The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

Couple-Next-Door.Final_-683x1024The Couple Next Door

by Shari Lapena

*I received a copy of this book from the author’s publicist with the request that I read it and write a review.  I received no compensation for this review with the exception of a free copy of the book.

Anne and Marco Conti are a young married couple living in Upstate New York.  It would appear that they have it all – a beautiful home in the right neighborhood, money to spare, good looks, and a new baby.  But of course, things aren’t always what they appear to be.

One fateful night, their babysitter cancels at the last minute.  Rather than cancel their plans to attend a dinner party right next door, they decide to leave their six-month old baby at home asleep in her crib.  They take the baby monitor with them next door, and diligently go home to check on little Cora every half hour.  Even so, when they finally leave their neighbors’ home and return to their own that night, they find their front door ajar, and the crib is empty.

It’s difficult to offer a summary of a psychological thriller like this without giving too much away, but I will say that this story is of the same caliber as Gone Girl and The Girl On the Train.  It’s an absolute page turner – totally fucked up, but in a good way. Every time I thought I understood what was really going on, another twist in the story revealed itself.

The premise of the story – parents leaving their child unattended – is timely in this age of hypervigilant parenting, and the current culture of judging and vilifying parents who don’t meet arbitrary standards that seem to grow higher and higher all the time.  Of course we all think it’s horrible that any parent would leave a baby alone at home – but how dangerous is it really to leave a baby right next door, taking reasonable precautions like the Contis did (and how many of us have done something at some point that put our children at risk, or at least that we know other parents would disapprove of)?  And yet, the worst happens to the Contis – the worst fear that every parent has – their baby is taken.

I admit that I was reluctant to read a story about an abducted baby; I don’t think I have the stomach for a story that features horrible things befalling a baby.  The baby in this story, however, plays a pretty minor role, so take heart.

Deliciously twisted.  And perfect for a book club discussion.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by various parties

911Xmhn9+rLHarry Potter and the Cursed Child

by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne; based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling

Being a late-blooming Harry Potter devotee (I only finally read the HP series a couple of years ago), I was ambivalent about reading The Cursed Child for various reasons.  But, like four million other readers, I got the book as soon as it was released.  Unlike a lot of those readers who read the entire book in a couple of hours, though (two of my kids among them), it took me a week to get through it.  And it wasn’t a very enjoyable week, either.

The plot in a nutshell:

The Cursed Child opens exactly where The Deathly Hallows closed: with Harry and Ginny, and Ron and Hermione at Platform 9 3/4, sending their firstborn off to Hogwarts.  Harry and his eldest son, Albus, have a strained relationship.  Albus is a sullen teen, tortured by his father’s fame, blah blah blah.  Albus becomes besties with Draco’s son, Scorpius while at Hogwarts.  They get ahold of a Time Turner and decide to mess with the past.  We get lots of flashbacks to scenes in the original (real) Harry Potter books, mainly The Goblet of Fire.

I’ll just be blunt: I hated this book.

First of all, it’s actually a play (as if you didn’t know), not a novel like the previous Harry Potter books.  Plays are great!  I adore theater.  But plays are not fun to read.  Reading a play is reading a script – and stage directions.  Unlike a novel, there is no narrator – no first person, third person omniscient, or any other type of narrator who allows the reader to get inside the minds and hearts of the characters and become intimate with setting and plot.  A play reads rather like a robot.

Furthermore, the plot of this particular story is confusing (it involves a Time Turner, and so there is lots of going back and forth in time, and I found it hard to keep track of when in time any particular scene was).

The storyline is also contrived.  It was just … meh.  I felt no suspense, no drama (both of which I think I was supposed to feel).  The plot just cranked along on this weird track.

The characters!  They feel like imposters!  I understand that they’re all 19 years older, and people (sort of) change as they grow older, but Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Draco all seem completely reimagined to me.  And I didn’t like any of them!

Probably the biggest problem – and the cause for all of its other failings – is that this story was NOT written by J.K. Rowling, and it shows.  Oh, I know her name is on it, but what it says on the cover is “BASED ON AN ORIGINAL NEW STORY BY J.K. ROWLING.”  It’s no secret that what this story actually is is fan fiction.  My understanding is that Rowling wanted to promote British theater, and lent her name to the project mainly for that purpose.  Had this story – or any eighth installment to the Harry Potter series – actually been written by J.K. Rowling, it would have undoubtedly looked, read, and felt much different.

I’m all for theater, but I wish this particular story had never been published.  And as a HP purist, I cannot accept it as a genuine part of the Harry Potter canon.  So Ima just pretend it doesn’t exist, and the story ended with The Deathly Hallows.

Grace Without God by Katherine Ozment

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by Katherine Ozment

I was asked to read and review this book by TLC Book Tours.tlc-logo-resized

The book’s genesis, apparently, was a particular night some years ago during which the author and her young son witnessed a religious procession through their neighborhood. Her son asked her what the people walking up the street holding candles were doing, and she explained to him that it was a religious ritual.

Read more here.

