MILLER’S VALLEY by Anna Quindlen: A Review

I found this book in convenient large print when our local library reopened. It is a 2016 publication and is an example of how/why Quindlen’s novels are so popular–they are page turners.

From the beginning readers know the government has plans to build a dam which will flood the farming community of Miller’s Valley, but as time goes by, and the suspense drags out, we begin to think, to hope, Miller’s Valley, home to Mary Margaret Miller, will be spared. Following Mary Margaret from a child selling ears of sweet corn at a roadside stand to an experienced doctor with a husband and children, we appreciate Quindlen’s “deep understanding of the many stages of a woman’s life.”

As a story teller, Quindlen is unsurpassed. Some of the themes that emerge from her narrative are: family, memory, loss, “and finding a true identity and a new vision of home.” Perhaps the quote after the title page, before chapter one begins says it best, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” James Baldwin.

2020, ALPHABET SOUP CHALLENGE, author version LETTER “M”

ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820  In attempting to whittle down my TBR shelves, an on-going goal, I checked there first for a book whose author’s  name began with an “M.” I was rewarded with The Song of the Jade Lily, a 2019, hefty 450 paged novel by Kirsty Manning. It took me a while to read it, but its mysteries and family secrets that were revealed kept me turning pages. The novel was formatted in one of my favorite ways: alternating chapters set between1939 Shanghai where Romy, a Chinese girl adopted by Jewish parents flees Germany and 2016 present-day Shanghai where her granddaughter Alexandria, visits seeking her grandmother’s story after being notified of her beloved grandfather’s impending death in Australia. What he says to her, telling her to seek out “Li” and the evasiveness of her grandmother, whose silence often suggests hidden secrets rather than the mere grief of losing a spouse, present the opportunity for mystery, war stories, romance, and the finding of identity.

Themes of friendship, love, family loyalty, heritage, and stories of what happened during the War abound as the true facts of Romy’s life and background are peeled away like the numerous skins of an onion by Alexandria. The difference this investigating makes in both their lives is not only significant but also life-direction changing.

GOOD LUCK WITH THAT by Kristan Higgins: A Review

One of my reading goals for 2020 is to read 20 books recommended by fellow bloggers. Carla at Carla Loves to Read wrote a review of what sounded like the perfect summer beach read. Thanks to COVID 19, I did not feel safe going to the beach, but this novel turned out to be the perfect escape from all the stress and worry going on right now.

Publisher’s Weekly calls Good Luck9780451489395 “…a powerful story that feels completely real,” and indeed, the characters seemed like old friends telling their stories by the end of the book. Not to be taken totally lightly, this 2018 publication deals with the “emotionally charged issues of body acceptance and health.” It begins with three friends on their last day of “fat camp,” a place where they’d been sent each summer to try to lose weight since they were thirteen.  At eighteen, this is the last summer of their eligibility, and they made a list of what they would do when they were thin. Emerson, the “dreamy one,” and the heaviest, truly obese, spirals into a sad life as a “fat girl” and becomes a morbidly obese woman who dies from complications of her obesity and leaves everything to her friends, Georgia and Marley with the instructions to do everything on the list they made at 18–NOW! What ensues changes the women’s lives forever.

The emotions and attitudes toward being overweight are wonderfully presented in this novel. For example, look at this passage, “True peace was rare when you were fat. When you were fat, you wore armor to protect and deflect…when you were fat, you worked hard to be invisible. You lived in fear of being noticed, singled out, of having someone point out what you already know, YOU’RE FAT,”

I expected Georgia and Marley to miraculously “mend their ways” and eating habits, become thin, and live happily ever after. That simply did not happen. What happened instead is that the women changed their eating habits to healthy ones and changed their attitudes towards themselves, towards their families, and toward food and eating in general as they lived the lives that Emerson wished for them. The novel had a realistic but very satisfactory ending.

SUNDAY REVIEW

ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820  A book I read for the 2020 Alphabet Challenge, author edition sponsored by Dollycas is Robert Inman’s Old Dogs and Children. This is one of novelist Inman’s lesser known novels than his Home Fires Burning, but it had everything a reader would want in a Southern story: a family matriarch named Bright Birdsong, whose father opened the sawmill that founded the town and whose son is a state senator; civil rights protests ; and as the title suggests, old dogs (Gladys, who lives under the house) and children (Jimbo, Bright’s stuffy, city-reared grandson whom she soon changes into a real “country boy” complete with bare feet and bib overalls.)

