Tag Archives: family dynamics

Moving ahead requires inventorying ugly truths from the past

Moral Inventory, by Tara Johnson. Austin Macauley. 154 pages. Trade paperback $10.95.

An intervention program named Helping Hands has, with her alcoholic mother’s connivance and permission, yanked young Elizabeth out of her downward spiraling life and provided a structure of rewards, punishments, and self-evaluation that might save her. At seventeen, she had found herself flattered by the attentions, muscles, and rebelliousness of Marcus, an unemployed predator several years too old for her. His controlling nature had become intolerable, though he had ways of making her feel important as well.

Not seeing him is part of her path to staying off drugs and making a meaningful, respectable life for herself.

Ms. Johnson’s portrait of about a half year in Elizabeth’s life is extremely vivid. It is a harrowing emotional ride in which the young woman’s intelligence is at war with her bad habits, including dangerous dependencies.

Elizabeth wavers between taking the lessons and regimen of Helping Hands to heart and merely playing the game of going along while looking for an out. Her life is on hold until she finishes the program – or runs away from it. She meets other young adults working their way through the program and in some cases assisting the director, Mrs. Stein. There is a well -constructed hierarchy of relationships and responsibilities that offers hope.

Readers will grasp the importance of such a “tough love” program, yet also understand Elizabeth’s ambivalent attitude and inconsistent behavior.

While the focus of the novel is Elizabeth’s struggles and successes within the confines of the Helping Hands structure, Ms. Johnson paints Elizabeth’s life and personality with a broader brush through flashbacks. The author clarifies the effects of Elizabeth’s father’s disappearance and her mother’s alcohol problem on Elizabeth’s early years.

Tara Johnson

The flashbacks include Elizabeth’s friendships with other girls and with temporary boyfriends. Her home environment places her in a low socio-economic class without the tools to transcend it. Though Elizabeth has a strong love for her mother, she also feels bitter about the unsought responsibility of dealing with a desperate drunk. At times, she is forced to take over the parent role. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the May 15, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 16 Naples, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here and see lower half of page: Florida Weekly – Moral Inventory

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Bold young adult novel probes deeply into the psyche of troubled teen

Rosie Girl, by Julie Shepard. Putnam. 384 pages. Trade paperback $17.99.

Once again, I’m shaken by a young adult novel. It’s filled with cruelty, suffering, determination, and decisions that shouldn’t have to be made by someone just emerging from childhood. Rosie is seventeen as we meet her. She turns eighteen about the same time she graduates from high school. She seems isolated, left to fend for herself in a household in which her abusive stepmother displays no parenting skills – only an interest in hurting and manipulating Rosie. 

It’s clear that the responsibility she took on many years back – to care for Rosie – has been in the way of Lucy’s needs. Lucy doesn’t want to deal with her boyfriend Judd’s crude advances toward Rosie. When she married Rosie’s father, Lucy made a deal that would have a substantial payoff. She doesn’t want to rock the boat that is sailing to that payoff, perfectly timed for Lucy’s freedom from “parenting” Rosie.

Rosie is also fighting the humiliation of ex-boyfriend Ray’s unwillingness to respect her wishes. She is not ready to have sex with him, and this stance has sent him looking elsewhere.

Rosie leans on her best – and pretty much her only – friend: Mary. Mary is extremely supportive and understanding, perhaps because she too is striving to survive a dysfunctional family. Both girls want to get away from their dismal home situations, save up some money, get out of town, and move on with their lives. Rosie is considering studying fashion design, but how can she pay for it?

Julie Shepard

The girls have worked out a plan in which Rosie is essentially Mary’s pimp; Mary puts out for the sex-hungry schoolboys, and the money is set aside for their futures – which are just around the corner. When Rosie receives clues that her real mother is alive, the money is directed at tracking her down and visiting her. She hires a private detective who takes this as a pro bono case and turns most of the scut work over to his nephew, a straight arrow college student who pays attention to Rosie in a respectful way. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 12, 2017 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, and the July 13 Naples, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Rosie Girl

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Local setting stars in tale of love, loss, forgiveness, and sharks

The Shark Club, by Ann Kidd Taylor. Viking. 288 pages. Hardcover $26.00.

Maeve Donnelly is the thirty-year-old protagonist of this elegantly written first novel. She is part of the shark club triumvirate, the other two being her long-time boyfriend Daniel and Daniel’s daughter, six-year-old Hazel. This informal mutual interest group was put together to help Hazel find stability in a young life that has been – and still is –filled with uncertainty. 

