Book Review: Every Secret Thing

In Ann Tatlock’s novel Every Secret Thing, Elizabeth Gunnar had attended Seaton Preparatory School in Delaware. Her high school English teacher there, Mr. Dutton, encouraged and nurtured her love of literature and inspired her to become an English teacher herself.

There are mentions through the book that something terrible happened to Mr. Dutton, and his story is told piecemeal in Elizabeth’s flashbacks. He was a well-loved teacher, so his tragedy hit the student body hard. But Elizabeth and three of her friends were stunned that the school covered up what really happened.

Now, twenty years later, Elizabeth has returned to Seaton as an English teacher. Mr. Dutton’s shadow looms large, but eventually Elizabeth finds her footing. One of her students, a girl named Satchel Paige, seems aloof, but Elizabeth learns of her troubled family background, and they eventually form a relationship.

Elizabeth speaks often of what she calls “moments of being.” She borrowed the phrase from Virginia Woolf, who described them as “a sudden shock, a welcome shock, in which she sensed something beyond the visible, or, as she wrote, the shock ‘is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances.'” Elizabeth felt those moments were God manifesting Himself or trying to get our attention, and she even wrote a paper on that premise. But she knew Virginia didn’t believe in God. And she was sad to discover that Mr. Dutton didn’t, either, though he gave her an A on her paper.

Satchell progresses well until a crisis at home affects both herself and Elizabeth.

I feel I am not doing justice to this story: there’s so much I can’t say because I don’t want to spoil it. But I loved this book.

For one thing, I loved the era. Elizabeth graduated a couple of years behind me, so all the 70s references were familiar and nostalgic to me.

Then I identified very much with Elizabeth as the bookish “Jesus freak” (as some Christians were called then) introverted A student.

I loved the threads of “moments of being” throughout the novel as well as the thread of invisibility. Both Elizabeth and Satchell had felt invisible for different reasons. Elizabeth brought up Jesus’s calling of Nathanael, seeing him when he thought he was alone under a fig tree. I liked the truth that sometimes God uses us in ways we never knew until much later.

Overall, it’s a beautiful, redemptive story. It’s one of my favorites of Ann’s. I hope you’ll read it and tell me what you think.

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Book Review: A Place Called Morning

In the novel A Place Called Morning by Ann Tatlock, Mae Demaray faces a grandparent’s worst nightmare. Her two-year-old grandson died while in her care, due to a moment of carelessness on her part.

Long after her daughter and son-in-law forgive her, Mae can’t forgive herself. She refuses to be alone with her other grandchildren, withdraws from the ministry she enjoyed for years at the children’s hospital, withdraws, in fact, from almost everything, including God. Mae’s daughter tries various ways to draw Mae out, but Mae resists.

The one activity she does keep up is her relationship with Roy, an old family friend. Roy is a few years older than her and has some kind of mental or learning disability. For as long as she can remember, her mother invited Roy from the orphanage for dinner and family get-togethers. Now her parents and her husband have all passed away, and Roy lives in a boarding house. Mae has Roy over for lunch a couple of times a week. He does odd jobs around the house and yard for her. The upkeep on her house, inherited from her parents, is too much for her, and the extra cash helps his fixed income.

Then another crushing family tragedy occurs, this one threatening her relationship with Roy. But in the aftermath, a long-buried family secret is revealed. Though it throws Mae for a loop at first, ultimately it opens her eyes and causes all her walls to come crashing down.

As a grandmother, the first part of this book was hard to read. I could really identify with Mae’s feelings in the loss of her grandson.

I loved the truths Ann brought out about relationships with family and with God. I loved where Mae ended up.

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Book Review: Home at Last

 Home at Last is the last book in Deborah Raney’s Chicory Inn series. Link Whitman is the oldest and only remaining son of bed and breakfast owners Grant and Audrey Whitman. He’s 29 and single. He’d like to have a family like the rest of his siblings, but has been too involved with work and has just never found the right girl. He tries to avoid disastrous set-ups with relatives of his mom’s friends.

