Saturday, July 14, 2018

Book Review: "Clock Dance" by Anne Tyler

Willa has always let life happen to her.

As a child in the late 1960s, her family lives at the mercy of her tempestuous mother, whose mood swings and disappearances leave everyone on edge, wondering which woman will be present each day. In the late 1970s, as she is planning a course of study in college that fascinates her, her boyfriend has other ideas, which include marriage and her moving to California with him.

As a relatively young widow in the late 1990s, she must suddenly try and figure out what is next for her life, considering her husband and children have been the ones to chart her course for as long as she can remember. And 20 years later, still seeking a purpose, she gets a completely unexpected phone call, and without warning, she finds herself heading across the country to take care of a young girl and her mother, two people she had never even met before.

While this decision uproots Willa's life and causes significant turmoil, being depended upon, even relied upon, for the first time in many years, feels tremendously fulfilling. And as she helps this family get back on its feet (literally, in one case), she feels a part of something. She has a purpose, even if it's quite simple. And in the Baltimore community, where neighbors seem to know everything about each other's lives, are willing to help each other, and treat one another like family, Willa becomes her own person.

So many books out there focus on characters in unusual circumstances, or in the midst of major upheaval or adversity. Anne Tyler's books more often than not focus on average, everyday people, living life the way they always have, when something changes. She has the ability to make a "regular" person seem much more fascinating than they might in real life, but perhaps more than that, Tyler is the champion for misanthropes, curmudgeons, and those who dither rather than make decisions.

Tyler has such an ear for dialogue. She can perfectly capture conversations between parent and child (no matter what the relationship is between them), husband and wife, siblings (close or distant), and friends. It's one of the hallmarks of her books—she is an author who truly "gets" people, and realizes characters don't have to stop bullets with their hands or navigate great personal strife to anchor a book. That is one reason her talent has endured through the years.

I'll admit I didn't love Clock Dance as much as I hoped I would. (I tend to anxiously await each new Tyler book.) I felt as if Willa's epiphany took a little too long, and then I felt the ending of the book seemed very abrupt. But the characters, while in many cases reasonably unsympathetic, were still fascinating, and I wish Tyler gave us more of some of the supporting characters.

No matter what, any one of Tyler's books is truly a gift. Her novels are truly a testament to her talent and her fascination with the flawed beings we humans are.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Book Review: "You Me Everything" by Catherine Isaac

What is it about books with pronouns in the title?

Me Before You, Everything I Never Told You, The Geography of You and Me, and now, Catherine Isaac's You Me Everything, all turned me into an emotional wreck when I was reading them. (I know there are countless other books which fit this bill, but these come to mind first.)

"Everyone's future is uncertain. Most of us don't think about the fact that we could be run over by a bus tomorrow. We plod through life, taking everything for granted."

Ever since he showed up late for the birth of their son, smelling of booze and with lipstick on his collar, Jess knew Adam wasn't for her. She should have listened to him when he told her he wasn't ready to be a father, but he had told her he loved her, so she thought that would triumph over everything. But it didn't, and she was fine letting him go, even though the burden of being a single mother wasn't the easiest."

Adam has tried to be a good father to William, but it's never seemed to be his number one priority. And again, that hasn't really upset Jess too much—she, along with her parents, have raised a handsome, well-adjusted boy. But now that William is 10, she's realized that he needs to get to know his father better. Bowing to pressure from her mother, Jess and William are heading to the French countryside to spend the summer with Adam at the hotel he operates in a restored castle.

It doesn't take long for William to become utterly enamored with his father. Adam enjoys having William there with him, but he's still not ready to give up the rest of his life for his son. He has a new, beautiful, younger girlfriend, and he doesn't quite understand that when you make a promise to a 10-year-old, he expects you to keep it—you can't just reschedule in order to spend time with your girlfriend.

Even though Jess still bears some old hurts from her relationship with Adam, she is bound and determined for him and William to grow closer, but she isn't willing to tell anyone why this is so important to her. Jess has a fear she has been hiding from nearly everyone, and she can't tell the truth, for fear she might lose everyone she loves. And as her feelings for Adam grow more jumbled the more time they spend together, she knows she has to keep him at long distance, for everyone's sake.

"When life is tough, as it will be for all of us, you have a duty to yourself. To live without regrets."

