Beartown, the Series by Fredrik Backman – a Book(s) Review

Of all the literary voices currently on the scene, Backman’s may not be the loudest, but his is certainly one of the most powerful. He has this way of writing something that is extremely heavy but, typically, he does it in a way that is enjoyable and not at all an arduous experience. Packed full of of hilarity and lightness, his books inspire so many good feelings it makes the difficult life and death stuff easier to process. Beartown is one of the few exceptions to this. Each installment (Beartown, Us Against You, and The Winners) is really quite heavy, both thematically and in overall tone. While I sort of missed that feel-good aspect of Backman’s work that endears me to him so much, I still found this series to be utterly masterful. I’ll try to cover some of the highlights, but Backman does so much right I’m not sure I could ever express everything. It’s something you have to experience yourself. It’s the cumulative reading experience, and it’s a feeling that doesn’t happen often upon finishing a book.

First of all is the setting. Beartown is this tiny town forgotten by most but comprising entire world for some. It’s desolate and freezing, and its citizens live for one thing: hockey. Beyond that, people hunt and drink and have terrible opinions. The thing is, to the reader, Beartown is so vivid. Honestly, it takes all three books to really develop this full and all-encompassing picture of Beartown. By the end, you see it as both the broken and beautiful place it is, and you understand why it will forever have such an intense pull on those that escape their bleak existences. It will always still be home, and no one will ever understand it as deeply as someone who has stood on the freezing ground and felt the life force that pulses beneath the soil. Beartown is as present in the mind of the reader as any other character. There’s this overall feeling of uneasiness. What makes the reader even more uneasy is the way Backman manages to dangle so many frozen carrots along the way, warning of terrible things to come. Sometimes you even know what is going to happen, but you don’t quite know how or why. It’s a dark, cloud-filled sky of literary foreboding. Even when you see it coming, you don’t really see it coming. You still aren’t prepared for the gut punch. Backman’s method is highly effective. I tore through this series at a speed I haven’t achieved in a really long time. It’s about hockey. I couldn’t give a flying puck about hockey, but somehow Backman pulled me in anyway.

Hockey, however, is merely a device in this book. It’s a symbol of that thread through society that takes hold, permeates the masses, and spreads toxicity at a terrifying pace. This toxic culture elevates some and stomps on others without reservation or remorse. Seething beneath the surface is a bubbling poison just waiting for the right moment to spill over. Backman uses one word, at first representative of the sound a puck makes against a hard surface, but with the cadence reminiscent of the ticking timer of a bomb: Bang, bang, bang. This starts off inconsequential, merely a word in place of a sound. By the end, it has become something so sinister it makes your skin crawl to see or hear it uttered.

Sometimes I read books and I think, “ok, they are trying to pack way too many themes into one book.” They become cluttered and confusing because the author is attempting to do something daring and profound but it falls short. Backman, on the other hand, effortlessly weaves in a complete picture of societal ills. Encompassed within it are all the multiple layers for a full understanding of exactly how everything is connected. We not only see the dominoes fall, but we see precisely how they were set up in such a way to bring the whole thing down. There’s no good or evil. There are contextual experiences and histories that lay the foundation for a character’s actions, whether they be good, evil or somewhere in between. The complexity to Backman’s characters doesn’t feel forced. It feels like life. And with people who seem so real, their pain and their confusion only has a deeper effect on the reader. This series is an exploration of human emotion, strength, frailty, and the enduring power of love. But it’s also about the horrible power love has to bring us to our knees, to destroy us. In some cases, loss of love strengthens like armor. In those where loss has the opposite effect, it makes victims of some and villains of others.

While it’s ultimately hopeful, this series did manage to leave a raw, open space in the pit of my stomach. The final book in this series is called The Winners. The irony of that title is not lost on me. There really are no winners, and if there are it is never without a price. As a world society, we have come so far. But we still have so far to go. How much will we allow to happen before we really be the change that’s needed? Most days I fear the answer to that question. One thing I know for sure, we’d get there a hell of a lot faster if more people had the emotional intelligence of Fredrik Backman.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Beartown. Written by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith. Published April 25, 2017by Atria Books. ISBN 1501160761. 418 pages.

Us Against You. Written by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith. Published June 5, 2018 by Atria Books. ISBN 1501160796. 448 pages.

