Book Review: The Lido by Libby Page

 

We’re never too old to make new friends—or to make a difference.

Rosemary Peterson has lived in Brixton, London, all her life but everything is changing.

The library where she used to work has closed. The family grocery store has become a trendy bar. And now the lido, an outdoor pool where she’s swam daily since its opening, is threatened with closure by a local housing developer. It was at the lido that Rosemary escaped the devastation of World War II; here she fell in love with her husband, George; here she found community during her marriage and since George’s death.

Twenty-something Kate Matthews has moved to Brixton and feels desperately alone. A once promising writer, she now covers forgettable stories for her local paper. That is, until she’s assigned to write about the lido’s closing. Soon Kate’s portrait of the pool focuses on a singular woman: Rosemary. And as Rosemary slowly opens up to Kate, both women are nourished and transformed in ways they never thought possible.

In the tradition of Fredrik Backman, The Lido is a charming, feel-good novel that captures the heart and spirit of a community across generations—an irresistible tale of love, loss, aging, and friendship.

What a lovely, lovely book!

A lido, for the benefit of my fellow Americans who’ve never encountered the word before (other than via references to the Lido Deck on The Love Boat re-runs), is an outdoor pool. And in The Lido, it’s so much more than simply a place to swim. For the Brixton neighborhood, the lido is a fixture dating back to pre-World War II, a place where members of the community of all walks of life come together to exercise, to raise children, to chat with friends, to interact with neighbors. But as with so much in this day and age, a community gathering center that doesn’t bring in big bucks has a hard time lasting, so when a development company wants to buy the property and turn it into upscale housing and tennis courts — well, of course that’s a tempting offer for a cash-strapped local council.

And yet, there are people like 86-year-old Rosemary, who has had the lido as a centerpiece of her life for more years than she can count. Her memories of her late husband — and really, their entire love story — are inseparable from the memories of the moments they spent together at the lido. The lido remains the true constant in Rosemary’s life, and in the lives of countless of her neighbors. The potential loss of the lido is like one more death for Rosemary, and seems to represent the final, shattering blow for a woman who’s lived through so much and has already lost the love of her life.

George is in the way the mist sits on the water in the morning, he is in the wet decking and the brightly colored lockers and in the sharp intake of breath when she steps into the water, reminding her that she is still alive. Reminding her to stay alive.

For Kate, the lido starts off as merely a newspaper assignment, but as she comes to know Rosemary, Kate begins to connect with the community that’s sprung up around the lido, and even rediscovers her own joy of swimming, something lost to her as an adult who is often overwhelmed by anxiety and panic. Kate becomes invested personally in saving the lido, and through her deepening friendship with Rosemary, finally finds a community that she belongs to.

But there was something about Kate that made Rosemary think she was in great need of a swim.

Rosemary and Kate are both wonderful characters. Rosemary is strong and wise, but still mourning her beloved George. Kate is a vulnerable young adult who has had the confidence drained out of her over the years — but Rosemary and the lido seem to give her a new purpose and a new sense of self, enabling her to emerge from her shell and truly connect.

I loved the chapters filled with Rosemary’s memories of her courtship, romance, and early years with George — and also the memories of their more mature years, such as the time they snuck into the lido late one night for a midnight swim and then couldn’t get back over the fence to sneak away. The depiction of the fire brigade rescuing this 70-something-year-old couple is priceless.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints, not just those of Rosemary and Kate, but also nameless characters such as a pregnant woman and a teenage boy who each find meaning in their lido swims. We even see certain events through the eyes of a fox — and crazy as that might sound, it absolutely works.

Most of all, the friendship between Rosemary and Kate is simply beautiful. The two women are separated by sixty years of life, but they’re brought together by their loneliness, and find in one another someone to listen, to care, to be there for, and to laugh with.

Kate thinks of the first time she swam with Rosemary, how the old woman seemed to become young in the water, and how she, Kate, felt the unsteadier one. She had felt then that Rosemary’s strength was tucked away beneath her dry-land clothes, a hidden power unleashed not by a cape but by a navy blue swimsuit.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book! The Lido paints a gorgeous picture of the power of community, the importance of connections, and how great a gift friendship can be, not matter how surprising the package it comes in.

