Review: ‘Once Upon a River’ by Diane Setterfield

Based on the title and the cover, I had a feeling that this book was going to have a fairy tale feel to it, but I didn’t anticipate just dreamlike it was going to be. If I am going to be completely honest, I felt like the book could have been somewhat shorter, especially for what the reveal eventually was.

The story centers around a mysterious man and a young child who show up at an inn, barely alive. In fact, the child is presumed dead until suddenly she wakes up. Noone knows who she is or where she came from, though she looks like two children from different families that went missing around the same time. Inevitably what follows is a back and forth as the village and the impacted families try to figure out the strange child who constantly looks to the river, from where she was pulled.

Parts of this book irked me, particularly because it seemed like the village was more concerned about what story they were going to tell and how the events that unfolded fit into the narrative, than the welfare of the child. She is continuously tossed back and forth between people like a plaything that is interesting when the mood suits. The child, who can’t speak, tries to tell them in her own way where she is from, but the village, wrapped up in their own affairs, hardly takes the time to really try to listen to the child.

However, this gripe is more on the characters than on the book itself. Setterfield is a good storyteller and is able to use descriptive language to pull the reader in to the fairy tale until it’s hard to know what is reality. I could definitely see each scene clearly and loved the way Setterfield described the ever flowing river and its varying moods.

I am definitely glad that I had a chance to read a Setterfield novel, and now, more than ever, want to read her other book, “The Thirteenth Tale.” I am just disappointed that I missed the book club discussion on this book as I would have loved to hear what everyone else thought.

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Review: ‘Dreamland’ by Nicholas Sparks

This isn’t a Nicholas Sparks book that I am used to. It was definitely enjoyable but it wasn’t your typical romance and had a completely different feel.

Colby Miles is on vacation from the farm that he took over from his family. While in Florida, he takes on a music gig, reflecting on the musical career he once dreamed about before obligations and responsibilities took over. Then he meets Morgan Lee, a recent graduate of a musical program who plans to move to Nashville to be a star. As he gets to know Morgan and her passion for music, he begins to think about his own dreams and whether there is still time to do what he is passionate about.

Miles away, Beverly is trying to make a life for her and her son after fleeing an abusive husband. She finds a new place to call home and gets them settled, placing her son in the local school and starting to call it home, but she is constantly worried that her husband will find her.

Throughout most of the book I was waiting for that pivotal moment when the stories were going to collide. Sparks does a great job fleshing out the two plots and the characters until you think you know everything about them. Just when you get settled, Sparks pulls the rug out from under you. Having been ardent Sparks fan for years, I knew the twist was coming but he continuously surprises me on how he does it.

There was a musical element to this book that almost made it it’s own story. I have no doubts that a movie adaptation will be in the works soon enough and I am curious to know which celebrities will be cast for the roles of Colby and Morgan. I definitely want to hear the score that is put together for the music in this book.

If you enjoy Nicholas Sparks, there is no reason why you shouldn’t read this. Enjoyable all the way around.

Book Club Discussion: ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith

In the opening pages of this book, the reader is introduced to Tom Ripley, running from someone who is in pursuit of him. We don’t know why but the reader is immediately drawn in wanting to know more about why someone would be after him, what did Tom do and is that person going to be successful? It isn’t before long before all is revealed.

“The Talented Mr. Ripley” is an interesting character study of an individual who is essentially a chameleon, constantly changing to reflect the environment around him, shifting in and out of character whether it be himself or someone else. What the reader soon learns is that Ripley is a fraud, manipulative and constantly scamming the system to live life. He is tasked with finding Dickie Greenleaf who has gone overseas to Italy to be an artist. While Ripley barely knows Greenleaf, he takes on the assignment and thus the real story begins.

I had only heard about the movie with Matt Damon that was made in the later 1990s but had never read the book. Upon finishing the book, I tried to watch the movie but was sorely disappointed. It was completely different from Highsmith’s book. While the general plot was the same, various scenes and character traits were different, which I felt did a disservice to the story that Patricia Highsmith gives readers.

This was the November discussion for the Modern Library Book Club and it was a unanimous vote that this was a great book and interesting study of an unhappy man who uses others to blame for his misfortunes. There was some awe in how Ripley was able to manifest into different characters when appropriate and was able to adjust to an obstacle without harm. The group also discussed the author, Patricia Highsmith, who is said have had a complicated life and in some ways related to Ripley.

It is not to be denied that Highsmith is a brilliant writer. Her knack for detail is uncanny and throughout the book she provides not only physical descriptions about Italy that makes it vivid in the readers mind, but she goes into the culture of the Italian people from the language to the currency, etc. She does it such a way that it is sprinkled within the plot and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story.

