Endangered by Jean Love Cush

book-mockup1Endangered: A Novel
by Jean Love Cush

I reviewed this book for TLC Book Tours.

tlc-logo-resizedIn this debut novel, Jean Love Cush draws from her experience working as an attorney in the DA’s office in Philadelphia as well as in family law dealing with poverty and domestic abuse issues to paint a picture of gross inequality that very much exists in the real world.  The statistics surrounding the criminalization of black boys, and how it’s driven by poverty and prejudice is shocking.  That the leading cause of death for black males in America is murder, and that black male youths charged with murder are more likely to be tried as adults, severely diminishing their chances of ever being rehabilitated is alarming, to say the least.

Endangered opens with fifteen-year old Malik Williams hanging out with a small group of friends on a Philadelphia street corner.  Suddenly the sound of police sirens approaches, and when the boys realize that their little gathering is the police’s target, they scatter – all but Malik, who has been told since he could remember by his mother that the best way to stay out of trouble is to cooperate.  Before Malik even understands what has happened, he is assaulted by police, handcuffed, thrown in the back of a cruiser, taken to jail, and accused of the murder of another black boy.

Janae became pregnant with Malik when she was only fifteen herself.  Malik’s father has never been in the picture, and Janae has managed to eke out a life for herself and her son, meeting their basic needs but not much more.  A young, single mother who works as a cafeteria cashier, Janae is devoted to her son, and when she is notified that Malik has been arrested, it’s the realization of her worst nightmare.  Every black urban mother is all too aware of the fate of too many black boys in the criminal justice system.  With no money to hire a private attorney to defend her son, Janae resigns herself brokenheartedly to trusting the public defender assigned to Malik to serve his best interests.

Enter Roger Whitford, an experienced and well-respected white attorney.  Whitford has devoted his career to working for human rights issues, and he wants to take on Malik’s case at no charge.  Whitford, well aware of the statistics surrounding black youths in the criminal justice system, decides to use the Endangered Species Act as the foundation to defend Malik, and to confront the prejudices and inequities against black boys head on in order to change the workings of the criminal justice system in its dealings with black youths.

There is also the matter of Malik being innocent of the murder of which he is accused.

Endangered is well-written and engaging, and brings to light an important social issue.  It’s so easy as a white, middle-class American to understand the plight of the oppressed in abstract terms; I felt that Cush’s novel brought some of it into the harsh light of day.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book was the romance angle; Whitford hires a crack attorney to help him with his cause and Malik’s case, and of course he’s very handsome, and of course Janae is beautiful, and of course the two of them fall for each other, and of course it’s a handsome man who will be Janae’s salvation . . . eh.  I felt like that angle was just gratuitous and unnecessary.  Why couldn’t they be average and not hot for each other?  It almost felt like Cush didn’t trust her readers to appreciate the story on its own merits, and that she threw the romance thing in as insurance or something.  Or maybe I’m just cynical.

In any case,  I did appreciate both the writing and the story.  Good book!

You can find out more about this author at jeanlovecush.com.

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

17349104 This Dark Road to Mercy: A Novel
by Wiley Cash

Easter and Ruby, two sisters aged 12 and 6, have only each other in the world.  Their mom has recently died from a drug overdose, and they are in foster care with their future a big unknown stretching before them.  Then one day Wade Chesterfield shows up.  Wade is their father, a washed up minor league baseball player who has a knack for getting himself mixed up in trouble, and who disappeared from the girls’  lives years ago.  But now he wants another chance to be a father to them.  The problem is that he signed away his parental rights to the girls, so he takes things into his own hands and steals them away in the night.

Hot on Wade’s heels is Pruitt, a man who is bent on revenge against Wade for an accident that happened during a ball game years ago, and which derailed both his and Wade’s careers.  Pruitt is now an ex-con, recently released from prison and working as a bouncer at a bar owned by a man who also wants to find Wade.

Easter and Ruby’s guardian ad litem is an ex-cop whose past is full of regrets.  When news of a local armored car heist breaks, Brady Weller begins connecting the dots and realizes that he must find the girls before something horrible happens.

Set in North Carolina against the backdrop of the home run record chase by Mark McGwire and  Sammy Sosa in 1998, this relatively thin volume packs a punch.  Narrated alternately by twelve-year old Easter, the shady Pruitt, and Brady Weller, it’s a gritty and dark, emotional and suspenseful, beautifully wrought story.  I kept turning the pages with my heart pounding, and in the end, cried my eyes out.  A story about greed, revenge, and redemption, ultimately it’s a story about being a father.