You Me Everything is one of those poignant, heartwarming tearjerkers that might not break new ground, but it's tremendously compelling. I read 90 percent of the book yesterday in just a few hours, and woke up early this morning so I could finish. Even though the plot is familiar, I found all of the characters really engaging, so I was very invested in seeing their stories through.

Isaac makes her American debut with this book, and her storytelling is tremendously assured. She does a great job with imagery—you can almost picture the French countryside where the book takes place and experience the adventures that Jess, Adam, and William go on. I was hooked from start to finish.

You won't want this one to end. This will be one of those books you need to grab quickly for the beach, the plane, the hammock, or wherever you want to devour it.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Book Review: "Virgil Wander" by Leif Enger

What a gorgeous, quirky, and utterly charming book! Leif Enger may have made us wait 10 years since his last book, but his newest, Virgil Wander, is definitely worth the wait.

Virgil Wander is the slightly curmudgeonish owner of The Empress, a movie theater in decline in the town of Greenstone, Minnesota—which is also in the midst of its decline. One evening, on a snowy night in early autumn, Virgil's car goes flying off a bridge and into the frigid Lake Superior. Fortunately, the owner of the town's local salvage yard happened to be hunting for saleable wares on the shore when Virgil's car went airborne, so he was able to save Virgil's life.

Amazingly, Virgil comes out of the accident concussed, struggling with finding the correct words (particularly adjectives) and living with the memory lapses typical of those sustaining brain injuries. At the same time, he emerged with a different personality, more endearing, decisive, friendly, caring—qualities which are much appreciated by the motley group of friends and townspeople who live in Greenstone.

"If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itself—that is, when my seeing of it began to shift—it would be the day a stranger named Rune blew into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom."

Into this broken town comes Rune, an affable Norwegian man and kite-creating magician. He came after learning that his last trip to the United States years and years ago led to the birth of a son he never knew about—only to learn that this son, minor league baseball pitcher Alec Sandstrom, had died, in a mysterious plane crash. Alec was a mythical figure in the small town, and his disappearance still affected many, including his widow, Nadine, and their teenage son, Bjorn.

As Rune tries to assemble a portrait of the son he never knew, and perhaps start a relationship with the grandson he didn't know he had, he and Virgil build a close friendship, with each depending on each other. But the gorgeous kites that Rune creates and flies captivate the town's residents, who feel freer, unburdened after taking a turn at the strings.

However, Greenstone has been known as a town of hard luck for many years, and it will continue to live up to its reputation. The town's residents experience tragedies, strange occurrences, and the return of a prodigal son whose presence both enlivens and frightens. And while Greenstone's residents show their characteristic resilience, they also experience moments of extreme joy and connection, all set against the gorgeous, open, Midwestern landscape.

This is a difficult book to describe, but it felt so wonderful, almost like a hug in literary form. The novel meanders a bit, and these characters are definitely Midwestern Quirky, but they are so charming and endearing. At times it almost takes on a fairy-tale quality, but it isn't fantastical or beyond the pale of reality, for the most part.

Virgil Wander is a book about rebuilding your life and finding yourself again, about fighting the battles you need to in order to move on, about friendship, family, love, and the charm of a small town where everyone knows everyone's business. Enger is a magnificent writer, as evidenced by his two earlier books, Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome, and he deserves a place alongside writers such as Kent Haruf.

You won't be able to get this one out of your mind—or your heart.

NetGalley and Grove Atlantic provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Book Review: "The Banker's Wife" by Cristina Alger

Despite taking place in 2015, Cristina Alger's newest novel, The Banker's Wife, definitely has a bit of a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it, without being sensationalist.

One snowy morning at an airport in London, amidst chaos caused by multiple travel delays, a couple quietly boards a private jet bound for Geneva. Not long after, the plane drops off of the radar, and later, wreckage is found in the Alps. Investigators suspect weather-related issues, despite the skill of the pilot.

One of the passengers on the plane was Matthew Werner, a banker for the powerful Swiss United, which houses countless offshore accounts for some of the world's wealthiest—and most notorious. Matthew's young wife, Annabel, didn't even know Matthew was in London, and honestly didn't know much about her husband's clients or the work he did, but she knew that it paid for an opulent lifestyle beyond anything she dreamed of. But she found this life, associating with his rich colleagues, to be lonely—sometimes having it all doesn't really mean having it all.