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The details:

Title: The Lido
Author: Libby Page
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: July 10, 2018
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

The small suburb of Pleasant Court lives up to its name. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows their neighbours, and children play in the street.

Isabelle Heatherington doesn’t fit into this picture of family paradise. Husbandless and childless, she soon catches the attention of three Pleasant Court mothers.

But Ange, Fran and Essie have their own secrets to hide. Like the reason behind Ange’s compulsion to control every aspect of her life. Or why Fran won’t let her sweet, gentle husband near her new baby. Or why, three years ago, Essie took her daughter to the park – and returned home without her.

As their obsession with their new neighbour grows, the secrets of these three women begin to spread – and they’ll soon find out that when you look at something too closely, you see things you never wanted to see.

 

My Thoughts:

The Family Next Door is a quick read about a neighborhood teeming with secrets. The three women at the center of the story, Essie, Fran, and Ange, are all wives and mothers, and each has her own set of problems and worries that she keeps hidden away behind a facade of domestic bliss. It’s Isabelle’s arrival in the neighborhood that kicks off the cascade of revelations, as secrets come out and lives are upended.

The book is fast-paced, and while some of the secrets may be simpler to guess, the big reveal at the end is shocking and very unexpected. I enjoyed the characters, although overall the tone of the book was a bit too Desperate Housewives for my taste.

For readers who enjoy dramas about marriage, family, lies, and life-long secrets, this will make a great choice for summer beach reading.

Interested in this author? Check out my review of other books by Sally Hepworth:
The Things We Keep
The Mother’s Promise

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The details:

Title: The Family Next Door
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: March 6, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

An accomplished concert pianist, Richard received standing ovations from audiences all over the world in awe of his rare combination of emotional resonance and flawless technique. Every finger of his hands was a finely calibrated instrument, dancing across the keys and striking each note with exacting precision. That was eight months ago.

Richard now has ALS, and his entire right arm is paralyzed. His fingers are impotent, still, devoid of possibility. The loss of his hand feels like a death, a loss of true love, a divorce—his divorce.

He knows his left arm will go next.

Three years ago, Karina removed their framed wedding picture from the living room wall and hung a mirror there instead. But she still hasn’t moved on. Karina is paralyzed by excuses and fear, stuck in an unfulfilling life as a piano teacher, afraid to pursue the path she abandoned as a young woman, blaming Richard and their failed marriage for all of it.

When Richard becomes increasingly paralyzed and is no longer able to live on his own, Karina becomes his reluctant caretaker. As Richard’s muscles, voice, and breath fade, both he and Karina try to reconcile their past before it’s too late.

Poignant and powerful, Every Note Played is a masterful exploration of redemption and what it means to find peace inside of forgiveness.

 

My Thoughts:

I’ve read several other books by Lisa Genova, and in all, she finds a way to not only spotlight drastic medical conditions but to show the human impact of people dealing with diagnosis and life-altering diseases.

In Every Note Played, she showcases the horror of a life irreparably changed by ALS. Using both Richard and Karina’s perspectives, we’re led through the stages of deterioration, each with its own sets of loss, frustration, humiliation, and increasing dependency. Truly, this is an eye-opening book in terms of what it feels like to lose ability and control, as well as what it feels like to be the witness to a process that can’t be stopped.

At the same time, I didn’t feel particularly connected to either of the main characters as people, and didn’t become emotionally invested in their complicated relationship or inner lives. While I was fascinated by the medical aspects of Richard’s condition, the story of the failed marriage and finding peace with one another after a lifetime of resentment mostly fell flat for me.

I was never bored reading this book, but something about it didn’t quite resonate. It’s definitely worth reading, and I learned quite a bit about ALS from it, but it lacked the emotional impact I’ve experienced with other books by this talented author.

Interested in this author? Check out my review of Inside the O’Briens.

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The details:

Title: Every Note Played
Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Scout Press
Publication date: March 20, 2018
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

 

Margaret Jacobsen has a bright future ahead of her: a fiancé she adores, her dream job, and the promise of a picture-perfect life just around the corner. Then, suddenly, on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, everything she worked for is taken away in one tumultuous moment.

