Short Stories from The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I have always loved short fiction and was excited to see a book built around short stories. In The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, A.J. recommends the following stories to his daughter.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I have only read one of them! And I’m guessing it’s one that many of us read in high school English class:  “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. Take a look at the list. How many have you read? Which are your favorites?


Source: Wikipedia

“Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl (1953)


Source: Wikipedia

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)


Source: Wikipedia

“The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte (1868)


Source: richardbausch.com

“What Feels Like the World” by Richard Bausch (1985)


Source: Georgia Encyclopedia

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor (1953)


Source: Wikipedia

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County” by Mark Twain (1865)


Source: amazon.com

“The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw (1939)


Source: Wikipedia

“A Conversation with My Father” by Grace Paley (1972)


Source: Wikipedia

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger (1948)


Source: Wikipedia

“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)


Source: Goodreads

“Ironhead” by Aimee Bender (2005)


Source: Wikipedia

“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” by Raymond Carver (1980)


Source: Wikipedia

“The Bookseller” by Roald Dahl (1986)


Click here for a review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by
Gabrielle Zevin

Rating:

A.J. Fikry is at a crossroads. He’s a prickly young widower and owner of a small island bookstore off the coast of New England. Business is bad and his favorite book rep has been replaced by the unfamiliar and quirky young Amelia Loman. Deep in grief, he spends his nights drinking in the upstairs apartment. He’s lost, but at least he still has his rare edition of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. Until it’s stolen.

He has little time to focus on the stolen book, however, because of what is waiting for him in the back of the store:  a baby, with a note attached. What to do? There’s only one answer and that is to make a new life for himself.

A.J.’s climb out of darkness is a charming tale about love, friendship and family. Each chapter begins with a clever synopsis of a classic short story, initialed by A.J.  And each story is tied to the events and characters in the book. And while Zevin’s characters are not complex, they combine to form an appealing and amusing group, including one of my favorites, Police Chief Lambiase, leader of the Chief’s Choice Book Club.

Readers will enjoy great dialogue and several laugh-out-loud scenes, including a hilarious author visit and reading. The story isn’t all light, however, and there is a lot more to this book than a simple love story. Zevin includes serious themes of hopelessness and loss and their effects on the characters. Meeting these characters first-hand is a must:  describing them in detail would ruin the experience for future readers.

In the end, the book is overwhelmingly hopeful and uplifting. I especially enjoyed it because the author’s ideas began to sink in after I had finished. Book lovers will appreciate the many references to literature and bookstores and everything in between. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a fast read, but don’t be fooled and don’t be surprised if you pick it up for a second time!

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A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

A Great Reckoning
by
Louise Penny

Rating:

After a deadly hostage situation, Former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has taken early retirement from the Sûreté du Québec. He’s regrouping in the cozy village of Three Pines with his wife Reine-Marie while he prepares for his new job:  Commander of the Sûreté Academy. There’s been a bad batch of cadets from the police academy, not to mention a corrupt administration, and Gamache is determined to clean house. While some get the axe, new professors are hired, including his boyhood friend, Michel Brébeuf.

Brébeuf is no friend now, however. Their bond shattered after Brébeuf’s unforgivable betrayal while at the Sûreté. Gamache also decides to keep Serge Leduc, formerly second in command at the academy and rumored to be the cruelest and most corrupt at the school. Many are nervous about the changes and wonder, is Gamache doing the right thing?

Classes begin and the cadets and professors settle into the new regime, but it isn’t long before a shocking murder upends the academy. Investigating the murder are Chief Inspector Isabelle Lacoste and an outsider, Deputy Commissioner Paul Gélinas from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Authorities rule out no one, including Gamache and four cadets, who have been researching a mysterious map found in the wall of the Three Pines bistro. Their relationships and personal histories make an excellent second story and I enjoyed seeing how Penny explains their motives and ties them into the mystery. As the story develops, evidence seems to implicate one of the students, the tattooed and pierced Amelia Choquet, and before long, many questions arise about her relationship with Gamache.

