Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.
"…We all have this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine. When this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath. because we made it through another day."
The story: A bank robber. A man who jumps off a bridge and the girl who doesn't. A real estate agent, a couple of cops, and a few people in and out of love. Mothers and fathers. Lovers and lost loves. This beautiful, tender novel features a cast of characters who are accidentally held hostage and who hold themselves hostage with secrets too painful to share. Their anxiety is palpable... but sometimes, when you share just a little bit, the anxiety can be relieved, and hope can be restored —if everyone works together.
My reaction: Fredrik Backman does it again. HOW DOES HE DO IT? Once again, Backman took me by surprise, made me fall in love with characters, and got me all choked up. This novel took me a little bit to get into but once I did, well, I never wanted it to end. His rhythm and pace, as well as the connectedness of the stories, reminds me so much of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, which is one of my all-time favorite books.
The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis
The story: Laura Lyons and her family live in the NYC Public Library, where her husband is the superintendent. They seem to have a wonderful marriage, and then Laura decides she simply must pursue her journalism degree; her husband suggests she wait a year until their finances are better. Suddenly, she sees him in a new light. He's holding her back, and she pursues the degree anyway. She meets a whole new crowd as a result of journalism school, and her life changes. In the meantime, books are missing from the special collections at the library, and her husband is blamed for the thefts. The second story alternates chapters with this one. Sadie works at the library
My reaction: I love the setting of this novel. Imagine living inside the NYC Public Library! Fans of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler know what I'm talking about. This novel has a lot of the same issues I complained about in last month's book club novel also by Fiona Davis, The Dollhouse. It's jumbled. We're here and then we're there and squirrel! Way too much isn't explained. The dual stories are better connected in this one, for sure. Davis starts strong, but ultimately way too much happens, the characters are poorly drawn, the action is outrageous (way too many coincidences, for one), and her messages seem didactic and yet confusing and contradictory. I did enjoy the peeks into early 20th century feminism as well as the book trade, but otherwise... too much eye rolling and "what just happeneds??" going on in my head.
The Reckoning by John Grisham (audiobook)
The story: Small town Clanton, Mississippi's local war hero and respected resident Pete Banning kills the pastor. And 18 hours later, we find out why. In the 16 hours between the killing and the big reveal, we get the complete story of Pete Banning, including an entire extremely detailed section on his wartime experience in the Philippines, his courtship and marriage; plus every detail of his son Joel's life (loved his meeting with Faulkner), a little on his daughter, and lots on his wife.
My reaction: I have John Grisham issues. I've written about this before, and yet I keep going back to him. This time, we listened to this as an audiobook all the way to Florida and back and then a few more hours even. 18 hours of a story that could easily have been half that long. I mean, Grisham is a great storyteller. He is terrific at building and maintaining suspense. We cared about these characters. We were sucked in, waiting for the great reveal. Which was... a big thud. A big Are you freaking kidding me? Ugh. So much wrong with the big reveal. I won't say what it was, but it was not only disappointing but terribly trite. It was just an old, old story that needs to stop being told. Randy and I felt like Grisham really wanted to tell the story of the Bataan death march, which is the whole middle section of the book. It was interesting, for sure, but it was absolutely not necessary. Grisham is so good at nonfiction; in my 2007 review of An Innocent Man I wrote that "Grisham needs to pursue writing nonfiction a little more often," and I'm sticking with that. Why not write an actual account of one of the survivors of Bataan, rather than squeezing this in with this novel? Anyway, I felt ripped off at the end of this novel, as well as annoyed throughout for many reasons, but particularly for Grisham's stereotypical, rude treatment of Black characters. (He actually uses the term "colored." For real. But there's so much more.) Also, for the last few hours, we were rolling out eyes at all the completely extraneous details and shouting "GET ON WITH IT, JOHN!" My recommendation: skip it.
The Survivors by Jane Harper
The story: After a decade away, Kieran returns home to his tiny coastal village in Tasmania to help his parents. His father is struggling with dementia, and it's time for them to pack up and move into assisted living. Kieran left for a good reason: the summer after he graduated from high school, a huge storm struck and lives were lost —because of him. When he heads into the local cafe with his wife and newborn daughter, he can feel all eyes upon him, accusing him. And then tragedy strikes again, and as the townspeople and official investigate this new murder, all kinds of secrets surface.
My reaction: I absolutely loved this book. This is my introduction to Jane Harper, and I will definitely be reading more. Reviewers seem to like this one a bit less than her others, so I'm super excited to read The Dry, Force of Nature, and The Lost Man, too. Harper is a wonderful writer. Her characters are richly drawn, her dialogue spot on, and the mysteries about what really happened were revealed slowly and satisfyingly. I love the long ending. So many books I've read lately reduce the ending to a quick wrap-up, as if the writer herself got tired of the book and declared, "I'm done." Not so with The Survivors. This is everything I love in a book: a long story with plenty of backstory, a setting that acts as another character, a true mystery, excellent writing, strong and likable characters, and just the right amount of tension. Highly recommended.
Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire by Jen Hatmaker
The story: Subtitled "The Guide to Being Glorious You," this is a "embrace who you are," "you can do it" and "we're all in this together" book. It's divided into five self-reflective categories: who I am, what I need, what I want, what I believe, and how I connect. The chapters within those categories explore strategies, offer stories, and provide encouragement for navigating who we are and feeling exuberant (or at least okay) with that. This is listed as "Christian Women's Issues," but the theology is light-handed but extremely refreshing.
