Book Club Mom’s summer recommendations – grab a book and some fresh air!

Image: Pixabay

Summer reads have a certain feel about them and grabbing the right book can take you back to when you had long lazy days stretching out in front of you. Now, for many of us, it’s more a matter of creating the mood of an endless summer. So steal an hour, find a nice place in a park, in your yard or even at home with the windows open, and dig into a book that will grab you right away. Here are some recommendations to help you choose:


Dig Right In

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – light, entertaining historical fiction during the late 1800s when billionaire American families match their daughters with cash-poor dukes and princes in need of American money.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – set in Greenwich Village, NY, Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin – historical fiction and fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante to the New York upper class, and serious writer.

Things We Set on Fire by Deborah Reed – great story about a mother who believes she is doing the right thing, but can’t see its impact until decades later.


Family Dramas

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – a complicated family from Baltimore, full of secrets and an unacknowledged division between its members.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – great family saga that begins in the 1960s with six kids from two different families, thrown together because of an affair, a divorce and then a marriage.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub – light beach read about a dysfunctional family on a trip from Manhattan to Spain for some forced family vacation fun.

When I Found You by Catherine Ryan Hyde – a man goes duck hunting and finds an abandoned baby boy in the woods, changing his life in unimaginable ways.


Historical Fiction

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – classic tale about post-war immigration from Ireland to America.

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor – set in NY in 1950 during the Red Scare, the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, arrested for spying for the Russians.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor – biographical novel about Emily Dickinson and a fictional coming-of-age story about her young Irish maid.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a look at Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and their six-year marriage, spent mostly in Paris.


Secrets and Suspense

The Dry by Jane Harper – atmospheric thriller set on the edge of the Australia’s bushland during a devastating drought.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey – an old woman on the edge of dementia falls into a confused world of memories and suspicions, certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian – a flight attendant wakes up after a night of heavy drinking and discovers she is in bed with a man who has been brutally murdered.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – Young Adult story about mysterious events of one summer, forcing a family through painful changes.


I hope you find a good place to escape for a bit. What will you read?

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Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall
by
Noah Hawley

Rating:

Is it good luck to survive a plane crash over the Atlantic? Most would think yes, but Scott Burroughs, after a heroic swim to safety, with four-year-old JJ Bateman clinging to his neck, may wonder. Because he will soon find himself caught between competing government agencies searching for a cause and the media’s ruthless pursuit of a story, any story, even if it’s unfounded.

When Maggie Bateman offers Scott a seat on her private plane, he sees the quick jaunt from Martha’s Vineyard to New York as a way to avoid the ferry. Scott, a moneyless artist and recovering alcoholic, is an unlikely passenger on a plane for the ultra-rich. The remaining passengers include Maggie’s husband, David, a cable news mogul, their two young children, Wall Street millionaire investor Ben Kipling and his wife, Sarah. A body guard, two pilots, and a glamorous flight attendant complete the list, each with a story. But only Scott and young JJ will survive to tell what they know of it. The media won’t believe Scott and JJ is only four. The rest is up to investigators.

Everyone wants to know what made flight 613 go down. Was it terrorism? A conspiracy? Something else? The news machine has plenty of fuel for the fire, fanned by sensationalist ALC News personality Bill Cunningham, whose means to get a story are not always above board. And initially lauded as a hero, Scott soon becomes the target of the investigation, once his artwork is discovered. Is there meaning in these shocking portrayals?

Broken into chapters about each passenger and with descriptions of Scott’s paintings, Hawley’s story allows readers to develop their own theories. Many answers lay hidden in the airplane’s two black boxes and the truth will come out if they are recovered.

Before the Fall is not just about a plane crash. It’s a commentary on heroism, personal strength, wealth, power, the media and the question of “information versus entertainment.” It’s described as an international thriller and suspense novel, but I think it’s just a great story about how the truth is often obstructed by the human tendency to jump to conclusions. Heroes and happy endings are also hidden, but they’re in there somewhere.

Before the Fall is the winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the 2017 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel. I recommend this book to readers who like big stories, with each character contributing to the plot surrounding a single event, and to readers who enjoy books that represent our society’s mishmash of beliefs, values and questionable morals.

