Sheltering Rain by Jojo Moyes (2002)

I love the work of British novelist Jojo Moyes, I find her writing to be the perfect mix of romantic and realistic: endlessly hopeful that love with always win in the end. I have read almost of of her work and have reviewed three of her novels on this blog; you can find all three under the tag “Jojo Moyes” on the right-hand side of this website.

Sheltering Rain is Moyes’ first novel and while it is not nearly as fine-tuned and lovely as some of her later work, it was still a great read, easily transporting me from a 100+ degree day by the pool to the cold, rainy Irish countryside where I followed the story of three generations of Ballyntyne women.

Using her now signature writing device, Moyes tells the story of the family matriarch, Joy, using flashbacks to describe her young adulthood, meeting her husband, and the early years of their marriage. These stories serve to soften the somewhat rigid, harsh woman that Joy has become late in her life; the woman that her granddaughter Sabine first comes to meet at the start of the story.

Sixteen-year-old Sabine, the family’s youngest women, tells most of the present-day action from her point of view. A tumultuous and angry teenager, Sabine has been sent unwillingly to live with her elderly and estranged grandparents in a rural town in Ireland. She is furious at her mother, Kate (who she blames for their less-than-perfect life in London) and she spends her early weeks in Ireland sulking and refusing to build relationship with her grandparents. Slowly, among the family’s neighbors, friends, and archives, a more complete picture of who her mother and her grandmother really are emerges and Sabine learns that it is lovely — if, at times, complicated — to be a part of a large family.

Interspersed with Sabine’s account are stories told from her mother Kate’s point of view. Kate fled her parent’s home at eighteen and has tried to make a life for herself and her daughter as far — physically and emotionally — from the one she had as a girl. Now that her daughter is living a life very similar to the one she abandoned, she must confront the painful past she shares with her family.

All in all, Sheltering Rain is a nice novel. Even if it’s not as wonderful as some of the author’s other books, it is still an great romantic novel. Within the pages of this first novel are some of the things that will go on to define Moyes’ later, more substantial novels: including her wonderfully drawn characters, her great love stories, and her belief that unveiling secrets can heal relationships.

Here’s to Us by Elin Hilderbrand (2016)

nantucket sankaty lighthouse

“Rich people behaving badly,” reads one description on the back of the newest novel by Elin Hilderbrand, Here’s to Us. Indeed this story includes a lot of that, but that description is incomplete: the book is a story about rich people (and formerly rich people) behaving badly, unpredictably, and inappropriately…but is also a story about a grieving family acting with kindness, love, and support. The end result is a wildly entertaining and utterly readable family drama with characters who seem so alive that even when they are “behaving badly” readers cannot help but become absorbed by their (sordid, flawed, sad) stories.

The novel focuses on members of the disjointed and dysfunctional extended Thorpe family, who despite decades of hatred and fighting have come together for one last weekend at the family home on Nantucket to spread the ashes of the novel’s deceased (but still very present) patriarch, Deacon Thorpe. Deacon was a wildly famous but deeply troubled celebrity chef, whose alcohol and drug addiction and philandering had caused his family heartache for years: “Deacon had carried a core of sorrow within in him. [His family] had never been able to rid him of his sadness. He became very successful and very popular but that hadn’t made his demons go away.” The first and last chapters of the novel serve as bookends of Deacon’s life on Nantucket: the opening tells of his first visit to the island with his father and the closing chapter tells of his last day on Nantucket, his last day alive.

In between these two chapters lie the complicated and messy stories of Deacon Thorpe and his wives and children, told from multiple points of view and from various times and places in their lives. The net result is an almost-full picture of a man who was trying to make a good life for himself and his family, without any idea how to do so.

On present day Nantucket, we meet Deacon’s two ex-wives, his widow, his three children, and his best friend who all have gathered to spread his ashes. The three women are mistrusting and jealous of one another; each tries to hold on to their good memories of a flawed man, but they all realize the good times are heavily tainted by his lies and misdeeds and the bad times are magnified by each other’s presence. We see the version of Deacon each woman remembers — how they fell in love, how their marriages began, and how they fell apart — and at times, we flashback to Deacon’s memories.

