Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone, Phaedra Patrick, author; James Langton, narrator

I really enjoyed this book. It is a sweet, tender story about an up-tight, rather taciturn, 44 year old middle aged man, Benedict Stone, and his 16 year old niece Gemma Stone. Although uninvited, she arrives on his doorstep and moves into his home.

Benedict Stone is a jeweler who has recently been rejected by his wife Estelle, an artist. They had once lived happily and quietly in what seemed to be a lovely English village called Noon Sun. Benedict dearly wanted to have children, but he and his wife were, so far, unable to start a family. She moved on, but he would not give up hope and it was straining their marriage. Gemma is the daughter of Benedict’s younger brother Charlie, a man he had not seen or heard from in 18 years. Benedict was 18 and Charlie was 10 when their parents were killed in a tsunami. Benedict devoted his life to raising his brother until the day Charlie left for America to live with his girlfriend Amelia’s family. Amelia was the woman who was to become his wife. Gemma now lives with her father on a farm in Maine. Her parents were divorced but her father and his new wife are expecting a child. Gemma feels utterly unwanted and rejected by all of these new developments in her life. Essentially, the absence of a child in one couple’s life and the presence of a coming child in another’s, is the seed of all of the problems.

When Estelle left Benedict to move into her friend’s apartment to ostensibly pursue her art career and to think about their waning relationship, he lost his interest in most things. Without her, he went through his days automatically. He took his comfort in food and disregarded the condition of his home which was succumbing to his neglectful ways. When someone banged on his door in the middle of one rainy night, he was surprised to find, not his wife returning, but instead, a bedraggled, rather arrogant teenager was on his doorstep. She demanded to be let in after announcing that she was his brother’s daughter, a brother he had not had any contact with for 18 years, a brother who lived across the ocean in America! From here on in, this semi-stranger, his niece Gemma, helps to bring about many positive changes in the lives of all those she meets in the village. As long kept secrets are exposed, and new ones are suddenly discovered, revelations cause monumental changes in all of their lives.

Together, the budding relationship between uncle and niece, which begins in fits and starts, teaches them both, and those with whom they interact, how to see things more clearly, how to open themselves up to challenge and face their fears, and it brings them all satisfaction and provides them with the confidence they need to make the necessary adjustments that will improve their lives.

Fairytale like, this unconventional young girl brings joy into the lives of all she meets with her brutal honesty and sincerity. Sometimes, her analysis seems to be coming from the only adult in the room, defying the reality that she is the only child present. She enables many of the town’s residents, who are floundering, to find their way to happiness, although she has a hard time finding consistent joy for herself.

It was a pleasure to read and learn about the meaning of each gemstone, it’s purpose, and the way in which it was used in the story to help a character achieve his/her goal. It was the magic of believing that seemed to pave the way, seemed to be the impetus for the achievement each character sought. The stones seemed to be the mechanism that united families, friends and lovers, that mended fences and romances, and that renewed hope in many. Although secrets destroyed relationships, revealing them sometimes led to more solid foundations and reconciliation.

The names of the characters seemed to have been chosen tongue-in-cheek. Benedict Stone’s parents died on a business trip in search of gemstones. Benedict is a jeweler who works with stones. Gemma’s first name and their common surname Stone is an obvious combination of both words in gemstone. It is through the gemstones and their meanings that the book develops and the characters grow. They come in search of something nebulous, and Gemma and Benedict give them the tools they need to fulfill their dreams. As the “gem and the stone” discover each other, they provide what just might bring them all the happiness they seek.

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Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout, author; Kimberly Farr, narrator

anythingIn this novel, the author has continued the saga of “Lucy Barton”, the title and character in her book of the same name, but it is now decades later. Lucy was raised in Amgash, Illinois, a small town with neighbors that seemed overly critical of each other, often exhibiting ridicule when compassion would have been the better option. It also seemed overly populated by troubled residents.

After Lucy left Amgash, as a young girl, she never returned until now, as a much older woman. The author reintroduces many of the people she came in contact with during her difficult and troubled childhood. Those who influenced her life in some way and who were responsible for the adult she became were reintroduced in this book. Who they were, who they became, and why, is the substance of the story.

