Friday Book Whimsy: Church of the Small Things: The Million Little Pieces That Make Up a Life

Author Melanie Shankle is a blogger, just like me. Except that she has about a billion more readers. I started following her blog a number of years ago because I liked the way she looks at life. She sees the interesting and funny and poignant and important side of every day.

I think it’s pretty common to measure our success in life by the big things. The significant events. The important job with the high salary. The child who gets into Stanford. The big kitchen with white cabinets and marble countertops and a window looking out onto your pool. Let’s face it, however. Most of us won’t have kids attending Stanford or Harvard or Smith College. We’re more liable to have a modest home with three bedrooms and a mortgage. Does that make us less successful?

Shankle doesn’t seem to think so, and she shares her thoughts on what’s important in life in her latest book Church of Small Things: The Million Little Pieces That Make Up a Life. She tells her readers what makes her laugh and be proud and shed tears through a series of vignettes about her everyday life. And her stories are so, so funny. It’s not that extraordinarily funny things happen to her; instead, it’s how she looks at life and how she sees the funny sides of everything.

I can’t tell you how many of her stories hit such a note with me that I found myself saying out loud: Yes, I feel that way too. Her story, for example, about buying a white sofa that she simply felt she  couldn’t live without only to discover that (as her husband said) “We aren’t white sofa people,” made me think about all of the things I have bought in my life that I felt were important at the time that now sit on a shelf gathering dust. In a simply hilarious story, she tells about how hard she worked to keep that sofa clean before she finally gave up and thereby made her life a lot easier.

I laughed so hard at some of her stories, and shed tears at others, particularly when she talked about the loss of a dear friend from breast cancer. It’s a good writer who can create such emotion using just her words.

Her faith in God helps her deal with the good and the bad. Shankle talks about her spiritual life and how prayer and faith have helped her through difficult times.

Church of the Small Things is a book I will look at again and again.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: To Be Where You Are

I read Jan Karon’s novel To Be Where You Are earlier this fall shortly after it was released, and it happened to be a particularly difficult time in my life. The latest in her Mitford series featuring our favorite Episcopalian priest Father Tim was an ointment for my heart soul, just as I knew it would be.

The entire series – now a total of 14 books – takes place in the fictional town of Mitford, North Carolina, a small village in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville. While Father Tim and his wife Cynthia are the stars of the show, the surrounding players – his son Dooley and various beloved family and friends – are really what make these stories so lovely. Karon manages to make the townspeople lovable and quirky, but not caricatures of small-town hillbillies.

In her latest novel, Dooley and Lace, now married, are preparing for formal adoption of their foster son Jack, while trying to get Dooley’s vet practice going. Lace has her own distractions, as she has been commissioned to do a painting for a well-known Hollywood actress. All of this takes place as Father Tim struggles to help out several friends in unexpected ways. While a town like Mitford likely doesn’t exist anywhere, Karon’s books always have a realistic way about them. In To Be Where You Are, faithful readers say goodbye to a beloved friend, as we have had to do in the past, but hello to others.

The story is punctuated by the characters’ strong faith in God and belief that they are all part of a bigger plan. I took the prayers uttered by the characters to my heart and prayed them along with them. Much highlighting. Very much highlighting.

To Be Where You Are reminded this reader that at the end of the day, it isn’t the amount of money you earn or the fancy house in which you live, but instead it’s the number of people you can call friends and the blessings that are in you life.

Karon is in her 80s now, and I don’t know how many more Mitford stories she has in her. I hope a few more. While To Be Where You Are left us with a perfect segue to the next book, it also ends with Father Tim and Cynthia driving off in an RV for an adventure. A perfect way to end a series.

Fingers crossed it’s the former. I loved this book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Since We Fell

Author Dennis Lehane is a good story teller, particularly when it comes to character development. A number of his books have been made into movies – Shutter Island and Mystic River, both dark and interesting films. Since We Fell will likely be no exception. It seems to have been written to be made into a movie.

Like many of Lehane’s central characters, Since We Fell’s protagonist Rachel Childs stayed with me long after I finished the book. She wasn’t exactly likeable, but she felt real to me and though I couldn’t quite relate to the dark side of her personality, the fact that she was multifaceted instead of one-dimensional was a plus.

Childs’ never knew her father, and her mother wouldn’t tell her who it was. Her mother had long ago written a book about parenting that apparently earned her enough money to live on the rest of her life. And yet, she was probably one of the worst parents I’ve ever come across in a novel. She was selfish and manipulative and gave Rachel an entirely unstable childhood.

The book is written almost like two separate novels. Rachel (who is a television journalist) spends the first half of the book trying to find her father. She is determined to find the man who her mother refuses to identify despite Rachel’s never-ending pleas.

