Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

Miller’s Valley
by
Anna Quindlen

Genre: Fiction

Rating:

Does the land you live on define your family? That question may not be as relevant in today’s world, but there was a time when multiple generations of families were born and raised in the same place. What happens when a family like that is forced to leave the only home they have known for hundreds of years?

That’s the problem Bud and Miriam Miller face when they learn that the government plans to displace an entire town and turn Miller’s Valley into a reservoir. It’s the central conflict in the Millers’ marriage and one which affects their family and neighbors in a multitude of ways. Bud does not want to leave, but Miriam is ready. Some friends sell, others are holdouts.

Miller’s Valley takes place during the 1960s and 70s in a small farming town in Pennsylvania and is narrated by Mimi, the youngest Miller. In addition to a story about eminent domain, it is Mimi’s coming-of-age tale. As a ten-year-old girl, her world is made up of her family and a couple friends, but as she grows and her two older brothers leave, Mimi tries to imagine what she will do. Her brother, Tommy, urges her, “You come up with your own plan, Meems. No matter what happens.”

Despite a promising future, family obligations and loyalty to her father’s beliefs press hard against Mimi’s heart and she becomes more entrenched in life in the valley, despite its doomed future. Mimi’s best friend, Donald, moves to California and her Aunt Ruth hasn’t left her house in years. Tommy and her other brother, Eddie, go off in completely directions and Bud Miller continues to ask, “Who will run the farm when I’m gone?”

I enjoyed reading Miller’s Valley because I had only thought of eminent domain in terms of roads being built, and did not know of the government’s practice of flooding towns in order to build reservoirs. I live near a manmade lake with a very similar story, so this book was interesting to me.

Miller’s Valley had the potential to be a great story, but it is a more of a fast read with characters I seem to have met in other books. In addition, Quindlen finishes fast, with a couple hanging plot lines and a “didn’t see that coming” moment that may frustrate some readers. But as I have many reading moods, this one fit in with a busy week and I enjoyed starting and ending my days with an easy story.

I recommend Miller’s Valley to readers who like light historical fiction about family and conflict.

And for those who are interested in the history, here’s a definition of eminent domain and a couple stories about towns that were flooded:

Merriam-Webster definition of eminent domain: a right of a government to take private property for public use by virtue of the superior dominion of the sovereign power over all lands within its jurisdiction

Ephrata Review: “Cocalico Corner: Two tales of two valleys” by Donna Reed – April 27, 2016

Pleasant Valley Lost by Joseph J. Swope – 2015

The Story of Milford Mills and the Marsh Creek Valley: Chester County, Pennsylvania by Stuart and Catherine Quillman – 1989


Other Anna Quindlen books reviewed:

      

Black and Blue
Good Dog. Stay.
Still Life with Bread Crumbs

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The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry
by
Jane Harper

Genre: Mystery

Rating:

Federal Agent Aaron Falk left his home town of Kiewarra in Victoria, Australia, twenty years ago, right after Ellie Deacon died in the river. Now another of Falk’s childhood friends, Luke Hadler and his family, are dead. Despite the friendship, Falk would rather stay in Melbourne, but when he receives a letter from Luke’s father, he knows he must go back. Gerry Hadler’s words are unsettling: “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.”

Falk dreads returning to a town that chased him and his father away years ago, all because of an alibi that no one believed. Since then, lies and secrets have crippled the small farming town and a two-year drought has made everyone desperate. Falk wants to get in for the funeral and get out as soon as he can, but at the service, a chilling picture rotates through the slide show. Luke, Falk, Ellie and Gretchen Schoner, a tight teenage foursome and now only two are left. Is there a connection between Ellie’s death and the Hadler murders?

When Luke’s parents ask him to look into the murders, Falk reluctantly agrees. Headed by Kiewarra’s new Sergeant Raco, Falk and Raco follow leads and suspicions as hostility against Falk grows. Nothing is at it seems, however, and Falk will have to dig to the raw core to understand, if he survives the process.