There were times that I felt the narrative was disjointed, as so many characters from the previous book were recreated and connected to her past. Coincidentally, in one scene, in the same way that Lucy and her mom had a meeting of the minds in the first book, two other characters did the same in this book. Angelina and her mother Mary seemed to reconnect across the distance of miles and time, with a heart to heart conversation that was at once very difficult, but also very revealing and cathartic for both.

Every character seemed to have a story to tell, a horrifying secret to reveal, or a relationship to reconcile. There was nary a character that seemed to simply grow up happily and unscathed. They all had some dysfunction, greater or lesser, with which to contend. All of the characters seemed to leave a trail of confusion or pain in their wake as they grew older; some still seemed scarred even after experiencing a sudden revelation that made them understand or accept their past or that made them able to find a pathway forward.

The author tried to reconstruct the characters as each new scene began, but at times I thought perhaps there were simply too many to keep track of or remember. Still, although it was a bit convoluted at times, the characters did take on a life of their own, even if not always believable. The nature of the novel made it repetitive at times as each character related something of their past and explored their memory of events connecting them to each other.

I found it interesting that in the novel, Lucy Barton became an author who had written her memoir, and this author, Elizabeth Strout, was essentially writing it for her. Lucy Barton was troubled as a child, and although successful, she still seemed troubled as an adult. I was not sure that the author was able to prove her premise that anything was possible.


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Trajectory, Richard Russo, author; “Horseman” read by Amanda Carlin, “Voice” read by Arthur Morey, “Intervention” read by Fred Sanders, “Milton and Marcus” read by Mark Bramhall

trajectory.jpgIn this book of short stories, Russo has chosen characters who are faced with a life choice of going forward or remaining in the past, of having hope or of sinking into the lap of despair. Stories that could have been depressing are uplifting in the end, as all of the main characters choose what life has to offer them, rather than what life has given them, oftentimes, with disappointing consequences.

In “Horseman”, a college professor matures through the errors of her student’s ways. The student’s poor behavior causes her to review her own life choices. She comes to terms with her own social issues and chooses to broaden her horizons, to break free and make the necessary changes to improve her life rather than stay stuck in a protected environment that she has created for herself, rather than remain in the place she always thought would keep her safe!

In “Voice”, the main character is insecure. He has to come to terms with his past, has to learn to forgive himself as well as others, and then he has to go forward optimistically instead of dwelling on despair and his previous mistakes of judgment. He has to decide whether or not he is a good person, or whether he has to stay in the shadow of others as he always has done before, believing they are right and he is wrong.

In “Intervention, the economy has hit a recent downturn, and the real estate market has hit the realtors and the sellers strapped for cash. As the main character becomes more empathetic toward his clients feelings, he also becomes more introspective about himself and rediscovers his own will to live hopefully, rather than be stuck in the patterns of his family in the past, a pattern that apathetically accepted fate as if it could not be influenced by outside forces and as if it was predetermined.

In “Milton and Marcus”, a screenwriter is in a difficult position. He has to find a path forward with a wife who is seriously ill and a successful career that is in decline. It is, therefore, a story within a story. One part is his own story and the other is about Milton and Marcus, two estranged friends, a screenplay he has written. It is the screenplay that provides the impetus for him to go forward and be the man he wants to be, and perhaps, not exactly the kind of man he has been.

In each story, the main character is faced with what sometimes seems an insurmountable problem. The issue becomes the catalyst that propels the main character’s road forward, and determines how he/she comes to terms with how to proceed with living. All of the stories involve the character’s examination of his past behavior which acts as their guiding light to the way ahead. In some cases, a weakened, lesser character is the impetus for improvement. In each story, there is desperation, but the writing style and insertion of humor brings each one to a hopeful conclusion, one not steeped in pessimism, but rather in optimism, as each character finds a way to accept themselves, warts and all, and to accept that life might still present them with opportunity rather than defeat as they march into their futures. Each of the characters chooses to challenge themselves, to fly rather than remain tethered to the ground.