Rachel teeters on the edge of unstability, and after visiting Haiti in her role as a journalist, and witnessing poverty and violence like she’s never seen, she has an on-air breakdown, is subsequently fired, and spends the next few years not leaving her home. Her husband, himself a self-serving TV journalist, divorces her.

She eventually reconnects with a man who has made brief appearances throughout the book, and responds to his kindness. They marry.

Then the book gets complicated and Part 2 begins. I know. I know. Part 1 seems complicated enough!

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the second part of the book, but it becomes a thriller that deals with trust and greed and who one can love. Part 2 finally clarifies why the first line of the book is “On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-fifth year, Rachel shot her husband dead.”

In looking at reviews, opinions range from I couldn’t put this book down to this convoluted story made for one of the worst books I’ve ever read. I fall somewhere in between, but lean to the can’t-put-the-book-down side.

It’s true that much of the story is convoluted and demands that the reader suspend reality, but I just kept coming back to the characters. They were just so danged interesting.

A review of this book is difficult to write without giving away the surprises, and the twists and turns are critical. So you’ll just have to read Since We Fell yourself and see what you think.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders, by author Anthony Horowitz, is a refreshing break from many mystery novels with predictable plots and authors that try just a bit too hard to give the reader a surprise ending. Horowitz is the creator and writer of one of my favorite British television crime dramas Foyle’s War, so I was very excited to see what he had up his sleeve with the unusual format of this novel.

Magpie Murders actually gives the readers two separate mysteries to ponder – a mystery within a mystery, so to speak.

Editor Susan Ryeland is given a copy of the manuscript of author Alan Conway’s latest novel featuring his famed detective Atticus Pund. Pund is very much like Agatha Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot, spending his time solving mysteries in little English villages, providing his readers with hints and red herrings galore. Since Ryeland has been Conway’s editor from the get-go, she is used to his formula; however, the more she reads, the more she thinks Conway is giving the reader a mystery within a mystery.

She continues to read, but just as Pund is getting ready to gather the suspects together to identify the killer, the story stops. Whaaaaat? The last chapter is missing. Why did Alan Conway not finish the book, but turn it in to his editor anyway shortly before he commits suicide?

Despite being ordered by her boss to leave it well enough alone, Ryeland begins trying to figure out why Conway would end the story in this manner. As you follow along with Ryeland, can you figure out what’s going on?

What I liked best about this book is that in the first chapter, Ryeland sits down with a cup of tea and hours of time and begins to read the manuscript. And then the book is presented to the readers of Magpie Murders just as Ryeland is reading it. And the Pund novel is a fun romp, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie. Manor houses, murders, mysterious guests. If that had been the entire book, I would still be giving it a good review.

But it isn’t. Because suddenly, the book ends, and the second mystery begins. It was so much fun (if you can call murder and suicide fun).

This really is a must-read for lovers of good mysteries with challenging endings, and definitely a must-read for Agatha Christie fans. As for me, I’m on the lookout for other books by this author.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

I’m not a big fan of nonfiction unless it is a topic about which I have a great interest. Life in the hills of Appalachia is a topic I find entirely compelling. It’s why I am such a fan of fiction – particularly mysteries – that take place in the area designated Appalachia.

Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir written by J.D. Vance, therefore captured my attention despite it being a memoir. I very often find memoirs self-serving and uninteresting. Hillbilly Elegy caught my attention from the get-go, and kept it throughout the book. Well, almost. Even the most interesting memoirs can get tedious when the author is talking about certain points in his or her life.

Mr. Vance is a former Marine who graduated from Yale Law School despite his difficult childhood. He uses the word hillbilly, a term with which I find myself somewhat uncomfortable, despite the fact that I occasionally use it to deprecate myself as part of my humor. I guess that’s why its serious use makes me squirm a bit. Still, he uses it to describe himself and his family.

Vance’s grandparents moved from Kentucky to Ohio when they were newly married. According to the author, a large number of Scotch/Irish Appalachians moved to the so-called Rust Belt following World War II in search of a better life where jobs were plentiful in the mining and manufacturing region. Unfortunately, the poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence, and general dysfunction followed the immigrants. You can take the man (or woman) out of the violence but you can’t take……

The book is not really so much about so-called hillbillies as it is about white working class Americans and how our system has failed them. Vance was mostly parented by his grandmother and grandfather, who were not unblemished themselves, but at least were a constant in his life. His parents were unavailable to him. His mother, in particular, failed him because of ongoing drug addiction. Aunts, uncles, cousins all demonstrated violent behavior and depended on drugs and alcohol to get through their difficult days.