The Dry is a terrific atmospheric thriller in which Kiewarra’s setting on the edge of the bushland and the drought’s devastating effects weigh heavy on the characters. False leads, unclear motives and complex relationships make this story both an entertaining read and a more serious study of human behavior. Why do people keep secrets and what could have been different if the truth were told? Harper may not have the answer, but she shows how lies and secrets can crush.

I recommend The Dry to readers who enjoy mysteries and to anyone who is interested in human behavior. I’m looking forward to reading Harper’s next book, Force of Nature.

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Book Talk – Second Chance Romance by Jill Weatherholt

Image: Pixabay

Welcome to a new and occasional feature on Book Club Mom called Book Talk, home to quick previews of new and not-so-new books that catch my eye.

Sometimes you need a feel-good book, a story in which realistic characters face many challenges, but are able to overcome them through love and faith. That’s what you get in Second Chance Romance by Jill Weatherholt, a wonderful inspirational romance that promises just what the title suggests.

Jackson Daughtry doesn’t know what to think when a young, and very attractive, career-driven divorce lawyer arrives in Sweet Gum, Virginia. Melanie Harper is there to convince her Aunt Phoebe to move to Washington, D.C. because she is sure that Phoebe, her only relative, cannot manage on her own. But it may be that Melanie is the one in need, for despite a successful career and head-turning looks, Melanie lives in a shadow of sadness.

Add to the fact that Jackson, a handsome paramedic and single dad, shares ownership with Phoebe of Sweet Gum’s local café. They need each other. And Phoebe may not be a blood relative, but she’s definitely family to Jackson. This charming small town is where Phoebe belongs, and he’s about lock horns with Melanie on the subject.

As the story unfolds, readers learn more about Melanie’s mysterious past and why she is so entrenched in her career. In addition, Jackson’s back story explains why his little girl, Rebecca, has no mother in the picture. Could Melanie fill that void?

This isn’t just a love story, however. Weatherholt tackles important issues such as how to deal with loss and questions of faith. She presents a serious conflict and shows how her characters cope, using humor and keen insight into human behavior. Readers will need to read till the end to see how Weatherholt resolves the strong attraction and tension between Jackson and Melanie, which is also threatened by outside developments.

I very much enjoyed reading Second Chance Romance, and especially liked the small-town setting in which friends and neighbors look out for each other. I recommend this lovely romance to readers who like to see the good guys win.

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Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here
by
Fredrik Backman

Rating:

Genre: Fiction

Here’s a great feel-good story about a socially awkward woman in a life crisis, a struggling community and what happens when they find each other. Britt-Marie is sixty-one and has been misunderstood her entire life. She accommodates, cleans and keeps things in proper order, hoping that others will appreciate her efforts. It isn’t until she starts fresh and away from her cheating husband, in the financially dilapidated town of Borg, that she is finally noticed.

Borg is in economic distress. It’s a crazy move. Many have lost their jobs and the town is nearly empty when Britt-Marie arrives to be temporary caretaker of the recreation center. But there is a resiliency in the folks who have stayed in town. When an off-course soccer ball knocks her in the head, Britt-Marie soon learns what holds them together. She has come to the right place. Borg needs her.

In a few short weeks, as the people in town embrace her rigid personality, the real and endearing Britt-Marie emerges. Adding interest, Sven, the town’s policeman, is smitten and the beginnings of a sweet courtship may give Britt-Marie another reason to stay.

The plot is driven by an upcoming soccer match for the kids, a rag-tag team without a coach, and a position Britt-Marie soon takes on. She knows nothing about soccer, but that’s okay because everyone helps and she learns that the spirit of the game, as both a player and a fan, is what keeps them going.

This spirit helps the people in town cope with more than joblessness, however. Abuse, abandonment and tragedy have shaped many families, including three siblings, Vega, Omar and Sami, who become family to Britt-Marie. Between these kids and her new friendship with Sven, living in Borg may be the answer to her dreams. A heartbreaking turn forces Britt-Marie to make some difficult choices about staying where she’s finally needed or pursuing a greater dream.

