Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Book – Anything Is Possible is a set of connected short stories about the people living in the small, rural town of Amgash, Illinois. Retired school janitor Tommy Guptill reflects on the lives of some of the former students as he shops for a birthday gift for his wife. The three Barton siblings attended the school and  we learn about their difficult childhood and lives as adults. Linda Peterson-Cornell relates the consequences of her husband’s voyeurism and infidelities. A war veteran searches for love and redemption. I loved seeing characters through the eyes of different townspeople, as they encountered them in their daily lives. Despite the obstacles and difficulties they faced, there were also moments of grace and hope. I have found myself reflecting on these stories and on the bonds of families and friends. Stout also wrote Olive Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton, Amy and Isabelle and other popular novels.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

41-rjgGUB5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book–Ella Minnow Pea (LMNOP) lives with her family on the fictional island of Nollop, just off the coast of South Carolina. On the island nation founded by Nevin Nollop, supposed creator of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” Nollopian citizens are proud of their wordy heritage and communicate in a sesquipedalian style that makes their letters a fun, dictionary-requiring read. In the center of town, there is a memorial to Nevin Nollop, including his famous sentence. The plot begins when one letter falls off of the statue: the letter “Z.” Rather than re-affixing the letter to the monument and moving on, the island Council chooses to interpret this as a divine sign from Nollop, and bans this letter from Nollop’s written and spoken discourse. While “Z” is no great loss, the Nollopian’s rationalize, and dutifully eliminate it, they are less sanguine when more letters begin to fall from the statue and accordingly, from their language, turning their society of free expression into one of censorship, fear, and constrained liberties.

Considered as a novel, Ella Minnow Pea is weak–the characterization is broad and the world-building is vague. As a fable in the vein of Animal Farm, though, it is great fun, and as a linguistic experiment, it’s even better. This book will appeal to people who love children’s books like The Phantom Tollbooth and The Lost Track of Time and were craving an adult version of books that have so much fun with the English language.

 

100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

51OY+Ih8XLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Allan Karlsson is turning 100 and minutes before his birthday party at the nursing home, he makes a last-minute getaway through his bedroom window. He wanders to the nearby train station and purchases a train ticket to take him to a destination as far away as possible. While waiting for the train, an uncouth young man asks him to watch his suitcase while he “takes a dump.” Allan agrees and then is forced to make a quick decision when the train arrives before the young man returns. As Allan is discovered missing, it seems like everyone is looking for him while he meanders his way through villages, adventures and mishaps. Along the way, he meets other characters, including a lifetime scholar turned hot-dog vendor, a self-declared thief, a beauty with a colorful vocabulary, a gangster boss and a lonely policeman. During his journey, Allan reflects on his past, which in Forrest Gump fashion, led him to encounters with famous people including Mao Tse-Tung, President Truman and Stalin. This lively accounting of Allan’s life made me reflect on historical events. While Allan was entertaining, he was not a particularly appealing character to me. He was resourceful, but somehow left a lot of dead people behind, which didn’t seem to trouble him at all. The DVD (same title) is also available for check-out at the Library.

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

6174e2-23JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Sometimes, it’s easy to know from the outset whether a book will be a good fit or not.  Such is the case with The Gentlemen, a book about a vain Victorian poet who meets the Devil at a masquerade ball, accidentally sells his wife’s soul in exchange for poetic inspiration and consequently launches an expedition (peopled by his bluff adventuring brother-in-law, his scandalous sister, a shy mad scientist and a stalwart butler) to Hell to retrieve her.  If that premise sounds as delightful to you as it did to me, you’ll love the book; if not, don’t bother.  Simple as that.

Forrest Leo’s language in The Gentleman is perfectly Victorian, his parodistic humor is spot-on for the absurd, over-the-top story he’s looking to tell, and the steampunk elements of his universe are used sparingly and well.  While reading, there was a moment when I feared I would feel cheated by the ending, but I was happily mistaken in that.  If I had to quibble, I wouldn’t have minded a little more swashbuckling action.  Overall, however, The Gentleman was a delightfully silly, light, fast-paced, fun first novel, with a great and original premise, from a clearly talented young writer.  I can’t wait to see what he writes next!

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

19367226Book– In the vein of The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (which uses Conan Doyle’s characters), Sophie Hannah has set out to write a new Hercule Poirot novel, with the permission of Agatha Christie’s estate. When a contemporary author sets out to reanimate the legendary characters of a deceased author’s canon, she has a tall task ahead of her and a lot of expectations to meet that do not apply to a wholly original novel, but I tried to be fair when I read her attempt.

Hannah does not do a great job of imitating Christie’s characters. For example, bumbling police inspector narrator, Catchpool (an original character), who exists as a reader surrogate for Poirot to be smart at, is afraid of dead bodies due to an apparently traumatic incident at his grandfather’s funeral. Barring how silly it is for a police inspector to fear murder victims, Catchpool is also gratingly incompetent and has all kinds of tiresome (if justifiable) doubts about his fitness for police work. Poirot is not rendered pitch perfect either. He overuses some typically Poirot-esque mannerisms, such as “little grey cells” and gratuitous French, but for reasons I cannot pinpoint, does not hit the mark.

