Written by Kristen Hannah and reviewed by Ann McCauley
Written by Carol Smallwood and Reviewed by Aline Soules
Kristin Hannah’s Winter Garden explores the relationship complexities between mothers, daughters, and spouses.
Sisters Meredith and Nina were as different as Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha. When their father died, the bottom dropped out of their world; he’d
been the heart of their family. The novel unfolds as they search for a way to live without him. Meredith promised her dying father to help her mother. Nina
promised to insist their mother finish the fairy tales she’d started when they were children. Both promises become burdens for the sisters as they tried to
forge closer relationships with their emotionally distant mother who resisted all their efforts.
Their mother completed the fairy tale in the second part of the novel and her agonizing past was revealed under the guise of the fairy tale. Historical
details of the German siege of Leningrad, (now known as St. Petersburg), during WW II were unforgettable with powerful descriptions of starvation, freezing
cold, grief, family secrets and the resiliency of women when all hope seemed lost.
These parallel stories of present day USA and the horrors of that period in St. Petersburg created a riveting story. The use of the winter garden as a
thread throughout the story was fascinating and made me shiver as the mother sought refuge there, often in just a flannel nightgown. No matter how cold it
was in Washington, it never compared to the arctic cold she’d known in Leningrad.
Kristin Hannah has written eighteen novels and said in an interview, “Winter Garden was the most painful novel I’ve ever written…” It’s also her
favorite. It is one of the best books I’ve read in many years.
The novel influenced us to travel to St Petersburg and splurge on a private tour guide and driver. It was by far one of the most beautiful cities we’ve
ever visited and the most impressive tour we’ve ever had. While I was in the Hermitage Museum gift shop, I spoke to the manager about the need to add
Winter Garden to their inventory because it’s been influential in St. Petersburg becoming a travel destination of choice to many of its readers… (well at least
my husband and me!) She looked at me with a trace of haughty Russian annoyance, I’d almost take a wager that the novel is still not for sale there. After all,
Hannah is not a Russian author.
Ann McCauley is the author of Runaway Grandma, (2007) and Mother Love, (2004, Revised-2012). She’s a contributor to the anthology, Women Writing on
Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, (2012) and a contributor to the new anthology to be released in 2014, Writing After Retirement. She’s a
freelance writer working on her Master’s in Creative Writing. Visit annmccauley.com.
“When my windshield wipers stopped in mid-swipe, I knew they’d leave streaks.” Thus begins A Ceremony, a just released chapbook by Carol
Smallwood (The Head and the Hand Press, 21pp. two paperbacks for $5.40, no shipping cost, http://www.theheadandthehand.com/product/vending-
machine-chapbook-collection/). A Ceremony, a revision of an Eric Hoffer Award prose winner, is an excerpt from Lily’s Odyssey
(All Things That Matter Press, 2010). As soon as you read the opening sentence, you know that the windshield wipers are one of many things that will
stop mid-swipe and leave streaks.
On its surface, this story is about the death of Uncle Walt; underneath, this story is about the “I” and her relationship with her extended family
and the small town of her youth.
The family characters spout Roman Catholic platitudes, but there is an undercurrent of ugliness and violence: “I tried to see Uncle Walt’s soul
rising in a white mist but only saw writhing snakes. I looked away for fear of shaking him like his hounds did with newly shot rabbits-the way he’d
shaken me as his adopted child-like Cal had when I was his wife.” The characters may say “God in his wisdom took him” or “God had a plan for our
brother in Christ just like he has a plan for each and every one of us,” and they may pray with the conventional words of the Catholic mass, but there is
abuse behind the curtain.
Nicolet City is, itself, a character. As the main character, the “I” of the story, returns, she is reminded of the character of the community at
every turn and it is the springboard for the backstory that gives current events their weight. Everyone’s lives are tied to the church. Mary Elizabeth
“always compensated for her legs being set far apart (the nuns had said it wasn’t ladylike; the priest said that when girls crossed their legs it shut the
gages of hell) by walking pigeon-toed.” In other flashbacks, the main character speaks of her “dream of being selected Miss Wisconsin for my corn relish
recipe” and describes Aunt Hester, who “talked about the last church bazaar until Mary Elizabeth cut in describing her new kitchen cabinets.”
Smallwood exposes the hypocrisy of the characters and the city. At his funeral, Uncle Walt, who shook his dogs and his child, is Walter Augustus
Alger. His son, Vincent, begins the eulogy: “This morning we have come to honor Walter Alger, a good friend, a trusted neighbor, a public minded
citizen, fond relative, a beloved and devoted father to his adopted children.” We know that this is not so.
At the end, we are reminded that no matter how much the main character thinks she has escaped her own story, she cannot. Our last view of
her is in the church basement at the funeral lunch. She keeps repeating “He’s had a long full life” “in the same tone, with the same expression, with the
same handshake or hug.” She is as trapped in Nicolet City and her past as the rest of her relatives and the community.
Aline Soules is a poet and fiction writer. Her latest book, Meditation on Woman (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011, http://www.amazon.com/Meditation-Woman-Aline-Soules/dp/1937536130) combines prose poetry and flash fiction to create “every-woman.” She writes about writing and other interests at http://alinesoules.com.