I highly recommend this original story which brings out the best in many of Backman’s characters, even the ones who seem rough in the beginning.

Fans may also like My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, in which Britt-Marie and her husband are characters.

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“La Côte Basque” by Truman Capote

“La Côte Basque”
from Answered Prayers
by
Truman Capote

Is it enough to change the names of your characters when you write a story based on real people? I suppose it doesn’t matter much if your characters are cast in a good light. But what if the story is full of scandals very close to the truth? I guess writers must pay the price. And that’s what happened in 1975 when “La Côte Basque” was published in Esquire.

Capote had been a favorite among the upper class society ladies until this point, but they immediately dropped him when they read about themselves in his story. Capote had been their confidante for years and had gathered plenty of material. One of the women reportedly received an early copy and, when she read what he said about her, ended her life with a cyanide pill.

The story is about a gossipy conversation between the fictional Lady Ina Coolbirth (Slim Keith) and her lunch companion, Jonesy. They are seated to be seen at La Côte Basque, a restaurant on East 55th Street in New York. As various social legends arrive, Lady Ina makes catty remarks and shares sordid details about the people who move in her circles. One of the stories closely resembles the facts and the cover-up of the William Woodward murder case in which Ann Woodward shot her husband. Capote’s story culminates when Lady Ina tells Jonesy about the night Sidney Dillon (really CBS founder Bill Paley), a notorious womanizer, slept with the governor’s wife. Paley’s wife, Babe, was dying of cancer when the story was published. Horrified to read the details in print, she never spoke to Capote again.

I had not heard of this short story, which is part of Capote’s unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, until I read The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. Now that I know the back story, I have to agree, it’s pretty harsh. Capote is a talented writer and an interesting figure, but “La Côte Basque” seems like malicious payback for not being one of upper class.

For more about Capote and “La Côte Basque,” check out this November 2012 article in Vanity Fair and click here for a mini biography of Capote.

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The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

The Swans of Fifth Avenue
by
Melanie Benjamin

Rating:

Someone should have warned the elegant and famously wealthy socialites of New York not to reveal their deepest secrets to the famous author and scandal-loving gossiper, Truman Capote! Years earlier, Capote had been welcomed into their fold and became their treasured confidante. The result was a story that shook high society and ended close friendships. “La Côte Basque 1965” was published in 1975 by Esquire magazine as a preview chapter of Answered Prayers, Capote’s last and unfinished novel. Capote had been gathering material for years about this social set and in it, he held nothing back.

Truman Capote/Image: Wikipedia

The Swans of Fifth Avenue is the fictionalized account of Capote’s friendship with six women, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Pamela Harriman, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness and CZ Guest. Capote arrived on the New York social scene in the fifties and became fast friends with these ladies, especially Babe Paley, who was married to CBS founder, Bill Paley. High society did not know what to think of Capote’s unusual and flamboyant style, but they took to him because he was so much fun. And the husbands didn’t mind because his homosexuality made him a safe companion. But, although Capote was often the life of the party, he was also a well-respected author of short fiction and several novels, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s. His masterpiece, In Cold Blood, was still to come.

The women were known as Capote’s swans, and spent their days shopping, having luncheons, attending galas and retreating to vacation homes. Wherever they went, they were impeccably dressed and ready to be photographed at any angle. Many of the swans, especially Babe, considered it their jobs to look perfect. It was serious business being a trophy wife: the women had no earning power other than being bred to marry a rich husband.