Published in 2016, A Great Reckoning is one of Louise Penny’s more recent Armand Gamache mysteries, a very readable and entertaining story. While it’s clear the characters have a lot of history together in her earlier books, I did not have trouble getting right into the story. She includes many of these side characters and subplots, including the residents of Three Pines and some quirky pets which enhance the story nicely, true to the genre. Her many references to tasty food may also inspire the reader to cook up something a little more sophisticated for dinner!

I particularly enjoyed Penny’s references to poetry, ancient philosophy and literature, which tie together many themes and helped me understand how police investigators think and cope with violent situations. I especially liked this line credited to a Buddhist nun:  “Don’t believe everything you think.” In addition, themes of family, long friendships, loyalty and doing the right thing run through every page, something I love to see in a book.

It is tempting to guess the finish as different characters reveal their motives and explain their involvement, but while answers flow freely in the last few chapters, the puzzle isn’t finished until the very last page.

I recommend A Great Reckoning to mystery readers because of its entertaining setting, characters and plot, but all readers will appreciate Penny’s storytelling talent.

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The Surrogate by Louise Jensen

The Surrogate
by
Louise Jensen

Rating:

How far would you go to have a family?  After trying for years and two failed adoptions, Kat and Nick wonder if they will ever become parents. Kat is shattered and Nick wants to take a break, until Kat’s friend Lisa shows up.

Did you ever think about surrogacy?” she asks.

It seems like the perfect solution, but in any psychological thriller, reader beware. Nothing is at it seems.

Set in England, The Surrogate is a tale of lies, deception and secret painful pasts. Kat and Lisa were girlhood friends, but now there’s a wall between them because of a deadly car accident in which Kat’s boyfriend Jake died. Kat left town to shake off her misery and meets Nick, a chance for happiness.

Nick has his own secret past, however and something isn’t right about Lisa. What to do? Keep reading this exciting story in which even the most imaginative reader won’t guess how it ends.

As the pregnancy progresses, Lisa’s motives come into question. Why is she so evasive? Why does she keep asking for money? And something isn’t right with Nick. Secret text messages and lies about where he’s going make Kat think the worst. Is she being paranoid? But what about the scary figure lurking outside their house?

The author mixes in plenty of side characters with murky and abusive tendencies and the story proceeds with great momentum, as Kat continues to make foolish decisions that dig her deeper into a dark and complicated character dynamic.

I enjoyed reading this fast-paced and entertaining thriller, loaded with twists and turns and plenty of opportunity to get mad at Kat for her bad decisions. Instead of trying to figure it out, I went along for the ride and was rewarded with a wild finish. I also love the cover, which made me want to dig right into the story.

While I thought the story was excellent, I was frustrated with an assortment of grammar mistakes, particularly involving the use of “me” and “I” as well as misplaced apostrophes. These errors take away from the polish of the story. I received my copy of The Surrogate before its September 25 release, so perhaps these mistakes have been corrected.

I recommend The Surrogate to readers who like modern suspenseful stories about relationships.

I received a copy of The Surrogate from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Chessmen by Peter May

The Chessmen
by
Peter May

Rating:
and 1/2

Rising Celtic rock star Roddy Mackenzie disappeared in the skies more than seventeen years ago. He was never found and presumed dead. The island is therefore stunned when Fin Macleod and Whistler Macaskill discover Roddy’s small aircraft on Lewis Island, submerged for years but laid bare after a wild storm and a fluke bog burst. Roddy’s ID is still in his pocket, but the pilot’s remains are a mere skeleton, revealing little, except for one shocking clue that points to murder. Fin and Whistler stare in disbelief at their close friend’s plane and wonder how Roddy, on the verge of international fame and the leader of their band, wound up at the bottom of a bog.

The Chessmen is the third and final book of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, which features ex-Detective Inspector Fin Macleod and is set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. In this book, Fin is living with his schoolyard sweetheart, Marsaili, following the revelation that Fin is the father of her teenage son. But it’s not all good. Fin has tried his best to put a failed marriage and the unsolved hit-and-run death of his young son behind him. But like the ever-changing landscape of the island, Fin’s future will never be certain.