Also at the house are his two older children, who are remembering with longing the magical summers spent with their father in this summer home. Both are struggling to process their sorrow and manage the drama their mothers continue to concoct. Deacon’s daughter is bereft having lost a business partner and mentor, as well as a best friend and father. His son, struggling with his own demons, has chosen to stay too numb to feel any grief at all.

Adding to the tension of the weekend is the news, delivered by Deacon’s best friend, that all of the family’s money is gone: no more private schools, business investments, high-priced apartment rentals in New York City, and of course, no more beloved beach house. The weekend that was about saying goodbye to a man has also become about saying goodbye to the Island.

As badly as the characters in this book behave, we are allowed to see inside of each of their minds and hearts and learn that, underneath all of the drama, they are all aching for love. As always, Hilderbrand gives us such full-bodied characters, filled with such capacity for goodness and cruelty, that we cannot help but be mesmerized by their tales. I am a huge fan of all her books — I have read every single one, several more than once — and this book does not disappoint readers: everything we have come to love about her books, and more, fills the pages of Here’s to Us.

Two other Hilderbrand books have been reviewed on this site: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-2o and a mention of my favorite books of hers can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-sk

 

A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan (2015)

“Motherhood was the equivalent of love at first sight. Sometimes you just know. And you rearrange your whole life around what you glimpsed through a little window that opened for one second to show you a glimpse of something you might never see again. Even so, you know you will never forget the view.”

At first glance, A Window Opens, appeared to be a chick-lit novel about the all too familiar topic of a working mother trying to establish a balanced life — one where she maintains her fitness, her marriage, her relationship to her extended family, her role as nurturer, her role as breadwinner, and her sanity. I will be the first to say that chick-lit does have a place in any reader’s lexicon — just like romance novels or bloody murder mysteries — but it is not a genre that often speaks to me. However, the further on I read, the clearer it became that Egan’s story had real teeth, and she was able to give funny, sharp assessments about the myth of having it all.

At the start of we meet Alice Pearse while she is a busy mother of three living in New Jersey, working part-time as a (slightly glamorous) books editor for a women’s magazine in Manhattan: she enjoys the smug satisfaction of being both an involved suburban mom and a New York City writer. When her husband leaves a high-paying legal job in the city to open his own firm, Alice’s entire life is forced to change.

Alice finds herself at a job at a super-modern, high-tech corporation (the interviews scenes are very funny: showing low-tech and out of touch Alice, winning the hearts of a room of twenty-something hipsters) that will require not only an entirely new set of work skills, but also demand much more than any position she has held since becoming a mother.

After just a short time on the job, Alice sees the wizard behind the curtain: the company’s commitment to supporting local business and its workers in search of work-life balance is a fraud. It is, in fact, just like all of the other huge corporations it seeks to distance itself from and is reveled as out only to make as much money as possible. Egan’s descriptions of the company, rather than being angry are hilarious; shining a light on it’s faux attempts to create utopian workplace. Soon the company demands too much from Alice — too much time in the office, too many meetings, too little flexibility — and she is forced to choose between a job that is crushing her spirit and making her a stranger to her children and financial security.

I found Egan’s book to be funny and relatable both in my role as a mother — as I have been a working mom and a stay-at-home mom — and as a slightly old-fashioned woman in a high-tech world.  I laughed at loud at her seemingly off-hand but sharp observations about being a busy working mother — I love her quip about how on her first solo business trip “it was dizzying to walk through the airport terminal without a stroller” — and I was deeply touched by her heartbreaking descriptions of grief, which she describes as struggle to not fall “into the Grand Canyon of heartbreak.” My biggest complaint would be that the final chapters tend to wrap up the problems in the story in an overly tidy package, where financial troubles, marital strife, and career options are all magically solved. Given her effort to make the rest of the book true-to-life, this fairy tale ending does not exactly ring true…even though it does leave me feeling very happy.

