Category Archives: Contemporary Fiction

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

I was happy with this simple, but witty little story of three Australian families. The first wife is struggling with her unfaithful husband, well, not quite unfaithful yet, but thinking about it. It’s who he’s been playing mind games with that has her completely in a dither, so it’s off to Mummy’s with her little boy to sort things out. Then there’s the widow who has never gotten over the tragic death of her teenage daughter. She’s the school secretary who everybody pussyfoots around in deference to her sensibilities. Finally there’s the -oh so perfect wife – who isn’t quite sure how or why she and her husband haven’t done the deed in like forever, or at least six months. Is she losing her appeal? After all, she’s given birth to three daughters who command a lot of her attention and he does travel a lot. Then she finds “the letter”!

These minor crisis were enough to keep my interest, but then, bang, half way through The Husband’s Secret, author Liane Moriarty pulls her first twist and my attention notches up a level or two. Of course, I expected this, after all, twists are this author’s trademark, and I remained open for the next surprise which braided these three lives together. While there is a satisfying resolution, this is not a happily ever after tale, just as life itself isn’t without its complications due to the numerous minute choices we make. An epilogue gives us the “what ifs” that we each can’t but wonder about our own lives.

An engaging, well written novel (even though I listened to the audio version, expertly performed by Caroline Lee who has read other books by this author). My only complaint is that I didn’t get to this book sooner.

Five Stars

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The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve

It happens! Not very often, but often enough. A plane crashes! Sometimes in your own “back yard”! I remember that midwinter’s night about nine years ago, bitterly cold and clear, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, NY, not even ten miles from my house, even closer to the Buffalo International Airport. Everyone knew someone affected, such as the cantor at the synagogue up the street, the wife of a professor at UB who was teaching a class I was taking at the Teacher Center on Asian Culture. We were discussing the Great Wall of China and I said that was on my bucket list, “what’s that,” he asked; awkwardly I realized my mistake as I explained the term, knowing it was too late for his wife to make such requests.

Pilot error! I thought about the pilots who didn’t realize how quickly those wings would ice up on a Buffalo winter’s evening or how important that they maintain control and not rely on the autopilot so as to avoid the danger of a stall. I thought of their families, their spouses and parents, their friends, and how they all suffered along with those of the other 47 on board (plus the older gentleman in the home where they crashed) on that fateful night just minutes from landing safely.

So when I picked up The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, I was reading a scenario I had already mentally examined, yet living it through the eyes of fictional character Kathryn Lyons, whose husband was accused of committing suicide at the expense of the 103 passengers and crew on board the Heathrow to Boston flight. This is a heart wrenching tale, pulling the reader into the roller coaster of emotions which result from such a tragedy. Through a flashback of thoughts we are given the details of what appears to be the perfect marriage, yet there are little hints that something was somehow a little off kilter, just mildly, but in retrospect significant. In this way Kathryn starts to piece together the truth with the support of union rep Robert Hart who helps her navigate past the disruptions of the questioning reporters, the investigators from the Safety Board, and even the FBI, as well as assist her in creating enough semblance of normalcy to provide closure through a memorial service and the upcoming Christmas holidays. Kathryn can’t completely fall apart because she has her fifteen year old daughter Mattie to care for, although her grandmother Julie is there for support, just as she was when Kathryn’s parents tragically died.

Well written, full of angst despite some tender moments, and, while not altogether unexpected, there are a few twists and turns in the story that propels us through to the end. Paying attention to the little details might provide enough clues to answer some of the questions left after reading the open ended conclusion, especially since Shreve doesn’t let the plot drag on, but keeps it going just long enough to get the job done.

I would be remiss in not examining the life of the author, Anita Shreve, who died this past August at the age of 71 from a reoccurrence of breast cancer. Shreve, who grew up in Boston but spent her summers in Maine, believed that the focal point of any story should be the family home -“a house with any kind of age has dozens of stories to tell”. The particular residence in The Pilot’s Wife was an 1890s white-clapboard house with a mansard roof located on the coast of southern Maine reminiscent of the place where the author spent her summer vacations. Her love of this childhood spot extended to the sea, a setting which becomes like an additional character in the narrative. When Shreve overheard a conversation about a plane crash, she thought of her father, who was an airplane pilot, and couldn’t help imagining how she would feel if she were the pilot’s wife. That lead to this novel as well as the 2002 screenplay she wrote for the made for television movie.