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The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

The Glass Room
by
Ann Cleeves

Rating:

Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope has another crime to solve when her neighbor, Joanna Tobin, goes missing and an influential professor is murdered. Could Joanna, who is off her meds, be responsible for the professor’s death?

In the fifth of the Vera Stanhope series, which is also a popular show on Netflix, the stocky, gruff and brilliant detective investigates Tony Ferdinand’s murder. With Sergeant Joe Ashworth at her side and Detective Constable Holly Clarke close behind, Vera steps into the unfamiliar realm of writers and publishers, all trying to either get in the game, or stay in it, at Miranda Barton’s Writers’ House.

Ferdinand has been found stabbed and crouching on the balcony off the glass room and Vera is first to question the set-up. “Did he sit on the balcony and wait to be stabbed to death? Or was he moved afterwards? I mean, this all seems madness to me.”

As Vera digs, it seems everyone has something to hide, including Joanna, who is at the house on scholarship. Is what she has written the source of the crime? Why is Miranda’s son Alex defensive about his knives? And what is tutor Nina Backworth’s alibi? She hated Ferdinand and so did Miranda! Others at the weeklong course include a successful crime novelist, a former truck driver with a fresh new voice, and a former police inspector.

True to Vera’s character, the sharp-eyed detective has equally acerbic communications skills, pitting Joe against Holly and irritating many. She may be an imperfect and lonely human being, but no one can match her intuition.

Set in fictional Northumberland, England, I thoroughly enjoyed the coastline setting and clever story, in which the author offers clues, but saves the crucial details for the finish. Vera may be gruff, but Cleeves shows the detective’s soft sides as well. This is the second Stanhope mystery I’ve read. (Check out my review of The Moth Catcher here.) and, while Vera and her crew are regulars, readers will have no problem jumping in wherever they please. I see this as a great way for readers to enjoy books from a series without having to commit to reading a long line of books and I recommend The Glass Room to readers who enjoy entertaining and intelligent mysteries.

Have you read any of the Vera Stanhope books? Have you watched the show? I checked out the first DVD at the library and will be watching it soon!

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Book Club Mom’s March recap – a month of blog posts

Image: Pixabay

March powered through like a freight train on greased wheels and I’m happy to say I didn’t derail!

Spring has finally arrived and, for the first time since I planted bulbs, the bunnies haven’t chomped my flowers down to the nubs. That must be a sign of good things to come!

I had a busy blogging month. I read some good books, profiled two indie authors, brushed up on my vocabulary and grammar, wrote and shared some special posts and made a few YouTube videos.

Here’s a quick “ICYMI” summary of what went down in March at Book Club Mom. Click on the links to visit each post.


Book Reviews

Mar 3: The Widow by Fiona Barton
Mar 11: Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Mar 22: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Mar 24: What If? by Randall Munroe
Mar 30: How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery


Mar 6: Giselle Roeder
Mar 19: Gina Briganti

I love meeting indie authors and I’m always looking for new profiles to post. If you are interested in being featured, please email bvitelli2009@gmail for more information.


Grammar and Vocabulary

(Images: Pixabay)

I may have majored in English, but I make plenty of mistakes. These grammar and vocabulary posts are my way of staying fresh with the rules:

Mar 5: On vocabulary, words both big and small…
Mar 21: “Into” and “in to” – are you into it?
Mar 28: Using ellipses – are you doing it right?


Special Posts

I shared two posts written by my son, Austin Vitelli. The first is a book review and the second is a feature article that appeared in The Morning Call on March 26.

Mar 6: Sweetness by Jeff Pearlman – thoughts on NFL legend Walter Payton
Mar 26: How 3 former Lehigh football players and their friends started a record label


Guest Post on author Jill Weatherholt’s blog

I was excited to be featured on Jill’s blog, where I talk about my blogging experiences (and mistakes!) and tackle the tricky question of what to do when I don’t like a book.

Mar 29: Welcome Book Blogger Book Club Mom


I’m still learning the technical side of making videos, but I’m having a lot of fun along the way. I have some new ideas for April, so stay tuned!

Mar 7: Self-publishing – here’s how we did it!
Mar 13: Walking and listening to audiobooks
Mar 20: Audiobook update and general news!


I hope you had a great month too! Looking forward to more fun in April!

