Turbo Twenty-Three by Janet Evanovich (2016)

Book #23 in the Stephanie Plum series (Book #22 reviewed here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-3x )

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Everyone’s favorite bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, is back for yet another ridiculous, hilarious, wholly improbable but none-the-less enjoyable caper. She has brought along her entire rag-tag team of companions — including but not limited to: Lulu, Connie, Grandma Mazur, Randy Briggs, Joe Morelli (yum!), and Ranger (yum! yum!) — along as she tries to round up skips and as she goes undercover in order to solve a string of murders.

In this book, Stephanie is helping Ranger piece together a bizarre series of crimes plaguing a local ice cream factory and its employees, including two grisly murders. Going under cover on the factory line, on the loading dock, and even as a clown in the ice cream truck; Stephanie does her best to solve the mystery and (as always) manages to do so in a wild, round-a-bout way.

I have to admit that I whole-heartedly enjoy this series and, even after twenty-three books, I still am happy to send a rainy evening reading about Stephanie and her outrageous exploits. While other series I have been devoted to have fizzled (see my latest review of JD Robb’s latest Eve Dallas book http://wp.me/p6N6mT-19D ) this one remains strong. The reason for this, I believe, that it is Evanovich’s humor and her commitment to absolutely ludicrous story-lines that make no attempt to be realistic. It does not hurt that Stephanie is still, after all these years, engaged in steamy relationships with both Morelli and Ranger.

A series that is well-worth reading, if just for a quick, funny break from the craziness of the holidays. Enjoy!

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016)

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I absolutely love the work of Ann Patchett, I have read all of her novels and have been waiting anxiously since September to read Commonwealth. As with all of her previous novels, Commonwealth displays her outstanding writing and her gorgeously crafted characters and story lines.

The book follows the lives of two families, the Cousins’ and the Keating’s, starting in the 1960’s and following their ups and downs into the present day. Although in the opening chapters the two families are strangers — both young couples with small children living in Los Angeles — soon an affair between Beverly Keating and Bert Cousins means that their lives will be irrevocably changed and forever linked together.

Flowing seamlessly from one character to another, the book first hears the story narrated by the Cousins and Keating parents, but soon adds in the voices of their blended brood of six children. Moving back and forth from character to character, and back and forth through the five decades that story covers, readers learn of the events that shaped their lives, both collectively and individually.

The story is dark and brooding; focusing almost all of its attention of the struggles and challenges the family endures after the affair dissolves two marriages and reunites the family together through another. Both the adults and the children never fully recover from the shock of the divorces and the subsequent bi-coastal living arrangements. The mistrust and anger the adults feel after Beverly and Bert’s affair never really diminishes and leads to tensions over child custody agreements and shared parenting for the length of the novel. For their part, the six children in the “new” family all grow up with a sense of alienation that results from the dissolution of their core nuclear families and the confusion that stems from their new blended family.

The stress of the new living arrangements — which means that every summer they must care for all six children — leads to increasing tension between Beverly and Bert. When a tragedy strikes, the marriage between the two begins to crumble, throwing everyone’s — particularly the kids — lives into further chaos.

As we approach the 2000’s we find that the Keating and Cousins families are estranged from one another, each struggling with their own complicated (and largely unhappy) lives. When one of the adult children begins an affair with a world famous author and allows him to use the messy, complicated, anger-fueled story of her extended family as the basis for his newest novel; the family is all brought back into one another’s lives and not always in positive ways.

Despite its dark mood and tense plot, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel. Its characters are flawed but real and utterly relatable; its story line about ten people trying to form a family out of a group of strangers will be familiar to many readers; and Patchett’s outstanding writing ties it all together seamlessly. A great — if not uplifting — read.

Winter Storms by Elin Hilderbrand (2016)

Winter Storms is Book #3 in the Winter Series/Quinn Family Trilogy.