The Winners. Written by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith. Published September 27, 2022 (first published October 6, 2021) by Atria Books. ISBN 1982112794. 673 pages.

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The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune – a Book Review

While I maybe didn’t have the best luck with life in 2022, I did have some good luck with books. The House in the Cerulean Sea is one of those books you don’t realize you need until you pick it up and find yourself smiling despite yourself. It’s quirky, a little weird, and wildly original.

Synopsis

Linus Baker is quite bored, even if he doesn’t quite realize it. He lives alone with a cat who begrudgingly tolerates him in exchange for periodic sustenance, hates his job as a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth which he is, unfortunately, very good at, and derives pleasure only from his collection of old records. When Linus is sent to evaluate an orphanage on a remote island where the most dangerous children are being kept, he is thrust into a world of secrets and enchantments that will change his life in a number of ways. And he might just find precisely what he didn’t know he was looking for in the first place.

Review

To say this book is a breath of fresh air would be putting it mildly. It’s full of the most delightful characters, each of which is unique and lovely in their own way. The atmosphere of the book, the beautiful island and the haunting old house with all its charms, and even the town with its eclectic mix of humans, is utterly captivating. This is one of those books you’ll want to imagine in vibrant color and intricate detail. Klune manages through expert writing to paint vivid and beautiful images that will stick with you for some time.

On the surface, this seems like a feel good novel about friendship, but it’s also so much more than that. Mixed among the humor and captivating fantasy elements is more than a smattering of depth. This novel explores real-world issues through fantasy in a way that’s both powerful and enjoyable. You’ll find yourself contemplating prejudice, morality, and the line between good and evil. What makes one evil? Is a person evil simply because we say they are? Is it wrapped up solely in nature, or is there a driving force behind the descent into darkness that’s rooted in rejection and fear of someone or something who is different? Can this concept be challenged by opening our hearts and our minds? And what’s the point in which prejudice is so ingrained it can’t be changed, if ever? I absolutely love when I find a book that is this enjoyable that can cause me to contemplate such subjects so deeply. Klune made me laugh and made me think, and that’s a testament to his skill. He’s a natural story-teller, and this book is simply delightful. Oh, and the sweet love story brings on some serious tingles.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Published March 17, 2020 by Tor Books. ISBN 1250264294. Runtime 12 hrs, 12 mins. Narrated by Daniel Henning.

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Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt – a Book Review

When I decided to restart the blog, I couldn’t think of a better book to begin than a review for this gem. This was my favorite of my reads for 2022. It’s a debut novel from Shelby Van Pelt, and I certainly hope to see so much more from her in the future, because I need to regularly ugly cry at the end of a book to remember I am actually human.

Synopsis

Tova Sullivan lives a quiet life keeping her little house tidy and working as a night shift janitor at the Sowell Bay Aquarium. She doesn’t need a job, but she needs the distraction that staying busy gives her. Tova carries around the kind of sadness very few humans could ever understand, but when she meets Marcellus, the giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium, she doesn’t know just how much change he will bring to her life.

I loved Van Pelt’s development of character. She seamlessly crafted these perfectly flawed people in separate spheres of this delightful universe and brought them together in such a satisfying way. Marcellus the curmudgeonly octopus is what you get if you take Backman’s Ove and give him eight tentacles and nine super-charged brains. Definitely listen to this one, because Michael Urie stole the show with his narration of Marcellus. The rest is narrated by Marin Ireland, pretty much a legend in audiobook narration. There’s a whole host of other delightful and quirky characters who make up this novel, and each of them has a very important part to play.

All the characters are flawed, but none was quite as flawed as Cameron, the young man who moves from California to Sowell Bay in search of information about his past. Honestly, I had trouble viewing him as a man in his 30’s. He read like some deadbeat teenager. Sure, he had his reasons, and he was supposed to be presented as a stunted adult. I in no way am trying to say Van Pelt did anything wrong in the way she presented him. He was precisely as he was planned. That didn’t make him any less annoying, but I totally understand him and appreciate the complex human that he is.