Work-life balance is a topic that has been close to my heart since my earliest days as a working mother. Here are links to two previous blog posts of mine dealing with the issue of time management: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1I and http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1K

“I’d internalized the message [from the] women’s center in college. Yes, it is possible to do anything, be everything. But maybe if I had not dozed through physics, I would have been a little more up to speed on the limitations of time. You cannot create more of it. You can sleep less, plan more, double book, set the alarm for 5:30am spin class, order winter coats for your kids while you’re on a conference call, check work email while your family eats breakfast — but ultimately there are only so many hours in one day and you have to spend some of them in bed.”

 

 

 

Thirst by Benjamin Warner (2016)

Chesapeake Watershed Satellite image

A satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the waterways at the center of the novel Thirst.

This outstanding debut novel begins on a ordinary summer afternoon — with our main character Eddie sitting in traffic — and in just a few short pages unravels into a tense dystopian thriller. Upon realizing that the traffic jam’s root cause is something more serious than a car accident, Eddie abandons his car and begins the head home on foot. What he sees as he makes his way is deeply unsettling: cars piled up with no rescue crews in site; armed men guarding gas stations; creek and river beds scorched dry; and no cell service or power anywhere.

Eddie finds his neighborhood largely peaceful when he arrives home, its residents only slightly inconvenienced by the power outages, slightly more so when they learn that the water is off as well. Hours pass with no sign of repair trucks and not so much as a radio broadcast informing residents of the cause of the outages and the traffic. Slowly at first, but then we greater and greater intensity Eddie and his wife Laura see their neighbors becoming unhinged — looting grocery stores, arming themselves against one another, and hoarding supplies, particularly water.

Days pass with no relief and Eddie and Laura are forced to take stock of their supplies and begin to seriously worry that their lack of preparedness might be fatal. The thirstier they grow, the more erratic and violent they — and their neighbors — become.

As the conditions the characters face deteriorate, Warner’s writing beautiful mirrors the rising hysteria and the delirium caused by their thirst; the words he writes of become jumbled and mirage-like, highlighting just how unstable the situation, and the people in it, have become. The overall effect is as terrifying as it is entertaining.

Thirst is an excellent novel that I finished in just a few hours because I could not put it down and one which I highly recommend everyone read.

cheaspeake bay bridge

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is featured in the novel’s culminating scene.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (2015)

“I may be a professional writer, but in creative terms, I’m still an amateur, still learning my craft. We all are. Every day spent writing is a learning experience and a battle to do something new. Phoning it in is not allowed. One cannot increase one’s talent, but it is possible to keep that talent from shrinking.” From the introduction to Bazaar of Bad Dreams

Stephen King is a favorite writer of mine: I find his work consistently well-written, always managing to be both entertaining and thought-provoking. This collection of twenty short stories is no exception — each one exploring questions about life, death, fear, crime, and the unexplained–  but I find the most wonderful part of the book to be the Introduction and story explanations that King has included. King has taken the time to talk about the craft of writing fiction, in general, and also the specific circumstances surrounding the inspiration of each individual story. It is as fascinating to hear about the origin of each of these stories as it is to read them, with King giving great insight into the many ways his stories come to him and the events that provoked his interest in these varied topics.

Short fiction is a format that seems perfectly suited for a writer like King, where he can explore many different writing styles, introduce many different characters, and discuss multiple ideas, without being locked into telling one larger story. As a result, readers get twenty wonderful examinations of King’s favorite topics: death, desperation, human relationships, and the supernatural. “The reason fantasy fiction remands such a vital and necessary genre is that it lets us talk about such things [as death and the afterlife] in a way that realistic fiction cannot.”

Despite often being attributed (in my opinion, wrongly) as being a writer who specializes in blood and gore, that is only rarely the case for King. Yes, he is interested in dark subjects but he only rarely engages in the kind of horror writing that people associated with slasher films. At the very root of all of his novels, and indeed each of these short stories, are discussions about human nature. How will people react in a terrifying situation? What would motivate someone to kill? What would greed lead a person to do? How much money would it take for a person to violate their moral code?