This is definitely a page turner, as with each incident the reader anticipates that surely Ripley will slip up and make a mistake that will lead to his demise. However, since the story of Ripley continues on in four other books, I am interested to see how his character further manifests. I think this will be a series worth finishing.

Book Club Discussion: ‘Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters Most in the End’ by Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande isn’t beating around the bush when he introduces this book. He gets down to the facts: this book is about aging and dying. More importantly, how medicinal advances which have successfully advanced our lives have also redefined how we look at dying or, rather how we don’t look at it. We have a tendency of avoiding it until we have no choice. So maybe it makes sense that he gets right down to it from the beginning. For someone who isn’t ready to have this discussion, there is a lot of ground to cover.

For those who might say, why should I listen to what this guy says? Gawande is not only a doctor, but he also provides personal anecdotes to the book from patients that he has had and his own struggles of dealing with dying patients to his own family. He also provides research and data to some of the topics he raises from nursing home care to hospice.

If there is one thing that our discussion in book club showed, it’s that everyone can get something out of this book. Some members are dealing with aging parents and have struggled to come to terms with that but they said that this book helped them think about it differently and come to reality that there are discussions that they need to be having with their aging family members.

Others work for hospice and provided their own personal experiences to the discussion, mainly confirming that hospice is much more than what people think it is. Many, myself included before reading this, think that hospice gets involved at the time when members are about to die, when in fact, they can help way before that. It was this part in the book that actually provided a little bit of relief to the morbid subject.

Gawande also provides different alternatives to nursing home care and/or aging in one’s own home that are practiced in other parts of the country. I couldn’t help but wonder why, if they are so successful, they aren’t done everywhere. While the answer is obvious, it just makes it all the more infuriating that we aren’t doing more.

I seriously want to send this book to all of my siblings. I have personally come to terms with the fact that my parents are going to die some day. I have had the difficult discussion with them and know what they want when that time comes, but my siblings have not. They are not prepared at all and it’s going to make a difficult situation worse. As Gawande points out, our wanting to prolong life is often a selfish action that can actually do more harm to the person we are trying to save.

Everyone in book club got a lot out of this book and it made for a really insightful discussion. Definitely a must-read.

Review: ‘A Piece of the World’ by Christina Baker Kline

Every picture tells a story, as the saying goes. Christina Baker Kline takes that motto and masterfully applies it in “A Piece of the World” where she unravels a story based on the painting by Andrew Wyeth called Christina’s World. Some of the events are based on fact and about the woman in the painting, but the majority of the story is fiction. Yet, as is usual with Kline’s works, the lines blur between fiction and nonfiction until the reader doesn’t know which parts are which.

Does it really matter though? Honestly, I felt like I learned so much. I had never heard of Andrew Wyeth before and after finishing this, I couldn’t help but look him up. Lo and behold, he was one of the best known U.S. artists of the middle 20th century. I am kind of embarrassed. But thanks to Kline, I will never forget Wyeth or his most notable work.

The story that Kline weaves is a bit sad with bits of hope and bright moments in-between. Christina Olson is an incapacitated woman with a condition that no one can name but leaves her barely able to walk. She grows up on the family farm with every opportunity taken away from her – teaching, love, etc. At first, you feel sorry for her like everyone else, but as you get to know Christina, you grow fond of her. She is angry and bitter because of what she goes through but slowly learns to accept who she is and the fact that no one will ever truly know or understand her. Then Andrew shows up with his artistic eyes, seeing through her, through the toughened outer layers to what is underneath.

“You showed what no one else could see.”

The farm had become Christina’s world. Because of Andrew, the world comes to Christina full of color and vibrancy. She had learned to accept the cards that life had dealt and then he gives her hope that maybe there is more to the life than what she had thought.

This book takes place over a matter of years, but time moves slowly, and the reader grows used to the constant rhythm of chores and day-to-day operations of the farm. The only way to know what year it is is by the dates that are stamped at top of the chapter.

This book was definitely memorable and moving. It is easy to slip into Christina’s world and not want to leave for hours. I was kind of sad when the story ended.

Book Club Discussion: ‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig

It’s easy to look back on your life and say, “What if…”. What if I went to the college of my choice rather than the one my parents wanted me to? What if I picked the major everyone told me to? What if I moved to another state? What if, what if, what if. But what is wrong with the life that we are living now, with the choices that we have already made to get us where we are today?