In the hospital and forced to face the possibility that nothing will ever be the same again, Margaret must figure out how to move forward on her own terms while facing long-held family secrets, devastating heartbreak, and the idea that love might find her in the last place she would ever expect.

How to Walk Away is Katherine Center at her very best: an utterly charming, hopeful, and romantic novel that will capture reader’s hearts with every page.

Margaret seems to have it all on the day we meet her, but as she tells us right up front:

The biggest irony about that night is that I was always scared to fly.

Her too-perfect-for words boyfriend Chip has been working toward getting his pilot’s license. He’s gorgeous, head over heels for Margaret, and has told her to prepare for a special night. She knows they have a dinner reservation at a nice restaurant, and has a hunch that this is the moment when he’ll propose. But there’s an unwelcome surprise waiting for her — instead of heading toward dinner, Chip drives them to the airfield instead. He’s taking her up for a flight, and does not want to take no for an answer. Margaret realizes that this is a test of sorts. Does she have enough faith in Chip to accept the flight despite her absolutely not wanting to?

She does. Big mistake.

After a mid-air proposal and the presentation of a ring (that’s too big and not her taste — could that be a sign?), the weather turns on the way back to the airfield. They make it to the ground, but then the wind flips the plane. And it takes quite a while, from Chip running for help to the ambulance arriving to the helicopter flight to the hospital and beyond, for Margaret to realize that something might really be wrong.

In fact, things are very wrong. Margaret’s face and neck are burned, and she has a spinal cord injury. She may never walk again, and she’ll have scars from her skin grafts for life. And where is Chip? Poor dear is so effin’ distraught that he’s out getting drunk, too upset to actually see Margaret or, you know, be there for her.

Chip is a total dick, by the way, in case it’s not perfectly evident by now. I mean, for starters, you know your girlfriend is scared to death of planes, but you force her into one anyway through emotional blackmail when you don’t even have your license yet? And then he makes it all about himself. Boo hoo. I feel so bad. My girlfriend isn’t perfect anymore. I’m not even kidding — he actually says this:

“You used to be so beautiful — and now you look like a pizza.”

It takes Margaret a surprisingly long time to realize that he’s a total asshole. I’m sorry, but perhaps this pre-flight moment should have tipped her off:

Then he pulled me into a kiss — a manly, determined, all-this-can-be-yours kiss, digging his tongue into my mouth in a way that he clearly found powerful and erotic, but that I, given how the sheer terror of what I was about to do had iced my blood, was too numb to feel.

Like I say. Dick.

But as Margaret passes the initial weeks in the hospital, learning about her future and starting physical therapy, other pieces of her life start to come together. Her sister Kitty, estranged from the family for three years, comes home from New York and commits to spending every night in Margaret’s hospital room, giving the sisters a chance to reconnect and rediscover the joy in their relationship. Margaret’s mother is a lot to take, but certain truths come out that have an impact on the family as well.

And, wouldn’t you know it, Margaret’s physical therapist is a gorgeous, brooding, terse Scottish fellow who’s a genius at therapy and exuding quiet manliness, practically begging for just the right woman to find the key to his bruised heart. (Okay, I exaggerate, but not by much.) It’s not a spoiler to say that Ian the PT becomes Margaret’s new love interest — it couldn’t be more obvious if it was written in cotton candy-colored glitter paint.

So… did I enjoy How to Walk Away?

Actually, I did. Despite being fairly predictable and having some truly groan-worthy dialogue, the story itself kept me turning the pages — basically, a one-day read since I couldn’t stop once I started. I did care about Margaret and wanted to see how her life would turn out. I admired her bluntness, her honesty, and her ability to keep going at the worst of times. She’s deluged by advice and unwanted input, all about how staying upbeat is the answer to everything, and yet, she’s straight-forward in showing how staying optimistic isn’t easy or a cure-all, and despite all her best positivity, isn’t going to repair the damage to her spinal cord.