My reaction: We chose this book for our small group (six women) over the past year -- pandemic year. At first, we were all super excited and found relief and connection in this book. We loved the dismantling of what it means to be a "Christian woman." We loved knowing we aren't alone in our questions and searching. Ten months later, we were all thrilled to be done with it. I don't think that's a reflection on the book or Jen Hatmaker. I think we transitioned, as the rest of the world has, from exploring ourselves to being sick of exploring ourselves! Toward the last third of the book, sick of Zoom and longing for normalcy, we became annoyed with Jen's cheerleading and capital letters and LET'S GO GIRL rah-rahs. Somehow, at the end of a year of isolation, perhaps it's been difficult for us to connect with who we were pre-pandemic. Our values have shifted. Our inner eye is tired. I also think this book would be much more appreciated by women in their 30s-40s, and we are all in our mid-40s and 50s. Also, I don't recommend spreading this out over nearly a year! This could be a quick read but a kind and thoughtful one, if read at the right time in one's life.
When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O'Neal
The story: Sisters Josie and Kit has a terrible and wonderful childhood. Their parents, free-spirited restaurant owners, were so obsessed with their own lives that they completely neglected their daughters, who ran wild on the California beaches. Fortunately, they have Dylan, an informally adopted older brother, to keep them straight, help them with their homework, teach them to surf, and basically care for them as if he were their parent. And then tragedy strikes when an earthquake completely shakes up their lives. Nothing is ever the same after the earthquake. The sisters drift apart, and Josie dies in a terrorist attack on a train Or does she? One day Kit and her mother see a face on a screen that looks exactly like Josie, and the search begins.
My reaction: I absolutely loved this book. O'Neal does a masterful job of revealing the story bit by bit through flashbacks interwoven with the current day story of Kit and Josie. Each character is carefully, lovingly developed. I was rooting for both sisters -- I wanted Kit to find Josie, and yet I wanted Josie to be able to keep the beautiful new life she'd made for herself. Honestly, I was just utterly wrapped up in the entire story and was so sad when it was over. Some of the issues in the book are hard, but it is well worth the emotional investment. Highly recommended.
The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins
The story: The is a modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre. Jane falls in love with Eddie. Eddie has a secret wife, well, upstairs. And so the story goes.
My reaction: Honestly, I tend to steer clear of retellings of classic stories. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels ever, so I probably would not have picked this up had I realized what it was about. But... I liked it! As a true Jane Eyre fan, I appreciate all the characters being included: the insipid St. John Rivers shows up as John Rivers, Jane's sniveling, sneaky roommate. Rochester's daughter, Adele, is Eddie's dog in this version; Jane is the dog walker. In fact, she's the dog walker for all of Thornfield Estates, the ritzy subdivision. I thought Hawkins' reimagining was fun, and there are a few twists that made me smile. I would actually recommend this for fans of Jane Eyre, if you're up for a playful adaptation.
Love, Life, and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick
The story: This is Daphne Sheldrick's lovely memoir of growing up in Kenya, from her early childhood to her many years as the warden's wife of Tsavo Park, a wildlife refuge. Sheldrick was a mother to hundreds of animal orphans, from a weaver bird to a mongoose to rhinos and, most famously, as an elephant keeper. She is the first person to ever successfully raise an orphaned baby elephant to adulthood. Woven in with her animal tales are her people tales -- her loves, her losses, and her friendships.
My reaction: This is a book I would probably never have read on my own— and that's why book club is so wonderful! I absolutely loved this sweet memoir. I listed to this one, and Virginia McKenna is an absolutely delightful narrator. I was utterly wrapped up in Daphne's life, rooting for the animals, rooting for her. You can't help but fall in love with each animal and with Tsavo Park and, of course, with Daphne. She had an incredible life and shares that with her readers so beautifully. I learned so much about all kinds of African animals! I don't know that I would have enjoyed the book quite as much if I'd read it; I think McKenna's narration feels as if Daphne herself is telling the tale. Highly recommended!
Girl A by Abigail Dean
The story: Lex is the girl who escaped the House of Horrors. Once identified by the press and police only as Girl A, she's now a successful attorney, trying to live a normal life. But her past haunts her; how could it not? She and her brothers and sisters grew up in utter poverty, starved, neglected, isolated, and, ultimately, held captive by their parents. She wants only to forget it all, but when her mother dies in prison, Lex is appointed executor of the estate. She has to go back and face her story, her childhood home, and her fellow captives: her six siblings. Each of their stories — during and after their childhood — is different. Each has coped in a different way, and their bonds to each other are tenuous and complicated.
My reaction: I absolutely loved Dean's debut novel. It was emotionally tough to read at times (OK, most of the time) because the subject matter is unthinkable, but it's utterly engaging and so well written. Abigail Dean handles the story with grace, allowing these fictional siblings their dignity and giving the reader enough detail to let us see the horror but without going into extraneous, over-the-top description. This is somewhat along the lines of Educated, Tara Westover's memoir. Although this is a work of fiction, we all know that horrors like this do occur. Highly recommended.