Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson

I was barred from school for the day because I'd been biting again. Whenever I pressed my teeth into one of my classmates, my teacher stopped the lesson and called, "Tillie, Tillie." There was always a struggle as she tried to wrestle the hand or arm from my mouth, but I held on--fighting until the last string of spit released--because I liked to leave a mark. [pg 9]

Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson
Harper, 2010
Fiction; 320 pgs

I recently caught a rerun of an old Law and Order: Special Victim's Unit episode in which one of the lead detectives must reach out to his estranged mother when his daughter's mental illness comes to light because of legal issues. His mother also suffered from mental illness, only it was never talked about in that way. His mother was odd, sometimes manic and then falling into deep depressions.

I couldn't help but draw parallels between that episode and Susan Henderson's novel, Up From the Blue. What it must have been like for a child growing up in a home with a mother suffering from a mental illness, especially at a time when such things were kept secret and not talked about outside of the home. In the TV show, it was the detective who was orderly and regimented, even strict--a result of his upbringing and his hope to instill order into his own family life. In Henderson's novel, the father, an officer in the military takes on that same role. I imagine the time periods of when the detective and Tillie were children were similar.

At the start of the novel, Tillie, recognizing the signs of labor, is forced to reach out to her estranged father for help. Her husband is out of the country on business; she is unpacking after having just moved to a town; and she knows no one else. Her father comes to her aid, but at a price. With him comes all the memories Tillie would love to forget, and she is forced to confront the past and deal with her feelings in regards to her father. The novel takes place mostly in the past, when Tillie was 8 years old, with only a few interruptions from the present (1991) to remind us where we started.

The author uses subtle markers to remind the reader of the time period Tillie grew up in throughout the novel, including racial tensions and the political climate. This proved an effective way of setting the environment for which Tillie tells her story.

I admit that as I started reading, my feeling about the book tended toward how typical it was. Another novel about family dysfunction. A steady diet of such novels can be overwhelming (one of the reasons I like to mix up my reading so much--variety keeps me from growing tired of a topic or genre). As I continued to read, I remained skeptical, but somewhere in there, I lost that skepticism and the book really took off for me. By the end, tears streaming down my face, I was hooked. It turned out to be a little different than I expected.

I liked young Tillie from the beginning. She's a free spirit if ever there was one. As a Marine Corps brat, I know what life can be like in the home of a military person. In Tillie's case, appearances were everything given her father's important position and high rank. Her father was very strict and demanded order. Tillie rebelled against that. Instead of writing a science paper, she'd write poems. Tillie's older brother was much more apt to please and to do as he was told. I appreciated the way the author did not make this story just about Tillie, despite it being told from her viewpoint. Although Tillie was not completely aware of the impact events in their life were having on everyone else, it is clear to the reader. It was easy to understand Tillie's confusion and upset with her father once the entire story came out. At the same time, it was impossible not to also see his side of it, even if I don't agree with all of the choices he made or the reasons he made them.

At first I wished for a bit more resolution in the end. While certain aspects of the story were wrapped up satisfactorily, one particular piece left me wanting. That is until I really had a chance to think about it. Now I don't think any other ending would have fit--not realistically.

As inundated as you may be with books about family dysfunction, Up From the Blue is definitely worth a look.

Rating: * (Good +)

You can learn more about Susan Henderson and her book on the literary blog LitPark. You can also find her on Facebook and on Twitter: @litpark. Be sure and check the TLC Book Tours website for other tour stops as well!

Many thanks to the TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour. Book for review provided by the publisher.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. I get bogged down with family dysfunction too. I get so TIRED of reading about it. They are important stories, but there are so many of them. It is good to know this one distinguished itself from the norm.

  2. Thanks for sharing about this book, Wendy. I have to be in the mood for the dysfunctional family, but I'm glad to know that it would be worth my while. :-)

  3. Okay - you've convinced me - this one is going on my wish list! Great review, Wendy. :)

  4. I am going to be reading this one really soon, and after reading your review, I am really excited about it! I am glad that it wasn't as typical as you thought and that you loved it. Great review!

  5. I know what you mean about all of those family dysfunction books - they seem to be everywhere! I'm glad this one stood out for you.

  6. I saw that Law and Order episode! And you're right, it's very similar...especially when you think about the time period that Stabler's mom would've been a housewife and what society expected from mothers/wives. That's a great comparison.

  7. I wonder if the author saw that Law and Order: SVU episode? I'm glad you enjoyed this one so much!

  8. Too much dysfunction can be overwhelming, but I do love it from time to time. The fact that this one made you cry speaks volumes to me.

  9. I won a copy of this book from BBAW and I am excited to read it. I actually like endings that leave you hanging, so I will be interested to see what my reaction is once I read it.

  10. After that excellent review I will be giving this book more than a second glance!!

  11. Any book that makes someone cry is worth reading! Your review has certainly convinced me to download it!

  12. I love it when what seems to be a bad ending turns out, upon reflection, to be the PERFECT ending! Glad you enjoyed this one - thanks for being on this tour.

  13. That passage you quoted at the beginning of your post certainly got my attention. I'd be on the lookout for it.

  14. Sandy - I think that's why mixing up one's reading now and then is a good thing--less chance of burning out on a particular type of book. At least, that's what works for me.

    Kay - I know what you mean about being in the right mood. One's mood can definitely make or break a book.

    Carrie - I hope you get a chance to read it, Carrie!

    Zibilee - I am looking forward to your review later this week!

    Alyce - Family dysfunction is a minefield for material, I imagine.

    Jill - I love it when things come together like that, seeing a TV show and then reading a book that strikes the same chord. :-)

    Jen - That's a good question! I wonder if she did . . .

  15. Kathy - It really is an emotionally packed good. I am glad I read it.

    Stephanie - I hope you will enjoy it, Stephanie! I like the occasional hanging ending too. Sometimes it works better for books, particularly reality based ones. I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

    Staci - If you do read it, Staci, I hope you will enjoy it!

    Linda - It does say a lot when a book can make a person cry! I'm not sure I'm the one to judge by though, given how often I cry while reading. Especially lately. LOL

    Heather J - Thanks for giving me the opportunity! I like those types of endings too--the ones that have you thinking long after.

    Alice - Hopefully you will like this one if you read it, Alice!

  16. I always seem to end up reading books like this. I can't help it, I am fascinated by them!

  17. Kathleen - Me too. They just seem to draw me to them.


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