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.

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.

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.

‘When He Was Wicked’ by Julia Quinn

The sixth book in the Bridgerton Series focuses on Francesca. It was interesting reading her story, especially because in the previous five books, Francesca, Hyacinth and Gregory are just mentioned in passing. They have no real play in the books, probably because they are the youngest of the Bridgerton siblings. However, this was not my favorite.

Yet again, Julia Quinn writes a strong female character, but in some regards, Francesca is less independent than that of Eloise or Daphne or the other females that Quinn writes about. Frannie, as she is lovingly called, tends to fit the role of the woman of the time, the doting wife. When she becomes widowed, you would think that she would become more independent but it seems that all she wants to do is fall right back into the married role and goes to find herself a husband.

While I did like her relationship with her husband’s cousin Michael, I couldn’t help but feeling like screaming at the both of them. It was so frustrating seeing them dance around each other like they were strangers. I get that they were put in an awkward situation by the death of someone so close, but I felt like a chunk of the book was unnecessary.

I guess what I am trying to say is that the plot was fairly predictable and all the sidestepping and miscommunication between the characters was not needed, especially since there was no twist. I was also disappointed by how little of the rest of the Bridgerton family played in Francesca’s story. The interactions between the siblings help the reader get a better understanding of the character and that was missing from this plot.

Overall, it was entertaining read but not my favorite of the Bridgerton series.

Review: ‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney. The author that has been a constant mention on all my bookish social media and must-read lists. So much so that I finally decided that I had to read something by this author to see what all the hype was about. And to be honest, I am highly disappointed.

Maybe “Normal People” was not the book that I should have started with. Maybe there is another book that I will like more and I will give it a shot. But “Normal People” was just meh to me. I honestly don’t understand why it’s a “life-altering” book as some claim.

The book is about the years-long on-again, off-again friendship/relationship between Connell and Marianne that starts when they are in high school. Marianne is the rich girl who is a bit weird and noone really likes. Connell is the poor boy who happens to the be star athlete and popular guy in their class. It all starts because Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house during the day and when Connell picks her up, the two inevitably begin talking. They form a friendship and a friends-with-benefits relationship that extends on and off throughout their college careers, all the while, we learn more about their characters and their personal challenges and successes.

I can agree that this book deals with complex relationships that aren’t so black and white. But for two characters that have such a complicated back story and relationship, there is no character growth or development. The characters are linear throughout the book. Yes, they have their challenges and though there are periods when they seem to be addressing those issues, they fall back to what they have been doing previously.

What really irked me was how Connell treats Marianne like crap. And even though he knows he is doing it and “feels bad” about doing it, he continues to do it. What’s worse is when he realizes Marianne’s background. C’mon dude. Really? A true friend would have realized that their actions were not being helpful and would have changed.

At first I was mad at Marianne for allowing it. Then we realize why and it’s understandable. We see her numerous relationships as a parallel to her past. The part I loved is when she finally realizes she doesn’t have to be used anymore and walks out of the studio.

Does the book address complex issues? Yes. Does it show how complicated relationships are? Yes. Does it explain how your past can complicate your present life and future? Yes. Is this the best book ever written? No. But then again, that’s just my viewpoint. I just didn’t connect to the story as others do. It’s not a reflection on the author. I am hoping that I enjoy her other books. But “Normal People” was not for me.

Review: ‘To Sir Phillip, With Love’ by Julia Quinn

I have continued on my quest to finish the Bridgerton series. It’s slow going but at least it’s going. Whether I finish the series will be another story, since I am known to give up most of the way through. However, it seems that Bridgerton just keeps capturing my heart.

I loved Eloise’s story, which is where “To Sir Phillip, With Love” picks up. Eloise is the ultimate independent female that beats to her own drum. I love how she even intimidates her brothers with her ability to do “manly” things. Of course, with all that independence, comes also some impulsive qualities which undoubtedly gets Eloise into trouble, including with the men.

Eloise’s romance begins with letter writing, the age-old hobby that we no longer see in modern day. It begins with a condolences letter to Sir Phillip after his wife dies and continues from there. Until there is an ask to get to know each other. Eloise is taken aback and immediately forgoes her missives until her best friend Penelope’s marriage to Eloise’s brother Colin. Afraid that she is going to be an old maid alone, Eloise impulsively sets out on her own romantic adventure.

Of course, this has nothing but catastrophe written all over it. When Eloise shows up on Sir Phillip’s door unannounced, she discovers that the man she knew in her letters is not quite the man she will get to know in person. There is a bunch of misunderstanding and mishaps that foretells of a doomed romance. However, this is Eloise we are talking about. If anything, her strongest trait is her stubbornness and unwillingness to be defeated.