Books #1 and #2 reviewed here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-2

Since 2014, Elin Hilderbrand has released one book in her Christmas-themed trilogy each fall and this month the final installment, Winter Storms, arrived on book shelves. As with the two previous books, Winter Storms follows the lives and loves of the extended members of the Quinn family of Nantucket. The first two books of the series left readers with many unresolved crises — failing relationships, burgeoning addictions, missing loved ones — and Hilderbrand arrives with a neat package that ties up all of those loose ends, just in time for Christmas morning.

“In Winter Street, we meet Kelley Quinn, the patriarch of the family and owner of a Nantucket bed and breakfast The Winter Street Inn and the many members of his family, including his first and second wives, his four children, his children-in-law, and grandchildren. The Quinns are typical in their modern-day dysfunction: adult children still living at home, tension between the first and second wives, heartbreak and divorce wounding some of the family members. Despite these obstacles, we find them attempting to celebrate Christmas with as much good cheer as they can muster.” — From my previous review of books one and two.

2016 arrives and the Quinn family’s various members have all set out to dutifully solve all of their problems before the end of the year. The story does not evolve so much as march across the chapters: dutifully checking off boxes in a manner that feels cold: addiction beat = check; love found = check; wedding planned = check.  It is almost as if the author has grown disinterested in her characters lives and is simply trying to hurry up their endings. The fact that the story was written in present tense (were the other two? how did I not remember that?) added to the business-like tone of the book.

Despite the connection I felt to the characters in the first two books, this book felt hollow and rushed to me and I did not enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would. In an wooden tone, the author tells events almost as if she were dictating a list (they ate A, B, and C; they wore D, E, and F; and so on.) Even something that should be welcome in a holiday story — the fact that the family seems have to completely and utterly forgive all past discretions and injustices to come together as a perfectly loving blended family — seems to distract from the story’s charm: it is too tidy to be realistic. Adding to my displeasure was the author’s decision to write many, many scenes in the book that were filled with advertisements for Nantucket businesses (including her own books!) the effect was not charming but rather off-putting, since the references seemed like tacky product placements.

If you have invested the time in the first two books, I supposed finishing this one at least brings the story to a close, but I have to say that I wish it had more warmth and heart that it does.

 

Thanks for Thanksgiving!

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I love Thanksgiving! It fills me which such an enormous sense of happiness to spend a day (or more) reflecting on all of the wonderful things I have to be thankful for and for enjoying a fun day (or more) with my extended family.

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No matter where we are, it does not feel like Thanksgiving if the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is not on in the background!

In addition to all of the wonderful blessings in my life, I am so thankful to be embarking tomorrow on nine-day long Thanksgiving celebration. This year my husband, our sons, and I are all flying to Orlando, Florida to celebrate Thanksgiving with seventeen members of my family. We will be having a modified Thanksgiving meal, but we will also be spending time at Universal Studios Orlando, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and Walt Disney World. Not to mention that our rental house has a heated pool, a game room, and a movie theater…just in case we run out of things to do together. What more could a family ask to be grateful for?

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What a wonderful new tradition we are introducing for 2016…Thanksgiving with Harry Potter!

I feel extremely lucky that I love my family (and my in-laws) and our time together is generally drama-free and filled with funny movies, board games, and laughter-filled walks down memory lane. That does not mean, however, that it is not valuable to give some thought to ways to make the holiday happier before traveling to be with so many of my relatives (17!) and spending such a long time together (9 days!) in the same house.

Since many of you will be spending the upcoming holiday weekend with extended family members, I thought I should share a blog post from my beloved Happiness Guru, Gretchen Rubin, that shares some ideas about staying happy and stress-free when spending time with loved ones during the holidays:

http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2014/11/8-tips-for-dealing-with-difficult-relatives-during-the-holidays/

Since I won’t have time to post to the blog until after the holiday, here is a re-post of my Thanksgiving “Thankfulness” blog from last year.

Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

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Originally posted November 25, 2015…

During this season of gratitude and reflection, I have been reading a lot from various writers in magazines, newspapers, blogs about the things they are most thankful for. These various stories have been heart-warming, tear-jerking, and humorous. In honor of Thanksgiving day, I thought I would try my hand at writing my own reflections. What follows are my thoughts on the many gifts — both large and small — that I am grateful to have been given in my life.

I am thankful for the start of the holiday season, my favorite time of year. All year I look forward to celebrating with feasts, decorations, lights, parties, and special outings with my family. I love roasting turkeys, decorating our Christmas tree, singing carols, and wrapping presents. I am thankful for all the families who send us beautiful Christmas cards, who invite us to holiday parties, who join us for sledding in the park.

I am thankful for the cooler weather, which brings my family together more, curled up under blankets reading books, watching holiday movies (or more often football) together, enjoying the tree lit up at night, or perhaps watching “Charlie Brown Christmas.” I am thankful my kids are still young enough to enjoy Charlie Brown!

I am thankful for our small, snug little house, which keeps the four most important people in my life safe and warm, day after day. I am thankful for our soft beds, our shelves full of books, souvenirs and picture albums. I am thankful for a kitchen filled with delicious healthy foods, where we share meals together every morning and night.

I am thankful for the town in which we live, with its great public schools and its beautiful nature preserve where we go almost everyday. I am thankful for our local library where my family has checked out thousands of books and attended hundreds of programs over the years. I am thankful to live close to some of my family. I am also thankful for our community swimming pool where we spend our summers, the the Six Flags amusement park where we go often to ride coasters and water slides.

I am thankful for my parents, who live nearby so that we see them often. I am thankful for their continued good health, their constant willingness to babysit, and their generosity towards my children, my husband and me. This year I am especially thankful for their Christmas gift to us all, a week-long stay at Universal Studios Orlando (Harry Potter World, here we come!)

I am thankful for my mother-in-law, who is always accommodating and naturally easy to please, who is happy in every circumstance. She travels hundreds of miles every fall to visit with us and to give my husband and me a priceless holiday gift, time off from the kids to take a small vacation for just the two of us.

I am thankful for my extended family of my siblings, their spouses, and my nieces and nephews. While we may be far flung and only see each other occasionally, I am thankful that our time together is not filled with drama (or not much) but with good humor and laughter and board games.

I am thankful for my three beautiful sons, for their strong, healthy bodies that help them hike, bike, run, climb trees, play sports, and swim all summer long. I am thankful for their smart minds, their love of school, their curiosity about the world around them. I am especially thankful that they share my love of reading and books; I get a thrill finding them all tucked in on the couch, each reading his own book. I am thankful that they are filled with joy during the holiday season, thrilled to take part in ice-skating parties, putting up Christmas lights, picking out gifts for their brothers to open on Christmas morning, and all of our other holiday traditions. I am thankful to hear their shouts as they join my husband in cheering on their favorite football team (Go Tigers and Ravens!) and their laughter while re-watching Home Alone for the 1000th time.

I am thankful for my wonderful, loving husband who has been the very best partner for the past 15 years of marriage. I am thankful to be able share the joy of raising our children together and our pride in the family we have become. I am thankful for his patience, his calm nature, his kindness, his sense of humor, his willingness to let me sleep in (and even wear earplugs during sleepovers). I am thankful for how hard he works at two jobs to provide a life of comfort and security for our family and so that I may stay home with our children while they are young. I am thankful for our shared love of books, of long runs, of delicious meals, and of early bedtimes! I am thankful that he shares my love of the holiday season, and that we get equal joy out of all our holiday traditions. Selfishly, I am also grateful that is he a wonderful gift-giver, who makes sure that I have wonderful, unique gifts to open on Christmas morning, which makes me feel like a kid when I go to sleep on Christmas Eve.