Maeve and Daniel have decided to see if their long-severed relationship, once seen as strong and vibrant, can be restored. Hazel is the unplanned child of a woman with whom Daniel had a quick affair. That misstep cost him Maeve’s trust. Hazel’s mother died. Now the question is whether these three individuals – the only members of the shark club – can form normative family bonds. Maeve and Hazel are bonding in beautifully, but there is still something keeping some distance between Daniel and Maeve.

The matriarch of the family is Maeve’s grandmother, Perri. She is the owner of a famous hotel, the Hotel of the Muses, on an island off the Southwest Florida coast. Nearby landmarks of Naples, Florida help orient readers who know the area. When she is not on a research trip, marine biologist Maeve lives there, as does her twin brother Robin. Daniel, chef at Hotel of the Muses, lives nearby.

Taylor photo by Vanessa A. Rogers

Relationships are complicated on many levels, and with them Maeve’s destiny. Because Robin and Daniel are friends, Robin knows too much about the state of things between Daniel and Maeve. And Robin is something of a wild one, a trouble-maker who lived in the shadows of the bright lights that her steadiness and success had shown on Maeve, who had long ago grown tired of cleaning up Robin’s messes.

Working as the hotel’s manager, Robin has literary ambitions, hates the regimentation of his job, and yearns to capitalize on his one true talent. However, the book he has managed to sell exploits what he knows about the Daniel-Maeve story. Maeve is hurt and bewildered by what she finds when Robin shares his manuscript with her.

On the research journey to Bimini from which she has only just returned, her working partnership with an attractive young man named Nicholas – her dive partner – has turned into something more serious than she had expected. Her imagined future is fluttering back and forth between these two men. . . .

To read the full review, as well as an interview with the author, as they appear in the June 21, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 22 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Shark Club

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Temptation, betrayal, and wished-for redemption power splendid sequel

Keep No Secrets, by Julie Compton. Fresh Fork Publishing. 344 pages. $15.95.

This powerhouse legal thriller focuses its attention somewhat less on the legal dimensions than on the tormented relationships of the main characters. Ms. Compton probes the slow disintegration of a loving relationship once questions of trust and forgiveness corrode its core. Growing out of the situations developed in the author’s debut novel, “Tell No Lies,” this new effort reintroduces St. Louis district attorney Jack Hilliard several years after his personal and professional disgrace.  Keep_No_Secrets

Jack has gone a long way toward redeeming himself. His betrayed wife, Claire, has allowed him back into the family. His past missteps have been largely forgiven by the community he strives to serve with diligence. But can he truly be trusted? Will there always be a shadow of doubt about his integrity? Can he ever totally free himself from a tainted image?

These questions become white hot when Jenny Dodson, the beautiful lawyer who had tempted him before and to whom Claire believes he has an addiction, returns to town fearing for her life and needing Jack’s help. The one night Jenny and Jack spent together provided her alibi when she was tried for murder. Jack, to his disgrace and lingering shame, saved her by honestly admitting to the indiscretion. Already losing the fight with himself by being in touch with Jenny without fully considering his obligations to Claire, Jack is caught in the emotional crossfire of divided personal and professional loyalties.

A second, but related plot line develops when Jack is accused of sexual assault by his son’s girlfriend. His relationship with his son, Michael, has been frosty ever since Jack betrayed Claire. Can Michael – can Claire – believe Jack’s innocence given his past indiscretion? Did that addiction overwhelm his good sense and self-control when he confronted a young woman bearing a striking resemblance to Jenny?

Julie Compton

Julie Compton

Can Jack sit back and trust that the legal system he knows so well will take its proper course, or must he take action that further jeopardizes his most important relationships and his sense of himself as an honorable man?

As Julie Compton skillfully advances her plot, the possible answers to such questions turn over and over. The novel becomes at once a morality play, psychological drama, and legal puzzle. Difficult to classify, Keep No Secrets is very easy to like. It’s a true page-turner in which the stakes are high on several levels. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 17, 2013 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the April 25 Naples edition, and the June 6 Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Compton 1 and Florida Weekly – Compton 2

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Debut novel explores coping skills of abused child

“Cosette’s Tribe,” by Leah Griffith. Nonpareil Press. 298 pages. $24.99 clothbound, $14.99 paper.

This remarkable first novel deals with the sexual abuse of a young girl in a manner that is at once chilling and uplifting. What’s chilling is that the girl, Cosette, seems to have no way to escape from her stepfather’s perverse needs.  What’s uplifting is how Cosette doesn’t allow this tragic predicament to totally define or overwhelm her. Yes, she is a victim. However, she is much more than that.