The author has a true gift for description, whether it be the grand parade on the governor’s return to his hometown after a nasty scandal where he is literally caught with his pants down, or the road trip to the capitol by Bright and Jimbo carrying their lottery ticket winnings in cash in an old, beat up suitcase stuffed under the front seat of Bright’s decrepit old car. There are several zany scenes that made me laugh out loud, yet the book is warm in that it “shimmers with joy and wisdom, understanding and forgiveness.”

Bright is an impulsive woman who tries to right wrongs but doesn’t always think about the best way to do things. She is both strong willed and empathetic when it comes to what’s right and what’s wrong. Because of this she finds herself caught up in protests and marches reminiscent of the 60s in their little town. Bright’s philosophy is the same as her dad’s , “Something will always come along.” and in this moving delightful story, it always does–sometimes prompted by Bright.

FIRST LINE FRIDAYS

The idea is to copy the first line of a book to see if it grabs another reader. This meme is hosted by Hoarding Books and Wandering Words. Place YOUR first line along with the title and author of the book it comes from and play along.

Here is the first line of Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side:

” ‘Just look at that,” Charlie Nolan said, his arm extended like that of a maitre d‘ indicating a particularly good table.”

Whatever it is, it pleases Charlie and also his wife Nora. It is something they have wanted since moving in to the dead-end block, their “tranquil village amid the urban craziness,” as described by the book’s cover. This was a book set in New York that I had intended to read after seeing for myself what New Yorkers were like during my girlfriends’ weekend in The Big Apple this past March 19th-23rd. Obviously, that trip was cancelled, but I can still read about NYC as I begin this novel by one of my favorite NY Times bestselling authors.

FIRST LINE FRIDAYS

First Line Fridays are featured by two hosts, Hoarding Books and Wandering Words. Check out their blogs for their Friday Firstliners. In the meantime, here is mine for Friday, May 15th from John Huston’s Sleepless.

“Park watched the homeless man weave in and out of the gridlocked midnight traffic on LaCienga, his eyes fixed on the bright orange AM/FM receiver dangling from the man’s neck on the black nylon lanyard.”

Stuck in traffic is a common occurrence, but the reason for the delay and gridlock at midnight, of all times, is unique to this novel. My Better Half has been encouraging me to read this book for months, and the time to begin is now! He liked it well enough to recommend it to his bookclub, so I know I’m in for a good way to spend this rainy, stormy Friday afternoon.

Letter “G” of the 2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge, author version

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Elizabeth Gilbert is an author whose books I have always found pleasing. After reading her non-fiction offerings, I was intrigued as to what her novel would be like.Unknown.jpeg

City of Girls, which deals with life in New York City over several decades, held a special spot in my heart at this time because my  girlfriends’ trip to New York, scheduled for March 19th through 23rd, was cancelled thanks to COVID-19. Sighing as I read about landmarks and all things New York that I wouldn’t be seeing any time soon, I was soon caught up in the story of Vivian who tell of the “one true love of her life.”

To me, characterization is more important than plot, resolution of conflict, or anything else. To read of the personal growth of a character and the resulting actions (which of course have consequences) that character takes, makes for a fascinating read. Using questions suggested by a fellow blogger many years ago, I’d like to write this review in terms of characterization.

  1. Who was your favorite character? Definitely Aunt Peg, Vivian’s eccentric aunt who owns and runs the Lily Theater, and who has a hit on her hands, along with drama queens and complex social and sexual situations of her off-Broadway “family.”
  2. Who was your second favorite character? The primary character, Vivian is my second favorite character. Surely no one was ever so innocent or has ever undergone such change (and gained in knowledge) as this character was. She reminds me of myself and several other people who “just don’t think.”
  3. Would you want to follow these characters in future books? Because Vivian is an old woman as she begins to tell her story, a sequel would be unlikely, and Aunt Peg would be long deceased if a sequel were to occur, my answer would be no.
  4. What about the relationships between the characters in the book? That is exactly what made this novel a page-turner and a delight. The author never had her characters act out of character or in a way that wasn’t believable based on what the reader had been told about that character’s backstory.  

