: lack of funds (employers routinely held back the first week's wages), no appropriate place to prepare food, no time to eat on the job, etc. Often, Ehrenreich supplemented her diet with fast food. One of Ehrenreich's fellow hotel maids ate hot dog buns for lunch. And a house cleaning mate routinely had a few crackers.

In the end Ehrenreich - making less money at Wal-Mart than she was paying for living quarters, food, and necessities - quit and went back to her normal life.

I'm sure Ehrenreich had good intentions when she embarked on this experiment but she comes across as a kind of 'dilettante' poor person who was not really playing by the rules. First, a real low-wage worker might line up a couple of roommates to share an apartment, which seems a logical thing to do. Second, Ehrenrich knew about the drug testing but - taking a recreational break - smoked marijuana. This resulted in a few frantic days spent drinking gallons of water (to flush out the evidence) plus the cost of system-cleaning medicine from the drugstore (I don't know if this actually works). Third, Ehrenreich could have packed bologna or PB&J sandwiches for lunch, rather than purchasing (relatively expensive) fast food.

Nevertheless, Ehrenreich did bring attention to the very difficult plight of minimum-wage employees in 1998. It was almost impossible for a working single mother, for example, to pay for a place to live, daycare, nutricious food, decent clothing, incidentals, etc. And if a family member needed to see a dentist or doctor they were just out of luck. Moreover, unlike Ehrenreich - who had a cushy upper middle-class life to return to - the economically disadvantaged could only look forward to continued drudgery. They had no hope for a better life. As it happens I read this book in 2016, at the same time Senator Bernie Sanders was talking about the CURRENT problems of the working poor - which are almost exactly the same!! This is truly sad.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, June 17, 2016

Review of "Live and Let Growl" by Laurien Berenson

Melanie Travis lives in Connecticut, teaches at Howard Academy, and shares a loving home with her husband, two sons, and five Standard Poodles. Over spring break Melanie and her favorite poodle, Faith, accompany Aunt Peg and sister-in-law Bertie to the Kentuckiana Dog Show Cluster in Louisville, where Aunt Peg will be a judge and pregnant Bertie will exhibit dogs.

Aunt Peg also has additional business in Kentucky. She recently inherited a Thoroughbred broodmare named Lucky Luna who's stabled at a horse farm there, and Peg wants to see the horse and consult with the professionals caring for her.

As it happens Aunt Peg's old friend Ellie Gates Wanamaker, a former exhibitor of Standard Poodles who grew up on a Thoroughbred farm, lives in Kentucky. So Aunt Peg and Melanie drop in on Miss Ellie, where Aunt Peg hopes to gain some insight into the business of raising/racing Thoroughbreds. Afterwards Miss Ellie agrees to drop in on the Kentuckiana Dog Show where Melanie notices that - though the former exhibitor is welcomed by many old acquaintances - there's an undercurrent of whispers and hostility. Melanie soon learns that a tragic car accident a couple of decades before caused Miss Ellie to abandon the dog show business...though there's more to the story than Melanie realizes.

A few days later Miss Ellie is found dead on the farm where she grew up, apparently having fallen while walking her four Jack Russell Terriers (the cute canine on the cover). However Aunt Peg considers Miss Ellie's death suspicious and ropes Melanie into helping her investigate.

The story is billed as a mystery, and does have some mystery elements. Most of the book, though, is about dogs and Thoroughbred horses. As Aunt Peg, Melanie, and Bertie go about their business in Kentucky we learn all about dog shows: the categories in which the dogs are shown; what the judges look for; the point system used to rate the dogs; the various awards (winner, reserve, etc.); how trainers and exhibitors groom and prepare the dogs; funny things that happen at dog shows; the comraderie and rivalry among exhibitors; and more.

We also find out a good bit about the Thoroughbred racehorse business, which is apparently a very tricky enterprise. Thoroughbred horses are very costly to buy and care for and there are plenty of scoundrels in the business, ready to scam and take advantage of rich amateurs. The various schemes afloat to rook wealthy novice investors (assuming the descriptions in the book are accurate) are dismaying and fascinating. In any case I won't be buying a racehorse anytime soon....though I've been known to bet a buck or two on occasion. LOL.

