It all Comes Down to This by Therese Anne Fowler (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

Three grief-stricken sisters (Beck, Claire, and Sophie) wondering how to go forward without their mother, one recently released felon trying to move forward after the drastic side-swipe of events leading to his conviction, and one old house (which said dead mother insisted posthumously be sold) on a gorgeous and remote island off the coast of Maine. These are the components of Fowler’s “messy-families dramedy.” Beck — a freelance journalist with a quietly crumbling marriage; Claire — a pediatric cardiologist whose marriage crashed when her secret unrequited love was inadvertently revealed; Sophie — living an instagram life hobnobbing with wealthy art investors while house sitting because she can’t afford rent; and CJ — poster child of the poor little rich boy who wants nothing more than a peaceful place to paint after a harrowing three years in the pen.

Very good writing full of tart observations on life from a variety of perspectives. Good character insight. I found it interesting that I actually liked CJ more than I liked any of the sisters — probably because he was a little less self centered than the others having already gone through his lesson learning phase (prison will do that to you I hear) while they spend much of the book going through theirs. Some great background stories featuring Manhattan, LA, Dubai, and the wealthy world of art collectors. Also, an adorable little boy who kind of stole the show from my perspective.

Very enjoyable read.

Some good quotes:

“I needed to be humbled — I see that now. It’s the antidote for self-pity, which I admit to indulging more than a few times during the Great Undoing, when I allowed myself to think about how well everything was going for everyone else.”

“I never meant to get so caught up in all the artifice. I never thought the lifestyle would come to own me. It was a kind of addiction, I can totally see that now. … No more fueling myself with the facade of adulation from strangers who think I’m more than I am.”

“What unreasonable, illogical bastards feelings were.”

“Besides, a wealthy, liberal man with high intelligence and a sense of ethics like Sophie wanted was probably not going to look at her and see spouse material. Leaving aside her fine-tuned physical appearance, what did she have to offer? Being nimble, being wily, being conniving when that’s what was necessary to do the task at hand — this was not a compelling attribute list for a future Mrs. Liberal Billionaire.”

“Maybe because Mom was the glue. You know? Dad was … he made us like dandelion seeds, scattering us all over the city so that we could see and do everything. But then Mom held us all together, and now we’re adrift because neither of them are here.”

“CJ could not speak for every man, but in his view softer parts were just fine! Softer parts were natural! If God had meant for women to look like praying mantises, he’d have made their ability to bite men’s heads off literal.”

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.

The Disinvited Guest by Carol Goodman (Mystery / Thriller)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
Don’t read this book before bedtime!

Reed and Lucy Harper — along with Reed’s sister Liz and her lover Niko, and Lucy’s best friend Ada and husband Crosby, and Mac, the caretaker — all head to a remote island off the coast of Maine in the year 2030 to wait out what appears to be an even more deadly pandemic. The island, now owned by Reed and his sister, was once a quarantine hospital for (mostly Irish) immigrants with Typhus back in the mid 1800s. It is a creepy place, with three generations of deathly illness — the Harper parents died there of Covid in the previous pandemic, and numerous Typhoid patients met their end there the century before.

From the tense start until the surprising finish, the plot twists and turns in a Lord of the Flies meets locked-room Agatha Christie meets part Hitchcock’s Rebecca unfurling. When bad things start happening and the brutality of the island’s history starts bleeding through to the present, Lucy feels her sense of reality slipping.

This is a mystery / thriller with a huge amount of character development. The interpersonal dynamics are nuanced and ever evolving with the threats of unknown origin inserting suspicion and fear where there was once cameraderie and friendship. Very difficult to put down or to get out of your head.

The last thing I wanted to read was a dystopian books about pandemics, so let me reassure you that pandemics really didn’t feature except as an impetus to get them on the island in a quarantine state.

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 12th, 2022.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Plot; 3.5/5 Writing: 5/5

I loved this deeply meditative book about how much we can really know one another. This is written as a novelized memoir of the fictional character introduced in a previous work — I am Lucy Barton. It felt so incredibly real to me that it’s hard to remember that she is a work of fiction. Here, Lucy reflects on her first husband — William — with whom she is still friendly and the prior and current relationship between them. The “action” takes place a year after Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s third wife has left him.

I resonated with so many of the feelings and experiences described in this book. Strout has a beautiful and apt writing style that captures the essence of what is important in any human interaction — even within oneself. I was often brought to tears — not because anything particularly sad was happening — but because she captured it so perfectly.

A great line:
“Grief is such a – oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.”

I also loved the last line but I won’t list it here — you need to read the rest of them first!

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 19th, 2021.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Writing:  4.5 /5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5 /5

Olive Kitteridge — gruff, direct, honest and with absolutely no patience for pretense or pretentiousness. Some people love Olive for just this reason — many others consider her a rude “old bag”.  I love the fact that Olive — in her late seventies now — continues to have epiphanies about herself and her life.

The book is a collection of snapshots of life in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Some are centered on Olive herself, but in others she plays only a peripheral, though impactful, role. Ranging in age from middle school to elderly and incorporating contextual situations such as drug use, sexual harassment, suicide, Somali immigration, and even the value provided by a dominatrix (!) — the stories are full of introspection and reflection. They are more about how people absorb experiences into their own perspective, rather than the experiences themselves.

