Tag Archives: neighbors

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

My father died when I was nine years old leaving my mother a widow with four children, two boys and two girls. I was the oldest. Given the premise of the book The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin which begins with the sudden death of the father at the age of 34 (my father was 37) you would think I could relate to the lives of the four children left behind to deal (three girls and one boy) with this life changing tragedy. While my mom didn’t hole up in her room for three years like Antonia (Noni), she was largely AOL trying to make ends meet, leaving me to watch over my younger siblings. Yet I felt no connection with any of these four who despite their closeness, tended at times to be totally dysfunctional as they drifted apart over the years.

I found this a sad tale all around with even the “happy” times marred with regrets. Beginning at a poetry reading by 102 year old Fiona Skinner in 2079, she looks back on her life relating a past which led to the name Luna being included in The Love Poem, her world renowned publication. Starting with those early years, each of the siblings gets a chance to tell their story as they deal with life’s trials and tribulations directly affected by the traumatic events in their lives. Eldest Renee eschews love, focusing on her career in medicine, sensitive daughter Caroline supplants her own needs by marrying childhood sweetheart Nathan and starting a family, conflicted son Joe keeps searching for a father he can’t accept is gone, and baby Fiona has difficulty forming relationships, numbering and blogging her numerous one night stands. Eventually their issues are resolved, one way or another, and their relationships morph over the years, but the tone is far from upbeat. Then there is Noni who somehow is there but never really a substantive part of their lives, even after she reenters the world. Her preachiness makes her a less than sympathetic character and it is only on her deathbed that she reveals some truths which would have been helpful to share with her kids at an earlier date.

Centered on three locations, Bexley, Connecticut, New York City, and Miami, the narrative switches back and forth from various points of view, using present tense for Fiona then past tense for her siblings. The sections occurring in the future refer to several cataclysmic events, mainly in reference to the effects of climate change. There is a wrap up on the last few pages which brings some closure to those of us who completed the book.

While there were sections of this I enjoyed such as the passages about those childhood years and Joe’s story, the rest seemed to drag on and were at times mundane. I feel the plot could have been tightened up and I question some of the behaviors of the various characters which didn’t always align to my expectations from the text. I simply wasn’t in the mood to be depressed, despite a few upbeat moments.

The question is – does the death of a parent – sibling – child mar us for life, seemingly affecting every choice we make, or do we move on beyond the heartache to live our lives free from the guilt of still being alive?

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.

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Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

Sheriff Les from a rural Appalachian community has just a few weeks left before he takes an early retirement, more than ready to spend his time communing with the beauty of the mountains attempting to capture their loveliness with his paint brush.

Yet, a lot happens before the big day. Who knew that life in a small town was so full of adversity. From poaching, trespassing, theft, the cooking of meth, child endangerment, and bribery to an environmental disaster, all occurring over a one week period. The reader is exposed to this whirlwind of activity as Les attempts to tie up all the loose ends without hurting the townsfolk he feels compelled to protect.

At first I found Above the Waterfall confusing before I figured out the narrative was a back and forth between the Sheriff and Becky Shytle, the Park Ranger. Each of the characters has some baggage which make them somewhat damaged. Unfortunately none of them are especially endearing which makes it difficult to be more than superficially concerned about the traumas they face. Becky is the most appealing of the bunch with her love of nature and poetic skill. Despite her childhood exposure to violence and unrealistic feelings of guilt, she is the one who trusts her instincts even when the evidence points to a forgone conclusion.

The ending (or lack of a conclusion) leaves an opportunity for further discourse in other novels as Ron Rash often has recurring characters intermingled throughout his novels about small town life in the Appalachia Mountains.

Three 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 Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Since The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is a murder mystery of sorts, it’s difficult to summarize without resorting to spoilers. Suffice it to say that daughter Laurel Nicolson witnessed her mother Dorothy murder a man when she was sixteen and now that her elderly mom is on her death bed, the sixty plus year old daughter decides this is her last chance to discover the truth. Her brother Geoffrey, a babe in his mother’s arms, was celebrating his second birthday, so he only has a vague feeling that something untoward happened on that date. Now, fifty years later, Laurel decides it’s finally time to clue him in so they can work together to figure out the details of their mom’s past.

Moving back and forth through time, from the present (2011) to the strife of wartime London (1941) to life as part of a loving family with five children (1961) and various years in between, the plot unfolds giving us bits and pieces of the tale – like a giant jig saw puzzle which has just enough blank spaces so that the big picture remains unrecognizable. Unfortunately, it takes way too many pages to discover the truth, and not until the disconcerting ending does the story finally come together.

While there are some obscure clues at the beginning of the book, by the time their relevance is revealed we’ve forgotten the details. With a slow start which doesn’t pick up until much later in the narration, I feel the main problem is the characterizations. The self absorbed Dolly is just plain unlikeable and at times her actions are despicable. She’s not the only one portrayed in a bad light. Laurel, a famous actress, is not a warm and fuzzy figure, even if the reader is sympathetic to her quest. Her numerous siblings are one dimensional, although the quirky Geoffrey has been fleshed out a bit. While the main focus was developing the convoluted plot (there’s a lot of tragedy along the way providing some sort of logical explanation for the evolving action), I felt more time should have been spent providing some depth to the secondary personalities. In my mind, any book over four hundred pages needs to justify the extra length and despite the surprise ending, this one fell short.

