Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth
by
Ann Patchett

Rating:

Here’s a great family saga that begins in the 1960s with six kids from two different families, the Cousins and the Keatings, thrown together because of an affair, a divorce and then a marriage. As the four parents establish their new lives, the kids are left to figure things out for themselves. Two sisters live with their mother and stepfather in Virginia and the four children from the other family are based with their mother in California during the school year. The step-siblings spend summers in Virginia, largely unsupervised and, while much of what they do is just kids’ stuff, they also take risks and use their own means to control their hyperactive youngest brother, Albie.

Until one summer when tragedy changes everything. The children, now adolescents, and their parents must carry on and Commonwealth is the story about how they do that. About halfway through the book, readers learn more about Franny Keating, who begins a relationship with a famous author, Leo Posen. And the story then becomes something new, showing the impact of this relationship on the rest of the Cousins and Keatings.

To describe what happens next would spoil the story, as the step-siblings manage their adult lives and their parents adjust to changes in their own relationships. Despite the large number of characters, Patchett shows how each of the unique and flawed personalities circle through anger, separation and illness.

While some readers may not enjoy the complicated dynamic within these families, I loved it, although I did take notes of the characters and their relationships. For readers who enjoy family sagas, Commonwealth is a terrific look inside the messy lives of a large and slapped together family. And Patchett’s clever way of telling a story within a story is the reader’s reward for keeping careful track of her characters.

This is my third Ann Patchett book and I love her writing style. Her books have completely different settings, characters and story lines, underscoring how versatile Patchett’s writing is. I read and loved Bel Canto many years ago and more recently read State of Wonder (read my review here).

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Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

 

Sharp Objects
by
Gillian Flynn

Rating:

Frank Curry, editor of Chicago’s Daily Post, thinks he’s doing a good thing by sending Camille Preaker to cover a murder investigation in her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri. Camille is just out of a stay in a psych ward and Curry thinks this assignment will get her back on track.

A nine-year-old girl has been murdered in Wind Gap and now a ten-year-old girl is missing. When the second girl’s body is discovered, details of the murder suggest a serial killer. Is the killer a stranger to the town or, more disturbingly, one of them?

Camille’s return to the small town is anything but a warm family reunion. It’s been eight years since she’s visited her mother, stepfather and younger half-sister, Amma. Readers quickly discover a strange and dysfunctional family dynamic. Adora Crellin is a controlling mother to thirteen-year-old Amma, a girl who wears pigtails at home, but runs wild in town. And Camille soon notices their mother’s obsession with Amma’s health, who often suffers from fevers and undetermined illnesses. She wonders if Amma is like their sickly and now dead sister, Marian, who died when Camille was thirteen. Marian’s death marks a dark turning point in the family’s history, a time when Camille turned to self-harm to cope.

Camille gathers information for a series of articles as local police and a special detective from Kansas City look for a suspect and motive. A romantic spark between Camille and the detective leads to shared information that may solve the crimes and put Camille back on track, or not. Several false leads initially distract Camille and police from finding the killer, but help the reader understand Wind Gap’s small-town culture.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll need to stop short of describing the rest of the story and leave the discoveries to the reader. I enjoyed Sharp Objects, a fast-paced suspenseful thriller. Published in 2006, it is Flynn’s debut novel and, while it is similar to Gone Girl (2012) in its darkness and unlikeable and twisted characters, plot and character are less developed. (Read my review of Gone Girl here.) Readers also need to let go of a need for realistic scenarios and accept the developments at the finish as part of the need to wrap things up.

In addition to a suspenseful story, Flynn draws attention to the devastating effects of mental illnesses, especially those that lead to cutting and other forms of self-harm. I recommend Sharp Objects to readers who enjoy dark suspenseful stories. Sharp Objects is now an HBO series. You can check it out here.

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The safe world of political fiction

If you can’t watch the news, but you still like political stories, you can always pick up a novel. These three books will help you escape into the safe world of political fiction. One all-American story, a smart romance and a clever mystery.


America America by Ethan Canin

In 1971, Henry Bonwiller is near the front of the race to become the next Democratic nominee for president of the United States, and a young Corey Sifter is there to witness his rise and ultimate fall, as an aide to the money and power behind the campaign.


Candidate by Tracy Ewens

Politics are tough and public image is everything for United States Senator Patrick Malendar of California. He’s up for re-election and his young Republican opponent is giving him a run for his money. This modern romance is full of fun banter and romantic tension. But it also tackles many serious subjects, including the price of public life, family secrets and infidelity.


Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery by Andrew Shaffer

Why not write a mystery with Barack Obama and Joe Biden as amateur detectives? This pair has plenty of rapport to wrap around a good story line. Who better to solve a mystery than the former President and Vice President of the United States?


And if you really just want to escape from it all, try

Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse

Imagine a scenario in which ridiculous characters bumble through a series of hilarious coincidences and an equal number of snafus, all in the name of love, marriage and a big business deal. The first of three short novels included in Just Enough Jeeves, a fun introduction to P.G. Wodehouse’s famous characters: twenty-something Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves.


