Two Books, Briefly

July 24, 2015

[Lesley] As I’m catching up on reviewing some of the things that I’ve liked recently, I want to include two brief reviews for books that you’ve probably never heard of: Off Course, by Michelle Huneven and The Kept, by James Scott. We don’t have either in the library’s print collection but Off Course is available through interlibrary loan and her other book, Blame, is available on audio from OverDrive. The Kept is available on audio and ebook formats from OverDrive — that’s how I listened to it.

Off Course is another book about a small community of locals and summer visitors and also has a daughter returning to the place as a refuge while she figures out what to do next in her life. The relationships in this book are the focus and they are complicated. I picked this book up because of its cover (gasp!) and it delivered. One of the things I liked best was the honest way the book ended which felt just right for the story.

The Kept is sort of a western (though it takes place in NY State), sort of a mystery, sort of historical, and sort of a thriller. It’s hard to get western-style stories right, and I don’t know that I’ve ever read one that was as successful in tone and in its other aspects at the same time. Describing the story won’t do it justice – the circumstances are so far-fetched or unheard of – but the tone, the setting, and the writing pull you in from the beginning. As various things unfold and get revealed the tangle is deliciously ominous. I listened to this on audio and the reader was very good. If you aren’t into downloading books, we could definitely get it through interlibrary loan as well.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper

July 24, 2015

[Lesley] I loved this book. It’s a short, quirky novel in which we get to know 3 people and a coyote through their memories, letters, and the actions they take in the present. Mostly set in a small Saskatchewan village (and the land surrounding), these are quiet lives from the outside but hold unexpected worlds within. Etta seems to be losing her memory and decides she must set off to walk to the water, leaving her husband Otto at home with neighbor and long-time friend Russell to wonder what to do while she is gone and when (or even if) she will be back. Otto and Russell each discover a new way of living and Etta becomes a reluctant celebrity and symbol of something – independence? toughness? triumph over age? But, she also develops a relationship with a coyote who travels with her, helping to keep her safe and alive.  The flashbacks to Otto’s childhood on his family’s farm, Russell’s semi-adoption by that family, and both of them meeting Etta when she arrives to be the teacher at the one-room schoolhouse shortly before most of the town’s young men go off to war (Otto does, Russell doesn’t), are some of the most compelling and beautiful parts of the book.

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

July 24, 2015

[Lesley] This is the first book I’ve read by Sue Miller even though she’s been on my radar for a long time. I listened to this as a downloaded audiobook (from the library’s OverDrive collection – and it was read by the author. I loved hearing Miller’s take on each of the characters in the way her voice changed for each person. The story itself is interesting with many subplots. The story is set in a small town in New Hampshire made up of year-round locals and a regular summer home population. That in itself is two worlds dependent on each other but also somewhat at odds. Frankie, the oldest daughter of a summer family has come back to the house where her parents now live after retiring. She has worked her whole career for a NGO that worked on hunger in Africa. Now, she is unsure whether she will return to that life and is seeking refuge and time to think and reassess. Her parents have retired, it turns out, in part because of Alfie’s progressing memory loss. Sylvia, whose family owned the summer home for generations, hasn’t told anyone about Alfie’s condition yet but is trying to adjust to their new lives and her new role. Bud, a former Washington D.C. journalist and political insider, owns and runs the local weekly newspaper. He has chosen this quiet town as a place to settle down and make a difference in a different way. He straddles being a year-round local (owns a house, runs the newspaper, is involved in one way or another in everything that goes on) and being an outsider (as a newcomer and an observer). All of these individual stories and stories of how people relate to each other are set against the backdrop of a series of arsons happening in town.