Hands down, my favorite human character was Ethan, the colorful owner of the local food mart. Of course, I loved Tova dearly and was rooting for her to find her peace, but Ethan just brought a smile to my face every time he popped up. I thought he was the soul of this book, representative of the depth of goodness at the heart of a rugged and shaggy world that’s often judged by its rough exterior versus the more understated side full of warmth and humor. The prose of this novel is lovely, and it really lends so much more beauty to an already incredible setting in Sowell Bay, Washington, on Puget Sound. I’ve always wanted to visit that part of the country, and now I want to visit even more. Though there’s probably a risk of me hanging out at an aquarium trying to bond with an octopus, and I’d probably get kicked out.

Let me say this: I liked this book up until the very end. And then Van Pelt did something that changed the way I felt. She made me love it instead. She took three words she’d already presented us with and then she laid them back at our feet with a different context and it brought instantaneous clarity (and quite a few tears). I think it takes legitimate skill to write something that can put so much power into mere words, especially so few. I’m not going to explain that any further, because I don’t want to spoil too much, but when you read this you will know what I’m talking about. Suffice it to say, this book has one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve read in a long time.

Basically, this book has everything you could want. It’s highly emotional, possessing both that feel-good vibe that readers love and a deep complexity that examines how we humans process pain and loneliness. There’s a bit of mystery, though I feel like certain details are pretty obvious pretty fast. But the driving force of this novel is not mystery or intrigue, it’s love and forgiveness and friendship and all manner of gushy things. It does refrain, however, from verging over into too much sentimentality. It rides that fine line of perfection that acknowledges the harsh realities of life without neglecting that good things exist. In short, you should read this. Everyone needs Marcellus in their lives.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Published May 3, 2022 by Ecco. ISBN 0063204150. Runtime 11 hrs and 16 mins. Narrated by Marin Ireland and Michael Urie.

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The Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian – a Book Review

I chose this book a few months ago for my month’s pick for Read Between the Wines, my book club. I came across the audiobook on my app and was intrigued by the cover. It was touted as a book for lovers of Where the Crawdads Sing, of which I am one. So I was pretty much sold.

Synopsis

It is Mississippi in the 1920’s and two girls from different sectors of life come together after both experience tragedy. Ada, after running away from her abusive father to Baton Rouge with a lover, returns to the Trace because she has been abandoned and has nowhere else to go. Matilda, the fiery daughter of sharecroppers, fleeing from some unknown force of evil, comes upon the stilt house of Ada and her father on the swamp. Together the girls forge an unlikely friendship that’s full of secrets from their pasts, secrets that will come out as the girls get pulled further into a dangerous world they never sought but found them anyway.

Review

This is a creative plot, and it’s quite well paced. I didn’t have any trouble keeping my interest focused on the narration. I liked the main characters for the most part, but I didn’t like the fact that this book portrayed a very black and white view of the world. Good was good and evil was pure evil. The villains were quite over the top, and there was little to no complexity to their story. Matilda was probably the most complex and well-drawn character, and it was her story that really pulled me in. I enjoyed the way her story unfolded, little by little and layer by layer. As with many other stories about black Americans in this time period in the South, her story is bleak. It’s really hard to wrap my mind around the idea that one person could endure so much damn heartbreak, but history is unfortunately full of them. Frankly, I commend Mustian for not sugar-coating her past. This novel is certainly not meant to be a feel-good Hallmark movie, but it certainly is about the fierce and intense fortitude that come with being a woman in a completely unforgiving world. Both Ada and Matilda are a testament to that, both in very similar ways and in very different ways. Thankfully, this ultimately means the difficult aspects of this book wind up being infused with a lot of hope. There is a silver lining.

Ultimately, this book does represent precisely why historical fiction is one of my all-time favorite genres. It lays a foundation. It provides context for precisely where we’ve come and how we attained progress to get to where we are today. And each character pays homage to the real souls who had to fight and suffer to show us the path we needed to take. Despite some minor quibbles I may have had with the novel, it is a worthwhile read even if it isn’t perfect.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Published April 6, 2021 by Blackstone Audio. ISBN 9781665105644. Runtime 9 hrs, 56 mins. Narrated by: Johanna Parker.

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New Beginnings

For starters, this is not a book review. No, those will be coming in droves for the next few weeks. I don’t think I’ll be posting a review for every book I read over the last few months, but I will try to do some highlights, starting with one that I had already started reviewing and abandoned. This post is, quite possibly, one of those cliched mea culpa posts that start flooding in at the beginning of every new year. I could say it’s my “New Year’s Resolution” to restart my blog, but I don’t really believe in resolutions. Sure, it’s a principle which acts as a driving force to get us moving, but the whole concept generally gets in the way and causes us to give up on our resolutions. Merely stating you are going to do something doesn’t tackle the reasons behind your getting to that point in the first place. You have to tackle the driving force that pushed you off course, and that’s often full of complexity.

