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BOOK REVIEW: Lydia by Tim Sandlin


Lydia Cover Image
Sam Callahan had an unusual life growing up in GroVont, Wyoming. The only child of feminist, single mother Lydia; to call Sam’s upbringing eccentric would be kind. These days his daughter from his first relationship (Shannon) is grown, his relationship with her mother Maurey is fairly stable, his marriage with Gilia is a blessing and his work at the Virgin Birth Home for Unwed Mothers fills his life with meaning. All of that is about to change however; for Lydia is coming home from jail, and she won’t settle for anything less than a triumphal return. However, when her parole officer assigns her the task of recording 99 year-old Oly Pedersen’s life story, the winds of change sweep in for many residents of GroVont.

Fifteen years after publishing Social Blunders, the final volume in the GroVont Trilogy (begun in Skipped Parts and Sorrow Floats), Tim Sandlin rewards “Sandlinistas” (die-hard fans) everywhere with Lydia. As anyone who has read the first three novels knows, Lydia is everything loud, obnoxious and self-indulgent. Sandlin reminds readers of this early in the novel: “She’d gone into prison as a force to be reckoned with and come out as a tiny shred of aged mass…Hatred, she could fight; being dismissed was intolerable.”

Lydia is so blatant with her anger and hostility that readers will soon want to swat her away like an annoying fly buzzing around their ear. Her son Sam has spent much of his life wondering why his mother treats those she loves so horribly: “Lydia would starve before not tipping a waitress. She’d go back home if the alternative was parking in a handicapped slot, yet she lied to and browbeat the family she loved.” Even if you’ve read all of the previous novels, the amount of rage within Lydia can be difficult to understand, often rendering her motivations positively incomprehensible.

Yet her family continues to try for some sort of a relationship with this woman who could have written the manual on emotional abuse. And thus we reach the crux of the problem – readers simply must trust Sandlin’s plans for the novel and hop on for the ride. For “Sandlinistas” this is no problem; we’ve been committed to the ride since Skipped Parts but anyone beginning the journey with Lydia may find it impossible.

Truly unlikable characters are easy for readers to dismiss and therefore can be an effective distraction from the subtler messages writers wish to share. I believe that Sandlin uses Lydia as the pivot point for his novel the same way a magician uses a pretty assistant and wand twirling – look over here so you don’t see what I’m doing around back. Lydia distracts from the message Sandlin’s secreted within Oly’s story, providing time it to unfurl (even though its importance is announced from the beginning by both the quieter narrative and the use of a distinct font for his sections).

If you haven’t read anything by Tim Sandlin, don’t start with Lydia. Do yourself a favour; grab a copy of Skipped Parts and start the journey to GroVont, Wyoming at the beginning. It’s worth the trip!

ISBN: 140224181X
ISBN13: 9781402241819

464 Pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: April 12, 2011
Author Website:

(Disclosure: A review copy of this novel was provided by the publisher.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Houston, We Have a Problema by Gwendolyn Zepeda


Jessica Luna’s life contains all the average troubles of a twenty-something living in Houston. There’s the man trouble cause by gifted and troubled artist Guillermo who is unable to “commit” and always seems to disappoint. Then there’s her “perfect” sister who married a white man and moved to the suburbs and seems to want to turn Jessica into a suburban clone. Then there’s her boring corporate job and now her parents are fighting. Where’s a girl supposed to turn for help?

Well if you’re Jessica, the signs or answers could be anywhere: her rearview mirror Virgin-de-Guadalupe; the card readings of psychic Madame Hortensia; or in the prophetic utterances of a TV talk show host. Now Madame Hortensia has confirmed that a change is coming in work and love, but Jessica isn’t sure that Jonathan, the rich and successful guy her sister introduced her to, is that new guy. But when Madame Hortensia refuses to come through with answers – and her life starts dissolving around her – Jessica realizes it’s time to figure some things out for herself.

Gwendolyn Zepeda’s debut novel is a fresh voice in the growing “chica lit” market. A sub-genre of chic lit, chica lit first gained notice with the publication of The Dirty Girls Social Club. Author Mary Castillo explains what makes chica lit different: “Family is always involved somehow.” “Unlike early chick lit that kind of created the image that it’s always about single women worrying about their shoes, in the ethnic books they’re trying to balance their ethnicity and being American. How can you be both? The issues seem to be a little deeper.”

It would be easy for people to dismiss Houston, We Have a Problema as a fluffy offering but Zepeda offers an important message about finding your place in the world, and within your own family. Anyone who has ever found themselves torn between two worlds or found themselves floundering and without direction will find reflections of themselves here.

While the writing is sometimes uneven and a few characters are rather two-dimensional, Zepeda shows great promise as a comedic writer. Madame Hortensia’s personality, flair and vibrancy fairly bursts off the page. Perhaps there’s another novel in her future?

ISBN10: 0446698520
ISBN13: 9780446698528

Trade Paperback
392 Pages
Publisher: Grand Central
Publication Date: January 2009
Author Website:

BOOK REVIEW: Sounds Like Crazy by Shana Mahaffey


n314823Holly Miller is stuck in a dead-end job and lives in a run-down apartment in New York City. While she seems to live alone in reality Holly lives with “The Committee,” the five different personalities that make up her Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Residing in the Holly’s head are the faceless Boy in the red Converse; the ancient meditating Silent One; Sarge, who keeps her safe; whale-size Ruffles, the chip eater, and Betty Jane, the Southern belle. When flirtatious Betty Jane lands Holly a job as a cartoon voice-over artist, her life appears to stabilize and she is finally able to support herself. However, when the directors want to make Ruffles the star of the show, all hell breaks loose.

The first half of Sounds Like Crazy, the debut novel from Shana Mahaffey, reads like a farcical play on fast forward. Personalities rapidly appear/disappear, bizarre events happen and Betty Jane’s Southern drawl quickly feels “like a bad hang-over pounding against [one’s] temples.”

The second half of Sounds Like Crazy is the stronger, as Holly focuses on her therapy and layer after layer is pulled away to reveal the events that led to Holly’s development of DID. The pace of the novel slows, Mahaffey’s writing style becomes clear and concise as she delves into a subject that clearly fascinates her, how the human mind works. While her narration is evocative (“…the familiar rattle of a Volkswagen Beetle…that sounded like a bag of rocks and sand shaking…”), the character of Holly remains quite undefined for a novel of this length (400 pages).

The comedic tone in the first section of Sounds Like Crazy stands in complete opposite to the rest of the book, so much so that one is led to suggest the book has multiple personalities. This attempt at levity and slapstick detracts from the strong voice that resounds from the second section. Like many debut novelist, Mahaffey tries to do too much in one novel and ultimately this detracts from the power of Holly’s story. If Mahaffey focuses her writing on other topics that interest her as much as the human mind, she should enjoy success as a novelist.

ISBN-10: 0451227913
ISBN13: 9780451227911

Trade Paperback
400 Pages
Publisher: NAL Trade
Publication Date: October 6, 2009
Author Website:

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