Once Upon a Time…a few books with happy endings

No matter the journey – from Moriarty’s clever twists and heart-stopping foils to Elizabeth Berg’s magical realism, Diane Setterfield’s Gothic mystery, and Tara Westover’s shocking revelations – when the ending neatly slays the dragons, and the good guys win – all is well with the story.

51-+rlhp5gl._ac_us218_Nine Perfect Strangers

Liane Moriarty knows how to spin a tale and she does not disappoint in her latest page turner Nine Perfect Strangers.  Nine strangers at an upscale spa connect in her tale of self discovery, with humor, mystery, and a few heart stopping thrills.  Each has a different motive for signing up for the ten day rejuvenation plan, from the young couple who need marriage counseling after winning the lottery to the overwrought romance writer who has been taken in by an internet scam.  Others include the thirty something woman with four girls whose husband left her for a twenty something, a handsome gay divorce attorney, an over-the-hill sports hero, and a grieving family of three. Throw in a Russian overachiever with diabolical intent, and Moriarty once again has produced a fun and thrilling fast ride.

513lhruwtul._ac_us218_Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Setterfield creates a Gothic mystery around a “dark and stormy night” during the winter solstice over one hundred years ago with a mute child brought back from the dead after drowning in the river.  Three separate families claim the girl as their own – Helena and Anthony Vaughan believe she’s their kidnapped daughter; Robert and Bess Armstrong think she’s their illegitimate grandchild ; and Lily White hopes she’s her lost sister.  As the plot meanders through the town and the river, I sometimes got lost in the flashbacks. The complicated mystery is solved quickly at the end, but the rapid decompression may give you the bends.  Like Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale, Once Upon a River has scenes shifting through time with strong characters at the helm.

th  Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg knows how to dish out comfort, and in Night of Miracles the food helps.  You’ll be salivating at the midnight chocolate cake, the butterscotch dreams, and the cream cheese lemon bars   Lucille Howard from The Story of Arthur Trulove returns in the familiar town of Mason, Missouri, where she is now at eighty-eight years old teaching classes on baking.  Arthur’s adopted daughter, Maddy, and his granddaughter, continue to be a part of her life.  A few new characters add flavor:  Iris Winters, looking for a fresh start in a new town; Monica, the waitress; Tiny, a local man and frequent customer pining for Monica; the young couple next door to Lucille facing a health crisis, and their son Lincoln. When Lucille receives an ethereal night visitor in her dreams, the angel of death in jeans and a flannel shirt,  you will wonder if no more sequels are forthcoming.  Nonetheless, the story is full of good people doing good things for each other – oblivious of the rancor in the outside world – a tonic and a lesson of hope.

41qzuq2h2wl._ac_us218_Educated by Tara Westover

If happy endings make you smile, this coming of age memoir will make you gasp.  With a fundamentalist upbringing on a Morman Idaho homestead, Tara Westover embellishes her hard journey to success and graduate degrees in Education.  Although she admits she might have gotten some of the facts mixed up, memory being what it is (especially when you’ve suffered a number of head injuries from car crashes and beatings), Westover’s harrowing account of survival is sometimes difficult to digest.  Her tale is her catharsis, but not everyone will want to know all those details. Hopefully, she’ll move on to using her Cambridge Ph.D. to write about other topics.

The Overstory

shopping  A recent article making the rounds on the internet reported on an Idaho artist converting a 110 year old dead cottonwood tree trunk into a little free library. Before I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, it never would have occurred to me to wonder how the tree felt about it.  Now, every time leaves rustle outside my window or a tree sways in the wind as I drive past, I listen  – not necessarily for messages from the tree but for the shift in my awareness.  Richard Powers has changed my perception, but it sadly will probably not last.

The Overstory is a long and challenging book, and its message should not be taken lightly.  Barbara Kingsolver in her review for the New York Times tries to explain the premise:

“The handful of readers who come to the book without benefit of reviews or jacket copy will believe it’s a collection of unrelated short stories…{but} These characters who have held us rapt for 150 pages turn out to be the shrubby understory, for which we couldn’t yet see the forest. Standing overhead with outstretched limbs are the real protagonists. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal, in a violent struggle against a mortgaged timber company that is liquidating its assets, including one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods.”