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Pumpkin Flowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War, Matti Friedman, author

pumpkinsThis book is the story of an unknown part of the Israeli/Lebanese conflict. Young men were sent to a remote place called Pumpkin Hill, in order to protect the border between Lebanon and Israel; the conflict cost many lives on both sides over several decades.  It also possibly changed the course of history in the Middle East. The book is written in such a way, with an almost casual relating of events, as a reporter would relate them, so that the import of the message is sometimes lost in the fog of the war, but the dedication, loyalty and the sacrifices of the Israeli soldiers is not.  In Israel, the injured soldiers are called flowers and the dead are referred to as oleander.  The twelve outposts overlooking and securing the Israeli/Lebanese border also had colorful names.

The hill was used as a media tool by Hezbollah. In 1994, they staged a surprise attack on this tiny outpost and filmed it in such a way that Hezbollah could use it for propaganda purposes to recruit soldiers into their ranks. Although the Israelis were afraid, so too were the attackers, who were not filmed running away. The media was complicit in creating their story. It turns out that the media may be the best weapon anyone can use.

The Lebanese conflict may have spawned the suicide bombers and rise of Hezbollah.  The Israeli show of force and presence on the border may have inspired further rebellion. The reader will have to judge for themselves exactly what the catalysts are for the expanding Middle East conflict. For sure, the events on that hill inspired the Four Mother’s Movement which finally brought the occupation to an end. With the election of President Barak, Israel pulled out of Lebanon, in 2000.

What happened on Pumpkin Hill, beginning in 1994 and continuing until 2000, is not recorded for public consumption, but the circumstances surrounding the holding of the hill made the Israelis rethink the efficacy of the Lebanese military operation. Matti Friedman participated in the protection of that hill. These are his thoughts and memories coupled with the testimony of others who were witnesses and willing /or unwilling participants. The hill remained with him, even after the outposts were destroyed.

In 2002, he made a trip into Lebanon, concealing his Israeli identity, and revisited the places there that were visible from his watch post on Pumpkin Hill, the places they joked about someday visiting as tourists when peace would come.  Now, a decade and a half later, peace has not come as hoped, but he has recorded the story of Pumpkin Hill and its effect on the soldiers who held it, on the Israelis and the Lebanese, the Christians and the Muslims, in essence, on all invovled. He has recorded his impression of his clandestine trip back to Lebanon. Was the effort to hold that hill and that border worthwhile? Is it indeed necessary for Israel to take all of the defensive actions it has taken and will continue to take, perhaps, in order to survive?

When the Israelis evacuated their outposts, the South Lebanese Army faded into the background or joined forces with their former enemies; they had no other choice. The world watched the rise of Hezbollah and the suicide attacks on Israel. Will this simply be the way of life in Israel forever? Will they be able to simply go about their daily lives as if the attacks are just a normal part of their lives, as if life is simply portable, one day here, one day not here.  If they do, it will not be apathy, but rather it will be a determination to survive, an indication of their strength and fortitude in the face of constant turmoil, living in a place that wants only to reject them and erase their country from the pages of history in much the same way Pumpkin Hill has been wiped from the pages of Israeli history.

I had mixed feelings reading the book. At first I was horrified, thinking that perhaps Israel had instigated the Middle Eastern conflict by their reactions, criticized in all quarters at all times. After all, both sides suffered the loss of life. One side treasured and tried to protect them, though, while the other side sacrificed them in their cause. As I read, I thought, no, this conflict continues because the enemies of Israel refuse to accept its existence as a Jewish state, to accept its historic place there, to acknowledge its holy sites. Whatever the reason for the conflict initially, its perpetuation lies in those facts. Israel usually retaliates to protect itself; the survival of the country is and has always been the prime mover and motive of its leaders. As a Jew, I hope it continues to be. Long live Israel. I pray for a short lived existence of the sponsors of its enemies. I am not too hopeful, but, I too, am determined that it remain a viable democracy in the cradle of civilization. It is up to history to judge the events in the Middle East. Hindsight seems to always be the clearest perception of events.

