The Most Fun We Ever Had

Claire Lombardo’s family saga – The Most Fun We Ever Had –  has all the drama of a television series (“This Is Us” comes to mind), as she follows the Sorensons through their lives.  Although Marilyn Connelly and David Sorenson anchor the family with their seemingly perfect married life, and their unlikely unending passion, their dysfunctional daughters command most of the action. Lombardo uses the catalyst of a long lost teenager’s sudden appearance after having been secretly given up at birth for adoption, to explain the family dynamics.

The title is misleading; the story is not the most fun you will ever have, as you follow each character in turmoil, yet it is compelling – and long – over five hundred pages. Marilyn is the stereotypical matriarch who married young and supported her husband through medical school, while having babies and burying her own ambitions, which reappear later. Wendy, the eldest daughter, never quite recovers from having competition in her bright younger sister Violet, born in the same calendar year, followed soon after by Liza.  The youngest, Grace, born later and referred to as the “epilogue” feels left out, despite her parents hovering.  As adults, they morph into a widow; a stay-at-home mom with a law degree; a tenured professor facing parenting alone; and a recent college graduate caught up in an embarrassing lie

Lombardo follows the family through major events but not in order.  She begins the story with the wedding of the eldest, Wendy, and proceeds to explain the cryptic clues she initially drops through flashbacks involving births and deaths, sibling rivalries and secrets, and lots of lies. Sometimes it’s not clear at first who is speaking.

A few surprises kept me reading, wondering if another would appear – it did – and the rivalry between the older daughters could probably have been a book by itself.  The story is absorbing but also exhausting – and maybe just a little too long.

This Tender Land

William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land channels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey in an endearing coming of age saga with Dickensian characters who are just as memorable as the heroes from David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.  Although the author adds an epilogue explaining how the four main characters finished their lives in old age, I was sorry to see them grow up, and will probably always remember them as the four young “Vagabonds” who escaped the clutches of evil and followed the river on a life-changing adventure during the Depression.

Ten year old Odie, short for Odysseus, a natural storyteller who also plays the harmonica, is the narrator.  He bands together with three other orphaned escapees from the Lincoln Indian Training School: Albert, his older brother; Mose, a mute Indian boy who had his tongue cut out; and Emmy, the beautiful curly headed six year old with a talent for changing the future, as they paddle in a canoe from Minnesota’s Gilead River to St. Louis on the Mississippi in search of a home.  They meet an array of well meaning characters, including a band of traveling faith healers, a few ornery swindlers and displaced families,  but the villain they are  constantly trying to escape is the headmistress of the school, a cruel and abusive personification of her nickname, the Black Witch.

Krueger follows these heroic children as they travel through Hoovervilles and shantytowns, farmlands and flooded river flats.They meet hobos and scammers, are imprisoned by a farmer, and befriended by Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade and Mother Beal, who shares what little food she has.

Like Odysseus, Odie finally makes it to Ithaca, but Kreuger offers a few surprises and a better ending than Homer’s tale.  Our hero finds hope and renewed faith in a compelling story of family and friendship.   I was sorry to come to the end of the book, and the characters, especially Odie, will stay with me for a while.

If you are looking for a book to discuss in a book club, William Kent Kruger’s This Tender Land offers a wealth of characters and plot lines in an easy to follow narrative.

Jeffrey Archer is Back

Some run for elected office in their seventies; others write books.  Jeffrey Archer, 79, will be in his eighties when his new book – Nothing Ventured – continues the story of Detective William Warwick in a new family saga.  Archer has not lost his touch; his new story takes the reader on a wild ride with fast turns and switchbacks as the characters pursue crimes in art and antiquities.

Fans of Archer’s Clifton Chronicles will recognize Detective William Warwick as the fictional character created by author Harry Clifton, in his popular and lucrative detective series.   Archer now centers his new family saga on Warwick in a clever spinoff.

In this first in a series, Warwick foregoes following the family tradition of studying law to earn a degree in art history, followed by a career as a constable and novice detective.  His police work is enhanced by his good looks and his intelligence, as he gets opportunities to prove himself in the field.  Like all Archer’s characters, Warwick is easy to like and to follow, and the story pits him against a civilized and brilliant villain to keep the plot rolling.