It is through these explorations that King’s work really speaks to me. His stories may not always provoke fear in me (although they often do) but they always lead me to consider dark possibilities in a new way. His stories are most often haunting not because they are scary, but because they linger in the minds of readers long after the story has been read. That, I believe, is King’s true genius.

I loved all of the stories in this collection, but I really enjoyed “Premium Harmony,” “A Death,” and “Summer Thunder.”

 

Euphoria by Lily King (2014)

sepkit map

Map of the region discussed in the novel, Euphoria (from book jacket.)

In this extraordinary novel, author Lily King transports readers across the globe to the steamy, crocodile-infested jungles of Papua New Guinea and back in time to the 1930’s to tell us a story that is gorgeous, riveting, and insightful. The scope of this novel is awe-inspiring: without any ornate prose or lengthy diatribes — indeed in only two hundred fifty six pages — King manages to convey an enormous amount to us about vast and varied topics. Discussions the book brings to life include, but are not limited to: scientific objectivity, colonialism, ethics, patriarchy, gender and sexual identity, social progress, Western dominance, and environmental degradation and these topics are broached all within the confines of a story with only three main characters and covering only a few scant months in time.

Euphoria centers on three anthropologists studying and living among the tribes of the Sepik River basin in Papua New Guinea. These three come to represent the varying, and largely untested, approaches to the “nascent, barely twenty-year old social science. Anthropology was in transition, moving from the study of men dead to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model.”

Nell is a brilliant young researcher, flush with recent global success, who is pioneering an entirely new approach to living with and learning from native peoples. Her approach is grounded in deep respect for the people she studies and calls for in-depth analysis of the cultures and customs with the hope of coming to understand the meaning those rituals hold for the people themselves, not with how they compare to Western models.

Traveling with her, under the guise of being her research partner, is her husband Fen, a man both sexually and professionally jealous of his wife. Fen scoffs at Nell’s methods, at her intellectualism in general, and disdains any attempt by her to corral his observations into usable data. “Fen did not want to study natives; he wanted to be a native. His attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the story of humanity” but to live without rules or consequences. “His interest lay in experiencing, in doing. Thinking was derivative. Dull. The opposite of living.” It becomes clear that he is obsessed with achieving successes that will outstrip his wife’s and hopes to do so with a discovery, not through diligent research or book authorship. Fen’s most stinging criticisms, perhaps, are targeted towards women, who he ridicules as less than, including his wife. Despite Nell copious research, “Fen disagreed on every conclusion she drew on the topic of matriarchy. He said she was blinded by her desire to see [women] this way; he said whatever power women had was temporary and situational.”

Finally, there is Bankston, a reluctant anthropologist who despite years in the bush cannot find a method of study and research that sits well with him. He has fallen back on the study of tribes people in what Nell refers to, with horror, as an outdated practice akin to “zoology.” It is only through exposure to Nell — both her brilliance and her modern approach to social science — that his work blossoms, as do his feelings for her which spark jealousy among the two men.

Together these three anthropologists begin to create a framework for studying other cultures that will dispel the myths of Western dominance. The further they descend into their theories, the more they begin to challenge all of their world views; what emerges are radical new ideas about roles of women, gender and sexual fluidity, and ways of living on the earth that are at odds with the culture of exploitation. Standing back in Sydney after years in the wild, Bankston is struck “by how clearly these streets were made for and by amoral cowards, men who made money in rubber or sugar or copper or steel in remote places where no one questioned their practices, their treatment of others, or their greed.”

This was a completely captivating novel that raises many more questions than it answers but none the less leaves readers feeling as if they have discovered something stunning alongside Nell, Fen, and Bankston.

 

river PNG

Sepik River, Papua New Guinea

 

Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris (2016)

bitterrootmountains_christophercauble

Bitterroot Mountains, Idaho at Trapper Peak

In this new novel by Keith Morris, a former professor of both my husband and me, readers will find a haunting, mysterious tale of a rural town, a haunted hotel, a possible break in the space-time continuum, and the myriad of ways those forces effect one family. While it possesses elements of a ghost story (see the early similarities to The Shining), Morris’ tale never becomes overtly scary, rather he keeps the tension constant, never fully slackening the discomfort of the unknown, but never rushing the story either. The result is a book that, much like the hotel at its center, casts a spell over its readers, telling its story in dreamy, trance-like manner.