Despite these complaints, I would still recommend this book. The mystery itself is elegantly constructed, with plenty of red herrings, and a beautiful resolution at the end. I did not correctly guess the murderer early on, which I typically do, and actually needed the scene at the end where Poirot explains the plot to everybody to wrap my head around how the murders went down. The Monogram Murders was a much better experience once I decided to read just for the plot, which is excellent, rather than the characters, which were not.

The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss by Max Wirestone

51-+74IGcjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book- Broke and unemployed Dahlia is pleased if rather confused when a handsome stranger at her roommate’s party offers her a dubious gig– to retrieve his spear (not a real spear, but a spear from fictional Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game Zoth).  Naturally, the promise of a $2000 payout after 12+ months of unemployment is too much to resist. However, nothing ever works out as well as it seems it should. Dahlia is quickly embroiled in at least one potential romantic entanglement, the interpersonal dynamics of her employer’s in-game guild, and, oh yeah, a real-life murder. The real pleasure of The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss is the narrator’s unique voice. Dahlia is steeped in nerd culture and has an acerbic, self-deprecating style that either the reader will love or hate.

This book (which I would not be surprised to see become a series) straddles the line between young adult and new adult and will appeal to fans of both chick lit novels and cozy mysteries. Set in St. Louis, I found that the novel had a surprisingly strong sense of place that I appreciated. My spouse is from St. Louis, and I recognized many of the places and streets mentioned as ones I’ve been to when visiting my in-laws. If you can get behind a novel where the detective wears a Jigglypuff toboggan hat instead of a deerstalker cap, this is the book for you.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The-Sweetness-at-the-Bottom-of-the-PieBook – It is 1950 in the south of England, there is a dead body at the bottom of the garden, and the feelings of eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce can best be described as… delight.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a series of mysteries featuring a thoroughly unconventional young sleuth.  Flavia is a devoted chemist, a razor-sharp observer and–though she would never use the term of herself–a girl genius, with a noble heart but a matching talent for lying, inventing or thinking her way out of trouble.  All of this ought to combine to create a completely unbelievable character.  Miraculously, it doesn’t.  What it creates, instead, is a genuine original, an irresistible series that I couldn’t put down if I tried.

In her first outing, Flavia solves a mystery involving a dead bird, an extremely rare postage stamp, stage magic, an academic who fell from a bell-tower decades ago, and her own father’s boyhood.  Not every reader will love Bradley’s sometimes verbose and always metaphor-strewn style, but those who fall under Flavia’s spell will find six more titles waiting, the newest published just this year.  the audiobooks are exceptionally good, with Jayne Entwhistle providing a pitch-perfect Flavia who never seems more than half-an-inch shy of laughter.

 

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

a man called oveBook – Ove is a grumpy man. He’s exasperated with his neighbors, the stray cat who keeps hanging around, the postman and anyone else he encounters in his daily rounds through the neighborhood. He’s recently lost his job and cannot understand why the rest of the world cannot follow life’s “rules” and be more productive and sensible. His wife Sonja says that Ove is “unforgiving.” Ove calls it “having firm principles.” And, while Ove is trying to stick to his principles, life keeps straying from the plans. Despite his grumpiness, Ove is kind (in a grouchy sort of way). When his new neighbors accidentally back their U-Haul over his mailbox, Ove’s world begins to change in ways he never could have imagined. This story is charming, funny and slightly off-beat. If you liked The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, you may enjoy Ove’s quirky tale.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

emptyBook – There is something about the extravagant mansions of the early industrialists that elicits morbid curiosity. In Empty Mansions : the mysterious life of Huguette Clark and the spending of a great American fortune true stories about some eccentric mansions and the people that lived in them are revealed. This bestselling book is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Dedman, and a cousin of the heiress Huguette Clark, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. The mystery of Hugette’s life required an extra bit of investigative work on the authors’ parts because Hugette was shy and very reclusive. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 105.

I found the story of Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, impressive. He was a risk-taking pioneer in Montana that worked his way up to becoming wealthier than Rockefeller during his lifetime. Unfortunately, his copper mining business also began widespread damage upon the Montana ecosystem. The large fortune he left to Hugette provided her the opportunity to make some outrageous decisions in how she chose to spend it.

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

oneBook – Jess is a single mother with a lot on her plate. Her adopted stepson is regularly beaten up by neighborhood thugs, who taunt him for wearing make-up and being a loner. Her young daughter, Tanzie, is a mathematical genius who has an opportunity to go to a special prep school that Jess cannot afford. Jess is estranged from her dead-beat husband, Marty, who lives with his mother and hasn’t supported the children financially or emotionally for two years. To make ends meet, Jess waitresses and cleans houses. One of her clients is the software billionaire, Ed. Although Jess doesn’t know it, Ed is being investigated for insider trading. Their paths cross unexpectedly as Jess sets out on a trip to secure scholarship money for Tanzie. It’s a fun and entertaining adventure as four eccentric and lonely people discover their strengths, vulnerabilities and their “tribes.” Moyes has written several other novels, including Me Before You.