Cosette, nine years old when we meet her, lives with her mother and two older sisters on the poor side of an unnamed New England town. She can’t remember her father, and she senses her mother’s loneliness. It’s Cosette’s idea to introduce her to a single man who is the uncle of a neighborhood child. Before long, Ken is taking over the household and sexually handling Cosette. He’s somewhat of a bully, and yet Cosette sees her mother becoming more and more attached to Ken – giving in to his demands.

Leah Griffith, who narrates the book in the first person from Cosette’s point of view, lets us surmise how to understand the mother’s behavior. She is a once needy for companionship and financial assistance, and at the same time fearful of Ken’s explosive temper and autocratic nature. She is one of those people who hopes for the best without having a rational basis for that hope. Cosette loves her mother and fears making trouble for her by letting her know what Ken is doing. Cosette’s worst fears are realized when her mother marries Ken.

We follow Cosette’s plight as she turns ten, eleven, and twelve. Ms. Griffith is amazing in portraying her character’s steps toward physical, intellectual, and emotional maturation. Cosette plans her days around dodging Ken’s attempts to catch her alone. But over and over again she is trapped. She has found a way to tolerate the inevitable without allowing herself to be crushed by it. Somehow, she is psychologically resilient.

Leah Griffith

Part of this resilience comes from her imaginative nature. Part of it comes from her relationships with her sisters, with young her friends, and with the two other men in her life. (The priest she visits to confess her sins is no help at all.)

To read this review in its entirety, as if appears in the August 2, 2012 Charlotte County Florida Weekly and the August 9 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Leah Griffith

Readers can find out more about the book and its author at http://cosettestribe.com.

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Dysfunction and danger drive Lisa Unger’s latest thriller

“Heartbroken,” by Lisa Unger. Crown/Random House. 384 pages. $24.00.

By now, readers of my columns know that I view Lisa Unger as one of our foremost younger novelists writing today. She works with, not merely within, the conventions of genre in amazing ways. She probes the psychological dimensions of her characters with tremendous empathy and acumen. Her plotting reminds me of fine architecture, at once functional and esthetically dazzling. On top of all this, she is a superb stylist. 

The richness of “Heartbroken” comes from many sources. One of these is the novel’s insights into troubled family dynamics. Another is Ms. Unger’s ability to etch vivid, fully-realized characters across the spectrum of age and experience. Yet another is her uncanny skill at mood-building, in this case the several moods of Heart Island, the rampant moodiness of teenagers, the alternating moods – internal and external – of sunlight and storm.

Fortyish Kate, gifted by her late Aunt Caroline with not only Caroline’s private journals but also those of Lana, Caroline’s mother, has come through on the other side of her “only-a-mom” existence. She has fashioned a novel rooted in those journals, which hold family secrets. It is about to be published. Reluctantly, Kate is bringing her family for one of the annual trips to the family’s summer home – a private island on a lake in upstate New York. Kate will try once again to establish a healthy relationship with her harshly judgmental mother, Birdie Burke, who is the human embodiment of the rocky retreat.

Kate’s teenage daughter Chelsea, persuaded that she’ll have fun because she can bring along her promiscuous best friend Lulu, subdues her reluctance. Chelsea’s younger half-brother Brendan has an accident and will come up later with Sean, Brendan’s father. Sean, after a bad year in real estate, has a fantastic new listing to put on the market that will delay his arrival on Heart Island for a day or two. He really doesn’t want to go at all. He and everyone else fear the encounter with the rigid, endlessly disapproving Birdie. 

Lisa Unger

On a separate plot track, readers meet twentyish Emily, a college dropout waitressing in a restaurant and becoming fearful about her relationship with Dean, a no-account slacker who flatters and frightens her into doing his bidding. Disaster strikes when Dean and his friend Brad connive to have Emily assist them in robbing the restaurant where she works. Now they are on the lam, having seriously injured Carol, the owner, and killed another employee. Emily had told Dean about a remote lake island where they can hide out. She remembers having had some good times there as a young child.

Kate and Emily, then, are headed to the same place. For Kate, the journey carries the heavy weight of obligation; for Emily, it carries a fragile hope of escape and, somewhat irrationally, of redemption. Readers will have to find out why Emily’s last name is Burke. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 27, 2012 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, in the June 28 Naples and Spacecoast editions, and in the July 5 Bonita Springs edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Heartbroken pdf

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Kristy Kiernan Connects

Naples author Kristy Kiernan has crafted a graceful, richly rewarding story of family relationships. “Between Friends,” Kiernan’s third novel, explores the meaning of friendship and family through the lens of crises involving contemporary medical technology and ethics: in-vitro fertilization, polycystic kidney disease, and organ transplant. The author builds rounded, distinctive characters who struggle with decisions that most of us will not have to make. But we all know people whose lives have been touched by one or more of these issues. With controlled, orchestrated passion, Kiernan educates readers mentally and emotionally. If this is “Chick Lit,” it’s a variety that men can readily enjoy. 