Fin has a new job. He’s been hired to track down salmon poachers at the Red River Estate. Big Kenny Maclean is his boss and he has major beef with Whistler, a notorious poacher. Whistler is also a long-term tenant at Red River, but has never paid rent. What’s worse, Whistler’s wife left him years ago for Kenny, taking their baby girl with her, now part of a custody battle. The complex dynamics between these three men and the history of the ties their ancestors shared provide the backdrop for a story with many crossed alliances.

The title refers to a famous set of chess pieces, originally from Lewis, but on display off-island, as well as a specially commissioned set of three-foot pieces, hand-carved by Whistler, directly related to the problem of Whistler’s unpaid rent.

A sub-plot revolves around the Reverend Donald Murray and events from the second book in which Donald killed a man. He’s been legally cleared, but the church has him on trial for breaking the 6th Commandment.

May switches from present to past and fills in the history of Fin’s days at university. This period explains the relationship between Fin, who hauls equipment for the band, Whistler, Roddy and the other band members, including the beautiful Mairead. Friendship, family, faith and loyalty are prominent themes as clues to Roddy’s murder focus on complicated relationships and romantic rivalries.

I enjoyed reading The Chessmen because of May’s talent for joining plot and landscape in his stories. While the story is very readable, it is not as strong as The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man. Once the murder investigation is underway, the poaching story line disappears. And although the reader learns about the importance of the chess pieces, I thought they would have a more important symbolic role. In addition, after reading two books in the series, I felt betrayed to learn of important new characters from Fin’s childhood that were not introduced until book three.

The book finishes quickly with a wild chase and rushed tie-togethers and although I was glad for some of the endings, I wondered what happened to other unfinished story lines.

All in all, however, The Chessmen is a must-read for those who have read the first two books and I will look for more Peter May books to add to my shelf.


Start from the beginning of The Lewis Trilogy!

Book 1: The Blackhouse


Book 2:  The Lewis Man


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The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

The Silent Sister
by
Diane Chamberlain

Rating:

When buried family secrets surface, one thing is certain: once revealed, nothing will be the same. Twenty-five-year-old Riley McPherson has grown up believing her older sister Lisa, a talented violinist, committed suicide when Riley was two and her sister was seventeen. She’d always believed Lisa was depressed and that the pressures of her musical training and performing were what caused her to take her life. But that may not be what happened.

When Riley’s father dies, she returns to New Bern, North Carolina to clear out and sell her childhood home. Her mother died years earlier and now the responsibility is Riley’s. And now the truth lays hidden in her mother and father’s things. Was Riley’s childhood based on a lie? Is Lisa still alive? Riley wants to find out.

Her brother Danny doesn’t care and he won’t help. He’s bitter enough about being brought up in a family that tried to erase their memories of what happened. Without Danny, she feels completely alone and overwhelmed by the task. And she feels both hopeful and betrayed to think Lisa may be alive but left them all to start a new life. How she longs for someone to call family!

Diane Chamberlain has written an interesting story that is part mystery and part psychological study about the rippling effects of family members’ decisions to do what seems best at the time. Told partly from Riley’s point of view and later alternating with Lisa’s story, it’s a clever way to show the two women’s thoughts as they face different challenges. As Riley finds answers and new secrets, she must ask herself how far she should go to learn the truth.

The Silent Sister is an easy and entertaining read and, although the topic is serious, the story is light and somewhat unrealistic, yet predictable in its telling. Chamberlain’s characters are simple and stereotyped, but I enjoyed reading about them and felt happy for Riley as she adjusted to her newly-defined family.

I recommend The Silent Sister to readers who like family stories and are looking for a light and entertaining reading escape.