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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


I read Miller’s Valley as part of my library’s Summer Reading
Challenge to “read a book you own but haven’t read.”


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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.


I read The Dry as part of my library’s Summer Reading
Challenge to “read a book set in a place you’d like to visit.”


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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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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 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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Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Today Will Be Different
by
Maria Semple

Rating:

Eleanor Flood’s life is teetering on a cliff, even if she doesn’t realize it. Everything is off-kilter, including her marriage and the graphic memoir she’s been writing for way too long. In addition, their third-grade son, Timby, is having stomach problems. But on this Seattle morning, Eleanor resolves that this day will be different: “Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being.”

Despite her resolve, the day begins poorly. Her husband Joe, a highly respected hand surgeon, is face down at the kitchen table, arms splayed, and he doesn’t want to talk about it. Timby is in the bathroom putting on scads of makeup. What to do? She thinks she will find inner peace at her poetry lesson, but a call from Timby’s school summons her to the nurse’s office. Timby has another stomach ache.

The issue isn’t what is happening to Eleanor, it’s how she reacts. Questionable decisions and outrageous actions send her into a crazy, no logic, self-absorbed spiral. It’s a reader’s train wreck—impossible to look away.

At the core of Eleanor’s imbalance is a lonely and unhappy childhood, documented in a book of drawings entitled The Flood Girls, and presented to her sister Ivy. But something else is wrong. Joe is leading a secret life.

As Eleanor catapults herself into one disaster after another, the reader wonders where on earth this story is going. Chapters are varied, some are narrated by Eleanor, others jump back in time and are told in third-person, with The Flood Girls drawings in the middle. As the story gains momentum, the urge to read on is fueled entirely by a need to know what Joe is doing.

I don’t know what to call this book. Before I learned the truth about Joe, I liked that the characters were headed for disaster (more train-wreck reading) and thinking there would be a big and satisfying confrontation, but I was sorely disappointed with the finish, making me wonder just what Semple is trying to do with this book.

I also found Semple’s characters hard to like. Eleanor is selfish and quirky. Timby is unrealistic, Ivy is too shattered, etc. Joe’s character is the most human, but nothing fits together.

Despite these remarks, Today Will Be Different is an easy read, with some clever dialogue and a few entertaining outrageous scenes. Seattle readers will enjoy the references to various public places and football fans will appreciate Pete Carroll’s gum-chewing cameo in the book.

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The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys
by
Elizabeth Strout

Rating:

If you loved Olive Kitteridge as much as I did, you may want to take a look at The Burgess Boys. It’s a different kind of book, but there are many things to like about this story of Jim and Bob Burgess and Bob’s twin sister, Susan. We meet them as fifty-something adults, deep into their lives and full of complex problems, set into place when, as young children playing in the family car, they rolled down the driveway and over their father, killing him.

Bob is found at the wheel and, and at age four, shoulders the blame for this terrible accident. He has endured a lifetime of complicated family dynamics and at the opening of the story is an affable, but divorced and lonely borderline alcoholic lawyer. He’s overpowered by his brother Jim, a famous defense attorney turned corporate lawyer, who has spent a lifetime berating and punishing Bob for their father’s death. Susan has her own problems with her son Zachary, who has been arrested for throwing a pig’s head into a Somali mosque. The two brothers try to help her and their lives change in major ways.

This is a book full of thoughts, conversations, arguments, feelings and reflections. This slower pace may frustrate some readers, because the story seems to reach a point of going nowhere, only to pick up deep into the second half. I am wondering if Strout has deliberately constructed her story to show how the characters begin the story deeply rutted into their lives and very slowly undergo major changes that drive the story to its conclusion.

I think Strout does a great job showing how grown siblings communicate with each other, something that is frustrating to view as an outsider, but can ring true for many.

I like Bob’s character the most because of his great ability to soothe people and calm situations, despite his arguably messed-up life. He has deep thoughts that are presented in a simple way and a manner of connecting with people that makes a real difference. For me, that quality rises above his other major flaws. Jim’s character, although arrogant, has many realistic traits and he is complicated in a different way. His outer finish of confidence and authority carry him far, but the way he lashes out at Bob makes him difficult to like. I like how Strout shows how they change in relation to their flaws.

It’s hard to name the real plot in this story and that’s where I think there’s a problem. Strout introduces the reader to the Somali people who have moved to Susan’s town and the difficulties they have had integrating and being accepted. And although Zach’s character pulls them into the Burgess story line, there is something forced here. Again, I’d like to think it’s deliberate on Strout’s part, to show how very hard it was for the Somalis. But, except for Abdikarim and his character’s initial struggle to fit in and later assimilation, it’s hard to know the rest of the Somali immigrants.

And you either like open endings or you hate them. I like open endings because they allow me to think about the characters long after I’ve finished the book. And I think this kind of ending realistically shows how there is never a perfectly neat finish to people’s complicated and messy lives.


Want more? Click below for more Strout stories:

Olive Kitteridge the book

Olive Kitteridge the HBO miniseries

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