Strout is the master of the imperfect relationship — no closure, no solutions — just the reality of evolving relationships with ups and downs and fresh interior “ahas” rather than the drama of abrupt discovery via loud confrontation.

For those who loved Strout’s 2008 work Olive Kitteridge, Olive,Again takes up where the latter leaves off, covering the next decade of Olive’s life (it’s not necessary to read the first book, this one stands up well on its own). It’s a fascinating look at life from the perspective of old age, and while there is loss and plenty of “old age indignities,” there is also a great sense of hope, understanding, and wisdom.
Great Quotes:
“It seemed to her she had never before completely understood how far apart human experience was.”

“And then he thought: how does one live an honest life?”

“It’s just the way it was, that’s all. People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they really felt about something”

“…and during the night they would shift, but always they were holding each other, and Jack thought of their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore — and how they hold on for dear life!”

“What frightened him was how much of his life he had lived without knowing who he was or what he was doing. It caused him to feel an inner trembling, and he could not quite find the words — for himself — to even put it exactly as he sensed it. But he sensed that he had lived his life in a way that he had not known.”

“But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish — all those hundreds of students she had taught, the girls and boys in high school she had passed in the corridor when she was a high school girl herself, the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had place before her cups of coffee — All of it gone, or about to go.”

“Because as her heart became more constricted, Henry’s heart became needier, and when he walked up behind her in the house sometimes to slip his arms around her, it was all she could do to not visibly shudder.”

“Cindy Coombs, there’s not one goddamn person in this world who doesn’t have a bad memory or two to take with them through life.”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 15th, 2019.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (Women’s Fiction)

A feel-good, heartwarming, story about the unlikely relationship between a woman whose husband died just as she was (literally) leaving him and a star Yankee pitcher who “loses his stuff” in a spectacularly public way.

Well-written with great banter, an array of likable characters, and plenty of humor. The premise is plausible enough and I enjoyed the social commentary and details of every day life in this small town on the mid-Coast of Maine. There is a lot more depth to the characters than is usual for a women’s fiction offering of this sort.

The author is the host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast — I haven’t heard of this (I’m not a big podcast person), but I like the title, and I can guess that this explains a lot about the great character interactions!) Interesting to note that in two of the primary families, it is the mother that left, leaving the father to raise the children alone. I’m noticing a trend of this kind of gender role swapping which is always interesting!

One small annoyance for me personally — a (pretty humorous) diatribe on the part of one character about a woman who was destroying their book club because she wanted people to actually read the books and didn’t accept that book clubs were just for socializing. I am that woman, and I stand by my demands!!

Great for fans of Kristan Higgins.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 25th, 2019.

The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4
Children’s fiction — middle grade

New (to me) word: hibernaculum — a place in which a creature seeks refuge, such as a bear using a cave to overwinter.

I loved this book — a perfect middle school read!

Gusta Newbronner “loses” her father on the bus ride from NYC to Northern Maine. She will be staying with the grandmother she has never met and living in Grandma Hoopes’ orphan home. The time is 1941 and there is general tension around foreigners. The tension is even higher around Gusta’s father who is not only a foreigner, but a union organizer as well. While Gusta sees her father as brave, courageous, principled, and fighting injustice, others see him simply as a foreign fugitive.

The story is full of real and (to me) lovable characters — her grandmother and aunt, the various children staying in the orphan home, new found cousins, and even the two children who represent opposing sides in “the Dairy Wars” in her classroom. Originally shy and unassuming, Gusta comes into her own as she learns to stand up for what she believes in and to fight injustice in whatever way she can. In the meantime she is making friends, getting to know her family and joining the Honorary Orphan Band (playing the French Horn — she appears to be a bit of a prodigy).

The writing is excellent. In addition to delightful language (see examples below), we are treated to intriguing descriptions of the process of egg cleaning (far more unpleasant than I would have ever guessed), the thrill of playing the French Horn, oculism in the 40s, pigeon photography (as in they are trained to take the photos), and magical stories from Gusta’s great-grandfather, the sea captain. I absolutely loved the description of what it was like for Gusta to see clearly for the first time when she was able to get glasses. Masterfully done.

The novel has that genuine feel of a true story — unsurprising as it is a fictionalized account of the author’s mother’s life, supported with extensive research using the local paper archives. I would add this to any middle grade reading list.

Some of my favorite lines…

“The winter must have been picking at the scabs of that road for months.”

“Gusta’s mother was omnivorous when it came to words”

“For a moment, Gusta stood there, just saving the feeling of having someone in the world who was already glad today about seeing her tomorrow.”

“And the heaviness inside Gusta, where all the secrets festered, thickened and increased.”

“She knew from stories that wishes wriggle and cheat — if they even exist at all.”

“It was like she coated all her meanness with a hard-sugar layer of wholehearted sincerity.”

“Georges made the happy sound of someone who has just become a part of the great unfolding history of pigeon photography.”