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The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

The Flight Attendant
by
Chris Bohjalian

Rating:

What’s the best thing to do when you wake up after a night of heavy drinking and discover you are in bed with a man who has been brutally murdered? Flight attendant Cassie Bowden doesn’t remember much about her night in the lavish Royal Phoenician hotel in Dubai, but even in a blackout, she can’t believe she could have slashed Alexander Sokolov’s throat. Head pounding, she has no time to think. In a moment of self-preservation, she follows her instinct to get out fast. Can she get back to New York before the maid service discovers Sokolov’s body? Will the authorities trace his death to Cassie?

In or out of the country, Cassie has big problems, ranging from years of drinking to the present problem of running from a murder scene in a foreign country. She may have believed Sokolov was just another friendly hookup, but there is much beneath the surface. Spies, international intrigue and a mysterious woman named Miranda enrich an already exciting plot. As the authorities zero in on her, Cassie’s reckless and drunken behavior only dig her deeper into trouble. Old friends, coworkers, family and new one-nighters keep the reader guessing who’s really on Cassie’s side and, as the bad characters emerge, one thing becomes clear:  her life is in danger.

I thoroughly enjoyed this exciting and modern story about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and in which bad judgment gets mixed up with dangerous characters. In addition, readers will appreciate the way Bohjalian adds many references to literature, rounding out his characters and enhancing the story’s themes. Relationships gone bad is one of his primary themes, as Cassie tries to reconcile her father’s alcoholism and the mysterious Miranda struggles to understand her own father.

Careful reading at certain points is required for some of the more complicated plot developments, but the reader is always rewarded with helpful summaries.

The story drives through a nail-biting confrontation between its players and concludes with a satisfying wrap-up. I recommend The Flight Attendant to readers who enjoy suspense and studies of human relationships.

I received an ARC of The Flight Attendant from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence
by
Edith Wharton

Rating:

Newland Archer appears to have it all, wealth, class and every imaginable comfort. Life is not difficult for any in his New York circle. In 1870, appearances are everything to high society and marrying the lovely May Welland will make Archer’s life complete. So complete that he can see exactly how his life will play out, every detail, day after day. Despite a vague malaise, he’s resigned to this future until May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, returns to New York, on the run from a disastrous European marriage. That’s when Archer’s internal torment begins.

Eccentric and free-thinking, Ellen does what she wants. And although the powerful Mingotts and Mansons welcome her return to the family, they expect conformity, not scandal. At the helm is Mrs. Manson Mingott, Ellen’s grandmother, who does what she must to keep the family on course.

I highly recommend this 1920 classic which was initially published in four parts in the Pictorial Review magazine. The Age of Innocence won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and portrays a period of time on the verge of change and in which the New York upper class clings to appearances, convention and the subtle, but highly important details that define them. Like all classics, there is plenty of analysis and you can find some of it here on SparkNotes.

Wharton was born in 1862 and grew up in the New York upper class. Her writing style is full of detail, subtle ironic humor and commentary on a way of life she knew well. I particularly enjoyed reading about the different players in Archer’s world and how they plotted behind the scenes. Fashion, interior décor, dinner parties, the opera, winters in St. Augustine and summers in Newport, Wharton’s characters live in an insulated world, but are nevertheless vulnerable to unhappiness. Women especially had few rights or freedoms. They had to conform or be cast out, as Wharton shows in both May and Ellen. I liked Archer because he’s aware of the problem and is surprisingly modern in his thoughts. Wharton also shows how her characters are uncomfortable mingling with the creative bohemian writers and artists in New York, a world which Ellen Olenksa represents. I also enjoyed reading about the newly rich outsiders in the story. Julius Beaufort is a successful banker and host to many New York galas, where Archer and his aristocracy flock, but they quickly distance themselves when he faces financial ruin.

The big questions are if Archer and Ellen can resist their passion and whether May and her family can keep the two apart. Some satisfying confrontations underscore how binding their situations are and, to today’s reader, point to solutions their world was not ready for.

The book finishes with a jump to the future in which Archer contemplates his decisions and how his New York society and the larger world has changed. Perhaps this is where Archer belonged all the while.