Jack kept a lot of secrets from his wife, and ironically Shreve also had her share of secrets. Her husband Osborne, a childhood sweetheart she reconnected with in later years, confessed that she was so quiet about her personal life that even he didn’t know the names of two of her former three husbands. Perhaps the need for intimacy is why the author preferred to write her stories in longhand, feeling that it brought her closer to the subject matter than the use of an electronic device.

Her last book, The Stars Are Fire, which I recently read, takes place in the same relative locale in Maine with a vintage house and the sea also playing a major role in that story’s development. It is sad that there will be no further endeavors by this particular author whose name was thrust on to the public’s radar when The Pilot’s Wife was chosen for the Oprah Book Club in 1999.

A compelling read. Four stars.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

What makes Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson so special is not the story, although the plot is full of subtle wit and unforseeable plot twists, but the rich and quirky characterizations of the personalities living in the small town outside London, England.

At first Major Pettigrew seems kind of opinionated and stuffy, but his relationship with Mrs. Allie, the shop keeper of Pakistanee descent, softens his attitude, and making him endearing to the reader. We find ourselves rooting for the Major as he attempts to surreptitiously woo the widow while remaining a perfect gentleman.

To make the enjoyment even more complete, add in a couple of obnoxious, money grubbing in laws, a son who pursues prestige over tradition, a Lord willing to sell out the entire village in order to maintain his decadent lifestyle, a crass, egocentric American Industrialist whose annoying behavior threatens to ruin every gathering he attends, and a woman’s group who between gossiping sessions run many of the social events expounded upon in the novel.

In short, the Major finds himself having difficulty dealing with the death of his brother and Mrs. Allie, the local shop keeper, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, is able to comfort the man. There is a spark between the two and as they both deal with their own personal challenges involving the embarrassing indiscretions of various family members, they find a moments relief and even joy in each other’s company.

A major focal point in the tale is the story of the two matched rifles, Churchills, which were presented to the Major’s grandfather by an Indian Maharaja, as a reward for protecting his daughter from harm by some rebels. While the Major expected to inherit the pair, his father gave one to his brother with the expectation the two would be reunited upon one of their deaths. No such stipulation was written into the will and much to his horror, his sister in law is mentally spending the money to be earned by selling the family heirloom(s). The Churchills seem to drive the plot forward, somehow relating to the various interactions of the characters throughout the plot.

While there is a bit of action, along with a few plot twists, most of the story focuses upon the life of the Major as he pursues his interests (such as plotting the ways he can keep both Churchills) while trying to advance his relationship with the alluring Mrs. Allee. His clever, deprecating remarks to the questionable comments of his fellow townspeople result in numerous laugh out loud moments, a personal barometer of a book destined to be a favorite. The contentious relationship between father and son also inexplicably brings a smile to my face as despite their different viewpoints on life, they reluctantly share a love which goes beyond kinship. Kudos to Simonson for a superb debut novel as well as to Peter Altschuler who was the spectacular reader of the audiotape.

My five star rating shouldn’t be a surprise and I hope the movie version lives up to the cleverness of the author’s original text.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Days When Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed

Instant attraction! An overwhelming emotion which keeps cluttering the mind with questions such as “what should I say”, “should I do this”, “will I see them today”, “did I make a fool of myself”, etc. This unrequited obsession goes on and on, even if the other person is oblivious to the emotions they provoke, even if the words are never spoken or feelings ever revealed. Yet, there is a palpable connection which the reader can feel without any graphic sexual content. It’s the unspoken romance which keeps us engaged.

That’s how it us between June and Jameson in The Days When Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed, two lost souls whose past hurts have overwhelmed their lives, destroying relationships and making day to day interactions almost intolerable. Two souls caught up in the solace found in nature who are finally able to reveal their innermost traumas to each other without fear of judgement, because of a basic understanding of having been there in one form or another.

A romance of a simple touch or smile, or even a post card – but it’s enough.