I was invested in the characters and cared about the life of this small town, like so many in NH. The arson and mystery surrounding it adds a tension that keeps the story suspenseful. There is a lot at stake in this book — family relationships, love, identity, memory, community, pride, independence, and property that is valuable in monetary and personal ways. Miller handles all of it deftly in her well-written and narrative prose. The ending isn’t at all neatly sewn up even though some things are resolved. It all feels very true to real life and I will definitely be reading more of this author’s books.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz

May 5, 2015

[Lesley] From the beginning, I loved the voice of Aristotle Mendez. Much of this book is the interior landscape and monologue of this young Mexican American boy who is coming-of-age. His life is complicated in the usual and unusual ways: his parents drive him crazy (his dad is a Vietnam War veteran who doesn’t talk much and not at all about the war), he doesn’t have a lot of friends (but he is also a bit of a loner who doesn’t wish for lots of friends), he isn’t close to his siblings (twin sisters who are much older and a brother who is in jail and whom no one talks about). Ari meets Dante and through their friendship all the characters seem to come of age – including the adults. At one point, I wondered who the audience for this book was… would many teenage boys see themselves in thoughtful, inquisitive Ari? But, I decided that it didn’t really matter. I have known kids who would have loved this book and even if they are the minority, they are the kids I’ll never forget. I loved this book, loved the characters, and learned things about myself through reading it. I listened to it on audio and the reader added a lot to the authenticity and charm of the voice.

The Opposite of Spoiled, by Ron Lieber

May 5, 2015

[Lesley] This is a straightforward look at talking with your kids about money. Lieber includes some practical examples of how to deal with allowance, saving, family decisions, etc. but the real value I found was the discussion about the need to talk honestly with kids about all kinds of topics relating to money: what we make, how and why we make decisions about what to buy when, giving, delayed gratification… His approach to allowance wasn’t new to me (don’t use allowance as a reward for chores that kids should be doing as contributing family members) but his thoughtful explanation of why he thinks that way and what consequences result from different methods was illuminating. Not everything in the book felt applicable to me but I appreciated his approach and have been more conscious of how I talk about money with my daughter.

Unforgettable, by Scott Simon

May 5, 2015

[Lesley] Often we think that a book about a lost loved one will be depressing – how couldn’t it be? But, some of the best ones are truly a celebration of that loved one, about the life that person lived and not the sadness of those left behind. Scott Simon manages to tell the story of who his mother was through tweets and short chapters. Her personality, joie de vivre, and love for her family are alive in these pages. Instead of feeling sad at the end of the book, I felt lucky to have gotten a glimpse of someone who made a difference. “It was a sad, cold, raw, rotten day,” she remembered. “So I thought: Let me try to give it a small kindness.” Patricia Lyons Simon Newman was the kind of person I would like to be. Though we know that losing his mother was painful, we are left with her humor, strength, and common sense wisdom rather than pain.

See also: The End of Your Life Book Club

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

March 30, 2015


This book was so much fun to read. If you like 1980s pop culture want a good science fiction story, this is the book for you.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

March 30, 2015


This is a lovely book, warm and funny. It also deals with end of life issues and grief. It is a quirky, interesting mix of a book that I found very appealing.

The Red House, by Sarah Messer

February 18, 2015

[Lesley] The subtitle for this book is: being a mostly accurate account of New England’s oldest continuously lived-in house. It’s another quirky, interesting book/memoir. If I was making a mini-collection of these, this one would go with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Dogtown. This is the kind of book that I love discovering in the library stacks and why I would never want to be without the eclectic selection at the library (vs. the mainstream/most popular selection at chain bookstores).

Sarah Messer’s family buys the Red House of the title – the first owners not of the original family line. In her quasi-memoir we get the history of the house and some of the people who lived there – in typical fashion, pieced together from stories, rumors, letters, wallpaper, how the house was built/added to, etc. – and the history of two families, one of which Messer is growing up in.

The “characters” are what you would expect of old New Englanders and I loved getting to know each of them. Some of the stories are haunting (like the one about the mother and child and a fire), and some are funny. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

January 20, 2015


I really enjoyed this book. I liked that each chapter was dated, and was told in the voice of one of the three women, Rachel, Anna, or Megan. The plot was interesting, set in the UK, and I finished the book quickly (I couldn’t put it down). There have been comparisons with Gone Girl, which I really liked, but I thought this book was even better. Kept me guessing until the very end. It was thrilling and suspenseful. I will never ride a train again without thinking of Rachel.



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