There was always a kind of backward logic to my mom’s crazy. I got it now. She hadn’t accidentally revealed to me that I was facing a possible lifetime of being unfuckable. She was doing it on purpose. She was attempting to motivate me. To get me focused. To rouse some unsinkable part of my soul that would stand up in outrage and simply refuse to give in.

Mother of the year award, anyone?

Despite the seriousness of Margaret’s condition and the challenging prospects ahead of her, the writing still manages to include plenty of humorous moments as well, in addition (of course) to a few swoonier bits too.

The ending includes a pretty farcical trip to Europe for a wedding, with lots of near misses, odd encounters, and physical comedy. It’s all a little silly and slapstick, but it was nice to get a happy ending after all of the ups and downs.

Do I recommend this book?

Yes. As I’ve said in plenty of reviews of contemporary romances before, this is not my usual genre. I like contemporary fiction, and every once in a while, I enjoy the hell out of a good romantic tale. But in general, modern-day love stories don’t really rock my world, so take my somewhat snarky comments with a grain of salt.

Bottom line, it’s a good sign that even a curmudgeon like me (kidding, mostly) enjoyed reading How to Walk Away — so if you are in fact a fan of romances and stories that explore family relationships and dynamics, this would probably be a great choice.

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The details:

Title: How to Walk Away
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: May 15, 2018
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #110: Our Song

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Our Song
Author: Dani Atkins
Published: 2016
Length: 512 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The stunning new emotional drama from ebook phenomenon Dani Atkins, author of Fractured – perfect for fans of Jojo Moyes and Dorothy Koomson.

This is the story of Ally and Charlotte, whose paths have intersected over the years though they’ve never really been close friends. Charlotte married Ally’s ex and first true love, David. Fate is about to bring them together one last, dramatic time and change their lives forever.

Full of Dani’s signature warmth and emotion, this is a gripping and emotional family drama. With breath-taking plot twists, Dani explores themes of serendipity, friendship and love. She fully engages the reader in the dilemmas faced by her characters. What would you do if your husband was the love of somebody else’s life? And when faced with an agonising decision, could you put the past behind you and do the right thing?

How and when I got it:

I bought it via Book Depository when it came out in 2016, as I didn’t see it available through my usual US book sources.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read the author’s previous novel, Then and Always (published in the UK under the title Fractured), and loved it — a contemporary love story with unusual twists and the ability to yank on my heartstrings. Once I heard about Our Song, I knew I had to give it a try.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Glass Forest


From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller comes a gripping literary suspense novel set in the 1960s about a deeply troubled family and three women who will reveal its dark truths.

In the autumn of 1960, Angie Glass is living an idyllic life in her Wisconsin hometown. At twenty-one, she’s married to charming, handsome Paul, and has just given birth to a baby boy. But one phone call changes her life forever.

When Paul’s niece, Ruby, reports that her father, Henry, has committed suicide, and that her mother, Silja, is missing, Angie and Paul drop everything and fly to the small upstate town of Stonekill, New York to be by Ruby’s side.

Angie thinks they’re coming to the rescue of Paul’s grief-stricken young niece, but Ruby is a composed and enigmatic seventeen-year-old who resists Angie’s attempts to nurture her. As Angie learns more about the complicated Glass family, staying in Henry and Silja’s eerie and ultra-modern house on the edge of the woods, she begins to question the very fabric of her own marriage.

Through Silja’s flashbacks, Angie’s discovery of astonishing truths, and Ruby’s strategic dissection of her parents’ state of affairs, a story of love, secrets, and ultimate betrayal is revealed.

My thoughts:

The Glass Forest is a multi-layered look beneath the surface of a family, slowly peeling away the facade to reveal the deep, dark secrets and hidden truths. Told through alternating chapters focusing on Angie, Ruby, and Silja, we get multiple timelines, all converging by the end to show the truth behind Henry’s death and Silja’s disappearance.

The three main female characters — Angie, Ruby, and Silja — are well-drawn; not always likeable, but despite their flaws, they all possess an inner strength that helps them survive. Silja is a particularly sympathetic character, as we see how the years of her marriage change her. Angie, years younger, seems to be following in Silja’s footsteps to an extent in the early days of her marriage; barely twenty-one, she rushed into marriage with someone who seemed to be the man of her dreams, and only later starts to realize that there might be more to know about him. And Ruby, the teen daughter left behind by Silja and Henry, seems to be a mysterious, secretive girl — but as we find out, there’s a lot more to Ruby than meets the eye.

