Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittelfeld EligibleCover

I admit, I was not familiar with The Austen Project, which includes Joanna Trollope’s retelling of Sense & Sensibility, Emma  retold by Alexander McCall Smith, and Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. Curtis Sittenfeld is the latest author hired by the Austen Project to bring Austen’s stories from the early 19th into the early 21st century, with her specific assignment being the “retelling” of Pride and Prejudice.

Sittenfeld is faithful to the basic structure of Austen’s book, retaining most of the names and personalities, but switching the locale to Cincinnati. In this version, Mrs. Bennett is a chatty, foolish, woman focused on making sure her five daughters are married off. Jane, the eldest, is a sweetheart. Mary, the middle daughter is a classic middle child, somewhat lost in the middle. The two youngest, Kitty and Lydia, remain self-absorbed and rude. Liz, the main female character, is very bright and quite sarcastic. The girls’ father, Mr. Bennet, has recently had bypass surgery, and is a bit detached. The two love interest candidates for the girls are Mr. Bingley, who is sweet and charming, and Mr. Darcy who displays pride and arrogance. In Sittenfeld’s telling, they are doctors who have recently moved to town. Sittenfeld’s Bingley has recently been a reality TV star, in a medical version of “The Bachelor,” where he wasn’t able to choose a bride.

Other updates include modes of communication (texts and phone calls replace long letters) and travel (flights replacing carriage rides). The avocations of the girls are brilliant, including teaching yoga part time while trying to get pregnant with artificial insemination, taking courses online, etc. Mr. Bennett has inherited his money and has never worked, and is a terrible financial manager. They have no health insurance, so the longstanding financial concerns are coming to a serious boiling point. Updating the plot from Austen’s entail that would leave the family home to a male cousin (very Downton Abbey-ish) to the 21st-century Bennetts being faced with having to sell the house to keep the family from becoming penniless and homeless.

Austen’s novel is highly regarded as being witty, while Sittenfeld’s telling veers toward being laugh-out-loud funny. The Bennett girls face twenty-first century situations including same sex couples living happily together, sex/hooking up on the first date, unwed pregnancy with no male partner, and a transgender male choosing one of the Bennet girls as his wife. Mrs. Bennett in this version is still a racist, homophobic moron whose outspoken comments are wildly inappropriate and yet appear somehow funny.

If I were an Austen zealot or literature purist, I might have found the changes difficult to handle, but I confess I read Eligible as a fresh story rather than a retelling of Pride & Prejudice, and enjoyed it on its own merits. I admit I am less a fan of this than of Sittelfeld’s earlier work (especially Prep), but appreciate the opportunity to review this in exchange for a copy from NetGalley. Four stars.

 

 

The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton

Lupton Quality of Silence Cover

I consider myself a fan of Rosamund Lupton, having read and enjoyed Sister and Afterwards. And there are things about her writing that I really enjoy: she can evoke strong emotions about the power of love like few authors I can think of, and (as she shows in her latest, The Quality of Silence) she can describe harshness of nature and the dangers of sticking your neck out like nobody’s business!

Her latest book, The Quality of Silence, tells the story of former astrophysicist (hence no intellectual slouch) and current stay-at-home mom Yasmin, who takes her daughter Ruby and heads for Alaska to spend Christmas with Yasmin’s father, nature photographer (think Frans Lanting) Matt. Two complicating factors are that Ruby is deaf and the Yasmin-Matt marriage has been a bit shaky of late.

When they arrive in Alaska, they are told that Matt has been killed in a fire in a remote area, and it seems to Yasmin like the police are not doing their jobs. She is so sure that Matt is alive that she hijacks a big rig to drive them through the rough country to the location to make sure that she saves her marriage and that Ruby doesn’t lose her father.

Along the way, the two of them deal with challenges separately and together, and it feels like Ruby will definitely “be heard” in her life (which is what Yasmin wants most for her), and that Yasmin has recovered some of what she used to be: determined, brave and courageous.