Link is not above a little flirtation now and then, however. On his way to the bakery on cold morning for his mom, he anticipates seeing Shayla, the cute girl who works there. But right in front of the bakery, suddenly a young girl runs into the street. Link has trouble stopping on the icy road, but manages to swerve his pickup and miss her. Then Shayla comes running out, terrified and angry with him. At first he thinks the little girl is Shayla’s daughter, but finds she’s the niece – but a niece that Shayla is responsible for.

This incident sets Link and Shayla off on the wrong foot. But overcoming this rough start proves easier than handling their more serious differences. Shayla is of mixed race, with neither set of grandparents approving her parents’ marriage. Her mother has died, her brother is in jail, and her father is bitter and disillusioned. She thinks there are too many obstacles and issues that Link would never understand.

But Link wants to try and convinces her to go out with him – along with her niece, Portia. The path isn’t easy, with misunderstandings and misconceptions on both sides. Will they overcome them or give up trying?

I enjoyed this last visit with the Whitman family and felt Deborah handled the issues involved with sensitivity and understanding.

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Book Review: Close to Home

 Close to Home is the fourth in Deborah Raney’s Chicory Inn series, where empty nesters Grant and Audrey Whitman have transformed their big, rambling home into a bed and breakfast. Each book focuses on one of their five children. This book, however, tells the story of daughter-in-law Bree. Bree had been married to their youngest son, Tim, who had died a solider in Afghanistan. Bree had issues with her own parents and drew close to the Whitmans. They, in turn, considered Bree as one of their own.

It’s been five years since Tim’s death. Bree’s coworker, Aaron, has shown an interest in her, but she’s just not sure she’s ready to date again. Yet she decides to go out with him just as friends. She enjoys him and the relationship, yet something isn’t right. Is it that Aaron isn’t the right one, or that Bree doesn’t want to lose her relationship with the Whitmans?

Another plotline in this book is that feisty Grandma Ceecee has been having some issues that make Grant and Audrey wonder how much longer she can live alone. Ceecee has already said she would not go to a nursing home. Yet it’s seeming less safe than ever for her to be on her own. And with the inn, they don’t think they can manage caring for her at their home.

As soon as one character from a previous book showed up, I had a feeling which way the plot would go. But I enjoyed the journey nonetheless. I have not been in Bree’s situation, but I could sympathize with her dilemma. And, as many of you know, we have dealt with a parent needing care, so I could empathize with the characters in that situation as well. As always, I enjoyed the time with the Whitmans. Though they have their squabbles and irritations, they they love each other, support each other, and pull together.

Previous books in this series (linked to my reviews):

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Book Review: Promises to Keep

In Ann Tatlock’s novel, Promises to Keep, eleven-year-old Roz Anthony has just moved with her mother, older half-brother, and younger sister to a small town in Illinois in the 1960s. Roz’s mother, Janis, was compelled to leave her abusive husband, and her father helped set her family up in a new home.

After just a few days, though, they found a stranger sitting on their porch, reading their newspaper. She was a rather large older woman named Tillie Monroe, and she said this was her house. She had helped build it with her own two hands along with her husband, and no matter what the paperwork said, it was her house. All she wanted was to die in her home, but she had fallen and broken her hip, and her kids whisked her away to a nursing home. But now she’s better, and she wants to live in her own home

About that time, Tillie’s son drives up, apologizes profusely, and takes his mother back to the nursing home.

But a few days later, Tillie is back on her . . . er, their porch. Janis invites her in for coffee. Another time Janis comes home to find Tillie cooking dinner for them.

This happens so often that Janis is relatively sure that Tillie is safe and invites her to stay. The relationship is mutually beneficial as Tillie watches the children and helps out around the house while Janis works.