I am really looking forward to reading more by this author.

Another gem from TLC Book Tours.


Carly’s Gift by Georgia Bockoven

9780062279859 Carly’s Gift: A Novel
by Georgia Bockoven

A love triangle … an illegitimate child … transcontinental transplant … dark secrets … grave illness … all the ingredients for an engrossing story.  Only, it tries too hard to be something it’s not.

I agreed to read and review this book for TLC Book Tours because something about the book description intrigued me:

Sixteen years ago Carly Hargrove made a decision that would irrevocably alter her life. With little comprehension of the life-long consequences of her actions, she trades her own future happiness to protect the man she’s loved since kindergarten …

That, coupled with the cover picture gave me the impression that this would be a story that raised questions of perhaps a societal or moral nature – something deep and thought-provoking.  Instead, I was disappointed to realize that it’s really just melodramatic chick-lit, verging on cheesy romance, neither of which genre I’m a particular fan, but trying to be a Jodi Picoult novel and failing because it’s just too contrived.

The story line itself is … interesting.  Carly, Ethan, and David grew up together, a threesome of best friends.  Predictably, both guys eventually fall (hard) for the girl, but the girl’s heart belongs to only one of them.  This, of course, wrecks the friendship.  One night the unthinkable happens, and Carly winds up pregnant.  She loves David far too much to saddle him with a kid, so sets him free – free to pursue his dreams and have a full, happy life (at the expense of her own happiness – that’s apparently the “gift” the title refers to), but seeing that she’s now pregnant and unwed, she agrees to marry Ethan, who she does not love (well, only as a friend), but who loves her so much that he’s willing to take her on and her illegitimate child.  Over the years, Ethan grows more bitter that Carly doesn’t return his love, jealous of David to whom he knows Carly’s heart really belongs but who’s living far away in England and is now a famous author, and less and less accepting of Andrea, the “love” child in question.  Ethan assumes that Andrea is David’s child, and Carly lets him assume this, because the truth is just too painful: Andrea is the product of a rape – and pretty much the most repulsive and heinous sort of rape you can imagine.  The circumstances of Andrea’s conception make it impossible to swallow the picture the author paints: that Carly couldn’t bring herself to abort, that she adores her daughter without reservation, and that Andrea herself is seemingly so perfect.

One day, sixteen years after Carly sets David free, he returns to small town Baxter, Ohio, for his father’s funeral, and … well, the spark is reignited, as expected.  What happens after this is just a little too hard to swallow.

There are a couple of love scenes that did nothing to get me hot and bothered, but they were good for some laughs; my husband actually read one of them aloud and I had tears running down my face because I was laughing so hard.  My husband’s a funny guy, though, so maybe it was just us.  In addition to the predictable, contrived love scenes (of course the men are strapping!  Of course the females must stand on tiptoe to receive the devouring kisses of the strapping males!  Of course the men sweep the women into their arms and carry them to bed!), the dialogue is generally too thought-out, and the scenes that take place in England try a little too hard to be, well, English.  Then the grave illness – it’s sad, but the author kind of skims over it, so it doesn’t manage to pull the heartstrings as much as it could have, I think.

I didn’t hate this book – not at all.  It just wasn’t what I was expecting, and I do think that there is a fanbase for this particular type of story.  In any case, it served well enough as escapism; I did find myself sucked into the story, even if I frequently rolled my eyes.  My biggest problem with it was that the author took some monumentally grave life circumstances, and painted them with a light brush, almost making a mockery of them.

Another review brought to you by TLC Book Tours.


Zinsky the Obscure by Ilan Mochari

zinsky.the.obscure Zinsky the Obscure
by Ilan Mochari

Zinsky the Obscure is a book I agreed to read and review for TLC Book Tours.

tlc-logo-resizedIn this debut novel, we meet Ariel Zinsky as a child.  His parents have divorced, his father leaving the family for another woman, whom he marries and with whom he proceeds to create a second family.  Ariel’s childhood is marked by periodic visits from his father, which are always accompanied by severe beatings.  In between those dreaded visits, Ariel lives with his closest friend, his mother, who serial dates until she, too, lands in a second marriage.