I am thankful for the friends in my life, who share books, parenting advice, and laughter. The women who provide me with company and conversation at play dates and soccer games, and who share the hilarity and stress of raising kids. I am thankful for my book clubs for sharing my love of reading and for my workout partners who never fail to call me to meet them for Pilates or a run. I am also thankful for my friends who live far away, many who I have not seen in years, but who still take the time to email, text, and chat with me so we do not lose touch.

I am thankful for my own health, for a strong body that runs and hikes many miles each year, that keeps up with three active kids, that allows me to lift weights, do yoga, and lets me sleep deeply every night. I am thankful that I was able to give birth easily to three healthy babies, then was able to nurse them all. (Let me add here, that I am thankful for the amazing midwives who assisted me through those births, and my husband who never left my side.) I am thankful that I have the stamina, energy and optimism to live the life I want for myself.

I am thankful for these things, and so much more.

Happy Thanksgiving 2015

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In addition to our tradition of watching the parade, we always have a family-wide screening of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. When the kids are in bed, the adults all watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (2016)

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When Eleanor Flood wakes up on October 8th, she vows that today will be different. Mired down in the haze of a depression that she recognizes but has no motivation to treat; seeing the way her indifference and malaise effects her husband and son but unable to change, the things Eleanor hopes to make different on this day are small and simple things. She sets out to engage more with her son, infuse a small bit of romance into date-night, and perhaps be slightly more gracious to an annoying acquaintance. Eleanore gets her wish, her day does end up different. However, the magnitude of ways that her day is very, very different than usual catch her completely off-guard and shake up her entire life.

“I don’t meant to ruin the ending for you, sweet child, but life is one long headwind. To make any kind of impact requires self-will boarding on madness. The world will be hostile, it will be suspicious of your intent, it will misinterpret you, it will inject you with doubt, it will flatter you into self-sabotage. What the world is, more than anything,? It is indifferent.”

The shell-shocked state that Eleanor has lived in for so long — self-cushioned from too much involvement or attachment in order to protect herself when it all falls apart — is cracked wide-open and there is no escaping the emotions, the memories, and the heartache that this day has in store for her. She is being forced to face the truth of her life and herself and deal with everything she has so artfully avoided, head on.

As the day presents Eleanor with one bizarre challenge after another, she finds she can no longer dodge her growing list of problems — personal, professional, martial — and so, in her own messy clumsy way she begins unpacking all of the things she has worked so, so hard to suppress.

“Building a wall around the past: it seemed like the only solution at the time. And for years, it had worked. But today the wall had kinda buckled.”

What happens to her is that she must accept her flaws, and how they have affected the people around her, even though it is terrifying and painful. She feels “the ache of the myriad of ways she has disappointed” her family. Her detachment had created a rift between her and her husband; between her and her son; and between her and the world she fought so hard to keep from causing her pain. October 8th will be the day she finally takes a step towards closing the rift, a step towards making things different.

“If underneath anger was fear, then underneath fear was love. Everything came down to the terror of losing what you love.”

Just as she did in her best-seller Where Did you Go Bernadette?, Maria Semple has created a main character who is definitely flawed, most likely crazy, but still undeniably lovable. Eleanor’s story is complicated and winding, filled with wonderfully funny moments and achingly tender ones as well. You understand Eleanor’s neuroses and confusion (even if it her flavor of crazy is foreign to you), because Semple’s outstanding writing makes you feel and understand them so poignantly. You cannot help rooting for Eleanor to make her day, and her life, different.

The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932)

Like almost every girl I have ever met, I read and loved all of the Little House on the Prairie books when I was young. My sisters and I had a complete set of all nine of the books narrated by our beloved Laura Ingalls. What drew me to these books — compared to my other preferred reading, which was notably more dramatic, such as Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley Twins — I never really stopped to consider as a child. As I read this book again yesterday, it occurred to me that some of it charm is just how foreign Laura and Mary’s life seems compared to my childhood and that of most American children in the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century. These books portray children who were a vital part of their families: they had important jobs to do and a role to play that was essential to the family’s survival. Compared to Laura and Mary’s life, my life of playing, reading, relaxing, and more playing seemed exorbitantly luxurious and easy beyond measure.