When an unexpected, blinding snowstorm strikes the Addison family as they drive from Washington State to South Carolina, they find themselves forced from the road into a small Idaho town, Good Night, where they seek shelter from the storm. Mrs. Julia Addison feels a sense of pull towards the town, “this place sounds familiar. I’ve heard of this place,” and so the car — containing her husband Tonio, her son Dewey, and her ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Robbie — pulls into Good Night.

Almost immediately things begin to unravel, and the travel party feels uneasy with their shabby room in the town’s only hotel, Travelers Rest, and with the sparsely populated town which is rapidly becoming buried in snow. The hotel begins to affect the family members emotionally: “something was desperately wrong.” They find themselves floating through the hotel and its surroundings, each experiencing their own unique series of events, their own version of the town and its place in space and time,  even differing versions of their own selves. However, panic is slow to emerge, and the characters are too vague to be scared, acting with little thought to logic must less to consequences. No one is quite dreaming, nor are they exactly remembering repressed memories, nor are they quite living in the a parallel universe…but they are no longer present to themselves or the others.

Brother-in-law Robbie is the first to leave the hotel; he feels uneasy there but not overly haunted the way his brother and sister-in-law will soon be. This is most likely attributed to his immaturity and emotional emptiness from years of addiction. For most of the novel, he considers the unsettling events at a remove, something for the others to address. “It was probably not a good thing, was it, how much he depended on other people — always some other person to keep things straight, tell him when to go to work, what was his court date.” Rather than engage, Robbie holes up and drinks until it become impossible to stay out of the unfolding events.

Tonio is a staid, plodding anthropologist who, once he arrives, is stuck in place, hardly able to overcome the pull of the hotel: “not once in his life had Tonio wondered, while he was awake, if he were in fact dreaming. Until this point he would have doubted that any waking person, ever, had actually confused the two states.” None the less, he is unable to make sense of the events, and at each feeble attempt to escape the hotel, Tonio finds “there was a frozen moment, a kind of existential breakdown, an acquiescence to biological commands — seek warmth, go to sleep,” and he cannot complete his search for his missing family.

Dewey is Julia and Tonio’s son, an extremely intelligent and mature child who seems to be the least affected by the hotel; perhaps he has too few memories or too short of a past to be completely pulled under its spell. He is able to remain in the hotel and largely in the “present” and is able to interact with the town’s residents (which only Robbie is also able to do) and he is the most determined to survive. He cares less about solving the mystery of Good Night and Travelers Rest than he does about getting home.

Finally, there is Julia who emerges as the catalyst, the one initially most drawn to the town and the one most overwhelmingly affected by its charms. She is swept away almost immediately, unable to surface from her jumbled memories and experiences, and most of the time she is unwilling to break free of them. With a childlike acquiescence, Julia finds the experience “very interesting, the way these moments stretched out through all different times of her life, and come together in such a tactile, visceral way for this current Julia, the one here in this room like lily pads on still water, stepping stones along a path.”

The resulting novel is a beautifully written discussion about the definition of reality, personal choices versus fate, and the idea that the world is a fixed and completely understood place. Is the story about parallel universes? Alternate realities? Past lives and reincarnation? Perhaps all of those things, or perhaps none, but the story is a wonderful exploration of some of the large questions of the universe, even if the answers are not readily available. “There are many things scientists do not know. How is it that something stagnant, inert, fixed, dead, should give birth to to so many moving and living things. The earth gives us life, and a natural end to life is death, and death is nothing more than an extended kind of sleep and sleep is the gateway to dreaming and dreams are nothing more than disguised memories, and memories are all that we have left in the world. All these things are the nexus of the same thing. Why shouldn’t there be a place where they come together as one?”