I couldn’t help but turn the pages to see if she could conquer the unending obstacles that seemed to stand in her way as she sought to find out what she wanted and ultimately who she was. This is definitely an easy read and was perfect for getting me out of my almost-reading slump that I was heading for.

The only thing missing was Lady Whistedown. I would have loved to hear her take on the comings and goings of the Bridgerton family. I will say Julia Quinn did a nice job in how she transitioned away from the Lady Whistledown focus, but doesn’t mean I don’t miss the wit. Ahh well, hopefully she will make a reappearance in the future books.

Review: ‘The Messenger’ by Markus Zusak

I have not read anything by Markus Zusak except “The Book Thief” so I had no clue what I was getting myself into when I started reading “The Messenger.”

The book opens to a bank robbery in progress. The main character Ed Kennedy is on the floor with his close friend, both of whom are annoyed at the robber for wasting their time and getting in the middle of their plans. Talk about attention grabbing. However, it’s when Ed inadvertently stops the robber, then the story really begins.

“A few day’s later, I’ll get the first message. It changes everything.”

Ed, an underage cab driver, with no motivation in life, gets an ace in the mail with three unknown addresses. He debates whether to throw it away and move on with his boring life or to see what the message has to say. He chooses to investigate and gets propelled on a journey as a messenger. Some are good, while others are more dangerous. He doesn’t know what the end will bring when he completes his task but he continues to follow where the aces take him. The final result is one he never expects.

I wasn’t sure about this book at first. I have read too many stories where a flat, unmotivated character goes through the motions but never really develops and/or grows, a linear story that has no merit. Yet, this book is a bit different, because while the change is subtle, it’s the interactions with the people that he meets that has the most profound effect. It makes you wonder if he is really helping them or they are helping him. Maybe both?

This book is about living and taking advantage of what life has to offer. You don’t have to do much but the simplest things can make all the difference. Just buying someone an ice cream or being nice to someone can change the course of events. You may just be one person, but that is all it takes.

“If a guy like you can stand up and do what you did, then maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of.”

This is definitely a quick read and Zusak draws the reader in by starting it with an action scene. While Ed Kennedy can be seen as a boring person, his tasks to complete the message on each of the aces is what keeps you turning the pages. You, like Ed, want to know what happens when he finishes. I liked the story and loved the overall message.

Book Club discussion: ‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

It’s after reading books like this, I am so happy that I am part of book club. I had never heard of this book, nor do I think I would have read it had it not been for book club. And this book is pure genius as it is a story that is told in reverse.

When you start this book, you are glimpsing Tod Friendly on his death bed and we gradually move backwards through his life, glimpsing his relationships with women, his work as a doctor, his move overseas, his work in Nazi Germany, all the way to his birth. The narrator is Tod Friendly’s soul who is confused by how humans live their life. The story is almost like a tape that is being rewound, people walk backwards, talk weird, expel their food rather than ingesting it, etc.

If you go into this story blind, it may take some work to figure out what is going on at first, but once you do, it is well worth the read. This book had unsettled me, especially when we get to the Nazi Germany part, simply because things are going reverse. As the reader, we know what really happened but as the soul is amazed that the doctor is bringing people back to life, it just turned my stomach. And I wasn’t the only one.

Everyone in book club thought that while “Time’s Arrow” is not the best book ever written, it is still a genius work of art in the way that Martin Amis wrote it. They particularly liked that it provides a completely different perspective to the Holocaust, which some thought was Amis’ point. He is assuming that people knows what happens and provides a subjective look into a particular part of that history.

The narrator, aka the soul, is a bit naive. He understands some degree of the physical life as we understand it and makes random references to it, pointing to artwork where people walk forward, but he doesn’t understand the actions of the characters. As he provides his view of Tod Friendly, we know that Tod is disturbed by something – through his failed relationships with women and his nightmares – but we don’t know why. There is a build up until we get to a certain point in the story when the reader is finally brought behind the curtain.

This is a multi-dimensional book that has multiple layers that can’t be dissected in one read. For those who were able to do a reread, they all agree that they were able to get so much more out of the book the second time and noticed the foreshadowing and little snippets that Amis plants throughout the story that make this story all the more profound. The novel isn’t very long and yet you can take any part of it or any of the underlying themes in the book – sexuality, survival, guilt, etc. and write a paper on it.

If you haven’t read this one yet, it is definitely worth a read or two.