I enjoyed the humorous scenes where Melanie hobnobs with eccentric friends at the dog show. One quirky older fellow - concerned about Bertie's (non-existent) morning sickness - brings her a box filled with every kind of cracker he can find (ha ha ha). I was also amused when Melanie imbibed a little too much Kentucky bourbon while chatting up a person of interest. Aunt Peg, always feisty and outspoken, is also quite entertaining - and completely resistant to Melanie's efforts to reign her in. My favorite character in the book , though, is Faith - the smart, sweet, endearing poodle who always knows when someone needs a doggie hug.

I enjoyed the book but I would have liked a little more of a mystery element, perhaps with a twist or two. Still, I learned a lot about dog shows and racehorses and would recommended the book to fans of cozies - especially animal lovers.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for a copy of this book.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "The Widow" by Fiona Barton

As the story opens fortyish Glen Taylor has recently been killed when he tripped in front of an oncoming bus. As it happens Glen was the prime suspect in the disappearance of a two-year-old girl, Bella Elliot, who was kidnapped from an English suburb several years ago (and never found). Arrested and tried at the time, Glen got off because of a flawed police investigation. Glen's death reminds the public of his alleged misdeeds and his widow, Jean Taylor, is once again hounded by the press. Jean agrees to be interviewed by reporter Kate Waters, who's thrilled to be getting the scoop.

The story is told from rotating points of view including the widow; the reporter; the detective, Bob Sparks; and Bella's mother, Dawn Elliot.

As the tale unfolds we learn that Glen was addicted to online porn, especially images of child abuse (or pretend child abuse, with women dressed as underage girls). Glen was also a manipulative, narcissistic husband who seemed able to con his wife into thinking he was a decent guy who had her best interests at heart...despite all kinds of evidence to the contrary.

Jean seems to be incredibly naive and self-effacing. She realizes Glen's doing something not quite kosher when he shuts himself up with his computer, but she calls it "Glen's nonsense" and pushes it out of her mind. Jean is desperate to have a baby, but tests reveal that Glen is sterile - and he won't even consider adoption. Given Jean's obsession with children one would think she'd insist Glen change his mind or get lost, but Jean just makes excuses for her husband and hangs in there. Throughout the police investigation and trial....and its aftermath...Jean apparently believes in her husband's innocence and supports him.

Detective Bob Sparks is convinced Glen is guilty though there are some other possible suspects. Bob is crushed by Glen's acquital, is haunted by the mystery of Bella's disappearance, and - despite instructions from his superiors - can't let go of the case.

Journalist Kate is thrilled with the opportunity to interview Jean and quickly squirrels the widow away, to hide her from other reporters. Kate is convinced she's going to squeeze 'the true story' out of Jean now that Glen isn't around....but Jean may be more clever than she appears on the surface.

Bella's mother Dawn beats herself up for leaving the child unsupervised in the yard 'for just a couple of minutes.' She starts a 'Find Bella' drive and cooperates with the press and the police, perhaps even going a little too far at times.

As the tale unfolded I wasn't sure who to believe, and I suspected one character after another of being the kidnapper. The resolution of the story is believable but - to be completely honest - I would have liked more shock and awe. This is a good psychological suspense novel, recommended to fans of the genre.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "The Vegetarian" by Han Kang

I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. Set in South Korea, the story is divided into three parts, each narrated by a different character. The first narrator is Mr. Cheong.

Mr. Cheong is a dull, reserved office worker who wants an ordinary life that doesn't rock the boat. Thus he marries a quiet, average-looking, unambitious woman named Yeong-hye. Yeong-hye's only fault seems to be her refusal to wear a bra, a quirk that Mr. Cheong (more or less) puts up with.