I really don’t want to say much about the plot, because it’s full of so many surprises, all deftly handled with a masterful set-up. There are shocking developments, but looking back, I can find the little breadcrumbs scattered through the earlier parts of the story that lay the groundwork for the bigger moments later on. The story as a whole is so well done, building to an ending that’s very much unexpected, but that absolutely fits.

I know I’m being deliberately vague here, but really, I just don’t want to ruin the reading experience for anyone. The Glass Forest is a compelling read that got harder and harder to put down, the farther I read. This would make an excellent book group choice — because I promise, when you finish reading it, you’ll be dying for someone to discuss it with!

I rarely go back to the beginning of a book once I finish. The Glass Forest is a rare exception where I ended up skimming back through the entire book once I’d finished to find all the hints and details that didn’t seem all that important the first time through — and ended up amazed all over again by how well put together the story is.

I loved Cynthia Swanson’s previous novel, The Bookseller. The Glass Forest is another winner. Check it out.

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The details:

Title: The Glass Forest
Author: Cynthia Swanson
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Touchstone

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Book Review: The Great Alone


Alaska, 1974.
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.

The Great Alone is many things — a portrait of life in rugged Alaska, a story of the damage done by war, a tale of the horrible secrets lurking underneath a family’s facade… and also, a story of love and devotion and commitment.

We first meet Leni as a 13-year-old who never fits in anywhere, thanks to her parents’ inability to settle. Ever since her father returned from his years as a POW in Vietnam, Leni has been pulled from home to home and school to school, as her father’s instability and nightmares make him unable to keep a job or stay put for very long. Meanwhile, Leni’s mother Cora remains madly in love with her husband Ernt, and constantly tells Leni that she wishes she could remember how he was before. Out of options, Ernt comes up with a seemingly crazy idea — they’ll move to Alaska, to a plot of land left him by a war buddy, and live off the land, off the grid, as homesteaders.

Leni, of course, has no say in this, just as she has no say in most of what happens in her life. Cora is desperate to find the answer to making Ernt happy again, so off they go in their battered VW bus, completely unprepared for the realities of the life ahead of them. When they finally reach their land in Kaneq, they find a falling-down dirty cabin, and not much else. Fortunately, the neighbors in this tiny community rally around to teach them what they need to know, with an emphasis on the all-important preparations for their first Alaskan winter.

The land and its surroundings are breathtakingly beautiful, of course… but the winter is harsh, leaving the small family isolated in their cabin for months on end. For Leni and Cora, life becomes increasingly dangerous, not because of the natural threats such as wildlife and climate, but because of the man they live with. Ernt does not do well in the dark, under stress, and he takes out his inner demons on Cora.

Over the years, the family becomes intertwined with their neighbors, and Cora and Leni develop deep bonds with their new friends, but Ernt becomes more and more obsessed with survivalism, his paranoia and nightmares becoming more and more intense. Leni grows up in the shadow of domestic violence, witnessing her father’s brutal treatment of Cora, but unable to do anything to stop it.

And as Leni matures, she falls in love with the boy who was her first friend in Alaska — but her father hates his father and everything he stands for, and it’s clear that the relationship must be kept hidden from Ernt before it pushes him into even more violence.

I have to be honest and admit that I wasn’t so sure about this book for the first third or so. I was interested, but it was slow-going. The description of Alaska and what it takes to build a life there are intriguing, of course, but I’ve read other stories about life in Alaska, so this wasn’t exactly new. I had a hard time at first with the viewpoint, as this section of the book is seen mainly through 13-year-old Leni’s eyes, and there was just something a little limiting about that. Still, it was sadly fascinating to see Leni’s experience of her parents’ toxic marriage — the loving moments, when the two were so obsessed with each other that they couldn’t see anyone else — and the explosively painful moments, when Ernt’s rage would boil over into fists and abuse.