Ariel grows up and becomes, in some ways, larger than life: a six-foot-eight giant with no hair – all of it literally disappears overnight.  He is a deeply flawed, lonely man, scarred by the beatings of his childhood, as well as the absence of love from his father.

We watch him traverse three romantic relationships as an adult: first with a beautiful college co-ed who seems to be lowering herself to date and sleep with Ariel while she’s on the rebound – until Ariel slaps her one night and that’s the end of that; then with the HR supervisor from the accounting job he left, an intelligent, independent, beautiful woman with such an irrational fear of pregnancy that she refuses to have traditional intercourse over the entire three years of their relationship; and a beautiful older woman for whom Ariel pined from afar for years before actually becoming romantically involved with.  Even these relationships manage to seem somewhat mythical: it seems that stunningly beautiful, over-six-feet-tall women are a dime a dozen.  Ariel manages to spectacularly screw up every one of these relationships, perpetuating his own misery: believing himself too flawed, too ugly for real love, he sabotages every opportunity for real love, proving that he isn’t good enough for real love.

Meanwhile, over the course of several years, his obsession with football, conceived in childhood, develops into a pursuit to make it big writing an annual football draft guide, and he goes from living in near poverty and drowning in debt to being a wealthy entrepreneur.

When I agreed to read and review this book, I was cautioned that the scenes of brutality inflicted by father on son might be especially disturbing and difficult to stomach.  I did not find this to be true at all.  Sure, it was unpleasant reading about a father repeatedly punching his nine-year old son, but I’ve certainly read worse.  Those scenes involving Ariel and his father actually fell a little flat for me – they felt one-dimensional and devoid of raw emotion.  More disturbing, I thought, were the scenes of a grown man shitting in a parking lot, near constant masturbation, and graphic depictions of anal sex.

The story sometimes made me laugh, often had me scratching my head in puzzlement, but never made me cry.  I had a tough time with Ariel; I saw his vulnerability and rooted for him up to a point, but in the end, I didn’t like him much, and I didn’t feel a whole lot of compassion for him.   He turns out to be just as big an asshole as the father he despises.  I wanted to see him transcend the abuse of his childhood, but he never does.  He remains fixated on it, blaming the deprivations of his childhood for every bad turn his adult life takes, never taking genuine responsibility for his own life and his own happiness – at least not without inflicting great pain on other people.   There never seems to be an epiphany or turning point for him.

Mochari is a wonderful writer.  Interestingly, despite the fact that I didn’t much like the characters, the writing kept me reading – it moved along at a good clip and held my interest.  However, it lacks a climax, and in the end, although I enjoyed the author’s talent, I was left wondering what the point of the story was.

Then again, the book has received rave reviews elsewhere, which makes me wonder if I just missed the boat.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train Orphan Train: A Novel
by Christina Baker Kline

tlc-logo-resizedI agreed to read and review this book for TLC Book Tours, and wow, what a book.

In England, it was the workhouse – a chapter in the history of the country’s social welfare system wherein the government tried to deal with its destitute and homeless population.  Here in the US, it was orphan trains – a mere footnote in our history.  In both cases, we can look back from our enlightened and modern perspective and see those early efforts as cruel and monstrous, but the truth is, at the time, those methods of dealing with orphans made sense.

In Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, we meet Vivian, a ninety-one year old woman who has agreed to have Molly, a seventeen year-old foster kid on the verge of landing herself in juvie, fulfill her sentence of community service by having her help clean out her attic.  Cleaning out Vivian’s attic, however, becomes merely a way for Vivian to revisit her past one last time, and perhaps make peace with it, finally.

Over eighty years prior, Vivian was a girl named Niamh (pronounced “NEE-uhv”), recently emigrated to New York from a small coastal town in Ireland.  At the tender age of nine, Niamh losesOrphanTrainPoster her family in a fire and is left orphaned.  Some neighbors turn her over to the Children’s Aid Society and she is placed on a train with hundreds of other orphans, bound for the midwest where they will be paraded before townspeople in the hopes of securing new homes.  Not surprisingly, babies are in highest demand – and they are the most likely to actually be taken into families who want a child to love and raise.  Older children, more often, than not, are taken in by people – if they are taken at all – who are looking for free labor.  It is a frightening reality that the children go to anyone willing to take them, with no background checks, interviews or investigations undertaken – they are turned over to strangers in exchange for some signatures on a few forms.  Not surprisingly, they often entered lives of torment, abuse, neglect, and despair.