Babe Paley/Image: Wikipedia

In particular, Benjamin portrays Babe as a lonely and insecure woman, whose husband, a notorious womanizer, valued her beauty, but only as a means to elevate his status. Separate bedrooms underscored their lack of intimacy and, desperate for his affection, Babe was intent on being perfect and creating the perfect home. She left no detail to chance, anticipating her husband’s every need, even when he hardly noticed. For Babe, Truman came at the right time, filling a painful void.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a highly entertaining account of a period of time in New York that hit its peak just as Capote did. And as Capote began his slide into alcohol and drug abuse, the swans became matrons and had to move aside for a new generation. Benjamin feeds the reader’s need to admire the fashion and lifestyles of the super wealthy, while also showing its emptiness and sadness. Marriage is never till death do us part, and while Babe stays married to Bill, the other swans have affairs, marry, and divorce several times over.

Of course, the swans spent money like no one else and so the question is: how much can the average reader feel sorry for them? They certainly enjoyed the power and attention that their status gave them and the many pictures from the society pages suggest they knew exactly what they were doing, even Babe.

In addition, Benjamin presents a fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante as well as a serious writer. I highly recommend The Swans of Fifth Avenue to readers who enjoy character studies and stories about the New York upper class.

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Audiobook: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, narrated by Cassandra Campbell

Audiobook

Everything I Never Told You
by
Celeste Ng

Narrated by Cassandra Campbell

Rating:

On a spring morning in 1977, James and Marilyn Lee’s family changes in the worst way when their daughter, Lydia, goes missing. When police find her body at the bottom of the lake in their Ohio town, the agonizing questions begin. What happened? Was it murder or suicide? Lydia’s high school classmates can offer nothing, but her brother, Nath, has an idea who might know: their neighbor and classmate, Jack.

What follows is a painful look at a Chinese-American family and their struggle to understand how a girl who was seemingly happy, was not. Lydia’s story is paralleled by her mother’s abandoned dream to become a doctor. And while Marilyn wants Lydia to pick up the dream, James, who was lonely as the only Chinese boy in school, wants only for his children to fit in as Americans. Now without Lydia, her parents’ dreams are forever lost.

Everything I Never Told You is a story about regrets, unfulfilled dreams, unspoken feelings and the inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings that result. James wants his children to be popular because he was not. Marilyn wants to be nothing like her mother, but when she finds herself married and shackled by children, she puts her dream on Lydia. Lydia wants only to please her mother. Nath dreams of escape and Hannah, their younger sister, just wants someone to notice her. Instead of showing how they feel, they pretend. And when Lydia dies, they can’t reach each other for comfort.

It’s only after Lydia dies that her parents get to know her, but it is too late to understand or change the events. Ng helps the reader understand by going back in time to tell each family member’s story, including Lydia’s friendship with Jack and her final night. A tentative connection suggests healing and hope, based on better communication. But they must all move forward without a full knowledge of what happened.

I enjoyed listening to this story, but I found it depressing, if both words can be in the same sentence. It was more of a compulsive listen because of Ng’s excellent writing and her ability to make the reader/listener feel, which was greatly enhanced by the narrator. I was very moved by her character’s emotions. And while there is hope at the finish, I wanted to rewind and tell the Lee children to act out rather than retreat. The need to please parents is always strong, however, and perhaps their feelings of isolation made them focus only on this.

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The Storyteller Speaks: Powerful Stories to Win Your Heart by Annika Perry

The Storyteller Speaks: Powerful Stories to Win Your Heart
by
Annika Perry

Rating:

The appeal of short fiction is that it offers a glimpse of a character’s life, a problem, a twist and a quick finish. Annika Perry’s debut collection, The Storyteller Speaks, makes good on this promise in her newly published book of fiction and poetry.

Perry gives the reader twenty-one distinct stories about the daily challenges of marriage, children, friendship, family and loss. Her characters are knowable and likable, even the ones who find themselves on the bad end of a decision. Many of her stories depict the author’s upbringing in Sweden and the United Kingdom, yet show a universal understanding of family and relationships. And even though the stories are separate, the reader begins to develop a sense of community, as it seems as if some of the author’s characters might know each other.