Later, when Leni is an older teen, her story becomes much more compelling. Suddenly, I couldn’t put the book down. (Seriously, I read the 2nd 50% of the book in one sitting.) Leni’s love story builds along a Romeo and Juliet trajectory, and while we can see the inevitable tragedy looming ahead, it’s still a shock when Leni’s life is turned upside down.

In some ways, the story of Ernt’s violence is simply tragic. It’s hard not to hate him as the years go by and his craziness and violence escalate — but there’s an element of pity, too. In today’s world, his PTSD would be recognized for what it is and he’d be able to get help. In the early 1970s, just back from hellish years as a captive in Vietnam, not only was there no psychological help, but he also was subject to the derision of anti-war America when he returned. It might be easy to view Ernt as simply an evil character, but we can’t. He is horrible and abusive and destructive, but his horror stems from his own status as a victim of war and torture. We can absolutely condemn his behavior and his treatment of his family, but I can’t help but feel sorrow too for how different this man might have been without the trauma of Vietnam.

The depiction of domestic violence is harrowing but has a ring of truth. At that time, there was much less support for “battered women”, and a woman who fought back could easily end up either dead or behind bars, without much in the way of legal defense or public awareness. Seeing Leni’s need to protect her mother, and Cora’s inability to find a way to leave, is painful and tragic.

At the same time, I loved the way Leni’s life in Alaska grows. She becomes a part of the community, part of Alaska itself, and this stays with her and changes her in deep and unalterable ways.

I won’t say more about the love story or its outcome, other than WOW and SOB and TEARS and… well, read it yourself to find out!

The Great Alone is powerful and moving, with a unique setting and memorable characters. Check it out.

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The details:

Title: The Great Alone
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Novella: The Only Harmless Great Thing


In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is weird and wonderful, cruel and beautiful. Can you possibly believe that two awful chapters from history — the “radium girls” and an electrocuted elephant — would fit together in one story? Author Brooke Bolander pulls off this seemingly impossible task in a new novella that almost defies description — you just need to experience it.

The narration shifts between elephant and human characters, in language that’s often hauntingly strange and beautiful.

At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.

The human parts of the story are heart-breaking and outrage-inducing… but so are the elephants’ sections. As I read, the story of the radium factory workers’ treatment left me feeling furious. The involvement of elephants in the radium story is startling but makes sense in this alternate world in which humans and elephants converse via sign language, and the elephant language (Proboscidian) is taught in universities.

Then came the Atomic Elephant Hypothesis.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a quick but powerful read, unusual and a little crazy and definitely something that will stick in my mind for quite some time. It made me angry and sad, and also made me think. Highly recommended.

But chains can be snapped, O best beloved mooncalf. Sticks can be knocked out of a Man’s clever hands. And one chain snapping may cause all the rest to trumpet and stomp and shake the trees like a rain-wind coming down the mountain, washing the gully muddy with bright lightning tusks and thunderous song.

PS – The story of Topsy, the elephant electrocuted at Coney Island, is changed and reinvented here in this novella — but yes, there was a real Topsy, and she really was put to death in 1903 by being electrocuted in front of a crowd as part of a public spectacle. It’s a horrible story that seems too outrageous to be true, but sadly, it really happened. You can read more about Topsy’s awful fate here.

PPS – Reading this novella reminded me that I picked up a copy of the non-fiction book The Radium Girls (winner of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for history and biography), and really need to read it!

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The details:

Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 23, 2018
Length: 96 pages
Genre: Alternate history
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Still Me by Jojo Moyes


From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Jojo Moyes, a new book featuring her iconic heroine of Me Before You and After You, Louisa Clark

Louisa Clark arrives in New York ready to start a new life, confident that she can embrace this new adventure and keep her relationship with Ambulance Sam alive across several thousand miles. She steps into the world of the superrich, working for Leonard Gopnik and his much younger second wife, Agnes. Lou is determined to get the most out of the experience and throws herself into her new job and New York life.

