The Magnolia Story – Chip and Joanna Gaines
184 pages (2016)
Here is a quick biographical read that illustrates what can happen when your family supports your hopes and dreams. Joanna Gaines is the creative driving force behind the hit HGTV series Fixer Upper. She and her husband began their lives together with the notion that whatever happened, everything would turn out just fine in the end. They have been personal cheerleader to each other since they married over 12 years ago. The book chronicles their life of rehabbing and flipping properties. Gradually, Joanna developed her well-known “Farmhouse Chic” style. She notes that Chip Gaines, her husband, never said “no” to any project she wanted to attempt. The Gaines family believes that a higher power has a lot to do with the success of their business, as they point to the many serendipitous events throughout their career.
I have followed the Fixer Upper series since it began on HGTV five years ago. The couple genuinely seems to enjoy their life together as they take on each project. The Magnolia Story is told through the separate viewpoints of Chip and Joanna, alternating throughout the book. The reader gets a sense of their personal perspectives as they move through their life as a couple. I’m sure the book glosses over some of their struggles, but the main point their story seems to be making is, working as a supportive team makes the effort rewarding and sweet.
Faithful – Alice Hoffman
258 pages (2016)
Sometimes life can be thought of as two halves. The life you had before a traumatic event, and then the life that comes after. You can’t go back, but it is never easy to move forward again. This is Shelby’s path, and as the story begins, Shelby is unable to forgive herself for an accident that left her unscathed and her best friend in a never-ending coma. There seems to be no bottom to the pain she feels as depression takes over her days. Time moving on carries her as if she were flotsam moving in and out with the tide. Wait a minute….that’s not all there is.
What I loved about the story was the author’s ability to point out where hope was slowly growing. Shelby began to move forward in fits and spurts enough to carve out a small, productive life. There is always a little collateral damage even in the best scenarios. Shelby’s lifeline and first true relationship is with Ben who ultimately “takes it on the chin” for Shelby as she continues to search for herself.
I suggest you find a copy of this book and carve out a couple of hours to read it. It’s short and succinct—you will come away feeling embarrassingly enriched by its lessons.
Precious Thing – Colette McBeth
290 pages (2014)
If you are looking for something to appease your need for suspense after reading Gone Girl, I have a book that might fill the void. Actually, it reminds me more of Girl on the Train, which has recently been reworked (and I use the term lightly) into a movie.
Precious Thing is a story about two women who have been childhood friends. As they grow into adulthood their paths go in different directions, but they try to hang on to their pact to stay connected. The story is narrated in the form of one-sided letters from the more successful of the two. She is writing to examine what has been going on between them since the other friend has gone missing. Police are looking for the friend while the narrator is called in, questioned, and booked for her probable murder. When this happens, a rising career as an investigative news anchor is brought to a screeching halt. There is very little evidence to keep our narrator behind bars. Her only way out of this complicated mess she finds herself in is to solve the disappearance herself. Is our narrator telling us the truth? Does she even know what the truth is as she is retelling their story? I will have to let you speculate as you dive into this page-turner. Please remember to keep going when it seems like there is a lot of unnecessary detail….let’s just say it’s important to pay attention as everything plays a role in the truth behind the bond of the two girls’ lives.
This is a dark roller coaster ride of a read. If you are waiting patiently to be next in your library hold request to read Girl on the Train, or you just like to be startled by the unexpected, this book is worth a look. It’s already a couple of years old so it should be waiting for you on the shelf.
My Last Continent – Midge Raymond
9 hours (2016)
The novel My Last Continent by Midge Raymond is well, I guess, a love story. It’s actually just as much a love story with the setting at the bottom of the world as it is a tale revolving around the relationships of the characters. For me, the description of the place was so focused that I began to get cold as I was reading. It is the story about a woman who devotes her life to the research of penguins in Antarctica. She makes yearly trips to study, not noticing that the rest of her life has been put on hold while she conducts her research.
This is not a mushy love story. It’s an extremely well-written novel that reads like a non-fiction account. It contains much drama surrounding the relationship of our researcher and her colleague. It’s heartbreaking and raw, tender and simply lovely. I think the main reason My Last Continent is still with me, weeks after I read it is the slow-burning passion that resonates throughout the book. Passion for a cause can be just as powerful as our romantic emotions — (i.e. relationships among us humans)…and you’ll find it all in this book.
Astonish Me – Maggie Shipstead
10 hours (2014)
First let me say that this is a novel swirling around the world of ballet and ballet dancers. Meh. Not my thing and yet, there I was standing in the audio aisle of the library, trying to quickly find something for a long car trip….and it sounded interesting.