I’m all set to watch the 1993 movie version of this classic, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. My work friend Mary tells me the movie is very true to the book, something I love to see!

 

For more about Edith Wharton, check out this 2009 article from The New Yorker.

I read The Age of Innocence as part of my Build a Better World Summer Reading Challenge to read a book that is considered a classic.

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Blood of the Prodigal by P. L. Gaus

blood of the prodigal

Blood of the Prodigal: An Amish-Country Mystery
by
P. L. Gaus

Rating:

It has been ten years since Jon Mills was banished from his Amish Order in Holmes County, Ohio. Now he’s back to face Bishop Miller and reclaim the ten-year-old son he left behind. But something happens:  Mills turns up dead and the son goes missing.

In Book 1 of 7 of the Amish Country Mysteries, Gaus introduces part-time detective, college professor and Civil War expert Michael Branden. He’s helped by his sidekick wife Caroline, Sheriff Bruce Robertson and Deputy Ricky Niell. Gaus tells an engaging story about an Ohio Amish order that must rely on outsiders for help.

I was attracted to the book’s terrific cover and liked reading about the Amish, particularly Rumschpringe, the Amish adolescent rite of passage during which teenagers leave their communities before deciding to return to be baptized. Gaus’ descriptions of Holmes County, Ohio are also interesting, and the later scenes near Lakeside Marblehead are the strongest part of the story. The author ties up loose ends nicely, if not predictably and invites the reader to return for the next mystery.

This series that has received many positive reviews, including this one by Marilyn Stasio, of the New York Times:


For more than a decade, P. L. Gaus has been writing quietly spellbinding mysteries about… the conservative Old Order Amish of Holmes County, Ohio.

I recommend Blood of the Prodigal to readers who like light and fast-moving mysteries and enjoy seeing how characters develop in a series.

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Summer Reading Challenge – create a movie soundtrack to your favorite book

One of the fun squares on my Summer Reading Challenge BINGO card is to create a soundtrack to my favorite book if it became a movie. For those of you who don’t know, my #1 all-time favorite book is Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk.  Wouk has been writing books for decades, most notably The Caine Mutiny, which was published in 1951 and won the Pulitzer Prize, Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and of course, Youngblood Hawke.

Read all about Herman Wouk in “Who’s That Author?” here. And by the way, Wouk is 102 years old and at age 100 published Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author.

So you can make sense of my soundtrack, here’s a quick summary of Youngblood Hawke:

Youngblood Hawke is the story of a young author from the coal mines of Kentucky who arrives in New York and becomes a hugely successful and prolific novelist. Publishers, agents, Broadway producers, filmmakers, real estate developers and, of course, women, all want a piece of this larger-than-life, good-natured and ambitious personality. Hawke’s goal all along is to make enough money so that he can really get down to business and write his most serious work, something he calls his American Comedy.

He has a work ethic like no other, writes all through the night, sleeps very little and spends the rest of his time trying to manage his new successful life, with many detours. Pushed to his limits, Hawke ignores recurring symptoms of a head injury from years ago. We watch and hope for the best as he works maniacally and under incredible financial pressure to complete his latest book. His dream is just ahead and we hope for the best.


Here’s my soundtrack!

  • Everyday I Write the Book – Elvis Costello & The Attractions
  • Talk of the Town – The Pretenders
  • The Book I Read – Talking Heads
  • It’s Hard To Be a Saint In The City – Bruce Springsteen
  • Unwritten – Natasha Bedingfield
  • I’m So Anxious – Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes
  • Reelin’ in the Years – Steely Dan
  • Gone Hollywood – Supertramp
  • Life’ll Kill Ya – Warren Zevon

Note:  Youngblood Hawke was actually made into a movie in 1964 and starred James Franciscus, Suzanne Pleshette and Geneviève Page. My song choices are my own. You can check out the details of the film here.


I created this movie soundtrack as part of my Build a Better World Summer Reading Challenge.

What’s your favorite book? Can you make a soundtrack for it?

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