August 30, 2023

Ocean State


Ocean State by Stewart O'Nan
2022 Atlantic Monthly Press
Finished on August 28, 2023
Rating: 2/5 (Fair) - reduced on 9/1 from 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Set in a working-class town on the Rhode Island coast, O'Nan's latest is a crushing, beautifully written, and profoundly compelling novel about sisters, mothers, and daughters, and the terrible things love makes us do.

In the first line of Ocean State, we learn that a high school student was murdered, and we find out who did it. The story that unfolds from there with incredible momentum is thus one of the build-up to and fall-out from the murder, told through the alternating perspectives of the four women at its heart. Angel, the murderer, Carol, her mother, and Birdy, the victim, all come alive on the page as they converge in a climax both tragic and inevitable. Watching over it all is the retrospective testimony of Angel's younger sister Marie, who reflects on that doomed autumn of 2009 with all the wisdom of hindsight. Angel and Birdy love the same teenage boy, frantically and single mindedly, and are compelled by the intensity of their feelings to extremes neither could have anticipated. O'Nan's expert hand paints a fully realized portrait of these women, but also weaves a compelling and heartbreaking story of working-class life in Ashaway, Rhode Island. Propulsive, moving, and deeply rendered, Ocean State is a masterful novel by one of our greatest storytellers.

Meh. I was tempted to give Ocean State a 2/5 rating, but rounded up since it kept me reading late in the night, eager to learn the outcome of the murder. [Dropped it down to a 2/5 after giving it more thought.] I didn't care for any of the characters, and thought both girls were naive and foolish, trapped in a love triangle gone wrong. I also found it somewhat difficult to keep track of the two main characters until I was several chapters into the book. I have read other novels by O'Nan, which were much more relatable. Emily, Alone and Henry, Himself are two of my favorite books by this author. 

If you don't mind a lot of teenage angst, and enjoy Stewart O'Nan's writing, borrow this one from the library. 

My reviews for the books I've read of O'Nan's:

Emily, Alone (4.75/5)

August 24, 2023

The Vows of Silence


The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill
Simon Serrailler #4
2007 Chatto & Windus (first published in 2006)
Finished on August 22, 2023
Rating: 4.5/5 (Excellent)

Publisher's Blurb:

We met the enigmatic and brooding Simon Serrailler in The Various Haunts of Men and got to know him better in The Pure in Heart and The Risk of Darkness. The Vows of Silence, the fourth crime novel featuring Chief Inspector Serrailler, is perhaps even more compulsive and convincing than its predecessors.

A gunman is terrorizing young women in the cathedral town of Laffterton. What, if anything, links the apparently random murders? Is the marksman with the rifle the same as the killer with the handgun? With the complexity and character study that earned raves for The Pure in Heart and the relentless pacing and plot twists of The Various Haunts of Men, The Vows of Silence is truly the work of a writer at the top of her form. 

The Vows of Silence may be my favorite thus far in Susan Hill's mystery series. I was kept guessing until the final chapters, in which a small hint confirmed my suspicions. Well-written mysteries keep me reading late in the night, and this fourth installment did just that. And yet it wasn't simply my curiosity about the identity of the killer, but the continuation of the evolving storyline of the Serrailler family. I won't divulge more, but I will say that I was moved to tears. I know I've said it repeatedly (both about Hill's and Deborah Crombie's mysteries), but I love getting to know the characters in these books; they're authentic and so likeable. I wish, once again, that someone would create a TV series of both of these women's books. 

A solid mystery. Highly recommend, but do read these in order!

August 19, 2023

Tom Lake

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
2023 Harper
Finished on August 17, 2023
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent!)

Publisher's Blurb:

In the spring of 2020, Lara’s three daughters return to the family's orchard in Northern Michigan. While picking cherries, they beg their mother to tell them the story of Peter Duke, a famous actor with whom she shared both a stage and a romance years before at a theater company called Tom Lake. As Lara recalls the past, her daughters examine their own lives and relationship with their mother, and are forced to reconsider the world and everything they thought they knew.

Tom Lake is a meditation on youthful love, married love, and the lives parents have led before their children were born. Both hopeful and elegiac, it explores what it means to be happy even when the world is falling apart. As in all of her novels, Ann Patchett combines compelling narrative artistry with piercing insights into family dynamics. The result is a rich and luminous story, told with profound intelligence and emotional subtlety, that demonstrates once again why she is one of the most revered and acclaimed literary talents working today.
"Patchett’s intricate and subtle thematic web…enfolds the nature of storytelling, the evolving dynamics of a family, and the complex interaction between destiny and choice….These braided strands culminate in a denouement at once deeply sad and tenderly life-affirming. Poignant and reflective, cementing Patchett’s stature as one of our finest novelists." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

I'm not sure if I know how to review this marvelous novel! I loved the entire book, savoring each sentence, and as the final pages drew near, I told my husband that I hated to say goodbye to Patchett's characters; they felt so real! The book could have been a thousand pages and it wouldn't have been long enough.