2022 for me was rough. I won’t go into all the nitty gritty, but I struggled in more ways than one. I think as a rule we as humans only give up on one thing when the shit hits the fan and life gets complicated. We give up on ourselves, and we neglect ourselves. That just causes our mental state and our emotional well-being to unravel to a greater extent and then we have even less motivation to fight for ourselves. How bad it gets before we decide to do something about it varies from person to person. For me, I’m still not sure I’ll be successful at regaining much of anything, but I’m not yet willing to give up. The truth is, I’m not really one to talk about anything. I’ve always been the strong one, the one who was there to listen to anyone else and offer advice. I don’t know how to sit in the other seat, because I don’t like being vulnerable. And even when I have tried, it’s backfired and I wind up feeling even worse about myself. So I shut my mouth again. It turns out I’m really total shit at following my own advice.

I know it’s possible to claw your way back up and find inner peace and regain some semblance of your old self that believed you have what it takes to do something that makes you happy. I’m not talking about “success” in the traditional sense. A sense of purpose doesn’t necessarily bring money and fame. I just want to feel like I mean something. Like I didn’t sell myself short. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen someone hit absolute rock bottom and use it as a way to follow a crazy dream and it worked! My problem is that I’ve never actually followed the dream, and now my self doubt wonders if I’m actually strong enough to do it. I have a lot to be thankful for. I love my family and I live for them. I’m just not sure I JUST want to live for them. I want to live for me, too.

When I first started this blog, it was because I wanted to reconnect with that part of myself that was passionate about literature. I missed academia. I wanted to write again. Even if I was writing about the writings of other people, it gave me a purpose beyond the monotony of everyday life that I sometimes feel is crashing down around me. Obviously, getting back to where I was a year ago in regard to this blog is a good first step in trying to reinvigorate all that. There’s so much I need to fix, both personally and professionally. And I will start by trying to fix me.

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Meet Me in the Margins by Melissa Ferguson – a Book Review

After a few heavy books, I decided it was time to pick up something light, so I specifically sought out an audiobook to slide into my “Cozy Feel Good Read” category for my 2022 reading challenge. The winning selection was this sweet tale about Savannah Cade, a junior assistant editor at Pennington Publishing, a publishing house in Nashville that specializes in only the most highbrow literature and frowns on anything commercial. Savannah, however, harbors a secret dream of becoming a romance novelist. Her hopes are a bit dashed when her dream publisher tells her that her manuscript is simply not good. It’s promising, but it’s certainly not good. With one more chance to redeem her manuscript and a little more than a month to completely redo it, help comes from an unlikely place. After leaving her disheveled manuscript in a hidden room nestled behind the ARC room at Pennington Publishing, she comes back to find it neatly stacked with notes from a mysterious editor scribbled in the margins.

Over the next few weeks, Savannah and the mystery editor correspond back and forth and she finds herself falling for him. To complicate matters, she also finds herself developing a connection with someone else, her enigmatic and more than slightly intimidating new boss, William Pennington. And there’s even a third guy who we will discuss a bit later who should have been left out, but he’s still there to complicate matters as well. Who will she choose? And will Savannah’s dream of becoming a romance novelist finally come true?

Listen, I didn’t start this book expecting it to set off literary fireworks. I wasn’t in the mood for something complex, and complex it is not. It is the gooey saccharine sweet of a Hallmark movie, which is often why I stray away from the romance genre in general. Savannah is a pretty delightful but also frustratingly obtuse central character. The plot is so predictable I thought Savannah was quite the idiot for not really seeing through it in the first few chapters. William Pennington is the modern-day version of Fitzwilliam Darcy. He’s dashingly handsome but fiercely serious, and Savannah can’t quite stop herself from making a fool of herself in his presence. She finds him simultaneously infuriating and intriguing. In spite of it all, there is a connection there that Savannah can’t deny. I’m not sure how well I saw that connection. It seemed like they mostly talked about work, and I can’t say that would get my loins tingling. To each their own.