After a frightening blood-drenched dream Yeong-hye abruptly decides to become a vegetarian. This is very unusual in South Korea and has immediate negative consequences: Mr. Cheong is annoyed about the new food regime at home and embarrassed when he and (bra-less) Yeong-hye attend a dinner with his bosses and their wives. Yeong-hye - whose garb is (not so discreetly) eyeballed by the guests - refuses to eat and several wives make disparaging remarks.

Yeong-hye's family is also appalled by her refusal to eat meat. They're critical because she won't knuckle under to her husband's wishes and are concerned about her weight loss and declining health. This leads to a violent scene where Yeong-hye's overbearing father tries to force meat down her act which ultimately results in Yeong-hye being committed to a mental institution.

Part two of the book starts three years later. Yeong-hye's husband has divorced her and she's now living a quiet life in a small apartment. This section of the story is narrated by Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, the husband of her sister In-hye, a businesswoman who runs a cosmetics store. In-hye is 'grateful' that her husband - a not-too-successful visual artist - 'allows' her to work, take care of the home, and raise their young son while he futzes around and has no income.

The brother-in-law becomes obsessed with the notion that Yeong-hye still has a 'Mongolian mark' - a bluish birthmark that usually fades by puberty. The artist's fetish - and increasing sexual attraction to Yeong-hye - lead him to ask if he can paint her body while making a video. Yeong-hye agrees and is decorated with gorgeous flowers, leaves, and vines. The artist then paints a male colleague in a similar fashion and makes a sensual video of Yeong-hye interacting with the man. When the brother-in-law goes too far his life blows up.

Part three of the book starts some time later, when Yeong-hye is back in a mental institution. She has stopped eating completely and is on the verge of death. This segment of the book is narrated by In-hye. In-hye recalls their childhood, when Yeong-hye was the primary victim of their father's bad temper and physical abuse (not sexual). It's not clear, though, if this is the cause of Yeong-hye's problems. In any case In-hye tries to get her sister to eat, to avoid the dying woman's being transferred to a regular hospital and force-fed. Yeong-hye, however, won't eat a bite. It seems she now thinks she's a tree who can live on sunshine and water. Moreover, Yeong-hye doesn't seem concerned about dying.

And that's about it.

To me this unusual story seems to be about the inferior position of women in South Korean culture; dysfunctional families; artistic obsession; and mental illness. I've seen other reviews, though, that seem to read a lot more into this short book. So.....I don't know. Nevertheless, it's an engaging tale that certainly leaves an impression. Recommended to fans of literary fiction.  

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Review of "Confessions" by Kanae Minato

Yuko Moriguchi, a middle-school teacher in Japan, tells her class that she's resigning from her job. Moriguchi goes on to say her decision is related to the recent death of her four-year-old daughter, Manami, who drowned in a nearby swimming pool. Authorities consider the death an accident but Moriguchi tells a long story that details how two students in the class (whom she calls 'A' and 'B') murdered Manami....and she describes the revenge she's set in motion.

After spring break one of the culprits returns to school while the other finds excuse after excuse to remain at home, essentially becoming a 'hikkomori' (sort of hermit). The student who comes back to class faces retribution from fellow students while the shut-in deteriorates physically and mentally. Meanwhile, the class's new teacher - who doesn't really know what's going on - is determined to help the recluse keep up with classwork and return to school.

The story is told in rotating voices including culprit A, culprit B, the mother of one of the perpetrators, another classmate, and Moriguchi. At first it seems like one of the miscreants - who has a dominant narcissistic personality - was the major player in the illegal activities. However the truth is more complicated.

In some ways the book reminded me of the Columbine massacre in the U.S., where two students who did not appear particularly disturbed planned and carried out a terrible crime. Similarly, the killers in 'Confessions' appear to be under-the-radar sociopaths. In addition, it seems like poor parenting was a major influence on the events of the story, along with the pressure to achieve academic success - demonstrated by the number of Japanese students who attend 'cram school' after regular classes.

This is a well-written story that engaged me and kept me turning the pages. Good book, recommended for fans of literary fiction and mysteries.