To begin, I'm very happy that I decided to get a copy of Our Town to read in advance of starting Tom Lake. Somehow, I managed to go through life without ever reading Our Town. I've also never seen the play, but had a vague idea of its premise. I suppose one could read Tom Lake without knowing a thing about Thornton Wilder's classic, but it's a much richer experience knowing the role of the actors, and how they influenced Patchett's story.

Not only does Ann Patchett create memorable characters who feel like family, she also paints a beautiful image of the setting....
Tom Lake turned out to be crushingly pretty. There was a huge covered amphitheater sunk into the rolling lawns. The musical ran in the amphitheater. They also had a black box theater where they staged the straight plays like Our Town and Fool for Love. There were tennis courts with a clubhouse that served iced tea and sandwiches. A smattering of lovely houses--some that had been turned into administrative offices, some for boarding the actors and designers and technicians, and some where regular people spent the summer--spread along the shore of a tremendous lake. Fruit trees bloomed, paths meandered, hills swelled, like someone had clipped pictures out of a pile of magazines and then glued the very best ones together on a single page. A couple of miles away was a small town that took most of its annual revenue from the summer tourists who came to stay in one of the two hotels, have supper, and spend the next morning wandering through the little shops before coming over with their theater tickets. The most ambitious ones walked in for a show then caught a shuttle bus back. They wore Tom Lake T-shirts and Tom Lake hats as they paddled rented canoes past the diving platform and out across the lake. The whole thing was a fragile ecosystem, as small towns and theater companies usually are, but as far as I could see it was thriving.
I also love this gem of a passage:
There's no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you were certain you'd never be able to let go? Now you're not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scatted and became something else. Memories are then replaced by different joys and larger sorrows, and unbelievably, those things get knocked aside as well, until one morning you're picking cherries with your three grown daughters and your husband goes by on the Gator and you are positive that this is all you've ever wanted in the world. 
“We clump together in our sorrow. In joy we may wander off in our separate directions, but in sorrow we prefer to hold hands.” 
I know that Tom Lake is a book I'll read again, and I'm eager to listen to the audio production, which is narrated by the ever-so-talented Meryl Streep!

I also can't wait to return to Nashville, not only to see my daughter and son-in-law, but to pay another visit to Parnassus Books. Maybe I'll get to meet my favorite author face-to-face!

This is one you'll hug to your chest, whispering "Great book! Bravo." Highly recommend.

This made my day!

August 18, 2023

Looking Back - Holes

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.

Holes by Louis Sachar
1998 Farrar Straus & Giroux
Finished on January 23, 2002
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Newberry Medal Book, 1999

Publisher's Blurb:

Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnats. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes.

It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.

My Original Thoughts (2002):

I've been hearing rave reviews about this book for several years, so I decided to give it a read. I enjoyed it, but didn't think it was great.

My Current Thoughts:

Holes is a fine book, but it didn't move me like other books for young readers, such as Wonder (R.J. Palacio), Stargirl (Jerry Spinelli), or The Book Thief (Markus Zusak).

August 15, 2023

The Windsor Knot


The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett
2020 William Morrow and Company
Finished on August 12, 2023
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

The first book in a highly original and delightfully clever crime series in which Queen Elizabeth II secretly solves crimes while carrying out her royal duties.

It is the early spring of 2016 and Queen Elizabeth is at Windsor Castle in advance of her 90th birthday celebrations. But the preparations are interrupted when a guest is found dead in one of the Castle bedrooms. The scene suggests the young Russian pianist strangled himself, but a badly tied knot leads MI5 to suspect foul play was involved. The Queen leaves the investigation to the professionals—until their suspicions point them in the wrong direction.

Unhappy at the mishandling of the case and concerned for her staff’s morale, the monarch decides to discreetly take matters into her own hands. With help from her Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a British Nigerian and recent officer in the Royal Horse Artillery, the Queen secretly begins making inquiries. As she carries out her royal duties with her usual aplomb, no one in the Royal Household, the government, or the public knows that the resolute Elizabeth will use her keen eye, quick mind, and steady nerve to bring a murderer to justice.

SJ Bennett captures Queen Elizabeth’s voice with skill, nuance, wit, and genuine charm in this imaginative and engaging mystery that portrays Her Majesty as she’s rarely seen: kind yet worldly, decisive, shrewd, and most importantly a great judge of character.

