Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Book–Oliver Ryan, famous children’s book writer, and his loyal wife Alice, who illustrates his books, have a seemingly happy life until one night, after a very good dinner, he hits her, leaves, then comes back to beat her into a coma. The rest of the book is like peeling the layers of an onion. Nugent jumps around in chronology and in viewpoint, each character giving their take on Oliver, their past with him, and why he did it. From his harsh upbringing in a Catholic boarding school, to a fateful summer in France, to his current success, the reader gets more insight into Oliver’s character and motivations with every chapter. By the end, the reader should understand why he did it. Whether you find him sympathetic or a monster is up to you.

Like many books with this structure, it can get a little repetitive. We read tellings of the same scene from so many viewpoints that the details can wear thin by the second character’s take. Also, the story is full of too-convenient coincidences that stretch belief. Nevertheless, I read it in one sitting and found myself sucked in to Unraveling Oliver the way the best domestic thrillers suck you in. While I still found him absolutely monstrous at the end, I could see a different reader coming around to find him at least pitiable, if not sympathetic. This should appeal to people who like the recent spate of compelling Girl novels (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc). If you’re looking for your next read, try B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors, or, in fact, any of B. A. Paris‘ domestic thriller novels.

The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines

Book–Fans of the hit HGTV show Fixer Upper, which focuses on quickly renovating beat-up homes in Waco, Texas to turn a profit and give families their dream home, will be no stranger to Chip and Joanna Gaines, the down-to-earth husband and wife team at the heart of the show. The Magnolia Story traces Chip and Jo’s origins from their parents’ childhoods all the way to the present at their iconic farmhouse, dwelling on their great rapport with and respect for one another along the way. The Gaines come off as truly humble and grateful for the chance to improve Waco and help their family and employees through the opportunities afforded by the show.

I’m by no means a Fixer Upper superfan myself, so I can attest that there is plenty to enjoy here even for those who have seen only a few episodes of the show. I highly recommend the audio book version narrated by Chip and Joanna, which feels like a folksy conversation between the two and showcases their different versions of their shared story. While occasionally a little repetitive and with abrupt jumps in chronology, this fun, squeaky-clean, and meandering memoir will keep you entertained (and make you wish the show was still on Netflix).

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.

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

Book – Grace Holland lives with her husband, Gene, and their two young children in a small home on the coast of Maine. She doesn’t drive, receives an allowance from Gene and spends her days caring for her children, managing the house and visiting with her best friend, Rosie. Her marriage is complacent and somewhat dull. Grace wonders why she has never experienced the “god-awful joy” when making love to Gene that Rosie once mentioned. In the Fall of 1947, the town suffers a severe drought and fires begin to break out along the coast. Gene leaves to help fight the blazes and is still gone when the devastating flames reach the town. With most of the houses destroyed, and her husband missing, Grace is forced to take matters in her own hands. As she searches for a means to make money and build a new life for herself and for her children, she is also forced to confront situations more difficult then she could ever have imagined. I admired Grace’s resiliency and pragmatism. She asked for help and accepted it, but she was determined to find a way to be independent. Shreve also wrote The Weight of Water, The Pilot’s Wife and other popular novels.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

51323qF2glL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Book–In the port town of Malacca in Malaya in the 19th century (modern-day Malaysia), Li Lan is the daughter of a impoverished-but-genteel opium addict. Though of marriageable age, Li Lan receives no suitors but one: the prestigious Lim family wants her for their only son’s bride. There’s a catch, however. Lim Tian Ching, heir to the Lim family fortune, has recently died under mysterious circumstances and is demanding a bride from beyond the grave. Ghost marriage, an ancient but rarely practiced custom, is used to soothe an angry spirit, and guarantees the bride’s place in her groom’s house for the rest of her life.

Before Li Lan has even accepted the proposal, Lim Tian Ching begins to haunt her, and she is drawn into lifelike nightmares that sap away her energy. Li Lan is torn between the waking world and the shadowy ghost world where, if she’s not careful, she may remain forever.

The gorgeous, strange setting of turn of the century Malaya and the dreamlike ghost world draw the reader in, stealing the show from the somewhat milquetoast Li Lan and her trite love triangle between new Lim heir Tian Bai and mysterious spirit Er Lang. The Ghost Bride will appeal to those who enjoyed the movie Spirited Away, which has a similar beautiful, nightmarish, dream-logic setting and characters drawn with a light hand.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

indexBook – The opening of the book sets the tone of A Reliable Wife. Widower Ralph Truitt waits on a train platform in bitter cold blizzardy conditions in rural Wisconsin.  It is 1907 and the wealthy business man awaits his future bride, Catherine from Chicago, whom he chose from numerous responses to his newspaper ad seeking a “reliable wife”.  He is shocked to find that the photograph that she had sent him represented her as a plain looking woman versus the stunning beauty before him and it makes him wonder what other secrets she may be keeping from him.  Despite his suspicions, he marries her anyway due to his loneliness and his own ulterior motives. Catherine, haunted by a tragic past is motivated by greed and plans to eventually leave Wisconsin as a wealthy widow.