During the story, Vivian’s loss of innocence but lack of maturity cause her to “make a personal mistake that results in a professional scandal.” As a critic for The New Yorker wrote, this novel is “by turns flinty, funny, and incandescent.”What Vivian learned about life, in general, was “You don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.”                                               

SATURDAY MORNINGS FOR KIDS

Here it is, Saturday morning, and here are a few recommendations for books targeted at 5th through 8th graders:

Jess Keating has set her series, “Elements of Genius” within the Genius Academy, a school for masterminds. Her latest offering, Nikki Tesla and the FerretProof Death Ray (2019) finds the academy in an uproar. The death ray has been stolen. Enter Nikki and her genius crew, and they travel around the world, seeking to find the death ray and save the world from sure extinction. Very humorous.

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange strikes a note of mystery as the reader meets Pet, and eleven year old girl, obsessed with the legend of The Daughters of the Stone. All the elements of a good, suspense read are there: an old lighthouse, a castle, and a humongous storm.

Finding the only kid around a roller-skating girl who wears a cape and is searching out a secret leaves Gideon reeling and repulsed after a move from the east coast to Nevada. In this novel by Shaunta Grimes, The Astonishing Maybe,our hearts are with Gideon as the two new “friends/enemies” search for Rona’s long-lost father and the truth.

Parents divorcing is a theme often dealt with in middle grades fiction today. Dear Sweet Pea, Julia Murphy’s novel does just this. Patricia, “Sweet Pea” deals with the tension at home at the same time as the tension between her and her ex-best friend, Kiera. How this is resolved is not necessarily “happily ever after” but realistic and satisfying at the same time.

All of these are good reads for tweens and teens looking for characters that share their concerns and who are dealing with the same day-to-day issues as themselves.

TUESDAY TEASER

Today’s Tuesday Teaser is from Robert Inman’s Old Dogs and Children, my selection for the “I” of the author’s version of the 2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge.ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820.jpg

“Suds flew. Bright sat on a stool next to the counter by the sink while Hosannah washed the dinner dishes. It was her second-favorite place in the house, next to the big green overstuffed chair in the music room where she snuggled with her father.”
This story which opens with Bright as a sixty-year-old woman greeting the morning sun from her front porch, flashes back frequently  to her childhood and upbringing in the Deep South from the storytelling author of Deep Fires Burning.

What are you currently reading? List the author, title, and a few lines from where you left off last. Maybe you will “tease” me into adding your book to my TBR list.

BOOKS “E” and “F” of the 2020 ALPHABET SOUP CHALLENGE, Author’s edition

Thank you Dollycas for such a great challenge. Here are books “E” and “F”ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820.jpg

BOOK “E”– Tony Evans, author of The Last Promise, set this 2002 romance at a Tuscan vineyard complete with Italian villa, resident artist, and asthmatic son. I had read Evan’s The Christmas Box years ago as a Third Tuesday December book club selection. When Promise showed up as a donation for my Little Free Library,A98244D5-A015-438B-BB9D-688C2EFD5E36.jpeg I set it aside where it sat on my TBR shelf for over a year.

The author is a great storyteller who makes the reader care about the characters. Eliana, an artist married to a womanizing, rich husband lives in one part of the villa. She meets another resident of the huge villa, Ross, an American turned tour guide at the Uffizi (an art museum) who is harboring a secret. The two fall in love, of course, but the path of true love is often rocky. What results is beautiful descriptions of Italy, intrigue and mystery, and heart-tugs galore. It is a darned good read.thumbnail_20200308_105121.jpg

BOOK “F”–This 2012 adventure novel by the mysterious author, Magnus Flyte (What a pseudonym!) is also a blog recommendation from a fellow blogger, thus killing two book objectives with one read: The Alphabet Challenge and to read 20 books recommended by blogging friends in 2020. The novel includes science, magic, history, and art in all of its forms.

Sarah Watson (a play on Sherlock Holmes’ assistant) is the strong, female protagonist. She has been invited to Prague, City of Dark Magic, by her old professor Dr. Sherbatsky, offering her a job as a musicologist specializing in Beethoven at the Lobkowicz Palace there. When she arrives, she is shocked that Professor Sherbatsky had died under mysterious circumstances that has been classified as a suicide. Sarah knows in her heart this is impossible and sets out to find out the truth of his demise.

“This deliciously madcap novel has it all: murder in Prague, time travel [in the most original, unique way I’ve ever seen it done] a misanthropic Beethoven, tantric sex [plenty of it–all in good fun] and a dwarf with an attitude” Connan O’ Brien.

This novel is a hilarious, page-turning romp with an especially exciting ending.

 

These two have me ready to go back to Gilbert’s City of Girls next for the “G” novel of The 2020 Alphabet Challenge.city of g