Niamh – later Beverly, and later still, Vivian (one of the most heartbreaking aspects to me was the fact that most of the children were given new names by the people taking them in; in addition to losing their blood families, they have their very identities stripped from them) – suffers great hardship and loss in her new life.

Now nearing the end of her life, she undertakes the cleaning out of her attic, and old ghosts are resurrected.  Over the weeks that Vivian and Molly work together in the dusty old attic, Vivian shares her story, which turns out to be not so different from Molly’s own story of being bounced around from foster home to foster home.  Despite the seventy years that separate Vivian and Molly in age, a friendship is forged through shared experiences and the recognition of a kindred spirit in each other.

This book really packs a punch, and by the end, I was crying big, sloppy tears.  Wonderful story.

A Complicated Marriage by Janice Van Horne (Review & Giveaway!)

Complicated_Marriage A Complicated Marriage: My Life With Clement Greenberg
by Janice Van Horne

I agreed to read and review this book for TLC Book Tours; it’s not a book I probably would have picked up otherwise, but it’s good to have my horizons expanded a bit once in a while.

tlc-logo-resizedThe story opens on an Indian-summer night in 1955 NYC, with a young, recently-graduated-from-college Janice Van Horne – or Jenny, as she’s affectionately known – in attendance at a party.  I loved how the opening scene was presented:

There is a young woman, very young, in fact just twenty-one, seated on the edge of a paisley-draped foam couch in the living room.  She crosses and uncrosses her long legs under the midcalf, serviceable gray wool skirt, far too heavy for such a warm night.  Made by a local dressmaker and bought at a Bennington College sale for $12, the skirt is so serviceable that for forty-five years it will hang in her closet, rarely if ever worn.  Besides the moths, maybe it is her memories it will serve.

She looks down, appraising her sandals, new, from Fred Segal on MacDougal Street, with leather thongs that lace up past her ankles.  Too tight, they will leave grooves that will take years to erase, but tonight her only concern is that her exposed feet might look too big, which they are.  She smokes a Pall Mall and then another, and holds a glass with a few inches of gin and a dollop of tonic, as if it were her ticket to where the high life might be.

Something about this opening scene brings to mind a curtain rising and revealing a stage set, and the reader is invited to sit back and watch the show.  And no wonder it has this feeling – Van Horne becomes a successful playwright many years after this fateful night in 1955 when a much older man sits down beside her on that paisley couch and enters her life.

That man is Clement Greenberg – or Clem – and he is more than twice the virginal Jenny’s age, with one brief marriage, a grown son, and a string of affairs and girlfriends behind him – in fact, on this night, he is still entangled with another woman also present at the party.  He is also “the most famous, the most important, art critic in the world.”

Eventually this unlikely pair get married – after Clem’s contingency “as long as everything stays the same,” and his offhand reference to an “open marriage,” which Jenny barely bats an eye at because she can’t fathom that he’s serious.  Over the course of their nearly forty-year relationship, Jenny is thrust into the art world where she regularly rubs elbows with many important and influential people, travels the world, and yes, engages in an open marriage.  About half of the book takes place in the 1950s, with the second half covering the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90’s.

There were large chunks of the story that kept me engaged, and large chunks – mainly the chapters devoted to describing Clem’s and her relationships with people in the art world (people I’ve never heard of), that bored me and I found myself skimming those portions.  Although the book’s subtitle is “My Life With Clement Greenberg,” it’s really only partly about Van Horne’s life with Greenberg; it’s largely a story of self-reflection and discovery.  Jenny is a hard nut to crack – in the end, I never did figure out if she was happy with her life or not.

I think the title is a little misleading.  It seems as though their agreement to have an open marriage was, in fact, to keep things from becoming too complicated – and I never got the sense that their relationship was “complicated.”  I think “interesting” would be a more apt description.  It’s hard to relate to the idea of an open marriage, but, hey, it seemed to work for them – although it’s hard to imagine their daughter wasn’t deprived of some sense of stability.

In any case, it’s a good book, although it is probably more to the liking of: (a) people interested in and knowledgeable about the art world, and (b) people intimately familiar with that bygone era of 1950s New York.

TLC Book Tours has set aside a copy of this book for me to give away to a lucky winner!  If you’re interested, leave a comment saying so, and I’ll choose a random winner on Monday, May 20.