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review 2019-06-21 18:31
A gently inspiring story in a charming Texan setting
Jackson - Emily March

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed one of Emily Barr’s novels in the Eternity Springs series, The Christmas Wishing Tree, last summer and enjoyed it, particularly the lovely town of Eternity Springs, and I could not resist checking what her new story was like.

This novel is a crossover (or a spin-off, I guess) of that other series, as it does include quite a few of the characters of Eternity Springs, and, in fact, Celeste Blessing plays quite a part in getting things started,  but it focuses on three male cousins, the McBrides, who are very close in age and grew up together, share wonderful memories, but have taken very different paths in life. They are left a pretty interesting legacy from their great-aunt, and it gives them an opportunity to start a project together, in Texas.

Jackson McBride, the protagonist of the story (or one of them. Caroline Carruthers plays a very important part in the story, if not the most important), is a musician, a composer of Americana/country music, who’s been unable to compose since his marriage ended, and he lost the custody battle for his little girl, Hailey. But his love for music remains unabated, and the project at Last Hope gives him a different avenue to invest it on, one that will allow him to help other performers and recover a historical venue.

We meet Caroline Carruthers at a difficult time in her life. She married a man fifteen years older than her, a professor, when he was quite young, and she seems to have become his wife, first and foremost. She writes articles about Texas for magazines, but her life is turned upside down when her husband is diagnosed with early dementia. Her sister-in-law does not accept her decision of having her husband looked after in a nursing home, and the situation brings home just how dependent Catherine has become on her husband and how limited her personal support network is. A chance encounter with Celeste makes her discover Redemption, Texas, and she gets a second chance.

This novel shares many of the characteristic that made me enjoy the previous one. Redemption is a pretty interesting and welcoming place, Enchanted Canyon Ranch, and Ruin, the ghost town, are great settings, beautiful, magical, and we get to see how Angelica (Celeste’s cousin, another cousin in a book full of them, and my favourite character), Jackson, and Boon transform the place into a haven, the Texan cousin of Celeste’s inn at Eternity Springs. The landscape and descriptions of the natural beauty of the area are vivid and make readers wish they could be there, and the writer captures well the language, customs, and local expressions (even if it some of the situations ring of an adult fairy tale). There are also great secondary characters, some that are likely to play bigger parts in other books in the series, and for those readers who are already familiar with Eternity Springs, there are plenty of familiar faces who make an appearance here (even I, who’ve only read one of the books, recognized quite a few). I also enjoyed the relationships between friends and family members, and the interactions between the cousins had that ease and familiarity that made them ring true. There is plenty of humour, some drama (yes, bad things happen and there’s grief in store for many of the characters), and a fairly gentle story, with bickering and discussions over decorating and sports, music, dogs, food, families and friendships.

The main characters are likeable, have suffered in their personal lives, and deserve a second chance. They are both reluctant to commit to new relationships because they are grieving for their last ones, but… Well, I was going to say this is a romance after all, and it is, but it also has much in common with women’s fiction, despite the male coprotagonist. Caroline grows strong throughout the book, takes control of her own life, and acquires a network of female friends who support her no matter what. Jackson already had his cousins, although they all seem to keep secrets, and his recovery involves helping his ex-wife stand tall and start behaving like an adult. Women are the ones who change and grow the most throughout the novel, and although their roles might appear conventional at first, they prove they are stronger and more determined than they thought. As I said, I found the characters likeable, but I felt about them a bit like I would about a nice couple I’d met and chatted one evening. I have the best wishes for them, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them around every now and then, but I don’t think they’ll leave a lasting impression, and there wasn’t anything particularly distinctive or memorable about them (although I liked the sound of Caroline’s bookshop, The Next Page).

I read some reviews that complained about the references and inclusion of characters not directly related to the stories, and got a bit lost. As I said, I have met some of the characters before, so I was slightly more familiar with them, but I wouldn’t let that scare any possible readers, as it is not a big part of the book, and it does not hinders the understanding of the action. (It involves the chapters around the opening of the new inn, and Boon’s friends from Eternity Springs turn up as guests, and that means a fair amount of new people who suddenly land there). On the other hand, I’m pretty convinced that readers of the series will be delighted to catch up with some of their favourite characters in the new setting.

This is a nice and gentle read, with no violent or sex scenes, in an enchanting Texan setting , likely to appeal to readers of romance, especially that set in the world of the music industry, Americana in particular, women’s fiction, and stories about second chances. The characters don’t break any molds, and it is not a particularly challenging story, but it is a comforting one. Recommended to readers of the Eternity Springs series and to anybody keen on a refreshing and gently inspiring story.