While Roz adjusts well to all the changes and even provides a humorous narration, she misses her father. She tries to focus on the good memories, but the bad ones creep in. She feels if her father could just stay the good dad and leave off the Dr. Jekyll bad side, they could all be together again.

Meanwhile, Roz faces a new school with trepidation. But she finds a friend in a black girl named Mara. She soon learns that Mara has her own daddy issues, secrets, and dreams. They girls decide together to pray for their secret dreams.

Though the family was healing and readjusting after all they had been through, the first part of the book seemed lighthearted and fun as the family interacted with Tillie and as Roz observed and processed her world. One sub-plot line could have worked out for good or bad, and Ann reeled out the tension and information skillfully. The dramatic climax was a surprise to me — I was expecting something, but not what happened.

I’ve enjoyed all of Ann’s books that I’ve read so far, but this will be a favorite. Roz and Tillie are a couple of my favorite characters.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: All the Way Home

Home In the novel All the Way Home by Ann Tatlock, Augie O’Shaughnessy‘s father has died by his own hand in the 1930s. Her mother takes what money they have left and moves her family in with her reluctant brother and his family. But Augie’s mother checks out and seeks respite in alcohol. Augie’s uncle is short-tempered and harsh; her aunt is a little more caring, but busy and distracted. Augie is mostly left to herself.

One day Augie wanders down to a park and meets a Japanese girl named Sunny, who invites Augie home. Augie becomes close with the whole kind and loving Yamagata family, spending more time with them than her own family. She even comes to consider herself Japanese.

Then Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, and the Yamagatas are sent away to an internment camp.

And Augie’s brother comes home from a Japanese prisoner of war camp and is never the same.

Fast forward twenty years, and Augie is a journalist specializing in civil rights stories. She has been asked to travel to Carver, Mississippi, to find out why no Negros have registered to vote even though the law allows them to. She finds more surprises than she bargained for.

I’ve read many WW2 novels, but none of them have touched on the Japanese internment camps. I had not known many details about them. It was interesting, but sad, to learn what happened to them. The fear was understandable: many experienced a similar fear of Middle Eastern people after 9/11. Like young Augie has to wrestle out for herself, no race of people is all good or all bad.

I’d like to tell him that there is no such thing as “they” or “them.” That there are only individuals with layer upon layer of experience, ideas, hopes, dreams, beliefs. That there are some Japanese who are really Americans, some whites who are really Negroes, some Irish-German-Americans who are really Japanese at heart. And that in spite of what a person appears to be or not to be, it’s the heart and not the face that matters.

I could begin again to differentiate, to see the faces of individuals rather than the blur of one large group. The Yamagatas had the eyes but not the soul of the people who had destroyed my brother. And that was what made them different.

Some of the civil rights era stories were both brutal and sad as well. Ann captured the struggles of everyone in the story in a realistic and heartfelt way. Her writing shines as well in a couple of turns of phrases I particularly liked:

I was already well aware of a hollow place inside of me, like an air bubble caught in a pane of glass.

Her painted eyelids were two blue robin’s eggs in a nest of clotted mascara.

The music filled what we would otherwise not have recognized as our parched souls, helping us realize the beauty that we longed for only when we heard it.

This book was a Christy award winner, and I can see why. A very good read.

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Book Review: Travelers Rest

Travelers Rest Travelers Rest caught my eye first of all because I used to live near a town by that name in SC, and I always thought it was a lovely name for a town. Then, as I started reading books by Ann Tatlock, I wanted to bring this one up from the depths of my accumulated Kindle sale titles and place it high on the TBR list.

In this story, Jane Morrow and Seth Ballantine live in Troy, NC, and are engaged, planning to be married after his tour of duty in Afghanistan. After nearly a year, though, Seth is hit by a sniper and paralyzed. He’s told Jane to stay away, but when he is shipped to the VA hospital in Asheville, she can’t help but go to see him to assure him of her love.