Savannah is quirky and naive. She has a dreadful family, especially her sister, Olivia. The two sisters live together in an apartment where they both get to cozy up to Olivia’s fiance who just happens to be Savannah’s ex-boyfriend of eight years. Let me say that again. SAVANNAH’S EX BOYFRIEND LEFT HER FOR HER SISTER AND SAVANNAH NOT ONLY DID NOT MURDER THEM BOTH BUT SHE MOVED IN WITH HER.

I’m sorry, but agreeing to that arrangement makes me want to punch Savannah to wake her the hell up. To make matters worse, Ferris, the ex, continues to bring Savannah flowers and coffee and periodically say sweet things and act possessive when other men are around.

No one is as good-natured and forgiving as Savannah. Nor should they be. Those people we call doormats, and that’s not a compliment. I celebrated when another character delivered her a harsh reality check about just how screwed up the whole situation was. And her hideous parents had reacted as if Savannah should just move on and stand by her sister because the Cades always put family first. Then why wasn’t Olivia expected to put family first and tell Ferris to bugger off??? Instead they give her a tissue and a pat on the back and tell her she has to welcome Ferris back into her life as her future brother-in-law. What a double standard!! How could Savannah ever have a successful and fulfilling relationship if these are the models of behavior she has been given?

That being said, I like a heroine who struggles with confidence. After all, we are all heroines in our own stories, and most of us feel so average as to be mundane. I know I do. Savannah always did next to her perfect sister and her perfect parents, each of which had pages of accomplishments to their name. Thankfully, a lot of modern romance novels of the quirkier variety tend to feature a heroine that resonates with the typical woman. My biggest quibble was with the predictability of the plot. It was so obvious where everything was heading. There was one minor twist at the end, but it was utterly inconsequential and was only thrown in to explain the red herrings that were supposed to convince us we didn’t know what we knew. But oh my, did we know! The mystery editor was basically the toddler playing hide and seek who “hides” behind a 3-inch wide pole in plain sight and thinks if he doesn’t move no one will notice him, going so far as to yell “you can’t see me!” when you stop counting. Yeah, there was literally no mystery to anyone except Savannah, and that just made her look foolish and even more naive than she already looked.

Overall, it was an enjoyable read. There were some legitimately funny and clever moments and some quirky side characters that were occasionally over the top, but they did keep things interesting. I can’t help but hate Savannah’s chosen pen name. You have a name like Savannah Cade, which sounds like it was made for romance novels, and you publish under something mundane like Holly Ray? That’s a very petty quibble, but so be it. I will also note, this book is classified as Christian fiction, which I didn’t even realize until after I’d read it, and I really see no reason for that designation beyond the fact that it’s as devoid of sex and language as the public perception of a nunnery. If you like your romance clean, this is the book for you, but you don’t have to worry about the appearance of Jesus with the keys to the chastity belt and a lecture about piety, which is quite a relief to this reader. My rating: 3 stars.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Published February 15, 2022 by Thomas Nelson. ISBN 0785231072. Audiobook. Runtime 7 hrs. 51 mins. Narrated by Talon David.

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Hell’s Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America’s First Serial Killer Family by Susan Jonusas

Not for the faint of heart, this true crime book recounts the tale of the “Bloody Benders,” a family that quietly terrorized the people of Labette County, Kansas in the late 1800’s. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the Bender family, and that’s the main reason people are still utterly fascinated by their story. Their crimes were brutal, devastating, and went unnoticed by almost everyone due to the transient nature of many people during this time period of expansion out West. The fact that to most townspeople the Benders seemed to be odd but respectable members of the community while the bodies piled up beneath the dirt on their homestead is a haunting truth.

This book wasn’t my first introduction to the Benders, but Ms. Jonusas has delivered an extremely detailed account based upon intense research. She makes sure to fill in a lot of gaps and, even where there is no truth to be known, delivers some very compelling theories as to the eventual whereabouts and fate of the Benders. People shouldn’t really expect this to be a true crime book that deeply explores each crime in gory detail. There is some of that, and the murders were obviously quite gruesome. However, blood and gore isn’t really the point of the book, and honestly we really have no idea of knowing just how each murder unfolded or even which members of the Bender family really participated in the actual killing. Frankly, it seemed like Ma Bender was your typical old granny (though creepy) who sat around sleeping in her armchair with her teeth falling out.