Several standout stories will stick in the reader’s mind because of memorable characters and conflicts. In “The Whiteout Years,” a young widower wonders how he can let go of the heavy burden of guilt. Likewise, a young mother faces a very different future in “Sophia!” after a bizarre and tragic series of events. In one, there is a sign of hope. In the other, an unknown challenge.

Other stories finish with a warm feeling of love and friendship. In “Friends Forever,” Perry’s characters overcome a long and painful break and in “Role-Playing,” happiness is a given when old friends reunite.

But Perry isn’t afraid of exploring difficult or dark subjects. In “The Game,” children playing a seemingly harmless game discover the frightening power of their diversion. And in “Smouldering Shame,” Perry’s characters confront betrayal and a sorrowful tragedy. In “A Rare Passion,” a young man acts on impulse and immediately sees the folly of his decision. Can he fix his mistake in time?

Despite difficult subjects in many stories, Perry offers a strong overlying message of hope, love and family, as shown in her final story, “Loss of a Patriarch” in which a family finds peace and comfort after a beloved father and grandfather dies.

The Storyteller Speaks is a touching look at the challenges of life and relationships, an excellent debut. I look forward to reading more from this promising author.

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Cover reveal for Encounters: Relationships in Conflict by Fred H. Rohn

Make room on your bookshelves and eReaders for Encounters: Relationships in Conflict by Fred H. Rohn, a collection of short fiction about the human relationship.

Social mores change from year to year, but one thing remains constant: conflict between people results from differing perceptions, often between men and women and between different generations. In each story, characters confront a variety of personal and professional problems and must either compromise or adjust to new circumstances. In “The Painting,” a young married woman’s deceit catches up to her. “Doc Brunner” tells the story of a pastor facing a series of interrelated problems during World War II. In “Harry,” music from long ago invokes powerful memories.

Representing a wide range of age groups and set in many different time periods, these stories show that, while times change and circumstances differ, conflict and resolution in human relationships is an ageless cycle.

Fred H. Rohn is the author of two business accounting books and a memoir, A Fortunate Life. He has been married for seventy years and has four children and nine grandchildren. The short stories in Encounters represent years of accumulated notes for story ideas. He lives with his wife, June, in New Jersey. Encounters is scheduled for release in July 2018.


     Click here to view Rohn’s January 2018 interview with the Madison Eagle.


Click here for more information about A Fortunate Life.


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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists
by
Chloe Benjamin

Rating:

In 1969, four siblings sneak through their New York neighborhood to visit a mysterious woman on Hester Street. The Gold children hear she’s a fortune teller and that she will tell them the dates of their deaths. Varya is thirteen. Daniel is eleven. Klara is nine and Simon is seven. Should they believe?

They keep their information private, but the dates stick in their minds. Nine years later, their father dies, and things change as the siblings begin their adult lives. Do their choices reflect these dates? Are they in control of their futures?

The Immortalists follows the lives of the four Gold children as their dates loom. Simon and Klara make choices that split their family. Varya and Daniel try to carry on and care for their mother. Benjamin tells their stories in four parts, with a concluding tie-in that connects past and present.

The story begins with a suggestion of some sort of magic that will explain the mystery of life and death as the adult children struggle to balance this idea with their Jewish family’s traditional teachings. Klara’s decision to become a magician seems to promise the reader that her story will reveal the bridge between the living and the dead. But the other siblings’ stories are not connected in that way.

While The Immortalists is a very readable story, I did not care for its darkness. The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is certainly interesting and held promise for a good book. And the cover suggests a very different story. I found it unrealistic and depressing. Some parts seemed over the top and unbalanced and the characters were hard to like. Perhaps their visit to the fortune teller weighed too heavy on them and made them unknowable.

Maybe I went into it thinking it was something else or maybe it just wasn’t for me. But of course, every reader is different. To help you decide whether to pick it up, see what readers on Goodreads and Amazon have to say.

Have you read The Immortalists? What did you think?

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