Devastated at the loss of her husband, she is unprepared for the questions that Matthew's death raises. It seems as if her husband had more secrets than she imagined, and she can't help but wonder just what they had to do with his death? Why does it seem like the investigation into the plane crash is being rushed? The more she begins to look into what her husband left behind, the more she suspects that Matthew's death might not have been an accident, and she might be in danger herself, no matter how little she actually knows.

Meanwhile, journalist Marina Tourneau has the job she's always dreamed of, as a top editor at a society magazine. But now that she's engaged to Grant Ellis, the handsome son of multi-billionaire James Ellis, the financier expected to declare his candidacy for President of the United States, it's time to leave her career behind and concentrate on being part of one of the country's richest and most powerful families. She's ready for all that life entails, but she knows she'll miss the thrill of chasing a story.

When her editor-in-chief and mentor, Duncan Sander, asks for her help on one more story, she can't pass up the chance, especially when she knows it deals with the one case which has obsessed Duncan for years. When Duncan is found dead, Marina realizes she's stepping into dangerous territory, but she knows she needs to uncover the truth for Duncan's sake. And when the truths she uncovers about the secrets that Swiss United is hiding, some of which hit closer to home than she expects, she needs to decide whether the pursuit of truth is worth sacrificing everything—including her own safety.

The Banker's Wife alternates between Marina and Annabel's stories, and the danger both find themselves in as they try to understand the secrets that Swiss United is hiding, and discover just how their lives are linked to it all. Even though some of this story unfolds just as you'd expect it to, Alger still throws in some twists and turns, and keeps the suspense coming.

I'm always a little dubious when companies seem to have people at their disposal whose only purpose is to spy on others and cause trouble, but it didn't bother me too much here. I really enjoyed this book and the way the story unfolded, although Alger spent a little too much time dwelling on the financial details of the plot, which made my eyes glaze over a bit. But again, the flashbacks to my short-lived foray into a college economics class didn't detract from my enjoyment of this story.

I loved Alger's last book, the very different This Was Not the Plan (see my review), but if you read her first book, The Darlings (I haven't), there are definitely some references to that book here. However, this was definitely a standalone book.

If you love compelling thrillers and seeing just how different and dysfunctional (and dangerous) the rich can be, check out The Banker's Wife. You'll be hooked!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Book Review: "The Real Michael Swann" by Bryan Reardon

One moment, Julia Swann is on the phone with her husband, Michael. He's calling from New York's Penn Station, where he's waiting to catch a train home after a job interview, but the trains are significantly delayed. Without warning, Julia hears a noise in the background and then Michael's call is dropped.

She tries not to worry, but as the hours roll by, she still hasn't heard from Michael, nor can she reach him. That evening she finds out that a major incident occurred at Penn Station which left countless people dead and injured. Julia needs to believe Michael is okay, so she decides to drive into New York City to try and find him herself. Even though the city is in the midst of massive chaos, she is determined to get answers as to where he is, and whether or not he was injured. She, like many others, puts up flyers all over the city, asking for people to get in touch with her if they see Michael.

Julia is pleasantly surprised when a woman calls her and says she may have seen Michael. But that surprise quickly turns to uncertainty and fear. Why hasn't he called her or responded to her texts? Where is he heading? Unable to get answers from the authorities, who suddenly view Michael as something other than a victim, Julia knows she must find her husband and get him whatever help he needs, even if she's not sure what to expect anymore.

Julia's efforts to find Michael are juxtaposed with her reminiscences about their relationship, from their meet-cute at a beach party just after college, to their falling in love and building a future together. She also remembers their struggles, as money problems, job struggles, and the responsibilities which come with raising children took their toll on their marriage. But Julia cannot envision a life without her husband.

"In the end, it seems like the moments we thought we messed up were nothing. And we can't even remember the stuff we really screwed up."

The Real Michael Swann is part thriller, part love story, as Julia desperately searches for her husband and for answers to the questions she is afraid to voice out loud. All of this is played out against a backdrop of national terror, political unrest, and a fractured society, all of which seem eerily too real in today's world.

I enjoyed this book and found it grabbed me from the start, although at times it moved a little slower than I expected. There are some other plot points that I didn't want to mention for fear of spoiling them, so hopefully you don't read too many other detailed reviews which might give some of it away, but suffice it to say there is a third narrative which adds another fascinating dimension to this book.

Let yourself get immersed in this story. Bryan Reardon is a terrific storyteller and he knows when to push the suspense and when to slow it down a little bit so things don't get too intense. Definitely one of those thrillers perfect for devouring on the beach, on a plane, or in a hammock somewhere.