Marvelous! As a fan of The Crown, I could easily envision Imelda Staunton as S.J. Bennett's 90-year-old monarch. I thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse of the royal life inside both Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. The Queen's APS (Assistant Private Secretary) is a character whom I look forward to seeing more of as I read the next book in this series. Regretfully, the mystery (which involves not one, but three murders) is convoluted, and it wasn't until the denouement that I fully understand what had transpired in the castle. It may be that The Windsor Knot requires more consistent reading time than I allowed. I read it in fits-and-spurts due to a busy week, but was always eager to return to the story to see what the Queen and Rozie were up to. Bennett expertly captures the Queen's voice, and I'd love to see Acorn or Britbox create a series based on these books. 

Highly recommend! 

August 13, 2023

The Anthropocene Reviewed


The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
Nonfiction - Essays
2021 Penguin Audio
Narrated by John Green
Finished on August 8, 2023
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

A deeply moving and mind-expanding collection of personal essays in the first ever work of non-fiction from #1 internationally bestselling author John Green.

The Anthropocene is the current geological age, in which human activity has profoundly shaped the planet and its biodiversity. In this remarkable symphony of essays adapted and expanded from his ground-breaking, critically acclaimed podcast, John Green reviews different facets of the human-centered planet - from the QWERTY keyboard and Halley's Comet to Penguins of Madagascar - on a five-star scale.

Complex and rich with detail, the Anthropocene's reviews have been praised as 'observations that double as exercises in memoiristic empathy', with over 10 million lifetime downloads. John Green's gift for storytelling shines throughout this artfully curated collection about the shared human experience; it includes beloved essays along with six all-new pieces exclusive to the book.

John Green has written several novels that have been on my TBR list for many years, but until now, I've only managed to read The Fault in Our Stars, which I loved. I have no excuse for not reading any other books by Green, but I find that unless I have a book in my TBR bookcase, I don't think about it until a) I see it at the library or b) someone mentions it in passing or in a review. My Goodreads list isn't terribly helpful, especially since my "Want to Read" list has over 1,100 titles!

The Anthropocene Reviewed wound up in my audiobook library after reading JoAnn's glowing review in early 2022. As JoAnn mentions, I'd be hard pressed to choose a favorite essay; the range of topics is thought-provoking, humorous, educational, and tender. Halley's Comet, Lascaux Cave Paintings, Diet Dr Pepper, Velociraptors, Canada Geese, Air-Conditioning, The Internet, Piggly Wiggly, The Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, The Yips, Googling Strangers, Bonneville Salt Flats, The Notes App, and The QWERTY Keyboard are just a few (there are over 40 essays) that I think would interest my husband. As I listened, I found myself wishing that he enjoyed audiobooks--this would be a great one to listen to on a road trip! With that said, I plan to buy a print edition since I think he'd enjoy the book (and he especially likes to read with a highlighter in hand while reading nonfiction). As a matter of fact, I can think of several other relatives and friends who might like this book. It's a couple of years old, but it might make a great Christmas gift for readers in my life. 

About Ratings:
The five-star scale has only been used in critical analysis for the past few decades. While it occasionally applied to film criticism as early as the 1950s, the five-star scale wasn’t used to rate hotels until 1979, and it wasn’t widely used to rate books until Amazon introduced user reviews. The five-star scale really doesn’t exist for humans; it exists for data aggregation systems, which is why it did not become standard until the internet era. Making conclusions about a book’s quality from a 175-word review is hard for artificial intelligences, where as star ratings are ideal for them. (The Anthropocene Reviewed)

Unlike short stories (which I prefer to read one at a time, allowing a break between each story), I couldn't stop listening to these essays. As soon as I finished listening to one, I moved on to the next, inhaling the entire book in just a few days. Green includes numerous quotes by a variety of authors in order to confirm his thoughts; yet another reason to own the print edition.

It took me a few essays before I grew comfortable with the author's narration for the audiobook. He tends to speak in a halting, if not clipped, manner. However, the catch or tremble in his voice during a tender essay made up for his reading.

The Anthropocene Reviewed would make for a great book group selection as there is so much to discuss. The topics would even make for great dinner party conversation! A very satisfying read. Highly recommend.

August 11, 2023

Looking Back - A False Sense of Well Being

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.

A False Sense of Well Being by Jeanne Braselton
2001 Ballantine Books
Finished on January 19, 2002
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Publisher's Blurb:

“I was married eleven years before I started imagining how different life could be if my husband were dead. . . .”