But Seth is no longer the man she knew. Though the physical issues are daunting, Jane thinks they can overcome them. But the mental and emotional hurdles for Seth are a different story. Gradually, though, he gets used to Jane coming around.

Though Jane still loves Seth and wants to marry him, sometimes she’s overwhelmed by the losses they face and by Seth’s extreme emotions. While taking respite in the common rooms, she meets an older black man, Truman, who once was a doctor but now lives at the VA. He still makes “rounds” to encourage the patients and help where he can. He has seen quite a lot, and he helps Jane understand Seth’s perspective. As they talk, Jane learns more of Truman’s life and sorrows. Truman is from Travelers Rest, where events in his twenties changed his course and relationships forever. He doesn’t think he can ever return there.

Jane’s spiritual background is shaky. She knows Truman and Seth and his family are believers, but she doesn’t know what to believe. But she knows her love alone isn’t enough to heal Seth’s internal wounds.

My only reluctance to reading this book beforehand was that I figured I knew how it would end. But I was wrong! Even if the story had gone the way I thought it would, however, I would have loved the unfolding of it. I enjoyed the characters very much. I also enjoyed the setting, as I’m familiar with many of the places mentioned. I liked the different layers of meaning of “Travelers Rest” employed in the book. I wish Jane’s faith journey would have been just a touch more clear. But overall, I loved the story.

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Book Review: I’ll Watch the Moon

MoonIn the novel I’ll Watch the Moon by Ann Tatlock, 9-year-old Nova lives with her mother and 13-year-old brother in her aunt’s boarding house in 1948. Her mother works in a bakery by day and helps at the boarding house afterward. Nova’s mother is usually sad or angry, and Nova doesn’t know why until much later. Nova’s aunt, Dortha, is a woman of faith but has learned to choose her words carefully around her sister.

She was, you see, actually a loving and gentle woman. It’s just that she was lost, hidden way deep down inside somewhere, in a place of no light, the bottom of an ocean of too many hard years. And yet there were moments when she rose to the surface, breaking through the sadness and the anger like a diver coming up through murky waters. When I glimpsed her then, in those moments, I knew that this was the real Catherine Tierney, the good and kind woman, my mother, and someone I wouldn’t see very often because she had to work so very hard to find her way out of that dark inward place.

Nova’s brother, Dewey, is nicknamed Galileo because he loves astronomy and wants to be the first man on the moon. Nova and Dewy are exceptionally close, making it doubly hard for her to accept his going swimming without her. Their mother has strictly forbidden them to swim due to the possibility of getting polio, which was running rampant at the time. Dewy will risk it himself, but will not let Nova.

Other boardinghouse residents are a quiet Polish professor named Josef, a couple of show-business sisters, a middle-aged single lady, and a few others. One theme of the book is that every heart has its secrets sorrows, and some of these are revealed as the story progresses. And, as their stories come to light, and Nova goes through her own set of hard circumstances, another theme emerges: we often can’t explain why things happen the way they do. But we can trust God is with us.

“And if I curse him, Mrs. Tierney? What then? If I turn away from him, what do I turn toward?” Josef paused, shook his head slowly. “No. Better to keep one’s face toward heaven, even if you are angry with God, than to turn away and find nothing at all.”
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Even a grain of hope can manage to eclipse a whole world of despair.
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“Until then you can put yourself in the hands of God—he’ll see you through. You can take it from someone who knows, dear. I’ve found his hands to be an easy place to rest.”

I had read this book some years ago, evidently before I had a blog. I couldn’t remember much about it, so I bought a copy during a Kindle sale. Lou Ann’s recent review reminded me of it and brought it to the top of my TBR list. Interestingly, I was reading this just as our church was reading through Ecclesiastes, which often shares a similar theme: some things in this life don’t make sense, but we can trust God for what we can’t understand.

This was a wonderful story on many levels. I am so glad I read it again, and, this time, jotted down some of what I gleaned from it.

