Book – In 1686, eighteen-year-old country girl Nella arrives in Amsterdam to begin her life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She doesn’t know him well and finds his household strange and unwelcoming. His sister, Marin, runs the household and seems to lead a pious, austere life. The servants, Otto and Cornelia, are friendly, but cautious. In addition, Johannes is often absent and when he’s home, he’s preoccupied. Then, Johannes presents Nella with an extravagant wedding gift, a miniature version of their house. Nella is confused and overwhelmed by the gift, but with little to occupy her time, decides to begin furnishing it. She hires a miniaturist through the mail, and when the contents start to arrive, she is both fascinated and terrified. The miniaturist seems to be able to not only replicate their household down to the last detail, but also seems to be able to predict the future. As events begin to unfold, Nella struggles to figure out what’s real and what is an illusion. What I found most interesting about this book was the historical detail. Events transpire to illuminate both the lifestyles and attitudes of Amsterdam during this time period. The characters were interesting and complex. This story was full of secrets and intrigues and kept me guessing until the end.
Book – The Posts are going to Mallorca for a two-week vacation. Franny and Jim are celebrating their 35th Anniversary, but recent issues are casting doubt that they’ll celebrate their 36th. Their daughter, Sylvia, is happy to escape Manhattan for the summer to join them before she heads off to college. Bobby, her older brother, arrives with his girlfriend, Carmen, a fitness instructor who annoys the family. The guest list rounds off with Franny’s best friend, Charles and his husband Lawrence. When the guests are assembled in the luxurious villa, they begin to realize that their hopes and troubles have followed them to their holiday paradise. As the vacationers relax and explore the island, they discover truths about themselves and their relationships. I didn’t think I was going to like these characters as much as I did. Straub’s humor manages to be pointed, yet kind.Straub is also the author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Book – Top detective Mick Kennedy is the lead investigator for a heinous crime that has resulted in the deaths of Patrick Spain and his two young children. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care. The crime took place in the family’s home, a large, fancy house in one of the newer half-abandoned developments in an outlying suburb in Ireland. As Mick and his partner, Richie, begin to delve into the investigation, they began to realize that all is not as it seems. At the same time, the case unearths memories for Mick and his sister, Dina, that have remained unresolved from their childhood. As Dina unravels, the case also begins to spiral out of control. Tana French’s stories and characters are compelling and terrifying. Broken Harbor was an eerie place and a haunting story. French has written several other psychological thrillers, including In the Woods.
Book – Teddi Overman owns an antique shop in Charleston, where she can fulfill her passion for restoring and selling antiques. She works with her two quirky employees, Albert and Inez. While her life is filled with her work, friends and caring for her Grammy Belle who lives nearby, she is haunted by her childhood and the family she left behind in rural Kentucky. She is estranged from her mother, who wanted her daughter to be a secretary and disapproves of her career and life choices. She also mourns the loss of her younger brother, Josh, who mysteriously disappeared years ago. As she tries to reconcile her present with her past, Teddi uncovers the secrets hidden beneath her family’s pain and comes to terms with their choices. Charming, hopeful and filled with eccentric characters, this book is an engaging summer read by the author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.
Book – David Finch has been married to Kristen for 5 years and their marriage is in crisis. They have two young children, own a home in the northern suburbs of Chicago and work full-time. But they no longer communicate with each other and miss the fun they had together before they were married. The catalyst for a change in their relationship comes in the form of an online survey testing for Asperger Syndrome. David scores 155 out of a possible 200. Kristen scores an 8. (David’s diagnosis is later confirmed by a medical professional.) David is stunned, but realizes that they now have answers for some of the behaviors that are causing issues in his life. He sets on a quest to improve those behaviors and his communication skills. He records his lessons and results in a Journal of Best Practices. David discusses the progress of his journey in a straight-forward and often humorous manner. I was impressed by the amount of effort it took him to learn, understand and maintain socially acceptable norms. Both David and Kristin were committed to the process, and Kristen’s patience in accepting and guiding David was also awe-inspiring. While this is a non-fiction account, if you are interested in further exploring personal accounts of living with Asperger Syndrome, try the novels The Rosie Project or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Book – My grandson Lorenzo, Enzo for short, was born just a few weeks ago. Enzo . . . the name made me think of one of my favorite books, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. The story is told from Enzo’s perspective, but what is very different about this novel is that he is a dog, a lab terrier mix. I had my doubts whether I would like this book, because it is about auto racing and the world is viewed through a dog’s eyes. But I read it, since it was on all the best seller lists and I was looking for a good candidate for our book discussion group. Not only did I love The Art of Racing in the Rain, but it was a great pick for discussion. From the book jacket: “Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver. Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition, and he sees that life, like racing, isn’t simply about going fast. Using the techniques needed on the race track, one can successfully navigate all of life’s ordeals.” A movie version is currently in production and will star Patrick Dempsey, who is an amateur race car driver as Enzo’s owner Denny Swift. You don’t need to be a dog lover an auto racing fan to enjoy this book. It is a feel good story of loyalty, family, thoughtful philosophical insight, and working to reach your full potential.