June who formerly found relief at the bottom of a bottle turns to her “seven comforts, none of which were a drink”. Finding herself back home in rural Oregon by the coast where it all started, she needs someone to renovate her grandparents next door cottage so she can sell it. Enter Jameson (same as the whiskey) who is also returning to the “scene of the crime”, but he finds peace in this home where he now lives while he works, appreciating the ambience of the surrounding wildlife. June, just an eyesight away, keeps her distance, yet there is a nonverbal communication even before they find their commonality. In spite of their new found affinity, Jameson has a wife, Sarah Anne, waiting for him seven hours away back home with their new foster son. June’s ex is in Australia, sent away while she was in a drunken rage. And so the summer goes, from June to September as the house takes shape and it’s time to move on.

Told through introspections interspersed with dialogue we discover the secrets haunting the two thirty five year olds who have somehow found a way to share the formerly closeted details of their damaged lives. There’s no telling here, just a gentle leaning towards the truth. Not for those who like a narrative to explain what’s happening, in this one the reader must glean the facts and come to their own conclusions.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

And one more thing, I’ve included a poem by Emily Dickinson with a similar title for your perusal. If you think the two are related, fine, if not, enjoy anyway:

These are the Days When Birds Come Back
By Emily Dickinson

These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophestries of June—
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee—
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze—
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake—
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, translated by Henning Koch

This book made me cry.

“People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.” And that was enough!

Fredrik Backman has created a truly eccentric personality in main character Ove, a grumpy malcontent with a big heart underneath who’s a stickler for the rules (as he conceives them) but grudgingly lends a hand (actually he takes over) to make sure the job is done right.

Despite the way Ove views the world, or maybe because of it, you kind of have to love this guy even wth his negative attitudes towards almost everything, except his wife who he dearly loves, (although he also has a soft spot for the Saab he drives). Fate in all its glory, both the good and the bad, keeps dictating Ove’s path, interceding when it seems like there’s no way forward. Not too long, (336 pages), A Man Called Ove is a mesmerizing read, one of those can’t put it down books which instantly peaks your interest. I really can’t say too much more or I’ll spoil the “fun” as you discover the whats and whys on your own.

The translation from the original Swedish can be jarring at times (I’m not a fan of first person narration), but there are some clever phrases that will bring a smile to your face and even an occasional laugh. My only complaint is that Ove acted older than his fifty nine years, but then again, he was born an old man. This one has been on my “To Read List” for awhile and it did not disappoint. I can see why A Man Called Ove was a New York Times Bestseller for almost a year – a perfect choice for a movie (made in Sweden in 2015). Five stars. Enjoy!

The greatest compliment : May I be “unlike you in the smallest number of ways”.

Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

This was a difficult book to read. Not because Every Note Played was poorly written, but because Lisa Genova has done such a masterful job of portraying the anguish brought about by the debilitating Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis also know as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

While ALS would devastate anyone of the population unfortunate enough to contract this fatal illness, how much worse for a world renowned concert pianist to watch his distinguished acclaim shattered as the muscles in his limp arms and hands are no longer able to respond to even simple commands, leaving the keys on his Steinway Grand gathering dust.

Richard’s career always took precedence over both his wife and daughter. Karina, also a gifted pianist, resented her assigned status as a second class talent when their move to Boston wiped out her plans to play jazz in New York City. After Grace came along, Karina found herself a stay-at-home mom, raising a daughter while giving a bunch of talentless kids piano lessons. As Richard’s reputation soared, resentment blossomed in his wife, inflamed by her husband’s gadding about, leaving his family to fend for themselves as he pursued his own passions – both on the stage and in his mistresses’ beds. Divorce was inevitable.

Left there this would just be another tale of two college students with common interests who fall in love, marry and start a family, torn apart by diverging, incompatible life goals leading to a bitter divorce. Yet what happens when a disease such as ALS knocks at ones door mummifying the body while keeping cognition intact? Denial is the first reaction as Richard refuses to ask for help and Karina fails to recognize the seriousness of the situation until it is almost too late. However, despite their differences, Karina finds herself the caretaker for a man she has hated most of her adult life. Richard, at the mercy of the woman he has hurt, doesn’t know how to ask for forgiveness, but has no where else to turn as his physical and financial assets dwindle. Genova, adept at exposing the underside of various crippling diseases through her novels, takes us through the process, step by step, watching the couple try to find peace in a situation which becomes increasingly grave.

Not for the squeamish, since the author does not sugar coat any of the details, often getting down and dirty as she describes the effects on both victims – the man with the disease and the caretaker. The reader who finishes this book does not leave unscathed.