The story follows the life (predominantly) of a ballerina in the dance corps. This means that she is not technically good enough to be a star ballerina. Her life does not seem to move forward until she meets a premier Russian dancer while touring in Paris. She is so moved by him that she makes some rather impulsive decisions and well….she decided to marry her childhood friend (because she’s pregnant). As her son grows up, he of course, becomes a magnificent dancer. Although the reader expects a life-shattering crescendo, when it comes it is tender and bittersweet.
Maggie Shipstead’s writing is elegant and quite poetic for being such a straight-forward story. Her words describe life under the surface in a way that is both satisfying and serene – much like a ballet….if I liked ballet (still don’t).
I really liked the book, though.
Vinegar Girl – Anne Tyler
233 pages (2016)
Anne Tyler is known for her character-driven stories. Her plots are often driven by complicated people who find themselves in difficult situations. Readers identify and look forward to the next story Anne Tyler chooses to spin.
Vinegar Girl is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The main character, Kate, seems very difficult to get along with (socially). The reader is made aware of her backstory in bits and pieces, underscoring a difficult childhood. Kate deals with probable abandonment issues, self-esteem issues, etc., that seem to be stepping in front of her ability to find happiness. She has reason to be resentful as her father, a research scientist, proposes that Kate marry his lab assistant so that he may obtain a green card, stay in the country, and continue their project.
Kate finds herself warming to the idea of marriage in spite of herself. Kate’s younger sister, Bunny, has been raised by Kate (their mother is dead) and tries to appeal to Kate’s sense of order. She can’t get her to see how out of character it is for Kate to agree to marry a total stranger…but then she realizes the perks that will come her way with Kate being out of the house and out of the middle of her life!
The ending is satisfying, if not predictable. I have always appreciated Anne Tyler’s stories as they deal with the dysfunction of families. They ring of truth and familiar angst we all feel from time to time. I will have to say, this is not my favorite Anne Tyler tale. I would recommend Vinegar Girl for its light-heartedness and witty dialog. If you want to dive into something more substantial, read The Accidental Tourist or A Spool of Blue Thread.
Modern Lovers – Emma Straub
356 pp. (2016)
Here is a book that chronicles our lives as they evolve….and guess what? Evolution comes in fits and spurts, as it turns out. The story begins with a group of friends in college who form a small rock band. One of the band members eventually breaks out as a single and becomes famous. She ends up the way of a lot of those who rise to fame too quickly – she dies from a drug overdose at the age of 27.
Now in their 40s, and still living near each other in a tight-knit Brooklyn community, the surviving band members learn of a movie in the works chronicling the life of the one who died. Dredging up the past while moving forward in the present day proves problematic for some. As the author points out through the voice of her character, “Choices were easy to make until you realized how long life could be.” Children, businesses, and old feelings are part of the weave. Some will last, some will be pulled out, and the whole thing rewoven to create a colorful tapestry of life in this tale.
This is not an earth-shattering, page-turning novel. It is a story about the complications that result from surviving your existence. I think you will find it believable and clear. The description of life in the neighborhood plunks you right down in the middle of Brooklyn. Devoid of sappiness, this tale is a perfect summer read at the beach.
Miller’s Valley – Anna Quindlen
368 pp. (2016)
I’m beginning to really show my age by my taste is books, lately. Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen is a deep character study of both a family and a town in the 1960s. It helps (but is not necessary) to have grown up during that time, so the novel did not need to expand in its description to clearly imagine life in the valley. The narrator is a young girl who is trying to understand her place in her community- a community on borrowed time. The town is under eminent domain to become the bottom of a government reservoir. The family farm is in the middle of the valley. Mimi’s (narrator) parents are deeply divided on how they feel about moving on. Mimi is pulled back, even as she makes strides to get an education and decide how her life and career will look. Her family holds tight to secrets from the past. Mimi’s favorite aunt is agoraphobic and hasn’t left her house in decades. The quiet understanding of the trauma that put her in this state is one of the home-grown heartaches that Mimi has to come to terms with to forgive. She explains, “the past continues to wash over us even as we move away from the places and events that formed us….”
Mimi is not surprised as the turn of events fold over into the lives of friends and neighbors and make them different people, neither is she distressed. She comes to terms with sorrow as her own brother returns from Vietnam and is never again the bright and optimistic soul of her memory. In the end, Mimi is able to fulfill her dreams for her life and live an unassuming but quite remarkable life…because a long time ago she started off as a hometown Miller’s Valley daughter. This is a story about the depth and breadth of one life as a part of a whole (Miller’s Valley). It will quietly take over as you read it, until you realize as I did…that Miller’s Valley is stuck to your insides and has been walking around with you.