As I complete the novel several other things about this book came to mind. For Laura’s parents, there was a sense of risk in every single decision they made — should they move or stay, leave now or later, travel thousands of miles with two little girls and a small baby or wait until they children were older — was considered solemnly because every decision was almost completely irrevocable. What a stark contrast to today, when almost everything we take part in can be changed, often with little to no effort at all. To move across the country and pursue a new life in 2016, might involve some risk but should it go wrong we can move back, or try another city or job, or ask a parent for a loan to help out. That was absolutely not the case for the Ingalls’. Every act and every decision took so much effort, so much time, and carried with it so much risk that undoing it was impossible.

I was also struck at how alone the Ingalls’ are as they journey west and begin their new life in Kansas. It is not that there is no one whom they can rely on, but rather that there simply is no one else at all! There are no other travelers with them, they meet few on the journey west, even towns and settlers are extreme rarity as they travel. When they arrive, they are solely responsible for there survival: they must hunt and cook all their meals, build their own home, and get by with no new supplies and no access to more basic necessities. Living in such a solitary place has some advantages (plenty of game to hunt, plenty of timber for building) but it also means that the Ingalls’ must be entirely self-reliant: everyone — even the girls — must work hard, follow the rules without question, and never complain on how hard things are, for things are hard for all of the members of the family and it would be unkind and unfair to complain. How joyful they are when they meet a neighbor to help share the work, and who in return Pa can help with building and Ma with providing meals! What might have been weeks of work to build their cabin suddenly became days with a friend to help. Finding a neighbor meant safety: not only the quick building of a home and stable, but someone to help in a crisis. How different life is today, where we all live encapsulated in our own home, willfully ignorant of our neighbors and scarcely willing to help them at all.

With all of the hardships and challenges Laura and her family face, they are not unhappy: they do not complain, they do not wish for more, they find time for music and star-gazing, and they are endlessly thankful every single day for their continued good fortune and health. In fact, when Ma is injured helping build the cabin she is overwhelmingly thankful that her ankle is only sprained and she repeatedly says she feels blessed it was not a more serious injury.

Furthermore, the family are very proud of their new life. All of their new comforts — a home, furniture, food — are the results of their own hard work! They braved the harsh travel conditions, forded rivers, slept among the wolves, ate meager meals for months on end and survived. Not only survived by arrived healthy and hale and created a homestead for themselves. Their strength and perseverance was a huge source of pride — as it rightfully should be! — for them.

The Ingalls’ relocated from Wisconsin to Kansas was driven by a population increase in what were once empty woods near their home. Food, furs, timber, and resources had grown thin and Pa foresaw a future that was too meager for he and his growing family. The risk of moving west was tempered by the promise of more space and more resources than they could ever hope for. Their arrival in Kansas provided them a huge amount of freedom and abundance which made them all the more thankful for their good fortune. Their own land, filled with animals, trees, water, all for them!

I feel like here I must make a note about the land “belonging” to the Ingalls’. As is noted in the early chapters, the land is inhabited by Native Americans and the US government has only recently decided that white men can “rightfully” move there and build settlements. It is made clear that the Native Americans had not  agreed this new expansion policy. Much has been made of late about this book and its view towards Native Americans, mostly of Ma’s fear of them. It must be noted, however, that Native Americans posed a very real and very dangerous threat to settlers, especially to a young woman and her three young daughters. Ma had every reason to be scared of Native Americans, as conflict between them and settlers had been a concern in Wisconsin as well, throughout the west and Midwest conflicts between them and white settlers were violent and bloody on both sides and everyone lived together in a very uneasy peace. Whether or not the Ingalls’ had to right to call that patch of Kansas their own is debatable, but the danger posed by tension between settlers and Native Americans was a real and constant threat.  To those who claim children should no longer read this book because of the portrayal of Native Americans are being ridiculous…this is one family’s experience and reflects the accurate, historical tension that Westward expansion created. Children should read this book and talk to adults about the historical significance of western settlement on Native Americans.