The book mostly details the investigation surrounding the murders after the Benders fled as well as witness accounts of people who were familiar with the family while they were residents of Labette County, even some who claimed to have escaped their clutches at the last moment. Overall, I would say this book is quite well-researched and extremely well written. I don’t read a lot of non fiction, and sometimes it can be difficult for non fiction titles to hold my interest. In the case of this one, I pretty much tore through the audiobook at record pace, so that is saying something. I would venture to say that Susan Jonusas has managed to deep dive into a story of which most authors and researchers have generally just scratched the surface. It’s well worth the read if you can handle the information about some seriously disturbing crimes. Also, as a footnote, how creepy and absolutely perfect is that cover?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis – a Book Review

This is an older book and the first in a series that follows Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse and a compulsive do-gooder who can’t say no when asked for help. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of this series, as this isn’t a frequent genre for me, but when I pass a book with the title The Boy in the Suitcase, I need to know two things: is he still alive and why the hell did they put him in a suitcase? Well done, ladies. You baited the hook and caught me. I think we all know at least one Nina, the person with the heart of gold who tends to get in over their heads because they just can’t walk away from something they shouldn’t have to contend with alone. As with Nina, this can often result in problems at home and at work, because they set aside their own life in the name of making a difference.

I would do a synopsis at this point in a review, but it’s really quite simple: Someone puts a boy in a suitcase and Nina finds him.

Ok, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say the kid is actually still alive. He’s naked, drugged and doesn’t speak the same language as Nina, but he is still alive. He’s also just three years old, and there’s a horribly aggressive man who is angry that Nina took the “package” he was supposed to intercept and he wants it back. He will stop at nothing to get it back, including murder. Not knowing who she can trust, Nina goes on the run desperately trying to figure out who the boy is and where he’s from so she can deliver him to safety before he once again falls into the wrong hands and she winds up dead. It actually really bothered me that Nina didn’t just go to the police. It’s the equivalent to the girl who runs upstairs in a horror movie instead of going out the backdoor to the neighbor’s house for help. I mean, there was really no logical reason to do what she did. As Nina gets closer to the heart of the story, she will uncover truths long buried about the boy, his mother, who is hunting him and why they seek him.

Trigger warning, there are some really disturbing aspects of this book. Human trafficking and abuse are very prevalent themes. I have a bit of an iron constitution when it comes to difficult themes, so it takes an awful lot to disturb me, but it’s certainly worth noting here in case readers avoid certain topics. There’s so much human depravity in the world, and I choose to face it head on instead of closing my eyes, though I don’t blame people for doing so. Life is hard enough as it is without opening yourself up to the rest of the world’s suffering.

If you can stomach the difficult stuff, there’s a lot to like with this book. It’s very exciting and well paced. I really enjoyed the character of Nina, and I thought it was quite sweet the way her relationship with the boy develops. I think that could have been explored a bit more, to be honest. There are multiple threads to the story. One follows the boy’s mother after the abduction, so there’s really no mystery as to the boy’s origin for the reader. We are merely following Nina through her journey in search of the truth. But don’t worry, there are plenty of other surprises along the way to keep the reader guessing. A third thread follows the man we know hired the goon to kidnap the boy. We just don’t know why he did it. We even get the perspective of the man hunting them, which really is quite interesting, though I’m not sure it was entirely necessary. At first I think it helped to humanize him but as the story spiraled downward toward the conclusion, he became less human and more monstrous. Ultimately, I don’t think it really helped our understanding of the story or his character at all. It was a pretty typical “bad guys bad” and “good guys good” single layered approach to reality. This was made a bit better by the big reveal at the end which gave a slight challenge to this notion.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read that only left me with a few minor quibbles. 3 stars.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Published November 8, 2011 by Soho Crime. ISBN 156947981X. Hardcover. 313 pages.

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The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell – a Book Review

In the past couple of years, I think I’ve read more Lisa Jewell books than any other single author. Each of her books is unique, plots and characters independent and easily distinguishable from one another. There are always plenty of twists and turns and mysteries to keep you reading. This particular book is no exception. There is a followup to this book to be released on August 9, 2022, so you can bet I’ll be reading it ASAP. I’ve already jotted it into my 2022 Most Anticipated New Release slot for my reading challenge.