“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig made me realize that the so-called regrets that I had about my life, maybe were the best choices that I had made. It’s funny because my husband and I joke that if I hadn’t moved to New York and taken the job that I did, we would never have met. But upon closer inspection on my life, my choices of my career and my relocation to another state were purely mine. Which is where me and Nora Seed differ.

In “The Midnight Library”, Nora Seed decides that she doesn’t want to live anymore. But on the other side, Nora Seed is dropped into a library with her childhood librarian at the helm. Nora quickly learns that every book in the library is a story of her life based on a decision that she had made at some point or another. She can choose a different life that will make her happier and so she goes on a journey of discovery of herself. What if she became the Olympic swimmer that her father always wanted her to be? Well, she may have been famous but would she have been happy?

After trying multiple different lives, Nora begins to wonder if she can have the best life. What is a happy life anyway? There will always be grief, regret, disappointment but does that necessarily mean that her life is a failure for it. She also realizes that her decisions don’t only impact herself but those around her – her family, her friends, even the neighbors.

The one thing that irked me about this book is that with each of these lives Nora is dropped into, she is dropped in the middle of a timeline that she is not familiar with. She doesn’t even know her own songs in the life of a singer. She is not given the context or background to understand why she is where she is at that point in the life she chooses. So how can she be happy?

However, my favorite part of the book came at the end when she begins to realize how her life has impacted so many other people and she begins to realize that maybe her life wasn’t a complete failure or meaningless.

This book is definitely a slow burn but by the end, it is definitely worth it. Everyone in book club enjoyed this book and was moved to tears by it. Everyone could relate to it at some point and it made for an emotional discussion. One of my members said it best: “This is definitely one of those books that impacts your life and how you see it after you read it.”

Book Club Discussion: ‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading “Lucky Jim.” If anything, this was a lesson of not judging the book by the cover because I was definitely hesitant. I thought that this book was going to be a slog and it was quite the opposite. It was funny, satirical and an interesting look at relationships.

I didn’t originally think it was as funny as the reviews on the back cover made it out to be, but after discussing it with the others in book club, I couldn’t help but laughing at some of the scenes that people brought up.

The book centers around Jim Dixon, who is a probationary professor at a college in England and is going through the motions, spending most of his time drinking and skating by doing the bare minimum. He is not part of the “boys club” and is fine with it, often making fun of them.

My favorite part of the book comes at the end when Jim has to make a presentation in front of the professors and everything that could go wrong, does go wrong. Kingsley Amis writes the scene beautifully as Jim succumbs to the excessive alcohol he drinks prior and some in the audience provide distractions while others react to everything going on around them. Amis does a beautiful job of creating each of the characters through language.

One of the other things I noticed about this book is Kingsley Amis’ depiction of women. Many of the women are strong, but the men think of them the old way, their roles as a wife and mother. Because of their strengths, each of the women have faults, mainly lying and sneaky. Some are cheating on their husbands, others want to start affairs and still others have been carrying on a façade the whole time. I think my favorite is Christine who takes a liking to Jim and the two of them learn what they want from each other.

The book at times reminded me of a black and white film. I could picture each of the characters in their roles throughout the book. The dialogue reminded me of a script and while someone made note of the choppiness of the dialogue, I thought Amis used the pauses and breaks artfully and accurately described how people in real life talk, without even realizing it.

Everyone at the book club discussion enjoyed the book and thanked the member who recommended it. I couldn’t help but do the same because I honestly would never have read this book otherwise. Definitely worth a read.

Review: ‘The Exiles’ by Christina Baker Kline

The amount of research that Christina Baker Kline puts into her works makes it difficult to parse truth from fiction. It’s what makes her stories so gripping and emotionally moving, why her characters feel so realistic.

Kline can take a bit of history that is often not talked about and create a story that brings that history to the forefront. In “The Exiles”, Kline highlights a new kind of slave trade – convicts from Britain that were transported to Australia to serve their sentence.

The story starts with Evangeline Stokes, a pregnant governess who is falsely accused of theft and attempted murder. She is thrust upon a ship with her future in shackles, heading to a land that is foreign. We also meet Hazel, who would becomes Evangeline’s lifeline and Mathine, an aboriginal girl who is taken in by the governor to domesticate.

This book is full of sorrow and hate but in between, there are glimpses of hope. I felt like I knew each and every character and their plight, and I crossed my fingers that their future would be brighter than their current situation. While it didn’t always end up the way that I expected, the twist in their stories help moved the plot forward.

