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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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.

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.

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.

Book Club Discussion: ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston

I didn’t know what to think when I started reading this book. I knew that it had been on many must-read lists but I wasn’t exactly sure why. I wasn’t expecting it to affect me the way it did.

What I loved most about the book was the writing. It was so poetic and beautiful.

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.”

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is about a young woman’s journey to find happiness and ultimately her independence. It is interesting the comparison’s that Hurston makes between money and happiness. Janie is married twice well off. It is what her grandmother wanted for her so she could be “safe.” Janie marries into money and is consider higher in class among her people and yet she isn’t happy. Janie is bored and though her husbands love her, they mistreat her. So it is no surprise that when she finds someone that society considers “low class” that Janie find true happiness.

The book club agreed, calling it a journey of growth. They liked the power dynamics that were depicted throughout the book – between men and women, white and black, rich and poor. Some liked the sociological aspects of the novel. There are several individual communities described throughout the book and yet they all experience their own disadvantages and obstacles.

The other thing I loved about this book was the dialogue and vernacular that Hurston uses. She attempts to have the reader truly understand the dialogue by spelling it just as they would say it. Maybe because I love language, I loved it. This is where the rest of the book club disagreed. Many were critical of the dialogue. They thought it was overdone and took away from their reading experience.

Yet, despite this subjective view point, all thought it was well worth the read and some even plan to read other books by Hurston. As for me, I think I want a copy on my shelves.

Book Club Discussion: ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ by David Sedaris

This is my second David Sedaris book. I read “Holiday’s on Ice” a few years back for the same book club that assigned this title. I tried looking back at what I rated that one but unfortunately I didn’t give it a rating. I remember it being somewhat funny. However, I can’t say I felt the same for this book.

“Me Talk Pretty One Day” is one of Sedaris’ earlier works and is a compilation of essays that cover his time growing up in Raleigh, NC, his brief stint in NYC and then his move to Normandy, France with his partner Hugh. There were some essays that I enjoyed more than others, but overall, I couldn’t help but wonder “Why am I reading this (aside from book club)?”, “Why do I care?”, “Who is this guy that I should be reading essays about his life?”

Maybe that is a bit critical of me to say but honestly I just felt like I didn’t get anything out of it. For the most part, he talks about how he skated through life, doing drugs, getting odd jobs and make random observations that I just shrugged my shoulders about.

I was a little nervous going into book club because I knew that there were some Sedaris enthusiasts and I didn’t want to feel like the odd man out, but it turns out that the majority of book club felt the same way as I did. Even those who like Sedaris said that he was hit or miss and that some essays are better than others. They also said they noticed that his writing does get better over the years, and since this is one of his earlier works, they suggested trying some of his newer pieces.

Others who had read him when they were younger and loved him at the time, didn’t see the appeal the second time around and thought that it was because they were at a different point in their life. We also surmised that “Me Talk Pretty One Day” was written in a different world. It was published in 2000, pre 9/11, pre-COVID. What we think as funny or worth reading has changed a lot since then.

Also since it is a book of essays, we wondered if the book is better if you take it essay by essay, rather than reading it one sitting. Each essay is supposed to be taken for its own merit. My issue is that I didn’t feel like there was a common thread that most essayists use to lump their collections together. For example, Jenny Lawson. Some would say, taken individually, her essays are absolutely ludicrous but the underlying theme is about depression and anxiety and how those impact her actions. The things she does may seem absurd but they get her through each day.

It’s not to say that Sedaris isn’t a good writer. The book was easy to read and I was able to get through it quickly. I gave it three stars because it’s not bad, it’s just that personally, I didn’t care what he had to say. As one book club member said, “Humor is subjective.”

Book Club Discussion: ‘The Girl Who Drank the Moon’ by Kelly Barnhill

When I heard about this book and that book club was going to read it, I knew that it was going to be magical and whimsical and I was going to love it. I was absolutely right. I read this book in one sitting and I just couldn’t get enough.

The book is set in a small town, the Protectoratte, set between a volcano and a bog that treats folklore as truth, sacrificing a baby each year to the witch that lives in the forest. That witch, known as Xan, is not only friendly but takes the abandoned babies and gives them to families on the other side of the forest who are in want of a child.

One year, Xan accidentally feeds the baby she rescues some moonlight instead of starlight, accidentally giving her magical powers. Unable to know how that magic would affect her, Xan decides to raise the child. On Luna draws near her 13th birthday, the magic begins to emerge.

Meanwhile, back in the Protectorate, a young man who watched the baby abandoned so many years ago vows to put an end to the horror. In the tower is the baby’s mother who went mad when they took the baby to be sacrificed. In the halls of the tower, paces a tiger.

This book was endearing, magical and whimsical. Yet, it is so much more than the magic, dragons, witches, swamp monsters and other mystical creatures. This is a book about good and evil, sorrow and hope, strength and weakness, courage and cowardice. Every character has a role to play, as most characters do in fantasy books where their destinies are set on paths that are meant to converge.

For the most part, members of book club agreed with my assessment. There were only a select few who didn’t like the book. They thought the book was repetitive and that the author had created too many threads throughout the novel that were never explained. They were also critical about the lack of background.

However, for the rest of the group, they loved the fairy tales tropes and rather liked that the story wasn’t linear but instead were given the background piece by piece, sprinkled throughout the plot to provide context when necessary. They felt that the book was more engaging and helped set the pace.

They also pointed out that the story didn’t have a set main character. While the story does focus on Luna she isn’t the main character. Some felt that Xan was more of the main character as she had more influence on the plot moving forward.

Many of us got different vibes from this book, some comparing it to Neil Gaiman, others to the “Hunger Games.” By helping to control this one thing you are controlling everything.

Overall, people agreed that it was a light, easy read and that it works well as a modern fairy tale. I agree and I am realizing that I need to read more young adult fantasy.