Woven throughout the story are details about the indigenous people of the region and information about fracking, and there is tension that mounts as they near their goal.

This is another of the many recent novels with multiple points of view, which I don’t mind. Lupton seems to be steering herself into the Jodi Picoult mode, combining family challenges with one or more social issues, which I also don’t mind. My biggest problem with the book was that I personally hate being cold, and I found the effectively written description of the harsh environment unsettling. If you don’t mind that, and you like a family-saga-mystery/thriller-with-a-touch-of-social-commentary, you will enjoy The Quality of Silence.

I appreciate receiving a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review. Four stars (might have been three except I DO like Lupton, and might have been five except I hate being cold).

 

 

 

 

Missing Pieces by Heather Gudenkauf

Gudenkauf Missing Pieces cover
Sarah and Jack Quinlan have been married for two decades, and they live in Montana with their twin daughters, age 18. So Sarah would think she knows Jack VERY well. But, when they get a phone call that Jack’s aunt in the Midwest has taken a bad fall and may be near death, they fly back – the first time Jack has been home in over 20 years!

Sarah had heard the version of Jack’s younger years that had his parent dying in a car crash and Jack and his sister Amy being raised by their aunt (now dying). When the Quinlans leave their home in idyllic Larkspur Lake, Montana and go to the rural hamlet of Penny Gate where Jack grew up, secrets begin to emerge from the shadows. They arrive to see his aunt die while his sister Amy (who has fallen on hard times) stands vigil at the hospital.

We learn that Jack’s mother didn’t actually die in a car crash, but suffered a similar fate to her sister (Jack’s beloved aunt) with fatal repercussions, followed shortly by the disappearance of Jack’s father – of course, everyone assumes he murdered his wife then hit the road. Dad’s whereabouts and the question of his guilt have yet to be answered.

Amy becomes the prime suspect in their aunt’s death, but Jack is also a suspect due to his adolescent rebellion and his well-known family quarrels over his girlfriend Celia who later married his cousin Dean. Dean is also a suspect, as is his father Hal.

Sarah is reeling as she learns about the number and seriousness of Jack’s secrets and she decides to solve the mystery, both to clear Jack who is a prime suspect and to find out just what really happened when his mother died. in a freak incident in 1985. Somebody is sending her threatening emails. Whoever is sending the emails plainly knows Sarah is an anonymous advice columnist for her small town paper in Montana. Very few people know her undercover identity, so whoever is targeting people in Jack’s family may be targeting her.

The list of suspects is loooooong, and Sarah feels alone as she tries to figure things out, with the help of Margaret Dooley, who works in the sheriff’s office and becomes the one person Sarah feels she can trust. Soon, Sarah is targeted by someone, but it’s not at all clear who that person (or persons) might be…

This book definitely lived up to the description of page turner! Admittedly, I am not the best at figuring out mysteries, but it really did kept me guessing until near the end.

I haven’t been a huge Heather Gudenkauf fan before this, but I enjoyed this and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read. Despite the somewhat familiar plot technique of returning to a hometown and having family secrets erupt, which I thought might make it somewhat derivative/boring, I think it was well done, and appreciate receiving an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my review. Four stars.

The Outsider by Fredric Forsyth

Outsider Forsyth cover

In the early 1970s, I read The Day of the Jackal, and it changed my reading habits forever (in a good wayJ). It probably remains my favorite novel by Fredric Forsyth, although The Dogs of War and The Odessa File rank right up there…

I had no idea that Forsyth’s tales of espionage and intrigue were based on real-life exploits, nor did I expect to ever be able to read his story and have it be as entertaining as his novels. But, trust me, his memoir The Outsider is an amazing and entertaining tale of his life and exploits that contributed to his ability to write the BEST espionage stories.