There has been much talk lately about the problem of drug abuse as well as how poorly working class Americans are faring, but Vance’s perspective is different from many as this was his real life, the background from which he came. Drug and alcohol abuse, and general violence, were part of his roots. He credits his grandparents for his success.

Vance’s talk about government’s failings might be anathema to some who believe government assistance is the best way to help fight poverty. But he makes so many good points that I found myself highlighting section after section of my book. And then, unfortunately, returning it to the library.

A very interesting read indeed.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Cocoa Beach

What comes first, the chicken or the egg? That was the question I asked myself as I read Cocoa Beach, the latest novel from Beatriz Williams.

As with many of the author’s novels, the story is connected in some way to characters in another of her books. It took me a bit to realize that the main character of Cocoa Beach was the sister of one of the main characters in A Certain Age, a novel that I read and liked very much, despite a slow start. As I read this latest book, I found myself wondering if the author wrote these two books in the wrong order, as Cocoa Beach is somewhat of a prequel.

The novel tells the back story of Virginia Fortescue, the sister of Sophie Fortescue of A Certain Age fame. Cocoa Beach is a mystery novel from the get-go. In fact, the very first chapter is an incriminating letter from the man who will become Virginia’s husband, setting the stage for what might have been a really interesting story.

Except that it wasn’t. Instead, it was a confusing back-and-forth story about Virginia during World War I where she works as a driver and first meets Simon and then about Virginia a few years later in the Roaring 20s when she is trying to figure out who is trying to kill her, and why. Is it her husband? Is it his brother? Most of the time I just found myself trying to figure out what year it was and who was doing what. I found it to be most confusing.

The location was new and different for the author. While many of her novels take place in New York City, Cocoa Beach took place in, well, Cocoa Beach, Florida, as well as Miami, Florida.

As Virginia tries to figure out what is going on, she keeps hearing about what is happening back home in New York with her sister Sophie and her father, accused of killing her mother (part of the plot of A Certain Age). It added to the muddle and confusion of the novel.

I must say that the author kept us wondering until the very end just who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. But Williams pulled a trick that I simply loathe: at the very end of the novel, something happens that ensures that there will be a sequel. It frankly was so badly written that I sat and stared at the book for some time, wondering if I had missed something.

I simply didn’t care for this book. I found it entirely too confusing and silly. That’s a hard pill for me to swallow from an author whom I like so much.

Thumbs down on this one.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: A Gentleman in Moscow

Since its publication in 2016, and into 2017, A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, kept coming up as a book I MUST read. The best book of 2016, they said. One reviewer said A Gentleman in Moscow was her best book EVER.

After a long wait at the library, I finally got the book, and dove in. It’s not that I was disappointed; I just was a bit underwhelmed. Don’t hate me All of You Book Reviewers Who Loved This Novel. Just recognize that I’m not nearly as sophisticated as you.

Towles wrote a book called Rules of Civility published back in 2011. I read that book and liked it, but recall that it took me a very long time to get into the story. So when I found myself having trouble getting into this novel, I didn’t get discouraged. It helped that Towles’ writing is truly beautiful and elegant. It fit the story perfectly.

A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat from a long line of Russian aristocrats. The story begins in 1922, when Count Rostov is tried by a Bolshevik court for being an aristocrat. Communism, you see. He is placed under house arrest at the Metropol Hotel, a real-life historic hotel in Moscow. He must live out the rest of his days within the confines of this elegant hotel. He has pretty much the run of the hotel. He can eat in the dining room; he can get his hair cut at the fancy barber; he can drink cognac at the bar. He just can’t leave the hotel.

The years pass, and the count has a series of relationships that are funny and poignant and interesting. Of particular note is a close friendship he develops with a young girl who lives with her parents in the same hotel. She provides him with not only friendship, but with a quirky outlook that is welcome given the fact that he can’t even go outdoors.

The book is really a series of vignettes. The writing, as I stated above, is eloquent, and fits nicely with the beautiful art deco hotel and the roaring twenties. The book follows the count throughout the next few decades into the 1950s and the Cold War.

Really, nothing much happens. Perhaps I was just at a time in my life when I needed a bit more action. I really did like the author’s writing, and Count Rostov was a likeable character, but I simply found myself skimming a lot of the chapters. I also found myself wondering if the leaders of the Communist party, particularly that close to the overthrow and murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, would really have allowed an aristocrat like Count Rostov to live such an unfettered life. It just didn’t seem realistic to me.

I’m definitely in the minority, at least when it comes to the reviews I’ve read. The book has been highly regarded.

Recommended for those interested in beautiful writing and less interested in a fast-paced story.

Here is a link to the book.