Four stars (just barely and only because of the “twist”) but it could have been so much better with a little tweaking.

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”.

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

If The Story of Arthur Truluv was a movie, you’d find it on the Hallmark Channel. Elizabeth Berg has created one of those melodramatic, heart wrenching, over the top dramas filled with the angst of loves both lost and found as three disparate characters find comfort as they form an unusual sort of alliance.

You have the teen girl who doesn’t know where her life is headed living with a father who has been disconnected from his daughter since the tragic death of his wife. Maddy doesn’t seem to fit in with anyone at school and even the new boy indicates he is not interested. Since everywhere she goes her peers whisper and mock, she skips school to spend time reflecting at a local cemetery. She’s not the only one who finds the locale soothing. It is here that Maddy meets octogenarian Arthur Moses, an elderly gentleman who every day brings a bag lunch to his wife’s gravesite to enjoy a meal with his long gone mate. Somehow the two form a connection and Arthur lets Maddy know that he’ll be there for her if she ever needs a friend. Then there’s Arthur’s elderly neighbor, Lucille, who spends her days sitting out on her porch keeping track of all the doings, collecting gossip the way some people collect stamps. Her opinionated manner is excused by her skill in the kitchen, freely sharing her creations with Arthur. Arthur, who mostly eats canned beans and franks (which he divvies up with his cat), sympathizes with the lonely woman as he eats her mouth watering butter orange blossom cookies. Somehow, through a series of events, the three end up facing the future together finding comfort and even happiness as they create a unique sort of blended family transcending the usual mother, father, child homelife.

Add in a kind hearted teacher who reaches out to his artistic, though lackluster student, a lost love who finds his way home, and a skeevy boyfriend who just wants a good time without any commitments, and you have a charming little story perfect for a rainy afternoon.

While the simplistic style fits the subject matter and the rotating point of view between the three main characters gives us a decent grasp of their motivations, I had a problem with the use of present tense to tell the story. Very few are able to use this technique successfully, and Berg, unfortunately, is not one of those authors, at least not in this book. Perhaps modifications were made before publication, since my copy was an ARC provided by Netgalley (in exchange for an honest review). I also felt the ending was too abrupt, I would have liked a little more closure, especially considering the book was only 220 or so pages (and give us some dates, not just clues from the headstones). Of note, however, were the sweet little vignettes from the graveyard, where Arthur was able to relate telepathically with the deceased and share bits and pieces of their life and death with the reader. Three and a half stars.

Still Me by JoJo Moyes

The thing about author JoJo Moyes is she has the rare talent of making the characters in her novels come alive drawing the reader into the story and leaving them anxious to continue their relationship with these “old” friends.

That is why so many of us can’t wait to read Still Me, a continuation of the saga of Louisa Clark which began with Me Before You where she falls in love and “loses” Will Traynor, a quadriplegic in her care. In After You, Louisa tries to recover from her heartbreaking loss but her plans are interrupted by a life shattering fall from her rooftop where she meets Sam, the paramedic on the scene who assures her that she will survive this ordeal.

That’s the story of Lou’s life, one disaster after another, many due to her big heart which opens her up to the hurts of the world. While her relationship with Sam is definitely moving in the right direction, the voice of Will whispers in her ear to live big and experience life – “Live boldly, Clark” – so when the opportunity pops up to move from her home in London to New York City to be an assistant to a high profile businessman’s wife who has some emotional issues, Louisa packs up and heads out for a new adventure.

In Still Me, Louisa does not disappoint as she deals with her host/hostess and tries to find her place within the confines of Manhattan. Her task is not easy, but she has Nathan, the coworker from her time with Will, as well as a friendship with Ashok, the ever present doorman, and his family who are trying to save the local public library in Washington Heights. She even develops an uneasy peace with Mrs De Witt, the crabby neighbor with a pug dog who constantly complains about everything. Maintaining a long distance relationship with Sam is more difficult than either of them expected with complications at both ends, including Joshua Ryan, a dead ringer for Will who keeps popping up in unexpected places. Yet Louisa handles life with integrity remaining true to her own ideals and discovering an inner strength and fortitude which helps her through the ultimate crap life keeps throwing in her path. Her quirky sense of style, including a pair of bumblebee tights, somehow seems right in a city where everyone has their own point of view, and helps her find other fashion enthusiasts who appreciate her vintage tastes.

The reader also touches base with characters from both of the previous novels along with some new faces, allowing us to bone up on the “gossip” about their current doings. While you don’t need to be familiar with the first two books in the series, there are constant references to previous events which might be confusing to the first time reader. It is surprising that so much has occurred over the three year span between the beginning of book one to the end of book three, but the whirlwind of activity makes for some fine reading.

Even though I was able to predict a lot of the hassles Lou faced, there were still a few “ah ha” moments, but either way, as a lover of soap operas, I couldn’t wait to discover the details of the next chapter in her life (and I wasn’t disappointed). I am aching to discuss my favorites parts of this story, including the letters, but am resigned to wait for my friends to catch up and read Still Me for themselves. Five stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.