In The Outsider, Forsyth takes us back to his childhood, into the war years, leading to the way he became the RAF’s youngest ever pilot (age 19). Subsequent stories recount being strafed by a MiG during the Nigerian civil war, smuggling packages between Germanys (back when there were two), and experiencing “situations” with the Stasi (they arrested him), the IRA, and various political eruptions in third world countries.

Through it all, Forsyth must have kept a journal, or else he has an amazing memory…and he is a consummate storyteller, making  The Outsider a memoir that is worthy of “the grand master of international suspense.”

I requested an advance copy of this book to review, and I appreciate NetGalley for providing it (in exchange for my review), although the file was corrupted and I ended up getting the hardback – well worth it, it was a fun read!!! (Also glad to have gotten the hardback as it has GREAT photos from the early years of WWII to the present day. Four enthusiastic stars!

The Travelers by Chris Pavone

Travelers by Pavone Cover

The first thing I read from Christopher Pavone was The Accident, which knocked me out (thrillers are probably my favorite genre, when they are done well). The follow-up, The Expats, convinced me that he was not a one-hit wonder, so I was happy to receive an advance copy of The Travelers (in exchange for my honest review), and I settled in last weekend to savor what I thought would be a fast-paced glove-trotting story full of deception, lies and deceit, with clearly drawn characters and detailed, intriguing setting…

The bottom line is that this was NOT exactly what I expected…AND I loved it. For the first half of the book, I was reading interesting exploits centered around journalist Will Rhodes, a writer for Travelers magazine, and his wife, Chloe, who worked at Travelers prior to Will being hired there, and who has recently left – or has she? But it wasn’t at all clear what was going on. Two other people at The Travelers are Malcolm Somers, the boss (following the mysterious disappearance of the previous guy) and Gabriella (aka “Gabs”), who has taken on a New-York based management position, giving up her own globe-trotting following the death of her husband. Malcolm is a classic middle-aged success story, complete with multiple homes, gorgeous wife, etc. A long-time employee of Travelers, he thinks “This is probably what it means to be middle-aged: to be horrified by the irresponsibility of your own youth.” Gabs is just a mystery for the longest time!

Throughout this first half of the book, there are cryptic little clues, and several things that strongly evoked what I call the “WTF ? Factor. ” Several times I found myself using my Kindle search feature as I had thoughts along the lines of “wait a minute, who the hell is Taylor Lindquist again?”

I love the way Pavone’s descriptive skills reveal so much about his characters: early on, he gives clues to his characters’ real natures: describing a minor character Alonso, he writes “For some people violence is woven into their fabric, like the bright blood-red thread that his grandmother would weave into the turquoise and indigo serapes on her loom.” Then, when Will returns home from a trip, speaking of Chloe, he writes “She hates it when Will comes home in the middle of the night, wearing inebriated sexual arousal like a game-day athletic uniform…”

I can’t actually talk about the story without spoiling it… I can only relate that it was a long, slow buildup to the big reveal about the Travelers, and that the ride was incredibly well done. The really memorable thing for me is just the reading, finding out things along the way, as Pavone shows his  skills at describing both people and settings, which made for an enjoyable read.

For example, he talks about how, in a somewhat clandestine meeting, Will “Walks past the sneeze-guarded steam tables, suffused with the ineffable sadness of dinners plucked from a cheap deli’s salad bar.”

And relating the atmosphere in the city: “…the subway rumbles through one slum after another, graffiti on the station walls, the stench of urine when the doors open, busted overhead lights, the ever present possibility of malevolence amid all this malignant neglect, where the real-estate stick is unredeemed and unredeemable – housing projects and six-story apartment buildings with trash-strewn concrete courtyards, abandoned buildings alongside empty lots filled with junk and junkies, police-cruiser lights flashing and engines revving as the sedans race between disaster and tragedy, cops getting out warily, hands on holsters.” Seriously, this gave me the creeps and was so vivid I could both see and feel the scene.