Although Powers frames his narrative around the environment, with scary references not only to artificial intelligence but also to the extremism of the righteous on both sides of the conversation, he uses trees to tell the real story of civilization or perhaps the lack of civility.  I read the book slowly, trying to digest its depth; I attended a discussion led by brilliant and thoughtful readers who had read the book more than once, and still I wonder if I caught all of Powers’ intent.  Powers is a MacArthur genius and winner of what Barbara Kingsolver calls the “literary-prize Olympics” – way over the head of most of us – but he manages to integrate encyclopedic information on botany and computers with relatable perspectives in the lives of his nine characters, to nudge the reader to think about the bigger picture in this book.

If you read the book, it helps to take notes on the characters as they are introduced in the first section of the book, but, don’t worry if you mix them up or forget all their details as you continue.  The characters are there to be the understory, the familiar connection, but  the trees – here long before us – carry the message.  If only we would listen.

Books I am Looking Forward to Reading

unknownAlthough I haven’t read all the books still on my to read pile from last year, I am already thinking about new books to be published soon in 2019.

Here are five I want to read, with more to come:

  1. The Suspect by Fiona Barton – a psychological thriller
  2. The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley – a Flavia de Luce mystery
  3. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict – historical fiction with actress Hedy Lamarr as the main character
  4. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman – romantic comedy with one woman’s trash becoming another woman’s treasure
  5. Spring by Ali Smith – the next installment of her seasons

 

Three Quick Reads to Start the Year

A short list of books to begin January, 2019:

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  1. Heads You Win 

Jeffrey Archer is back with another cliff hanger, examining what if the other road were taken.  After a harrowing escape from Russia, the life of the main character switches between Alex and his mother in New York City and Sasha (same character) in London.  The parallel lives of the same character follow a fast-paced thriller in alternating chapters, with a surprise ending.

     2. Night of Camp David

Fletcher Knebel’s 1965 novel about a deranged President has made a comeback, probably because fiction may not be far from the present truth.  The political thriller features “an unhinged American president who falls prey to his own paranoia and conspiratorial fantasies, as people around him struggle to rein in his worst impulses.”  Sound familiar?

     3. The Bookshop of Yesterdays

Amy Meyerson’s mystery adds a little romance and familiar literary references to Melinda’s surprise inheritance of a bookshop. Although I had solved the puzzle early in the story, I still enjoyed the read – and learned about a few icons I didn’t know were adopted, including Eleanor Roosevelt and John Lennon.

 

 

My Favorite Books of 2018

6cr5kd9LiLooking back is sometimes easier than looking forward.  Scrolling through my reviews for 2018 brought back connections I made through books, and, as I tried to identify one book from each month, I remembered the year.  I found a book for each month except June, and the one posting for that month titled A Prescription for Comfort Books  was a reminder of my fall.

Here are my favorites for 2018 – have you read any?

  • January, 2018 – I started the year with Roz Chast’s Going Into Town, my favorite book of the year.
  • February, 2018 – a complicated puzzle of lives and loves – The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake
  • March, 2018 – Eleanor Roosevelt and her true love in Amy Bloom’s White Houses
  • April, 2018 – a thrill a minute in Christine Mangan’s Tangerine
  • May, 2018 – Ruth Ware returns with another mystery thriller in The Death of Mrs. Westaway
  • June, 2018 – oh, my aching back – a good title for my memoirs
  • July, 2018 – Anne Tyler returns to Baltimore in Clock Dance
  • August, 2018 – Delia Owens, a naturalist, writes her first fiction book in Where the Crawdads Sing
  • September, 2018 – a creepy thriller – Louise Candish’s Our House
  • October, 2018 – the power of women in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls
  • November, 2018 – a children’s book with a message for adults by Kate DiCamillo – Louisiana’s Way Home
  • December, 2018 – nonfiction – The Library Book by Susan Orleans