After the wedding Catherine and Ralph treat each other amicably. Catherine tries to be cheerful, though she feels trapped, because of the cold and snow. She also misses her fast-paced life in the city.  Sensing her restlessness Ralph reveals to her a splendid house on the property filled with treasures.  He had built it for his wife, Emilia and had not gone in it since her death.  Ralph also wants to find his estranged son to atone for the abuse that he had stowed upon him. So when some detectives have a lead that he is in St. Louis, Catherine jumps at the chance to go kick up her heels in the city under the pretext that she would try to coax Andy to come home to his father.

Things become more twisted when Andy becomes part of the plot. The gothic tone of this suspenseful story will keep the reader engrossed and the pages turning. If Hitchcock would have been alive, I’m sure he would have made a movie out of this. This book reminded me of Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

The Intern (2015)

8756Movie – In The Intern, Jules Osten (Anne Hathaway) is the CEO of About the Fit, a new women’s clothing site. She at taken the site from her kitchen table to a company of over 200 employees in over a year.  Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is her new intern. He is a 70-year old widower who was looking to do more in his old age than sit around.

Ben is old school. He is a gentleman, loyal, and quiet person. His co-workers and fellow interns enjoy this about him. He somehow becomes the cool uncle type. Ben gives dating, attire, and living advice to some of the man-children that work at About the Fit. Ben even lets one of them move in while he finds an apartment. Cool uncle stuff!

The only one who is not to fond of Ben is Jules. It is never really addressed why Jules does not like Ben and I felt had no bearing in the film. It was an issue at one point, and then it wasn’t.  This took away from the story a bit. Jules is overworked and her marriage is becoming strained. Her job has taken a toll on her husband. Without saying too much, things happen in the marriage but then there okay. Kind of like the whole Jules not liking Ben thing. The movie is good but leaves you with a feeling of not having finished things.

If you want to see De Niro in a wholesome comedy this one is okay. There is a scene where the guys all work together to help out Jules that is pretty good. Overall it’s an okay film.

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church

25810606Book – Seventeen-year-old Meridian Wallace is a bright, energetic woman and the only child of doting parents. Her parents encourage her curiosity and academic pursuits. She starts college at the University of Chicago in 1941 to pursue her degree in ornithology, the study of birds. She falls in love with a brilliant physics professor, Alden Whetstone. He’s more than twenty years her senior, and she is attracted to his intelligence and their stimulating scientific conversations. When he is tapped to work at Los Alamos on a top secret project, Meridian follows him and postpones her acceptance to grad school for a year. She marries Alden and begins an independent study of crows. As the years go by, Meridian continues to submerge her own desires and dreams to accommodate Alden’s career. She finds companionship in some of the other women and then, in the 1970’s meets Clay, who introduces her to new experiences and encourages her independence. This book fascinated me with its depictions of the changing times and society’s expectations, particularly toward women. I sometimes hoped that Meridian would make different choices, but thought that her struggles and decisions were realistic. This book is an engaging, thought-provoking read.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

w204Book – Franny Keating falls in love with a well-known older author, Leo Posen, in her twenties. She shares the story of her turbulent childhood with him, which he publishes into a bestselling book. It stirs up the past and Franny, her siblings and stepsisters must finally face the events that led to a family tragedy many years ago. The chain of events began when Franny’s mother fell in love with a guest, Bert Cousins, who showed up with a bottle of gin at Franny’s christening. She eventually divorced Franny’s father to marry Bert, a father of four. Franny, her sister and their step-siblings were often left to their own devices over Summer vacations and holidays. Cal, the oldest of the bunch, led them on adventures and the six forged a strong bond, which endures even after the tragedy. The book traces the relationships and lives of the families over forty years and their different memories of the past. I thought this book was honest in its examination of families, their struggles and the love that prevails throughout.

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

indexBook–  Daisy is crushed when, on the anniversary of three years free of cancer, she receives a surprise stage four diagnosis, with a life expectancy of 4 months. This is especially galling for Daisy because she did everything ‘right’– ate healthy, cancer-fighting foods, got all of her scheduled follow-ups, and exercised regularly. Rather than dwelling on her own mortality, Daisy is worried about her husband Jack. Jack is a brilliant airhead who relies on Daisy to take care of him.

Oakley does a great job at characterizing both Jack and Daisy:  we get a clear picture of Daisy the type A, detail-oriented organizer and list-maker and her partnership with Jack, the big-picture, charming, dreamer type. Daisy comes to the conclusion that she should spend her last few months finding Jack a new wife/caretaker. With the help of her best friend, she frequents dog parks and coffee shops looking for her replacement, even making a dating website profile for Jack. However, once one of the prospects she’s scouted for seems to be getting too close to Jack for Daisy’s liking, and she begins to re-evaluate how she’s planned to spend the final months of her life.

This book has a definite downer ending, but that’s what you expect reading a book about terminal cancer. I especially liked that, even while near death, Oakley did not make Daisy become a  caricature of the brave cancer patient:  she retained her personality, flaws and all. This is the author’s first novel, and it will be interesting to see what she writes next.