At the end, the first words of the song “What’s It All About Alfie?” kept playing in my head. “What’s it all about Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?

I gave the book five stars because it is an honest appraisal of both sides of the issue, the loss of future men and women and the pain left behind by their absence. It humanizes the soldiers, their families and the country, and grounds them all in reality. They were, after all, just boys being told what to do, but they were expected to act like men! They were the country’s human treasure. They persist and prevail still.

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The Music Room, Stephen king, author; Maggie Siff, narrator

This is a short story. It is around the time of the Great Depression. People are starving and suffering. The Enderbys, a childless couple, have devised a diabolical way to make it through these difficult times. In their home there is a sound proof closet in which they have placed various guests. What happens to those guests is revealed as the short story plays out. Are they murderers or thieves? I didn’t find this story plausible by any stretch of the imagination.


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Gwendy’s Button Box, Stephen King, Maggie Siff, narrator

When Gwendy, (combo of Wendy and Gwendolyn) is 12 years old, she is taunted at school about her weight and called “Goodyear” by a nasty boy at school. She decides to slim down and exercises running up and down suicide stairs, in Castle Rock, Maine. One day, an odd man with a small black hat who has been sitting on a bench close by for days, without speaking to her, suddenly calls out to her. After a brief conversation, he presents her with a gift, she really cannot refuse. It is a beautiful box for which she is now responsible. It has several buttons and levers. One lever provides a small beautiful animal made out of a delicious chocolate, no bigger than a jelly bean. What does this chocolate do for Gwendy? The other lever dispenses rare silver coins. There is a red button which grants wishes and a black button she is warned never to touch. There are seven buttons representing the continents of the world.
How the box changes her life is the subject of the story. It is entertaining and read well by the narrator. Her character is developed clearly as is the character of the man with the black hat, Mr. Ferris. Over the next decade, we share Gwendy’s life. Will Mr. Ferris ever return, or will Gwendy bear the burden of the box forever? Is the box good or evil? Why was Gwendy picked to watch over it?

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The Fix, David Baldacci, author; Kyf Brewer, Orlagh Cassidy, narrators

Amos Decker is a detective extraordinaire! His demeanor is sometimes caustic and abrasive, but he is always honest, perhaps to a fault. His ability is exceptional because of a football injury which gave him special abilities. He cannot forget anything he experiences, and he sees people in various hues, as in navy blue denoting death. He is still recovering from the tragic deaths of his wife and child, Cassie and Molly, almost two years before, and because of his unique abilities, the memory is always with him and does not diminish.

When he witnesses the murder of a woman by a man who is engaged in government work, requiring several clearances, by a man who was about to attend a meeting at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which was the headquarters of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), he becomes embroiled in the investigation into her death and the murderer’s suicide. Working with a colorful cast of characters, Alex Jamison, his partner and Harper Brown of the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), who also just happens to take a liking to Melvin Mars, Decker’s friend who had been wrongfully imprisoned for two decades, and who has been in other books in the Decker series, the story really takes flight.

Who was Walter Dabney, the murderer? What was his motive for killing Anne Berkshire? Who was she?  Her past appears to be hidden. All they know about her is that she volunteers at a hospice reading to a dying young boy, among others, and also is a substitute teacher. She is a complicated character who seems to be living two lives, but one of them is unknown. Dabney is a successful business man whose family claims to have no knowledge of Berkshire, but as the family’s history and the woman’s past are both exposed, it soon becomes clear that this won’t be an easy mystery to solve. Has Dabney been living a double life as well? Before the enemies of democracy can stage a symbolic, tragic event which will affect the major powers of the world, Decker and the others engaged in the investigation must find a way to prevent it.

As the story develops, there are light and humorous touches as well as romantic moments mixed in with the moments of extreme danger. The narrators were excellent. They read the story without becoming the story; they read with expression, but never over emoted. The characters were really well developed so that there was a picture of each in my mind. It is a book that will appeal to a variety of readers, especially those on vacation or traveling. It is a great book to listen to while driving because it is very engaging as secrets are revealed and an espionage ring is uncovered. While it is interesting, it is not distracting.

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