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

51e0beCjILLOur Souls At Night

by Kent Haruf

One spring evening, Addie Moore makes a surprise visit to Louis Waters.  She is a seventy-year old widow who has been alone for twenty years; he is around the same age, and also a widower of many years.  Addie and Louis have been neighbors for over forty years, although they’ve never known each other very well.  But on this particular May evening, Addie makes a proposal to Louis –

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me,” she asks him.

Louis, of course, is taken by surprise and is not sure what to say.  Finally, he agrees to think about it.  Gathering his nerve, he goes to Addie’s house the following evening.  And so begins a tender budding relationship.  It wasn’t about sex – sex isn’t even what either of them was after.  It was about having suffered loneliness for far too long – and loneliness is always worse at night.  Addie’s and Louis’s sleeping together was about companionship, about not being alone.

Their first few nights together are hesitant and tentative, but as they lie in the dark together talking and getting to know one another, sharing old sorrows and regrets and hopes, they grow more at ease with each other, and an intimate friendship and affection takes root.

In the small town of Holt, Colorado, the fictional setting of all of Kent Haruf’s novels, word gets around quickly that Louis is visiting Addie at night.  Some of the townspeople disapprove, and some approve wholeheartedly.  Complicating matters further, Addie’s son Gene, who is in an unstable marriage of his own, dumps his six-year old son on Addie for the summer.  Addie adores her grandson, and Louis and the young boy become quite attached to each other over the summer as well.  But when Gene discovers the relationship between Louis and Addie – which has grown past the point of furtive nighttime visits, and into a friendship that is carried on in broad daylight, and which is teetering on the precipice of romantic love – he is determined to put a stop to it.

Like all of Haruf’s other novels, Our Souls At Night is short in pages but long in heart.  This is a very poignant and tender story of loneliness, loss, and second chances.  I can’t say that I found the ending satisfying, but the story overall is a jewel.  It’s certainly worth the read in its own right, but especially if you’re a Kent Haruf fan, it’s a must read.  I was very sad to learn that Mr. Haruf died, and that I’ve now read everything he will ever write.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

UnknownThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

by Rachel Joyce

Written as a “companion” novel to Joyce’s 2013 bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy tells a parallel story, offering Queenie’s perspective.  You really need to read Harold Fry first, however, in order for Queenie Hennessy to make sense.

In the first novel, Harold Fry, a sixty-five year old man receives a letter one day from a co-worker and friend whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years, telling him that she is dying from cancer.  Queenie Hennessy is that old friend.  Harold, taken by surprise, quickly scratches out a reply to Queenie and walks to the mailbox to post his note to her, only he keeps on walking.  What began as a quick trip up the road to mail a letter becomes a pilgrimage: Harold walks the length of England to get to the hospice in which Queenie lay dying, believing that as long as he keeps walking, she’ll keep living.  Along the way, Harold faces grief and regret and is ultimately transformed by what he learns about himself, those closest to him, and people in general.

In The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Queenie herself is fleshed out: where did she come from?  What had shaped her?  What regrets did she have?  What did she do while Harold was walking the length of England to her?  And why did she write to Harold in the first place after a twenty-year silence?

The premise of Queenie Hennessy is well-imagined, and the character of Queenie is well-developed.  However, I did find aspects of the story disappointing: that she spent twenty years feeling responsible for what happened to Harold’s son David felt foolish, self-indulgent, and even somewhat self-aggrandizing, and that she fancied herself so in love with Harold that she became a martyr – saving his job twice, taking the blame for something he did and losing her job as a result, and living out the rest of her life essentially as a recluse because her love for Harold overshadowed any possibility of pursuing a fulfilling relationship with someone who was not married and who was actually aware of her feelings.

I loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – so much so that I’m currently re-reading it.  It’s a beautiful story about the human heart.

I just wish Queenie’s story had been different, I guess.  It’s interesting enough to keep reading, but in the end it’s mostly just another story about unrequited love and a woman who sacrifices everything for a man.

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton

w-300xq-95~Image_38075185The Excellent Lombards

by Jane Hamilton

This novel is about a modern-day farm family, from the perspective of Mary Francis Lombard, the daughter of the family.  The Lombards run an apple orchard in Wisconsin, and “Francie” (also known as “Frankie” and, inexplicably, “Marlene”) is utterly in love with their life on the farm.  She aspires to nothing more than being a farmer herself one day, and taking over the family farm with William, her older brother whom she plans to marry, or course.

But the modern-day farmer is dying out, and small, private farms are an endangered species.  Francie has a hard time coping with the changes that technology and commercialism inevitably bring to the Lombard farm, way of life, and most of all their future.

The story spans several years, from the time Francie is about nine to the time she is sixteen or seventeen, and along the way she gets into many scrapes and has many feelings.  It feels like Hamilton wanted to create a scrappy young female character, perhaps on the level of Scout Finch – but Francie mostly comes across as whiny and demanding and petulant.  It also felt like this was supposed to be some coming of age tale, but there were no great lessons or epiphanies.

(I also object to the gratuitous and predictable “retarded” tossed out from time to time.)

It’s not a bad story, but it falls a little flat and I wouldn’t call it memorable.