As she begins to mix in New York high society, Lou meets Joshua Ryan, a man who brings with him a whisper of her past. Before long, Lou finds herself torn between Fifth Avenue where she works and the treasure-filled vintage clothing store where she actually feels at home. And when matters come to a head, she has to ask herself: Who is Louisa Clark? And how do you reconcile a heart that lives in two places?

Funny, romantic, and poignant, Still Me follows Lou as she navigates how to stay true to herself, while pushing to live boldly in her brave new world.

Still Me is the third Louisa Clark story, taking the young woman we know and love and putting her in a decidedly new and strange environment — New York’s Upper East Side.

In the beautiful Me Before You, Louisa’s life changes through her relationship with Will Traynor, a man she loves but cannot save. In After You, we see Louisa grieve and suffer, finally starting to rebuild a new version of a life as she allows new friends and connections into her world and begins to open up to the possibility of a new love.

Still Me picks up right where After You leaves off, as Louisa leaves her family and new boyfriend Sam behind in England to accept a job working for a super posh family in New York. The Gopniks are incredibly rich and live a life of utter luxury and intense busy-ness, with husband and wife requiring personal assistants to keep their days on track and to get them from one charity event to another. Lou’s role is to be Agnes’s companion as well as assistant, providing reassurance and steadiness to the young wife who is scorned by the more established society matrons.

Lou and Sam plan to continue their relationship, but as we all know, long-distance relationships are tough, no matter the good intentions. Misunderstandings crop up. Communication is strained. Sam’s visits to New York never seem to work out as wonderfully as planned. And then a disastrous visit home leads to even more trouble.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Lou’s career as a companion takes an unexpected turn… but soon new opportunities and friendships come her way. And Lou — finally, slowly — begins to understand that she has the opportunity Will always wanted for her: the chance to decide for herself who she will be, and what she wants her life to look like.

I won’t say any more about the plot — who wants to give away the good stuff? Louisa is, as always, an original — a funky, upbeat, unusual young woman who’s headstrong, loving, creative, and assertive; who also drinks too much when nervous, rolls with the punches, but is decidedly vulnerable too. Will Traynor will always be an indelible influence on her life, but Sam holds her heart… or does he? And is he as devoted to her as she’d like him to be?

Still Me introduces some memorable, delightful new characters, especially Mrs. DeWitt — the feisty, slightly mean old woman who lives down the hall from the Gopniks — and her dog Dean Martin, a pug who’s got just as much of a bite as his owner.

In her New York setting, Louisa gets a new chance to shine, whether wearing her unique style of outrageous fashion or finding her way around Fifth Avenue. It’s fun and heartening to see “our” Lou turn into this new version of herself, whistling for cabs like a New York pro.

In some ways, Still Me could almost be a stand-alone. There are many sections that read like a fish-out-of-water story. Take one small-town English girl and place her in the world of New York billionaires — it’s bound to be entertaining. And yet, for those of us who have read the earlier books, it’s especially heart-warming to see the unsure, broken-hearted heroine of Me Before You finally coming out the other side of a world of grief and taking steps toward becoming who she’s meant to be.

Still Me wraps up a lovely trilogy that’s full of pathos, humor, warmth, and characters who feel like real people, flawed but lovable all the same. I’d love to think that Jojo Moyes might continue writing about Louisa Clark — I haven’t seen anthing that says, one way or the other, whether Still Me is the end of Louisa’s story. I hope not! I think I’d be happy following Lou through the many glorious years ahead of her. Still, if Still Me is the final Louisa Clark book, we can all take satisfaction in seeing the life Louisa has built for herself by the end of the book, and imagine the great things yet to come.

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The details:

Title: Still Me
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: January 30, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Red Clocks


In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.

This book is getting a ton of buzz, with non-stop comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, among others. But I’ll tell you up front, I just don’t see it, and feel like the hype is pretty undeserved too.

Also, just to get this out of the way, the synopsis is misleading as well — the book is not about “five very different women” “in a small Oregon fishing town” — it’s about four women, and there are notes from one character’s unfinished biography of a female explorer. But Eivor is certainly not a woman in the small Oregon town. Nitpicky, I know, but accuracy matters.