Image: Pixabay

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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan Beach
by
Jennifer Egan

Rating:

How exciting to choose a book you know nothing about and immediately love it! I had seen Manhattan Beach on display at the library where I work, and the other library book club had already read it, but I never asked my work friend what it was about. And I blindly selected it for my own book club. Talk about being a pantser!

Manhattan Beach has a 3.8 star average rating on Amazon, with over half of the reviewers giving it a 4 or 5, but the rest of the reviews are 1-3 stars. This book is a winner with most and not so much with others. Well, it’s a winner with me! It’s full of complex characters, twisting plot lines and overlaid with the conflict between doing the right thing and doing what you have to do, with heavy consequences on both sides.

Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins in 1937 with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl. In these early years, Anna has a strong bond with her father, Eddie and she shadows him on mysterious work errands. At home, her mother cares full-time for Anna’s crippled younger sister, Lydia, a source of guilt, shame, resentment and love in different measures for each of them. On one errand, Anna meets the powerful Dexter Styles and without knowing why, senses an important connection between the men.

Eight years later, Eddie is missing and Anna has a job measuring parts at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the hub of wartime repairs and preparations. And then she meets Styles again at one of his nightclubs. Determined to understand his relationship to her father, Anna sets off on a dangerous course in both her personal life and at work, where she has become the first female civilian diver. In this section, Egan includes interesting descriptions of how divers trained and worked, a dangerous activity and much different from resort dives of today!

What I liked best about Manhattan Beach is the way the author allows the reader inside the heads of her characters. I understood them much better, knowing how they made their decisions and I sometimes liked the ones with questionable morals more, because I could see their predicaments. Several of them grapple with the ethics of their work, and a few will do whatever it takes to protect their family. I particularly liked the slow reveal of Eddie’s character, who travels with many of the wrong people, but has a lifelong desire to do what’s right.

I also enjoyed the way Egan describes New York during this time period. It’s loaded with regular people, gangsters, bankers, and laborers, trying to get by in any way they can and, even when they are at cross purposes, there’s a sense of unity to win the war. Who gets by and who has the upper hand can quickly change, and that’s what kept me happily reading to the finish.

I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere
by
Celeste Ng

Rating:

Nothing is left to chance in Elena Richardson’s life. Her family has lived for generations in Shaker Heights, a planned community outside of Cleveland, Ohio. And Elena has spent her adult life meeting the goals to match her life to the Shaker Heights model: marriage, career, beautiful home, and children. Raised in affluence and taught to help others, she makes a point of being generous.

Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, Pearl, live the opposite way. Low on money, they move from town to town where Mia waits tables and works on her art. When she needs new inspiration, they pack up and leave. But this time, Mia is determined to give Pearl a more grounded life.

The story is set in the 1980s and begins with a Richardson family crisis. Then Ng rewinds to explain how it all began:

It seems like the perfect arrangement when the Warrens move into the Richardsons’ subsidized rental. But the threat of change looms as their lives intersect. A fast friendship develops between Pearl and Elena’s son, Moody, and Pearl is soon fascinated with the Richardson family, believing Elena is the consummate mom. Elena’s kids are equally drawn to Mia, who shows them a different kind of parenting.

The kids can’t articulate these differences, but they form the slow-burning backdrop to the biggest story in Shaker Heights—an intensely debated adoption case. The baby is one-year-old Mirabelle McCullough, or May Ling if you ask her birth mother, Bebe Chow.

As the judge’s hearing approaches, the town takes sides and the question of motherhood figures into all of Ng’s characters. The McCulloughs are sure they can be the best parents to baby Mirabelle, but doesn’t Bebe Chow deserve to have her daughter?

Several side stories between the Pearl and Richardson kids highlight the intensity of high school years in which friendship, romance, hormones and fitting in figure prominently. Ng includes plenty of sibling rivalry to reveal the complicated dynamics in the Richardson home.

In addition to motherhood, Ng questions the motives of Elena’s good works and asks, “What is the best way to live?” Throughout the story are themes of sacrifice and life choices. Readers will see how some of her characters figure it out and wonder what fares for others.

I highly recommend Little Fires Everywhere. It’s a terrific story of complicated family dynamics. You’ll want to read it all at once to know how it works out!

And for those of you who are wondering, Shaker Heights is a real place. You can read about it here and here.

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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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