The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman

91-3B6rcodLThe Two Family House

by Lynda Cohen Loigman

The story opens in 1947 Brooklyn, as two sisters-in-law find themselves pregnant – again.  Rose is soft-spoken, sweet, and dutiful, and already the mother of three daughters.  Rose’s husband Mort sees the absence of a son in the family as Rose’s failure, and his resentment is felt by his entire household.  Cheerful, outspoken Helen has four sons already, and although her marriage to Abe, Mort’s brother, is flourishing and she adores her boys, suddenly she finds herself pining for a daughter.  The two women are as close as actual sisters and best friends, and the closeness of their relationship is reinforced by the fact that the two families share a house, one living downstairs, and the other upstairs, never farther than a knock on the door away.  Rose spends her entire pregnancy feeling anxious about the possibility of disappointing Mort with yet another daughter, and Helen spends hers hoping for the daughter who will remain close to her even after her sons grow up and go away from her to make their ways in the world.

As their due dates draw close, both women go into labor one evening during a blizzard so severe that an ambulance can’t reach them – and both of their husbands are away on business.  The two babies are born minutes apart behind Rose’s closed bedroom door with the aid of a midwife who was able to reach them in time.  What takes place behind that closed door will change the course of both families’ lives in unforeseeable ways forever.

So, what happens when one pins their hopes so desperately to something?  The Two Family House offers a caveat: be careful what you wish for.

There are aspects of the story that are a little implausible, but I think the author did a good job with an interesting subject matter.  The story is well written and moves along at a good pace, and the characters are well-developed and believable.  A good summer read.

 

From My Mother by Darcy Leech

3d-book-coverFrom My Mother

by Darcy Leech

When Darcy Leech was three years old, her baby brother was born, and the course of her life and that of her family was changed forever. Dustin was diagnosed with congenital myotonic muscular dystrophy – or MMD – inherited from his and Darcy’s mother, who didn’t know that she had the adult onset kind of MMD until then. MMD is terminal – it causes progressive weakening of the muscles and the body until it can no longer support life, and there is no cure.

Read more, including an interview with the author, here.

A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

51IF0AJcUYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Young People’s History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

As last summer wound down, I was gathering materials to use to homeschool my then almost nine-year old daughter and almost eleven-year old twin daughters.  I wanted to approach U.S. History with them in a different way than it had been presented to them in conventional public school up to that point.  Specifically, I wanted to break away from the white-washed version of history which portrays every American historical figure (most of them white) as a hero, and America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave” without examining underlying complexities and uncomfortable truths about the country which we call home.  In a nutshell, I don’t want my children fed a diet of zealous patriotism and nationalism.

On several recommendations, I bought A Young People’s History of the United States and used it as our history “curriculum” this school year.  It was a great choice.  Adapted for younger readers (Amazon doesn’t specify an age range, but I would say ages 10 through teens) from Zinn’s original A People’s History of the United States (which I have, but haven’t read.  I hope to at some point), A Young People’s History covers the time from Columbus mistakenly arriving in America to the “War on Terror” and the George W. Bush presidency.  Told from “the people’s” point of view rather than from the point of view of those in power, this wonderful book discusses the many social and political issues that have shaped, and continue to shape the United States – slavery, segregation, labor unions, poverty, women’s rights, the political issues that have driven the wars in which the United States has been involved, and more.

My daughters and I really enjoyed our time studying U.S. History using this book as our guide this school year.  We would sit down together two or three times a week and take turns reading aloud from A Young People’s History, and our readings always led to interesting discussions, and often to further studies elsewhere.

Highly recommend.

Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs

2c9fd47333a51211950f6a70670045abLust & Wonder

by Augusten Burroughs

Have I mentioned that Augusten Burroughs was the first author to whom I wrote an actual fan letter?  It’s true.  This was years ago, I think after I read Running With Scissors (or maybe it was Dry; I can’t remember which), and I was so enamored of his writing that I tracked down his email address (which isn’t hard to do, given that most authors have a website with a “Contact” link) and wrote a gushing email to him.  And he actually responded!  So we’re besties now.

Okay, not really.

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while, and am always excited to see another book with his name on it hit the shelves.

Lust & Wonder is another memoir; this one covers a certain period of time in Burroughs’s life after Dry, which recounts his time in rehab for alcoholism.  Lust & Wonder opens with Burroughs falling off the wagon after a prolonged period of sobriety.  What this memoir is mostly about, though, is Burroughs’s misadventures in coupledom.  If you’re at all familiar with Burroughs’s work, then I don’t need to tell you that it is absolutely not sappy or sentimental.  Told with his trademark scorching wit and naked honesty, it does manage to be tender at moments, however.  Burroughs doesn’t pull any punches – he can be mean, but he knows and acknowledges it – and doesn’t defend it.

I really enjoyed this one; it’s not among the best of his work, but it holds its own and is definitely worth reading if you’re a Burroughs fan.  If you’re not yet a fan, I would recommend reading Running With Scissors and Dry first; Lust & Wonder will then make more sense.  The only caveat I would offer is that – like Burroughs’s other work – it contains some pretty graphic stuff and is intended for mature audiences.