Naples music store owner Ali Gutierrez and her policeman husband Ben had not been able to produce children. Finally, with the donated ova of their friend Cora, they have Letty, who is turning fifteen as the novel opens. Ali now decides, after years of delay, that she needs to have another child. She would prefer a full genetic sibling for Letty, a repeat of the same in-vitro fertilization process. Will Cora allow use of the frozen embryos? Can and will she donate eggs again if necessary? Ben is extremely resistant to the idea of a second child. His resistance and other factors threaten the marriage.

Cora, a free spirit who travels the world advocating wind energy technology, returns to her Naples home to catch up with her “family” and to resolve a serious medical issue: incurable polycystic kidney disease (PKD). Deciding what and when to tell her dear friends is as much a problem as committing to the necessary dialysis and to the replacement kidney search.  Reuniting with Letty triggers questions about Cora’s proper relationship to the young woman who carries her genes.

Everyone is battling through major changes. . . .  To see the entire review as it appears in the March-April 2010 issue of Fort Myers Magazine, click here: Ft.Myers magazine – Kristy Kiernan

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BOOK BEAT 48 – Penny Lauer

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   July 4-10, 2007

by Philip K. Jason

Pelican Bay resident Penny Lauer has been enjoying Naples since 1999, when she and her husband Bob relocated from Cleveland. This Ohio University graduate loves the array of activities available here. She volunteers for many groups, including the Shelter for Abused Women and Children. Also, she has organized a Salon of eighteen women who are writers, artists, designers, and collectors. They meet regularly to discuss their projects and encourage one another. One of these projects was her novel, “Bottled Butterfly,” which has just been published.

Two years ago, Lauer discovered the Naples Writers’ Conference run by the Naples Press Club. She was impressed by the approach to publishing Bob Gelinas, head of Archebooks Publishing, discussed in one of the presentations. At the 2006 Conference, she took the opportunity to pitch a manuscript to him. Six months later, Lauer was offered a contract from ArcheBooks. 

Through young Nellie, “Bottled Butterfly” tackles the impact of regional culture beliefs, poverty, illiteracy, and the dysfunctions of family life on children and how those issues influence behavior in adulthood. Set in the 1930’s and 1940’s in rural Ohio, the story vividly depicts the issues that confronted young women back then, and how they remain much the same today.

Nellie is a courageous young woman whose deep inner strength and big heart drive an insatiable longing to achieve more than what others envision for her. There is a life tucked inside her mind that no one else can see, and her aspirations for her own daughter push her into making that life a reality.

“Bottled Butterfly,” eloquent and lyrical, is a kind of wisdom literature in which the guilt and shame that follow Nelly’s trauma of being sexually attacked at the age of eleven are gradually transformed into positive, productive emotions.

Lauer told me that the title “came about in a funny way. Almost 2/3 into the novel, I had Nelly talking with her father down by the railroad tracks, after a tragic incident between him and his son. Nellie had a sense that perhaps he, too, had been held back by circumstances that he couldn’t control. He let her know that he had just given up, and he told her that she should never give up or allow herself to get trapped. It’s a very poignant moment. Prior to that scene, I had Nellie explain to the reader that she was feeling all ‘bottled up.’ One night in bed, I woke up, shook my husband, and said that I had it. I had the title. It describes Nellie. She is the bottled butterfly. It fit perfectly.” The title gave the rest of the writing process needed focus. 

Before ArcheBooks accepted her manuscript, Lauer had a professional editor review it. This editor suggested minor changes and caught occasional slips in point of view. Once Bob Gelinas accepted it, Lauer was motivated to improve it even more before it reached the public. “I got really hung up then on the emotions of the characters, and I tried to make them as defined as possible. I asked four friends whose knowledge and wisdom I respect to read it and tell me their thoughts. Two of them wanted me to tell more about the brothers and Old Phoebe. I did up to a point, but I didn’t want to dwell on the brothers because I felt that doing so wouldn’t add anything to the main plot. I wanted Old Phoebe to remain somewhat of a mystery and let people really think about her.” All in all, the book was edited six times.