I couldn’t put this story down and kept wanting to know what happened. The fact that this history is a part of Australia’s founding is amazing to me. I never knew this before reading this book. Nor that approximately 20 percent of Australians today are descended from transported convicts. “The Exiles” is a a work of fiction, but there is no denying that Kline has told a story based on facts that are unknown. It’s definitely worth the read.

Book Club Discussion: ‘The House in the Cerulean Sea’ by TJ Klune

I don’t think I have yet to see a negative review about this book on this platform and for good reason. We had to read this book for the Capital District Book Club and I had such a good feeling about it, I ended up purchasing a copy. I am glad I did because I think annotated most of it. There were just so many good lines that stood out to me.

“When something is broken, you can put it back together. It may not fit quite the same, or work like it did once before, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer useful.”

If you are looking for a plot driven novel, this book may not be for you, as the plot is pretty simple and predictable right from the beginning. Linus Baker, a middle-aged man who lives a solitary life, is given an assignment by the Department in Charge of Magical Youth has been assigned to go to a home to ensure that the children living there are doing well, the person in charge is following the rules and that the house can adequately accommodate the youth that live there. It is no surprise what happens after Baker ends up at the home, what he sees and the changes that come about.

What makes this novel so great are the characters. Every character has a story – good and bad – and throughout the novel the reader gets to know them on a personal level, as if they are a friend or a relative. Sure they have magical powers, but their experiences are similar to those that anyone of us could go through. Throughout the book, the reader gets to watch how these characters grow and change, each new experience, influencing their development. And it isn’t just the children in the book, but also the adults.

I think one of my favorite parts of the book is when the children go to the island and they see first hand what the others think of them. One of the children, Talia, comes face to face with another child and they are inquisitive about each other. No bias, no judgement. Until the child’s parent comes along, acting horrified, she pulls the child away. It was a great reminder about how children are so pure and they are influenced by the adults around them.

“..In order to change the minds of many, you have to first start with the minds of a few.”

This book in a nutshell is about acceptance, caring and understanding of others despite their differences. Change the magical elements to skin color or disabilities or any number of traits that define someone and this book applies to real life.

“Why can’t life work whatever way we want it to? What’s the point of living if you only do it how others want you to?

Everyone in book club absolutely loved this book and had nothing but positive things to say about it. What was even better, was that most of them would never have read the book, mostly because it wasn’t a genre that they gravitate toward. Most of them felt like it was heartwarming and we all wanted to adopt the children, though I think Lucy became the fan favorite. He was supposed to be the most evil of the group and he ended up being the funniest and the most like a child.

The negative reviews that I have seen since reading this, I have found are basically people criticizing the author for not highlighting the horrors of these homes enough and/or being over analytical. With a book like this, just enjoy the magic of it. Let it wash over you like the sun does to Linus when he arrives at the Cerulean Sea.

Don’t you wish you were here?

Why yes, yes I do.

Book Club Discussion: ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway

Why I don’t read more of Hemingway is beyond me. I always enjoy his work when I do and left with a sense of awe at his writing. Even “Old Man and the Sea”, a relatively short work and what some have described as boring in terms of plot, never fails to impress.

This is my second time reading Hemingway’s work which, at face value, is about a Cuban fisherman who battles to capture a Marlin. Of course, underneath the waves, it is about perseverance and dignity and refusing to be defeated by life’s struggles. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if hubris plays even more of a role in this tale. I had so many questions as I read this book. Why go after this one fish when there were so many others? What did he get out of it in the end? Why not save the little that he had? Did the end justify the struggle he had to get there?

There is no doubt that Hemmingway is a prolific and descriptive writer. I am not a fisherman and have never really been fishing and yet through his words, I felt like I was beside Santiago the whole time, feeling the scorch of the sun on my neck, the ache in my back and hear the lapping of the water against the side of the boat. I could see the lines beneath the water at their varying depths meant to catch different fish.

Members of book club agreed that Hemmingway was a great writer and definitely knew the subject he was writing about. However, they felt the story in of itself didn’t warrant the Pulitzer Prize that Hemmingway would get for this work. Some thought it was a merely a gesture of good faith by the committee having realized that Hemmingway had yet to get a prize.

Others compared Santiago to Hemingway himself, who at this point in his life was lonely, which is apparent in Santiago’s loneliness and isolation. Hemingway’s struggle as a writer is also reflective of the struggle of the fisherman.

For such a short book at 127 pages, our group spent over an hour discussing it at length from Hemingway’s writing style and the plot to Hemingway as an individual and his other works. There was only one person who found the book absolutely boring while others enjoy more of Hemingway’s shorter works. Definitely worth a read at least once, but I think you get more out of it the more you read it.