At thirty-eight, Jessie Maddox subscribes to House Beautiful, Southern Living, even Psychology Today. She has a comfortable life in Glenville, Georgia, with Turner, the most reliable, responsible husband in the world. But after the storybook romance, “happily ever after” never came. Now the housewife who once wanted to be Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart is left to wonder: Where did the marriage go wrong? Why can’t she stop picturing herself as the perfect grieving widow?

As Jessie dives headlong into her midlife crisis, she is aided and abetted by a colorful cast of characters in the true Southern her best friend and next door neighbor Donna, who is having a wild adulterous affair with a younger man; Wanda McNab, the sweater-knitting, cookie-baking grandmother who is charged with killing her abusive husband. Then there’s Jessie’s eccentric family. Her younger sister Ellen, born to be a guest on Jerry Springer, has taken her seven-year-old son and squawking pet birds and left her husband “for good this time” . . . while their mother crosses the dirty words out of library books and alerts everyone to the wonderful bargains at Winn-Dixie, often at the same time. And then there’s the stuffed green headless duck . . .

When a trip home to the small town of her childhood raises more questions than it answers, Jessie is forced to face the startling truth head-on–and confront the tragedy that has shadowed her heart and shaken her faith in love . . . and the future.

From a brilliant new voice in fiction, here is a darkly comic novel full of revelation and insight. The danger of secrets and the power of confession . . . The pull of family, no matter how crazy. . . The fate of wedlock when one can’t find the key . . . Jeanne Braselton weaves these potent themes into a funny, poignant, utterly engaging story of a woman at the crossroads–and the unforgettable journey she must take to get back home.

My Original Thoughts (2002):

Starts off weakly. I think the author is trying to be funny, but I don't see it that way. I'll keep plugging away.

Thought this book was a waste of time. Pretty pointless and dull. Don't recommend and won't read more by this author. 

My Current Thoughts:

I don't know why this book appealed to me, but after a little digging, I discovered that Braselton was good friends with Kaye Gibbons, Anne Rivers Siddons, and Lee Smith. I read a lot of southern fiction in the early 2000s, and this book was probably mentioned in a magazine or somewhere online.

I came across the following (on Georgia Center for the Book), which is rather sad and depressing:
Jeanne Braselton was a Georgia native whose semi-autobiographical debut novel "A False Sense of Well Being" (2001) was widely acclaimed and won her the Georgia Writer of the Year Award in 2002. She committed suicide before her second book was completed by her friend and fellow writer Kaye Gibbons and published in 2006.
Jeanne Braselton was born in Fort Oglethorpe in 1962. She was the adopted daughter of a poet who was a chief of the Cherokee nation and who gave her a love of the written word. She received a B.S. in English from Berry College in Rome in 1983. She worked as a commercial bank marketing executive but spent most of her working life as a reporter and editor for the Rome News-Tribune newspaper, for which she received a number of Georgia Press Association awards. She was married to the poet Al Braselton, a close friend of the late poet James Dickey and the source for one of Dickey's characters in the novel "Deliverance." He died in 2002.
Jeanne Braselton enrolled in a creative writing class in Rome that led her to correspond with and become friends with a number of regional writers including Kaye Gibbons, Anne Rivers Siddons and Lee Smith. With their encouragement, she wrote her first novel. The book is about a woman who is devoted to her loving but boring husband, and who, after suffering a miscarriage, becomes fixated on ways to bring about his death. There are autobiographical elements in the novel; Braselton had several miscarriages during her marriage. The book sold well; one critic called it "regional fiction at its best," and there were predictions of a long literary career for her.

But less than a year after her husband's death in 2002, a despondent author took her own life at the couple's home in Rome. Her second book, "The Other Side of Air," was completed by Gibbons and released in 2006." She had written a lot that was unusable," Gibbons said of Braselton's novel. "I started over using an e-mail she sent me when she started it about what her plans were. She was thinking clearly then, and it was realistic, and I used that for a model."

August 6, 2023

The Downstairs Neighbor


The Downstairs Neighbor by Helen Cooper
2021 G.P. Putnam's Sons
Finished on August 5, 2023
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

An addicting and twisty debut about an apartment building devastated by the disappearance of a teenage girl–and by the secrets that won’t be kept behind each closed door–that will thrill fans of Lisa Jewell and Shari Lapena.

One House. Three Families. Countless Secrets.

From her downstairs apartment in suburban London, Emma has often overheard the everyday life of the seemingly perfect family upstairs–Steph, Paul and teenage daughter Freya–but has never got to know them. Until one day, she hears something that seizes her attention: Freya has vanished and the police are questioning Steph and Paul about their life. Do either of you have any enemies? Anyone who might want to harm or threaten you?

