These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

I am so NOT into essay collections, so when my friend loaned me this book several months ago, I read a couple of essays and then lost interest. However, when one of my (many) book clubs insisted on reading it, I picked it up again and had an epiphany: I didn’t have to read every essay! I could pick and choose and just read the ones that appealed to me. And with this new approach I discovered … that I REALLY liked a whole bunch of them. Actually, they were spectacular. Not a surprise — Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. I’ve seen her speak and have read all of her novels. It’s just that some topics are more interesting (to me) than others — I’m sure your experience will vary from mine. I haven’t come across another author who is as articulate when expressing absolutely relatable (to me) thoughts and feelings — her own and her characters’. There is nothing like that responding spark of whole hearted recognition / identification I get when she summarizes an entire state of being in just a line or two. As an aside, almost every one of these essays ends with the perfect line.

Some of my favorite essays from this collection: The Fathers — a memoir about marriages and the abundance of family that comes from multiple attempts ; My Year of No Shopping — a brilliant depiction of understanding her own motivations to shop far beyond what she needed; To The Doghouse — I won’t summarize, suffice it to say that Snoopy has a surprising and wonderful part to play; There Are No Children Here — one of my favorites — an ingenious, insightful, and surprising diatribe on society’s reaction to women who do not want to have children; Reading Kate Di Camillo — just wow! Last but certainly not least, the titular These Precious Days — heartbreaking, beautiful, and simultaneously full of joy.

The Bones of the Story by Carol Goodman (Thriller)

A highly selective literary honor society at the Briarwood school in upstate New York. An even more selective senior writing seminar with a famous writer. A group of students who would do anything to get into both. What happened then? What is happening now, 25 years years later? In this eerie, academically oriented, psychological thriller, Carol Goodman explores themes of vengeance, retribution, guilt, and the impact of one’s “minor” misdeed on the person who feels wronged. Lots of literary references for me, plenty of action and Agatha Christie style “pop em off one by one until you suspect absolutely everybody,” and a surprise ending. I did have a little trouble keeping track of all the characters — my advice is just to write down the names as they are introduced so you don’t forget any 🙂

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 11th, 2023

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett (Literary Fiction)

I love Ann Patchett’s books. The reflective, perfectly paced books focus on life and the intricate intersections between characters that give life its shape. This story follows Lara along a dual timeline. In the present, she is the mother of three grown daughters, each pursuing different interests — one will take over the orchard Lara and her husband run in Northern Michigan; one will be a vet; and one longs to be an actress. The narrative takes a jump backwards as she tells her daughters the story of her pre-orchard life. Some parts are stories well loved and often told, others have not been told before, and a few are only whispered in her own mind (and — obviously — to us).

This previous life features Lara the actress — once on the fast track to fame and glory. The threads come together beautifully, as always — Patchett is a master of her craft. The stories don’t really go the way you would imagine because life never does. No twisty surprises, just different paths taken, each a result of experiences and self insight. I was completely drawn in from page one and never felt like stopping. Would happily befriend her whole family.

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 8th, 2023

Murder at Midnight by Katharine Schellman

Number four in the Lily Adler series, it is the first I have read, and I quite enjoyed it! I was looking for a nice palette cleansing non-stressful mystery, and this fit the bill beautifully. A regency era (1816) mystery starring the widow, Lily Adler. A snowstorm (according to the author’s note, based on the historical “Year Without a Summer” resulting from the eruption of Mount Tambora) forces a number of Christmas Ball attendees to stay the night. The next morning, one of the party is discovered — quite dead — in the chicken coops.

Regency manners, the impact of scandal on women, the greater (unspoken) freedoms allowed a widow over an unmarried woman and two (!) hints of lesbianism pepper a narrative surprisingly free of filler and with some Upstairs / Downstairs thrown in. Lily Adler is smart, self assured, and takes charge of cases without having to beg, look demure, or manipulate — bravo! The plot is clever, twisted, and not obvious (though I did figure it out before the end), and I liked the characters. There were tiny bits of romance tossed in, but of a more Austenian style — there are bodices but they are never, ever, ripped.