Spoiler Alert: After all the hard work the Ingalls’ put into their little house on the prairie, I was just a little bit heart-broken when they are forced to abandon it and move on when the government cannot broker a truce between the Native American tribes and soldiers are sent in to relocate the white settlers to non-Native lands.

Even after almost 90 years, this book still has lessons to teach us — about perseverance, self-reliance, family, and thankfulness — and it was a pleasure to read it and reflect on how much our country has changed in less than 150 years.  For a wonderful comparison, read Michael Punke’s The Revenant, about Western expansion in the 1820’s. Find a review here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-4J

The Fireman by Joe Hill (2016)

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The world is ending in this book’s beginning. “A manageable crisis was teetering on the edge of an unmanageable disaster.” A bizarre and terrifying plague that erupted first in far away lands has arrived in the US, much to the horror of Americans everywhere. Worse, scientists have no idea how the disease spreads, how to prevent it, or how to keep it from causing the death of anyone who becomes infected. Draco Incendia Trychophyton is a infection that causes first, black scales to erupt all over the body of the patient and within a matter of days, perhaps weeks for some, the person begins to smoulder. “Smolderers smoked on and off, always ready to ignite. Smoke curled from their hair, their nostrils, and their eyes streamed with water.” Then, when the patient grows to frantic with the disease, they erupt into flames, dying and in almost all cases causing fires to rip through the buildings they are in causing wide-spread destruction.

Within a matter of months, the far-flung outbreak has reached every corner of the country. Millions dead, whole cities burning to the ground, services cut off, civilization unraveling, and no hope of a end in sight. Residents of a small New Hampshire town who had grown accustomed to remote stories of the outbreak wake one morning (in the first chapters: this is not a spoiler) to find it on their doorstep. Harper Grayson — the story’s main character — and her husband Jakob Grayson find themselves suddenly on the front lines. Harper becomes infected at the same time she becomes pregnant; Jakob remains infected but quickly begins to lose his grip on reality as fear of contagion overtakes him.

The town in which they live, as everywhere on earth, is suddenly a battleground between the infected and the healthy; everyone is suspicious and practically manic with their fear. Soon, both sides are stockpiling supplies and weapons and creating two entirely new social structures, neither willing to peacefully co-exist. Harper escapes to a hide-out filled with infected who have learned to control the infection and who have formed a highly-structured, cult-like community in the woods. Jakob bands together with other uninfected people who sole mission is to stay healthy at any cost.

Over nearly 800 pages, Hill tells the story of this new dystopian world where old concerns fall away and new horrors emerge with startling rapidity, leaving all of the characters reeling from crisis to crisis trying to hold onto some humanity in the process. Although it is far too long of a novel, Fireman is exceedingly well-written and its characters compelling. You cannot help but root for the rag-tag band of protagonists, led by Harper, and you sincerely hope them make it through the chaos to find a more peaceful life. Conversely, the villains of the story are spooky, evil, and terrifying but just as well-written, it is easy to see how such people could rise up in the face of such an enormous disaster.

The primary drawback to the novel is its size; the author has so many pages to fill and at times the story falters and wanders away from the action in ways that could have been edited out. As with all dystopian novels, the heroes have to overcome many, many challenges but in a book this long the list of challenges begins to seem comic, by the end there is actually nothing left for them to endure. In the end, a great read heavily influenced by Stephen King’s* The Stand and Under the Dome, with a hint of hysteria of Salem witch trials and similar stories added into the mix.

*Note: Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Under the Dome mentioned here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-B

Joe Hill’s previously reviewed novel, Heart-Shaped Box, can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-D