Book – Orphan trains ran from the East Coast to the Midwest from 1854 to 1929. They carried orphan children who needed homes and were available for adoption. The children aboard the trains had few options and could easily be exploited in their new homes. Orphan Train tells two parallel stories: the current plight of foster child Molly Ayer and the life story of Vivian Daly, an elderly woman who once rode the Orphan Train. Their lives intersect when teenage Molly is assigned a community service project to help Vivian sort through the boxes stored in her attic. Molly has not known much unconditional love in her years in foster care, and as a friendship begins to blossom between the two woman, Molly is able to confront her current demons. In turn, Vivian is able to come to peace with her past and her secrets. This book illustrates and contrasts the situations and emotions that children without loving caretakers face, both in the past and the present. However, it also depicts the positive impact of people in the community who reach out with love and care in a troubled situation and, in doing so, can provide a bright and hopeful future.
Book – The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is a hauntingly beautiful story set in an extraordinary time. The rotation of the Earth is gradually slowing which affects the length of days and nights, gravity, tides, the food supply, and human and animal behavior.
Told from the perspective of Julia, a sensitive bright 11 year old, this is more of a coming of age tale than science fiction. Julia narrates her life as an adolescent bringing to light typical experiences of popularity, bullying, friendships, cliques, and crushes. But if life weren’t complicated enough, Julia now must face the reality of what the future holds for her and if she has a future at all. Not only are there blatant environmental changes, but normal daily activities are increasingly difficult to hold onto. The Earth’s inhabitants are divided on whether to live by the clock or let the sun and darkness, which are both slowly increasing as the Earth’s rotation continuously is slowing, dictate their sleeping and waking patterns.
Walker consulted scientists in her research and while reading the book I questioned how I would react and what would I do under similar circumstances. This is a great book for both teens and adults. It was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by O: The Oprah Magazine, BookPage, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and others. A movie based on the book is currently in production.
Book – This Fallback Plan creatively depicts the relatable growing pains and ennui of a recent Northwestern graduate living with her parents during a hot summer month in Lombard, Illinois. This novel, published in 2012, possesses the current voice of youth that is reminiscent of the writing in the television series Girls. The main character is struggling after a difficult final semester at school, yet her tone is light and her glib descriptions of her daily undertakings are fresh and amusing. Because the setting of the book is mainly within Lombard, I found the character’s humorous viewpoint on local area events and establishments to be especially enjoyable. The text contains discerning descriptions of the rituals of family life from the perspective of a twenty year old. More than that, the novel addresses the challenges impacting new as well as established families. Stein realistically captures the trials an individual faces with each identity adopted during the stages of life. I first became aware of this book upon viewing a telecast of a reading by the author at the College of DuPage. Here is a link to a video of Leigh Stein reading selections from her work at the college.
Book – After living happily in the city as a newly married couple, Mark Falanga and his wife relocate to the suburbs to raise their young family. The Suburban You: Reports from the Home Front is a compilation of stories about suburban life in the North Shore of Chicago. I laughed out loud at Falanga’s descriptions of neighborhood block parties, Halloween costumes, family Christmas cards and father-son outings. His stories gently poke fun at the hierarchies and unwritten rules governing life in the suburbs. He also tackles issues in commuting to work and being married with kids with deadpan humor. Although this book was written in 2004, it’s still a relevant and entertaining trip into the suburbs, even if you live in the city.