The effects of Freya’s disappearance ripple outward, affecting not just her parents, but everyone who lives in the building, including Emma and local driving instructor Chris, who was the last person to see the teenager before she went missing. Each character’s life is thrown into sharp focus as devastating mistakes and long-held secrets are picked apart and other crimes come to light–including a child gone missing 25 years before, and a shocking murder–that make clear that the past never stays where we leave it, and that homes can be built on foundations of lies.

The Downstairs Neighbor is a solid mystery that kept me reading late into the night. The opening chapters reminded me just how much I enjoy thrillers. Gone Girl, The Woman in the Window, The Girl on the Train, and Behind Closed Doors came to mind as the lies and secrets were slowly revealed. Thankfully, none of the protagonists are drunks (with memory issues due to blackouts) or unreliable narrators, but there are several threads and backstories to keep the reader on their toes. I liked how the mystery was resolved, and how the ending didn't feel convoluted or rushed. I'm looking forward to reading more by Helen Cooper.

August 2, 2023

A Month in Summary - July 2023

Fernie RV Resort
Fernie, British Columbia
July 2023

We've been home from our Canadian adventure for almost a month and I'm still living high on the memories from that spectacular trip. I shot so many photos, most of which I shared on Instagram and Facebook, but I plan to blog about the trip, as I did with our Glacier National Park trip (click on link to view those posts), in the coming months. 

Meanwhile, back at home, we've been enjoying visits with relatives from Nebraska, San Diego, and Manhattan Beach. We'll see more from the Sacramento area, San Diego, and North Carolina in the next few months. Everyone is eager to come out and help my mom celebrate her 90th birthday and, thankfully, the weather couldn't be nicer. We've had so much sunshine and warm-to-us temps (mid-60s), which is great for those who are looking to escape the heat. With all the travel and visitors, I haven't had much time to read, but I'll get back to it as things begin to wind down later in the fall. I've been busy planning our next trip, which will take us back to Canada in mid-September. We plan to spend a month on Vancouver Island! 

But about books... I read three novels, which were all entertaining, but nothing spectacular. I started and gave-up on several others, so I'm in a bit of a slump, but I'm confident that it will sort itself out as soon as I don't have so many distractions. It's all about balance, right?

Books Read (click on the title for my review):

Exiles by Jane Harper (3/5)

The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs (3/5)

Thank You for Listening by Julia Whelan (4/5)

Gave up on:

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Starting from Scratch by Susan Gilbert-Collins

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy

Pastries by Bharti Kirchner

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Movies & TV Series:

The Tower (Season 2) - Meh. Too much in the way of a romantic subplot. With lives at stake, there's no time for bad blood. Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) and Jimmy Akingbola (Kate & Koji) return in this acclaimed crime drama based on Kate London’s thrilling second novel.

65 - A sci-fi movie that feels like a wannabe Jurassic Park that tugs at your heart strings. Don't recommend. After surviving a crash landing, an astronaut and his passenger must outlast the perils of prehistoric Earth to reach their only hope for escape. (Starring:Adam Driver, Ariana Greenblatt, and  Chloe Coleman)

Five Days - We enjoyed this series, but I felt that the acting wasn't as polished as it could be. Fun to see two actors from Downton Abbey! A five-part mini-series that revolves around the disappearance of a young mother in a quiet British suburb and the circumstances that leave her children abandoned far from home. (Starring: Suranne Jones, Lee Massey, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Bonneville, and David Oyelowo)

The Bear - I'm thoroughly enjoying this show! A young chef from the fine dining world returns to Chicago to run his family's sandwich shop. (Starring: Jeremy Allen White, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Ayo Edebiri)

Whitechapel (Season 2) - This show is pretty gritty. We need a palate-cleanser before we watch the next season! A fast-tracked inspector, a hardened detective sergeant, and an expert in historical homicides investigate modern crimes with connections to the past in the Whitechapel district of London. (Starring: Rupert Penry-Jones, Phil Davis, and Steve Pemberton)


As I mentioned, this is the summer of visitors! My younger brother and his family were here from Lincoln for several days, followed by a visit from my stepbrother and his family from San Diego. Today, my aunt & uncle and cousins arrive from Manhattan Beach and the following weekend, my stepsister and her family arrive from the Sacramento area. Everyone wants to help my mom celebrate her 90th birthday over the course of the summer, and it's been great catching up with everyone on a smaller scale than one huge family reunion!

Chris, Emily, Mom, Maddie and Jen

Cara, Mom, Val, Caleb and Neal

I hope everyone is enjoying their summer, and that it's not too hot where you live!