Lauer was spurred on by the need to tell this story, which had occupied her heart and mind for a very long time. She found the writing process amazingly rewarding. While writing, Lauer says, she was “happy and challenged and involved. You might say that I was consumed, but in a very positive way.” She “let the thoughts and words come on their own free will.” And she’d write “soaking wet from the shower, plop down in the sand during a walk and record, get up in the middle of the night and write for hours that seemed like minutes.” Thoughts might come to her “at a movie or at a restaurant . . . anywhere, and I rushed to get them down immediately, however I could.”

Lauer received a great compliment during the writing process. A friend who had read the manuscript called to tell her that, while agonizing over a dilemma, she had asked herself “what would Nellie do?” Lauer is ordering mugs wearing that phrase.

“Bottled Butterfly” is now available from online and standard booksellers as well as from archebooks.com.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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BOOK BEAT 34 – Kristy Kiernan

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   March 7-13, 2007

by Philip K. Jason

Five years ago, Kristy Kiernan’s grandfather – a natural story-teller – mentioned to her that he regretted never having written anything. This observation made Kiernan realize that she did not want to reach eighty-two with the same regrets. After all, she had wanted to write since she was a child, but it had been a goal postponed over and over again. Now she was ready. Four manuscripts later, she had a book contract with Penguin’s Berkley imprint – and on March 6 the trade paperback of Catching Genius reached the book stores.

Kiernan admits to being addicted to research. Once she committed herself to a writing career, she scrutinized all the websites about writing and publishing and, in effect, gave herself an internet education. A good one. While working on her first manuscript, Kiernan was also learning about query letters, agents, and so forth. Chat rooms helped, too. All along the way, she was mastering her craft. The first manuscript went nowhere and Kiernan insists that it will never see the light of day. It was practice. The query letters kept going out while and after she wrote her second book-length manuscript. This time, she secured a top-notch agent: Anne Hawkins. 

So now Kiernan had a manuscript that major editors at major publishing houses would take seriously. But while it received “great rejections,” it did not click. The encouragement spurred Kiernan on. While Hawkins did not like Kiernan’s third manuscript, she prompted her to develop another idea that the two had discussed – a book about sisters. When the fourth manuscript was completed, Hawkins loved it and started sending it out. Catching Genius sold on the first round. It was purchased by the Penguin Group’s Senior Editor Leona Nevler, a major player in the book industry. Now for some high drama. Nevler passed away before the contract was concluded. Luckily, Jackie Cantor, an executive editor at Berkley/Penguin, was equally committed and the deal went through.

Kristy Kiernan arrived in Naples sixteen years ago. A store opener for T.G. I. Friday’s, she came down here from Clearwater to open the local restaurant. At the same time, her fiance’s family was looking for a Florida base for their New England art gallery. Once they chose Naples at Kristy’s suggestion, she never went back to Clearwater and settled here with her husband. The place is the well-known Marine Arts Gallery at Venetian Village. (Hint: when you enter the Gulf Coast town called Verona in Kiernan’s novel, see if it reminds you of another Gulf Coast town named after an Italian one.)

Kiernan daydreams a lot. She always has. One day, sitting on her patio, she began playing a mind game, inventing two-word combinations of words that wouldn’t ordinarily fit together. The phrase “Catching Genuis” popped into her head, and the novel in large part developed from exploring this strange, evocative juxtaposition. This kind of mind-gaming is the way a poet often begins, and it perhaps explains the qualities that best-selling author (and former critique partner) Sara Gruen notes in characterizing Kiernan’s narration as having a “lilting and luminous voice.” Tasha Alexander has also praised Kiernan’s “lyrical prose.”

The buzz about the book is already strong. It has been chosen as an Ingram Reading Group Selection, along with new titles by established authors. Laudatory comments have already appeared in BookPage, Publishers Weekly, and in Harriet Klausner’s well-respected online reviews. Just to give you a taste of the book and one reviewer’s perspective, I’ll quote from BookPage: “Florida author Kristy Kiernan’s stunning debut explores the lives of two sisters who were very close as children but drifted apart as they moved into adulthood… Connie and Estella’s poignant journey back toward the friendship of their youth will resonate with readers. Catching Genius is simply mesmerizing, not only because it expertly captures the unbreakable bond between sisters. The novel also explores the many facets of very real characters, breathing life into the seamlessly plotted storyline.” Another fascinating element in the book is Kiernan’s adept handling of an alternating point of view

Who does Kristy Kiernan read and recommend? The list would include Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Jodi Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper. Like Kiernan’s, these books are centered on family relationships. She is also a big fan of Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons.

With Catching Genius in print, Kiernan is now well along in the research stage of her next novel, Matters of Faith. You can keep up with her by visiting kristykiernan.com, and you can keep up with some her writing friends by visiting thedebutanteball.com

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at pjason@aol.com.

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