Okay, so what’s it all about? Through chapters alternating between the four main characters and the notes on Eivor, we get a view of life in an America much like our own, but with a scary difference. Since the Personhood Amendment became the law of the land, abortions are illegal, and by law, life starts at conception, conveying the rights of full humans on embryos. Women who miscarry are forced to pay for funerals for their dead babies. Getting an abortion will result in murder charges. Canada has enacted an agreement to close the border to women seeking abortions; this is known as the “Pink Wall”.

And yet, in all other ways, it’s just a small town with the usual assortment of odd characters overly involved in one another’s lives.

Ro is desperate to become pregnant, but as the clock seems to be running out on her fertility chances, she’s also aware of the law about to take effect (Every Child Needs Two) that bans adoption by single parents. Ro’s student Mattie is bright and ambitious, but finds herself trapped by an unwanted pregnancy. Susan feels trapped in her marriage and family life, and seems not quite stable in a self-destructive way. Gin is a healer with a talent for herbal medicine and the courage to provide care for women with nowhere to turn. All, in different ways, feel trapped by their own circumstances and the laws that take away their choices.

Oddly, Red Clocks is much less compelling than it should be. Yes, the twist about the Personhood Amendment and the return to a world of back-alley abortions is frightening, clearly intended as a cautionary tale for those who take rights for granted and who assume someone will do something about the slow creep of rising conservatism. But in execution, the events of the novel feel narrow in scope — the small town, rather than feeling representative, is just its own odd little locale.

The writing in Red Clocks suffers from literary affectation that’s distracting and even laughable in places. The main characters are referred to only by their generic descriptions in their own chapters — so in Ro’s chapters, she’s referred to only as “the biographer”. Susan is “the wife”, Mattie is “the daughter”, and Gin is “the mender”. Yet they get names when they feature in chapters about the other characters… so what’s the point of not using their names? Are they supposed to be iconic in some way? Perhaps it’s the author’s way of showing the roles that women are assigned, but it doesn’t feel necessary or effective; rather, it feels like someone trying too hard to be different.

And oh, the writing itself drove me a bit batty. Are we supposed to be seeing how these women think? Is that why everything is so disjointed? And yet, the chapters all sound kind of alike, without distinct voices. Here are a few samples — judge for yourself if this is the kind of thing you can stomach:

Labiaplasty surgeons earn up to $250,000 per month.

A little animal — possum? porcupine? tries to cross the cliff road.

Sooty, burnt, charred to rubber.

Shivering, trying to cross.

Already so dead.

(opening lines of a “The Wife” chapter)

A witch who says no to her lover and no to the law must be suffocated in a cell of the hive. She who says no to her lover and no to the law shall bleed salt from the face. Two eyes of salt in the face of a witch who says no to her lover and no to the law shall be seen by policeman who come to the cabin.

(“The Mender”)

There is an egg bracing to burst out of its sac into the wet fallopian warmth.

(“The Biographer”)

Babies once were abstractions. They were Maybe I do, but now now. The biographer used to sneer at talk of biological deadlines, believing the topic of baby craziness to be crap for lifestyle magazines. Women who worried about ticking clocks were the same women who traded salmon-loaf recipes and asked their husbands to clean the gutters. She was not and never would be one of them.

Then, suddenly, she was one of them. Not the gutters, but the clock.

(“The Biographer”)

After Clementine leaves, the mender misses her, wants back the soft white thighs. She likes her ladies big-sirenic, mermaids of land, pressing and twisting in fleshful bodies.

(“The Mender”)

Red Clocks isn’t boring, and the plot does include dramatic and moving moments — but few and far between. Otherwise, it’s all very introspective, and the political and social impact gets drowned under the droning of the inner monologues. The book held my interest, but wasn’t the buzz-worthy read I’d expected.

And a final note: I keep seeing people describe Red Clocks as “dystopian”, but I find that not quite accurate either. While it’s disturbing to see the impact of the Personhood Amendment, the world of Red Clocks is no where near the societal upheaval and tyranny of a dystopian society. It’s our world as it could be, which is scary enough without the “dystopian” label attached to it.

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The details:

Title: Red Clocks
Author: Leni Zumas
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: January 16, 2018
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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