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Book Review: The Fashion Designer

Fashion designer The Fashion Designer by Nancy Moser is a sequel to her book The Pattern Artist. I think the second book could be understood alone, but I encourage reading both of them.

In The Pattern Artist, which I read and reviewed last year, Annie Wood was a housemaid in England in 1911. She hoped her skill in sewing and designing would move her up to a lady’s handmaid. But the handmaids took credit for her work. Deciding there was no future for her in the Summerfield’s house, she decided on a trip to the US to strike out to pursue her own version of the American dream. She started out in the sewing department of Macy’s, then was hired on as a pattern artist for Butterick.

In the beginning of this new book, The Fashion Designer, Annie and a few friends from Butterick had quit their jobs to start a new company designing practical patterns for the everyday woman. But the lady who had enthusiastically promised to fund their endeavors inexplicably has a change of heart: she wants the women to design for her elite, upper crust friends and wants them to create patterns for a fashion show. At first Annie and her friends comply, but then bow out because their investor’s vision no longer matches their own.

After several discussions with her husband and the other women, they decide to try to open a store with dresses that people can buy off the rack but also have altered to fit if need be. They pool their resources to get started while they look for funding to continue. But all the financial avenues that seem promising end up closing.

Meanwhile, someone from Annie’s past at the manor house in England shows up seeking her own fresh start. Maude, one of Annie’s coworkers and partners, faces struggles in her relationships. She had vowed never to marry, for her own private reasons, but she meets someone who makes her wish she could change her mind. And a difference of opinion with Annie’s husband’s father puts a rift not only in their relationship, but between his parents as well.

Once again Nancy shared at the back of the book how some of her research informed the story and included facts and photos from the era. I especially enjoyed how she tied in Lane Bryant’s true story to intersect with Annie’s fictional one.

I enjoyed following along with Annie and Sean as they struggled to trust God for His wisdom and provision for the plans that they felt had come from Him.

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Book Review: Saving Amelie

AmelieIn the novel Saving Amelie by Cathy Gohlke, American Rachel Kramer’s dreams for her life do not match her father’s, so she is eager to get away and start her own life. But she agrees to accompany him for one last trip together to Germany in 1939.

Her father, Dr. Kramer, has done extensive work in the field of genetics, specifically eugenics. Motivated by a desire to eradicate tuberculosis, he argues for sterilization of those who might spread the disease. He shares his work with German scientists who want to apply eugenics much more broadly.

While in Germany, Rachel plans to meet with an old friend, Kristine. But instead of a joyful reunion, Rachel is alarmed at the changes. Kristine is cowed by her controlling husband, SS officer Gerhardt Schlick. Furthermore, Kristine is afraid for the life of her daughter, Amelie, who is deaf and thereby a blight on Gerhardt’s Aryan bloodline. Kristine begs Rachel to take Amelie away before something terrible happens to her. But Rachel has her own plans. She’s not good with children and doesn’t know how she would ever get her out, much less what to do with her afterward.

But as Rachel checks further into her father’s research, she finds that eugenics goes far beyond the prevention of disease, and the German scientists are running experiments on a wide variety people whom they deem imperfect in some way. She’s further stunned to find that she herself has been an object of experimentation, and she has a family she never knew of.

American journalist Jason Young’s reports have been censored by the authorities before leaving the country. But even though his reporting has been hampered, he’s aware of much more than he lets on. At first he thinks Rachel is a part of the Nazi regime and scientific community, then realizes she doesn’t know the full extent of it. Once she does, they join together to save Amelie and others, even crossing paths with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rachel herself has to go into hiding, with Gerhardt Schlick determined to find her.
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This is the first book I’ve read by Cathy Gohlke, but it won’t be the last. Not only was the story was riveting, but Cathy deftly showed how some of the policies of that day are making inroads in modern times, with some less than perfect children deemed unworthy of life. I love how she wove the philosophical discussion in without weighing down the action of the story. The secondary characters are just as well-drawn as the main ones. Highly recommended.

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