Archer usually ends with a cliff hanger leading into the next book in the series, and he delivers enough of a tease at the end of this story to tempt the reader into the next book featuring a battle of wills between Warwick and criminal mastermind Miles Faulkner.  Keep writing, Lord Archer, we can’t wait for the next installment.

The Great Alone

511Dl74cE9L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_  In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, courage and perseverance battle the threatening elements of the Alaskan frontier in a family saga of the untamed wilderness.  Using elements of her own family’s experience in Alaska, Hannah captures the raw beauty in the magnificent stillness as well as the terror of survival in an unforgiving landscape.  Much like Ivey’s historical novel – To The Bright Edge of the Word, The Great Alone invokes the forbidding yet beautiful lure of Alaska as well as the fortitude of those who would live there.

A young girl, Leni, narrates her life story from 1974 to 2009, documenting her struggle in a family plagued by her father’s post-traumatic stress disorder following his return as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  Moving from place to place, looking for peace and a place in a “world being run by lunatics,” her father suddenly inherits a parcel of isolated land in Kaneq, Alaska from a dead Army buddy. The family leaves Seattle to become pioneers in a place promising freedom from the trauma of the seventies – the Munich Olympics, Watergate, hijacked planes, and more.  Unprepared, the family struggles in a run-down log cabin with no electricity or running water, and only makes it through with the help of their neighbors, but Ernt, Leni’s father, sinks deeper into depression and becomes more abusive as the days become long nights in the Alaskan dark winter.

The characters surrounding the family represent a chorus of sturdy, sometimes stereotyped pioneers, from the tough former prosecutor, Large Marge, to the wealthy Walkers, descended from a hearty stock of generations of  homesteaders.  Earl Harlan, the old codger whose son, Bo, gifted the land, feeds Ernt’s negative outlook on life with his own pessimistic ramblings.  The liquor helps too.

Looking for a connection, Leni finally finds it in a young Matthew Walker.  As they grow from adolescence into young adulthood, their story becomes a Shakespearean tragedy, yet this Romeo and Juliet find ways to nurture their love despite their families’ feud and her father’s abuse. Through them Hannah reveals not only the wonder of the Alaskan beauty but also the hope of future generations.

As I read, I worried.  Would they meet the same fate as Shakespeare’s lovers?  Would the villain (the abusive father who becomes uncontrollable) destroy everyone around him?  Be assured, this is Kristin Hannah, an author who believes in happy endings.  Although the ending is somewhat contrived, and not everyone lives happily ever after, the lovers do survive.

In a world of conveniences, it’s easy to forget how difficult life was not so long ago.  Despite its modernization, in Alaska, the “last frontier,”  some still battle the rough and brutal elements and live “off the grid.”  Hannah uses them to demonstrate survival and communal strength; after all, love conquers all.

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The Black Painting

When I visited the Prada museum in Madrid, the focus was Diego Valazquez’s intricate “Las Meninas,”  but the image of one of Goya’s “Black Paintings” – the disturbing portrait of  Saturn Devouring His Son  is hard to forget.  Neil Olson imagines a mysterious missing addition to the famous collection the seventy year old artist painted on his walls – a self-portrait of Goya which hangs in the study of a wealthy collector, who uses it to control his family in the story of The Black Painting.

51jz+yvAOjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  The power of art to evoke personal epiphanies is one of Olson’s themes as he weaves a complicated tale of greed and anxiety in The Black Painting.  The painting covered the wall behind the locked door of the Morse patriarch’s study, and was rumored to cause death and madness.  The famous painting was long ago stolen, when the grandchildren were young,

Before he dies, the family is summoned to Owl’s Point to hear Alfred Arthur Morse’s conditions for distributing his wealth – the mansion as well as an extensive art collection.  When she arrives at the mansion, Teresa, a student of art history,  finds her grandfather dead, his face contorted in an expression of horror and his gaze fixed on the spot where the Goya painting once hung,   The mystery of its thief and the patriarch’s diabolic intentions for his progeny create a thrilling story of deceit, corruption, and dark family secrets.

Olson cleverly allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the creepy details of the Goya painting , which is never actually described in any detail—a device that allows the reader to create a personal image of horror.  A gripping tale you will read in a sitting…