Written by Sheryl Sandberg and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Adjust Our Expectations
Despite equal opportunity and the voices of feminism, men still hold most leadership positions in government and industry. This means that women’s voices
are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership
roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.
Many of her discoveries are not news, and the daughters and granddaughters of some of my peers say their daughters don’t see what the big deal is. This is
precisely why women need to read Sandberg’s book. One scene describes women sitting on the edge of the room rather than at the table. They feel
subservient to the power-wielders. In this case, feeling unequal makes a woman unequal. She does not assert her ideas; she judges them. She lets them go.
She lets her family take priority because she believes in the myth that a woman can have it all.
Sandberg makes the point that we need to adjust our expectations of ourselves. Women are good enough to be leaders, which is different from being a
token leader or a leader who represents all. A COO at Facebook and one of the 50 most powerful women in business, Sandberg lays out the problem with
women and leadership and identifies specific steps for dealing with it in this accessible, eye-opening book.
Absence of Mercy
Written by John Burley
“As almost any parent can attest, there is a fundamental change that occurs within an individual with the birth of his or her child-a sense of new-found
responsibility and purpose, yes, but also something more basic, more primitive. From the moment the child enters the world, we are struck with the realization
that here is another human being for whom we would sacrifice everything…” John Burley’s words echo the father’s sentiments in his debut novel, The Absence
The body of a fifteen-year-old boy is discovered in the woods near Wintersville, Ohio, a safe, family-oriented town. A sixteen-year-old girl is brutally
attacked on her way home from a party soon after. County coroner Dr. Ben Stevenson gets involved in the investigation and soon begins to fear for the
safety of his wife and two sons. Sometimes parents feel helpless. Ben takes the only action he can think of: he sends his family away, but one critical issue
continues to haunt him.
Author John Burley is an experienced ER doctor as well as a promising author. Perhaps his diagnostic skills helped him construct a tautly rendered plot,
and escalate details one incident at a time. Or perhaps his talents extend beyond medicine. The Absence of Mercy won this year’s National Black Ribbon
Burley’s already drafted his next novel. He’s an author worth following.
Written by Jodi Picoult and Reviewed by Marlene Mcullen
Jodi Picoult writes about difficult themes with the grace of a prima ballerina. In The Storyteller she takes on holocaust survivors, German guards and how
generations are affected. Characters' lives are intertwined as Picoult deliciously reveals details.
Sage, a baker, protects a secret that haunts and taunts her. Josef may, or may not, be who he appears to be. Is Leo a knight in shining armor, or a
troublemaker? Will Sage learn her grandmother's story?
Picoult's tantalizing writing: "Making bread is an athletic event. Not only does it require dashing around to several stations of the bakery as you check rising
loaves or mix ingredients or haul the mixing bowl out of the cradle-but it also takes muscle power to activate the gluten in the dough . . . the point where you
have to leave the dough alone. It's silly to anthropomorphize bread, but I love the fact that it needs to sit quietly, to retreat from touch, and noise and
drama, in order to evolve."
Picoult uses sensory detail: A character wants to meet another character, after hearing her voice: "It's smoky. It sounds like the first night in autumn when
you build a fire in the fireplace and drink a glass of port and fall asleep with a dog on your lap. Not that I have a dog or port, but you get what I mean."
The Storyteller is a story of imagination, truth-telling and the amazing will to live.
Marlene Cullen is a cheerleader for writers, a writing workshop facilitator and founder of Writers Forum of Petaluma. Her workshops provide essential elements
for successful writing and unique writing environments where participants often experience transformational changes. You can join Marlene’s online writing
The Inescapable Past
Rachel and her younger sister, Patty, are teenage best buds, in Joyce
Maynard’s newest novel, After Her. They are the offspring of a larger-than-life,
irresistibly handsome (and chronically unfaithful) detective father and the
mother whose heart he broke, and they reside in the shadow of Mount
Tamalpias in 1979. They share music and watch neighbor’s TVs from the
hillside, making up their own dialogue for the Brady Bunch. Rachel respects her
sister’s jump shots while Patty loves her sister’s stories. Their lives change,
though, when a mysterious serial killer dubbed Sunset Strangler starts
murdering women on the mountain. Their father is in charge of the
investigation, and it’s no longer safe to run free.
Rachel’s popularity soars because the eighth grade “in” crowd wants to know
what her father, the lead detective, has shared about the Sunset Strangler.
But when the case goes unsolved, her popularity declines. Determined to help
her father, she concocts a scheme to use herself as bait and trap a neighbor.
Her plan fails, and a man from San Francisco confesses, but thirty years later,
Rachel is still convinced that the real killer is at large. Thriller meets suspense in
this taut, poignant drama about family, disappointment, loss, love, and much
This thriller has similarities to the real life stories of two sisters from Novato,
CA, whose father was the lead investigator in the Trailside Killer Case. Maynard
met them in one of the memoir-writing workshops she teaches at her home. But
the heart of the story is the sisters’ relationship with each other and their love
of their father.
This story is for everyone who loves a thriller or a father. Maynard is a stellar
writer, and this story will captivate everyone interested in the complex nature
of human emotion and adventure. Don’t miss it.