Note: Reading the book made me curious about 'hikkomori' so I googled it. The word is a Japanese term for reclusive teens or adults who withdraw from society and become loners. Apparently this phenomenon is not uncommon in Japan and some experts speculate that there are over one million hikkomori in the country.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town" by John Grisham

In this non-fiction book John Grisham tells the shocking and disheartening story of two men who were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Oklahoma.

Ron Williamson, born in 1953, grew up in a loving Christian family in Ada, Oklahoma. He was a star on his high school baseball team and played for several professional minor league teams, hoping to make it to the majors. Injuries and health problems shattered these dreams however, and a short unsuccessful marriage added to Ron's woes. By his mid-20s Ron was back in Ada, carousing, drinking heavily, philandering, and starting to show signs of mental illness. At about this time he became friends with Dennis Fritz, who became his partying buddy.

Then in 1982 a young woman named Debbie Carter was brutally raped and murdered in her apartment in Ada. The police did a less than thorough investigation and - in a major instance of bungling - gave a pass to Glen Gore, who had been harassing Debbie and was known to be violent toward women. It turns out the police (more or less) ignored Glen as a suspect because a few cops were doing drug deals with Glen at the time.

In any case the investigation dragged on and finally, in 1988, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were arrested and charged with the rape and murder of Debbie Carter. There was no credible physical evidence against the men but prosecutor Bill Peterson lined up (and coached) a series of mendacious jailhouse snitches - which resulted in convictions. Dennis was sentenced to life in prison and Ron was given the death penalty. Grisham gives a detailed account of the 'investigation' and a play by play description of the trials, and it's frightening to see the lengths Peterson and the police would go to to secure 'confessions' and convictions.

Grisham then details Ron's years on death row as his lawyers file appeal after appeal. By this time Ron was severely mentally ill as well as as frustrated and depressed by his wrongful conviction. Moreover, death row was located in an old prison facility that was boiling in summer and freezing in winter, with nasty guards who delighted in tormenting disturbed Ron.

To cut to the chase: twelve years after Ron and Dennis's convictions DNA evidence showed that the imprisoned men were innocent and that Glen Gore was guilty. Ron and Dennis were released from prison but DA Peterson - in a major demonstration of stubborn hubris - refused to apologize. In fact, he indicated that he still thought of the two men as suspects and might even retry them if he found more evidence. Of course this preyed on Ron's already troubled mind. Nevertheless, six years later Gore was finally convicted of Pamela's murder.

The book is interesting and informative...but also sad and disheartening. I felt angry that the Ada police and DA Peterson were not held to account for their outrageous behavior. In fact a google search revealed that Peterson tried to sue Grisham and other people who wrote books about the case, claiming they libelled him (as if!) However, Peterson was routinely unsuccessful with these lawsuits.

On the negative side the book is overly long and goes into too much detail about every aspect of Ron's life. Grisham details all of Ron's childhood/teen sports (he played baseball and basketball); his antics to get his parents and sister to pay for nice clothes, a car, and expensive sports camps; Ron's many unsuccessful experiences with minor league baseball teams; his injuries and rehabilitations; Ron's bar-hopping and picking up women; his horrible years on death row; the round of talk shows and celebrations when Ron and Dennis are released from prison; and finally Ron's ongoing physical decline and eventual death in a nursing home. It's just a little too much.

Still, this cautionary tale about justice gone wrong is worth reading and instructive.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Review of "Breaking Cat News: Cats Reporting On The News That Matters To Cats" by Georgia Dunn

I loved this delightful illustrated book about three cat journalists on the CN (cat news) network who report news of interest to cats. The kitties - Lupin, Elvis, and Puck - are housecats that live with 'the woman' and 'the man.'

The book is filled with entertaining scenes, so I'll just give a few examples.
The woman goes to the bathroom and closes the door....and the cats immediately rush over with their microphones: "CN news, ma'am. What you doing in there?' The cattarazzi proceed to claw at the door and stick their paws underneath as they keep calling, "Ma'am?" "Ma'am?" "Ma'am?.....and the woman just sighs.