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review 2017-10-10 15:14
An emotional journey into a disintegrating mind and its effects
Disease: When Life takes an Unexpected Turn - Hans M. Hirschi

I have read quite a few books by Hans Hirschi (not all, but I might get there given time) and have enjoyed them, no matter what the genre. The author is not somebody who writes thinking about the market or the latest trend. He writes stories he cares about, and beyond interesting plots and fully-fledged characters, he always pushes us to think about some of the big questions: prejudice, ecology, poverty, child abuse, families, laws, gender, identity… If all of his stories are personal, however fictional, this novel is perhaps even more personal than the rest.

As a psychiatrist, I’ve diagnosed patients with dementia (Alzheimer’s disease or other types), I’ve assessed and looked after patients with dementia in hospital, and I have seen, second-hand, what the illness does to the relatives and friends, and also to the patients, but as an observer, from outside. I’ve known some people who have suffered from the condition but not close enough to be able to give a personal account.

The novel tries to do something quite difficult: to give us the insight into what somebody suffering from Alzheimer’s feels, what they think, and how they experience the process of losing their own memories and themselves. The book is written in a diary format, in the first person, by Hunter, a man in his forties who, after some episodes of forgetfulness, goes to the doctors and is diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. He writes articles for a living, is married to Ethan, who is a high-school teacher, and they have a five-year-old daughter, Amy (born of a surrogate mother, and Ethan’s biological daughter). They live in Michigan, where they moved to from California, and therefore they are not legally married, as that was not an option at the time. To the worry of his illness and how this will affect him (Hunter’s mother also died of the condition, so he is fully aware of its effects on its sufferers), are added the worries about practicalities, about Amy’s care, about financial stability, about his own care, as they are not a couple with equal rights in the eyes of the law.

Hunter’s diary is framed by Ethan’s narration. Ethan finds the file of the diary a couple of years after Hunter’s passing and decides to publish it, mostly letting Hunter’s words speak for themselves, but at times he clarifies if something Hunter narrates truly happened or not, or gives us his own version of events (for instance, when Hunter gets lost). Although the story is mostly written by Hunter and told from the point of view of the sufferer, Ethan’s brief contributions are poignant and heart-wrenching, precisely because we do get the sense that he is trying so hard to be strong, fair, and to focus on his daughter. He accepts things as they are and is not bitter, but the heavy toll the illness has taken is clear.

The novel ends with a letter written by Amy. Although brief, we get another perspective on how the illness affects families, and through her eyes we get to know more about how Ethan is truly feeling. A deeply moving letter that rings true.

The characters are well drawn, and even when the progression of the illness means that some of the episodes Hunter describes might not be true, they still give us a good insight into his thoughts, his illusions, and his worries. He writes compellingly and beautifully (although there are is evidence of paranoia, ramblings, and some disconnected writing towards the end), and the fact that his writing remains articulate (although the gaps between entries increase as the book progresses and he even stops writing when he misplaces the file) fit in with research about preservation of those skills we have used the most and are more ingrained. Hunter pours into his diary his thoughts and experiences, some that he has never shared in detail with anybody (like being trapped at a hotel in Mumbai during a terrorist attack), and others that seem to be flights of fancy or wishful thinking. He shares his own opinions (his dislike of nursing homes, his horror at the thought of being looked after by somebody he doesn’t know, his worries about the future, his memories of the past…) and is at times humorous, at times nasty, at others indignant and righteous. He is not a cardboard cut-out, and neither are any of the other characters.

Apart from the personal story of the characters, we have intrusions of the real world, including news, court decisions, that ground the events in the here and now, however universal they might be, but wherever you live and whoever you are, it is impossible not to put yourself in the place of the characters and wonder what you would do, and how much more difficult things are for them because they are not a “normal” family.

This is an extraordinary book, a book that made me think about patients I had known with similar diagnosis, about the difficulties they and their families face (there are not that many nursing homes that accommodate early dementia, and most of those for elderly patients are not suited to the needs of younger patients), about end of life care, and about what I would do faced with a similar situation. The book does not shy away from asking the difficult questions, and although it is impossible to read it and not feel emotional, it tells the story with the same dignity it affords its main character.

Although there is a certain degree of intrigue from the beginning (we do not find the exact circumstances of Hunter’s death until very close to the end) that will, perhaps, contribute to reading it even faster, this book is for readers who are interested in dementia and Alzheimer’s (although it is not an easy read), who love well-drawn characters, deep psychological portrayals, and stories about families and their ties. A great and important book I thoroughly recommend and another first-rate addition to Mr. Hirschi’s oeuvre.

I received an ARC copy of this book and I freely decided to review it. Thanks to the author and the publisher for this opportunity.

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