It’s not just his skill with setting:  the description of people (both individually and in crowds)  is spot-on, as the following scene (which will resonate with anyone who has visited popular tourist destinations) shows: “This crowd is heavy on professional-looking tourists in their task-specific lightweight water-wicking manmade-fiber gear, with profuse zippers and pockets and mesh vents for breathability. There are hobbled undefeated old people, and panic-stricken Chinese, and towering magenta-haired German women and skinny smoky Frenchmen, everyone all pressed together, waiting to take the glossy brochure and hang the audio player around their necks, like digital cowbells.” Wow, I felt like I was back at the Smithsonian or the Louvre!

And then there are the moments when he leaves zero doubt about the people as he describes a scene, as when he visits the old man Katz, who has collected decades of magazines: “…a living room that’s an explosion of clutter, magazines and papers and books everywhere…the lingering aroma of pipe tobacco layered atop the fresh scent of takeout-Chines garlic with undertones of litter box. This is the type of room Will has nightmares about.” AWESOME!

As I said, for more than half the book, I was wondering where it was all going, although there were lots of clues, both subtle and not, along the way. But I KNEW it was going to all come together and it did! Thanks, NetGalley – FIVE STARS.

 

Lie In Plain Sight by Maggie Barbieri

Lie In Plain Sight Barbieri cover

How did I miss this series? Maggie Barbieri has written two novels featuring Maeve Conlon: Once Upon a Lie and Lies That Bind. All I can figure is there was an unfortunate subconscious reminder of OJ’s girlfriend that blinded me to Ms. Barbieri’s work 🙂 But now she is back with further adventures for Maeve in Lie in Plain Sight.

Maeve is a single mother in upstate New York (Maggie herself lives in the Hudson Valley), and she works her ass off with her bakery, a business that supports her and her two daughters. Apparently, the older daughter was more present in the first two novels; in this third installment, she is away at college and makes occasional appearances…plus she is a constant reminder to Maeve and the younger daughter that getting into college is important, you need to be out there getting credit for activities that will look good on your resume, etc. But to Maeve, it appears that her younger daughter is somewhat less than sensational. Maeve’s own mother died when Maeve was very young, so the whole mother-daughter thing is fraught with tension in ways both subtle and overt. And to add to the complex family dynamic, there is Maeve’s ex husband as well as her newly-discovered half sister, and her cop boyfriend.

As if things aren’t complicated enough, Maeve hires a fellow single mother, Trish Dvorak,  after running into her at college night at the high school (where both their daughters are at the picking-a-college stage) and being impressed by Trish’s honesty about having a daughter who is not exceptional (refreshing honesty, Maeve thinks!) Shortly after Trish begins work at the bakery, she is out on a delivery when the high school phones with the message that the woman’s daughter Taylor is sick and asking to go home. To her surprise, Maeve finds out that Trish has listed her as an emergency contact, and the school nurse encourages Maeve to give the necessary permission (Taylor is, after all, almost 18 and has her own car). Maeve is hesitant, but harried, and agrees…then word comes that Taylor has disappeared, and the mystery begins.

Of course Maeve feels responsible, and guilty: “Guilt for some things – but not others – took hold of her sometimes and wouldn’t let go, shaking her to the core. This was one of those things.” She is compelled to try to unravel the mysterious disappearance. Along the way, there is a creepy soccer coach, some earnest (maybe TOO earnest?) high school boys raising money for a mission to help needy people, and the asshat rich guy who just happens to be the sperm donor for Taylor, but who has never apparently been responsible for any of her needs.

Maeve discovers, among these intertwined relationships, that the small town of Farringville has a lot more to hide than most small towns. And that people aren’t always what they seem: …”someone Maeve now knew was completely out of his mind, someone who pretended by day that he was nice, helpful, but who by night and any other time he felt like it was capable of horrible, evil things. Someone who hid his true identity in plain sight.”

The story more than held my interest, I loved Maeve’s honesty and wit, and I plan to go back and read the first two in this series, even though I will know in advance some of Maeve’s life events  that will unfold in those two books. Five stars for this one!