Seeing that the woman has a frosted cupcake the cats immediately swarm her. One asks "Do you remember when you let me lick frosting off your finger, ma'am?" Another inquires "Do you remember I'm an excellent boy who deserves frosting?" When the woman declares "Cupcakes are for people" the cats are appalled....but get smiley again when they discover 11 more cupcakes on the kitchen counter.

The woman is under the weather and lying on the sofa (spooning with Puck). A reporter cat observes: "People recover from illness with giant mugs of hot tea and hours of British mystery shows." Later the woman is obviously pregnant and a newscat observes, "The woman has been increasing in size. This week her size has pinned her to the couch where she now lives with Puck watching British mystery shows." [Puck can't comment because if he misses the first ten minutes of the show he won't know what's going true...ha ha ha.]

When the man and woman finally bring the baby home a cat reporter observes that "The people have brought home a strange creature that they force to wear tiny hats." The cats think the baby is a human pupa...and their labeled illustration of this is hilarious!

This book would appeal to everyone who likes a laugh, especially cat lovers. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for a copy of this book.

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "LaRose" by Louise Erdrich

Landreaux Iron, a North Dakota Ojibwe Indian, is happily married to Emmaline and raising five children - including the 'adopted' son of his childhood friend Romeo. One day Landreaux - a former alcohol and drug user - is hunting, and accidently kills Dusty, the 5-year-old son of his neighbors Peter and Nola Ravich.

The Ravichs are devastated and Landreaux and Emmaline - hewing to an old Indian custom - make the overwhelmingly heartbreaking decision to give the grieving couple their own young son, LaRose. Nola, though almost insane from grief, is somewhat comforted by LaRose, a sweet boy who - like his namesake ancestors - has shaman-like abilities. Still, both Peter and Nola fantasize about revenge-killing Landreaux.

Meanwhile, Emmaline and Landreaux are torn up by the loss of LaRose and the boy misses his family. Before long Peter Ravich- worried about what this is doing to LaRose - arranges for the youngster to be shared by both families. This arrangement is difficult and does little to heal the rift between the Iron and Ravich parents but it does bring the children of both households closer. Middle-schooler Maggie Ravich, whose disprespectful hijinks cause trouble both at school and at home, bonds with LaRose, who seems able to (somewhat) soothe Nola's anguish. And Josette and Snow Iron take their 'stepsister' Maggie under their wing, encourage her to play volleyball, and give her boyfriend advice when the time comes.

The devastating events of the story put pressure on both the Iron and Ravich marriages as an undercurrent of blame pervades both relationships. To deal with their anguish, the Irons rely on both their Indian heritage and their Catholic faith, guided by rugged ex-Marine priest, Father Travis. Nola, who's close to suicidal also consults the priest, who can do little to soothe her agony.

Interspersed with the story of the current LaRose are historical scenes depicting the life of the original LaRose - an Indian girl sold to an abusive merchant by an alcoholic mother. This first LaRose's story is harrowing but she perseveres (in part) by using her mystical abilities, which are passed on to her descendants. Scenes of a disembodied head following LaRose (and her companion) when she goes on the run are both humorous and disturbing.

The story also depicts Landreaux's childhood, during which he was forced to attend a white-run boarding school meant to erase his Indian culture. At school Landreaux met Romeo, who was intensely loyal until a rift formed between the boys. Romeo, who's partially crippled, grows up to be a drug-using ne'er do well who steals and scams for a living. For various reasons Romeo is jealous and resentful of Landreaux and tries to use 'the real facts' about Dusty's death to destroy him.

The novel has some comic relief when Indian elders living in a nursing home joke with each other (mostly about sex) and get revenge on Romeo for stealing their painkillers. The elders also tell engaging 'creation' tales from their Indian culture, which are fascinating and instructive to young LaRose.

This is an excellent story about grief, remorse, revenge and well as children's angst as they mature and find their place in the world. The loyalty and love among the Iron and Ravich siblings and step-siblings is very moving and the climax and denouement of the story are believable and satisfying. I would highly recommend this book to fans of literary fiction.  

Rating: 4 stars