Since Every Note Played was written two events have occurred – the death of 72 year old Stephen Hocking who chose to miraculously extend his life by using a ventilator and the approval by the FDA of a new drug Radicava, which in trials has slowed the decline of physical ailments by up to 33 percent. Like everything else connected with ALS, the cost of survival is beyond the means of most and it is unclear whether insurance companies will cover the monthly $1000 infusions. Still, a positive step forward for this catastrophic disorder which destroys indiscriminately.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

You know, there are other cities in the world besides New York?” Not if you’re a Manhattanite! Meet sex and the city without the sex, just a bunch of upscale families who live in a set of Brownstones on a one way/dead end block on the Upper West Side of “The City”. Not filthy rich, but definitely comfortable with the ability to afford a private school education and hire servants to care for the kids, cook the meals, and keep the house in good repair. An in-kind neighborhood where everyone meets up while walking their dog, using their free time to gossip over coffee and plan their lives so as not to miss the biyearly “hospitable” get-togethers – the Memorial Day BBQ and the January “Holiday” Party. Once you’re invited you know you have been accepted as one of the clique.

In Alternate Side, author Anna Quindlen brings us into the fold, placing us in a location where we can watch events unfurl. We see the world through the eyes of Nora Nolan, eyes that she often feels like rolling, such as when her husband Charlie is finally granted a coveted spot (and not a very good one at that) in the mini community parking lot – invitation only. No more playing the Alternate Side Game twice a week where you have to get up at the crack of dawn and move your car to the other side of the street to avoid getting a ticket. A sport that city dwellers, at least those with cars, are forced to play, since there’s no arguing once the meter maid puts pen tip to paper so as to fill the city’s coffers with fine money. Fortuitously, the nearby parking lot eases the pressure and makes Charlie feel like he belongs at a time when he isn’t quite certain this is the place he wants to be. Nora doesn’t need this affirmation, she knows she’s a New Yorker through and through, even though her childhood home was in Connecticut. She considers the greatest gift that she has given her twins is the ability to say they were born in Manhattan. Everything is going great, there’s still passion in her marriage, her son and daughter are set to graduate from college, her friendships are solid, and she has a fulfilling job managing the growing niche Museum of Jewelry. Then her sense of sublimeness is marred by an incident which seems to change the dynamics of the neighborhood and Nora finds herself reexamining the direction of her life as she tries to maintain an equilibrium that is threatening to fall apart despite her best efforts to keep an even keel.

If you are looking for action and intrigue, this is not the book for you. This is a simple story of the ebb and flow of life as one individual tries to navigate the course without losing her integrity. Nora is the woman we all want to be – living a life she loves in the city she loves doing what she loves to do. She’s privileged, yet recognizes she needs to be more inclusive. She’s kind, yet acknowledges the unavoidable drawbacks of her chosen lifestyle. She’s discerning, yet accepting of her ultimate fate. The men in this novel are not shown to advantage, although to be fair, I’m not sure the women are either.

The downside to the novel is keeping track of all of Nora’s friends and acquaintances which gets challengingly confusing at times. Perhaps a handy who’s who guide at the beginning or end of the book would help the reader figure things out. I’m also not sure if readers who don’t have a New York connection will appreciate the sentiment surrounding an urban subsistence or understand the intensity of Nora’s feelings towards a way of life that must seem artificial and exclusive. This could detract from the anticipated audience, but I, for one, who was born in Brooklyn, really relate to this book (even though I now live in a suburb of Buffalo). I get the close family feeling of the neighborhood and I also understand it doesn’t last forever, that various regions in New York City grow and change over a relatively short period of time. Peoples lives are also fluid, not static, forcing new adventures even on reluctant participants. Most of all, I get the Alternate Parking, since in my childhood the family car was parked in a lot about a mile away from our apartment, forcing us to make a deliberate decision to drive rather than walk/take the subway/catch a bus. My dad didn’t play the Parking Game, but I knew other parents who did and I didn’t envy them their crack of dawn dart out the door to maneuver a vehicle which was just going to sit there positioned in the same spot until the next “moving” day. I sometimes think about those metropolitan dwellers when I pull into my own driveway just steps from the front door. Yet, many are willing to put up with the inconvenience in exchange for the ambiance of life in “The City”.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.