I’ll probably go back to check out volumes one to three as I am always happy to discover a nice, reliable, series.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 19th, 2023

Rabble Starkey by Lois Lowry (Children’s Fiction)

It’s not easy to write good (as opposed to entertaining or easily marketable) children’s fiction. Lois Lowry is simply the best. This story — originally published in 1987 and about to be reissued — is about 12-year old Rabble (short for Parable) Starkey and her single mother (a mere 26 — you do the math) and how they both “grow up” while living with Rabble’s best friend, Virginia, when Virginia’s mother becomes mentally incapacitated and is taken away.
Lowry’s messages are foundational — not particularly humorous or designed to artificially raise self-esteem — but to help characters and readers alike understand life. She writes about what is important, what is valuable, and what each person can do to move forward successfully. Loved every minute of reading.

Thank you to Clarion Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 13th, 2023

A Little Ray of Sunshine by Kristan Higgins (Women’s Fiction)

I don’t read the Women’s Fiction genre as a rule, but I make an exception for Kristen Higgins. I love the way she writes families and best friends. She writes the world I wish I lived in and while not shying away from deep and sometimes painful feelings, always manages to infuse a sense of humor into most scenes.

This particular book is all about adoption — exploring it from every perspective: the adopted child, adopting family, and the birth mother and father. While the main storyline concerns a woman who gave up her baby at 17 and gets a (sudden) chance to meet him 18 years later, several other characters have different adoption experiences which are shared.

Our main character (Harlow, the birth mother) is part owner of a book store on Cape Cod; her gummy imbibing grandfather is losing his marbles in a somehow adorable way (he may be the best character in the book); and both the birth and adoptive families are replete with interesting siblings, cousins, etc. A strong message of (sexual) diversity and acceptance is transmitted via the requisite lesbian couple, transsexual employee, and a pretty hysterical speed dating event with no gender boundaries.

A few parts felt a little repetitive to me (but then we do tend to let our brains perseverate over issues important and / or painful to ourselves) but overall enjoyed as much as usual with Higgins’ books.

Thank you to Berkley and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

We’re All damaged by Matthew Norman (Literary Fiction)

Broken wrist making reviews hard to type, but I have loved every Matthew Norman book I’ve read, and this is no exception. Humorous (very), yet deep. Wild characters (mom is a Fox News wannabe and his new friend Daisy teaches “vagina fiction” for a start). Draws you in within the first two paragraphs. Kind of a non-Jewish Jonathan Tropper (high praise for me).

Some fun quotes:
“It was our waiter. He was smiling in that maniacal way, that waiters at places, like Applebee’s smile, like they’re all doing methamphetamine back in the kitchen.”

“I’m still not used to living here. I’m not used to the crowds and the constant noise and the weird hours. I’m not sure exactly what it feels like, but it doesn’t feel like home — more like a strange, wildly, expensive Sleep away camp for pseudoadults. I step across the street and I’m nearly run down by a pack of skinny men on bicycles.”

“In all our family portraits growing up, I looked like a short, half-Jewish kid being held captive by a family of Vikings.”

“Jim is the hyper-achiever. You’re the moody one. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. Never trust someone who isn’t miserable at least half of the time. That’s my motto.”

“ ’There’s an entire genre of writing now that’s empowered women to type out their sex fantasies and publish them on the Internet. If you knew how many euphemisms for vagina I endure on a weekly basis, your little heart would break.’ I wasn’t prepared to hear the word vagina this evening. Up front at the register, Gail, apparently wasn’t, either. She clears her throat and gives us a librarian look. That’s the thing about the word vagina: it really carries in a quiet place.”

B.F.F. A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found by Christie Tate

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5
This humorous and insight-rich memoir focuses on the author’s work on forming and maintaining female friendship — something that has been problematic for her for some time. The journey is immersed in the Recovery (12 step) world — a world I have no personal exposure to (except through the hilarious sitcom “Mom”) — but I found it pretty easy to pick up the vocabulary and principles. Despite that, I resonated a lot with her inner turmoil and suspicions and enjoyed the frank and honest way she progressed to a place where she could improve. It occurred to me that those of us who don’t have specific problems with any of the 12-step addictions could definitely benefit from the precepts and processes of these programs.

The narrative centers around a particularly strong friendship that she forms with Meredith and progress she makes with several previously close friends where the friendships ended one way or the other without resolution. I enjoyed her open self-analysis and her successes, and I liked the focus on friendships (one character pointing out that “All the tools for romantic relationships work for friendships”). There were parts that made me cringe and get judgmental, and that was instructional, too.

Some acronyms of recovery (new to me and I liked them):
KISS (keep it simple, sweetie)
ODAT (one day at a time)
FEAR (false evidence appearing real)
SHAME (should have already mastered everything)

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 7th, 2023