Synopsis

From Goodreads: Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

The can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.

Review

The Family Upstairs is told in alternating points of view and follows Libby, Lucy, one of the surviving four children who lived at Cheyne Walk 25 years prior, and first person correspondence from Lucy’s brother, Henry. As Libby attempts to unravel the mysteries held by the house, she’s unaware that her long-lost siblings are closing in. The three separate stories unfold slowly with Lucy and Libby providing details of the present and Henry providing details of the past to fill in the gaps. The result is superb and methodical story-telling. There’s no chance of getting bored or losing interest when there are so many questions to answer! The fact that it’s so well written and the characters are rich and compelling is just icing on the cake.

Part of this appeal and excitement of this book is the ambience. I just love stories about dark and drafty houses full of haunting secrets. For centuries now authors have been delighting audiences with the tingling sensations brought by the creepy and weird. We still show up for it for a reason. It works. Jewell does an amazing job incorporating these classic Gothic elements into the more modern family drama. There’s something to appreciate here for readers with differing tastes. Overall, I give this one 4 stars. Highly enjoyable and infinitely twisty.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published November 5, 2019 (first published August 6, 2019) by Atria Books. ISBN 1501190105. Hardcover. 340 pages.

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Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey – a Book Review

I had been hearing a lot of buzz about this memoir, and after reading it I can see what all the fuss is about. There is a brilliance to Matthew McConaughey that isn’t often conveyed in his films. Later films, yes. Earlier ones with the pretty and often brainless leading man? Not so much. The thing is, he knew this. He purposely almost tanked his career in order to break free from his typecasting as the romcom leading man, something he does outline in his memoir. This is an excessively difficult thing to do in Hollywood, especially for someone so handsome. Let’s be real, there are prejudices against everyone, including beautiful people. The world looks at them and thinks there’s not much more to them than that: a pretty face and rockin’ bod. Everyone should be allowed their complexities and unique ability to shine as a human. In Matthew McConaughey’s case, he took it whether it was offered or not.

In this memoir, Mr. McConaughey is up front, honest, and visceral in the details of his life. He brings the ugly, the perfect, the funny, the shameful, and the unbelievable of his life in vivid detail. He is a natural storyteller. I listened to this on audio, and I really feel like there’s no other way to read this book. He narrates it himself, so it’s basically like sitting with him while he narrates the story of his life. I was stricken by what a philosopher he is. He really has things to say and lessons to teach that have come from a long and full life of self discovery. We should all be so open and curious and brave in our pursuit of our true self. And we should be unapologetic about not really fitting into boxes.

In today’s world, we are so polarized. It feels as if no one makes actual judgments based on instinct or logic anymore. We don’t close our eyes and ask ourselves “what do I really believe?” We allow the world and pushed social norms to dictate our choices, actions and beliefs. We don’t strip off our clothes and play bongos naked in our living rooms because that would be weird, right? Well who the fuck cares?! And you know what? None of us are happy! We aren’t authentic. I see a lot of reviews that assert this book makes Matthew look smug and self absorbed, that he thinks too highly of himself. That’s fair, but I actually didn’t get that at all. He’s content. He’s confident wearing his own skin. He’s earned it. This is a memoir, and you shouldn’t expect someone to sugar coat or withhold honesty about their successes. Frankly, I feel it’s a reader’s own prejudices that shine through when they only see the good a writer shares about themselves without noticing that they also showed their vulnerabilities at the risk of making themselves look bad. He admits to his failures. He just didn’t let them stop or define him, and he has a right to be proud of the successes.

Maybe happiness isn’t as simple as stripping down and playing the bongos in your living room. That works for Matthew McConaughey but it wouldn’t work for me. And maybe you’re reading this saying, “you’re wrong! I’m living my authentic self!” And that’s great. Keep doing what you’re doing. But some of us need to take a page from Matthew McConaughey’s book (not literally, that’s unconscionable book abuse) and start looking for greenlights, moments that present themselves and give us permission to forge ahead and make our own path. Greenlights is so worth it. This book is surprisingly eloquent, funny, and sometimes surreal. Very well done, Mr. McConaughey. 4 stars.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published October 20, 2020 by Random House Audio. ISBN 9780593416952. Runtime 6 hrs 42 mins. Read by the Author.

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