Author: Karen Gibson (page 1 of 5)

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good

Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good by Jan Karon is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Categorized as Christian/Domestic Fiction, Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good returns to Karon’s fictional town of Mitford, NC (think Mayberry), to continue the story of Father Timothy Kavanagh’s ordinary life in an ordinary town.  It’s a peaceful town, a storybook small town where people are kind and life is sweet.  The Mitford series has been extremely popular, with many of the later books landing on the New York Times Bestseller List, some even debuting at #1.  Karon appears to have a loyal fan base!

This post does not contain spoilers.

Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good by Jan Karon (2014)

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

What’s Wrong?

 As Roberta mentioned in her #BookBeginnings post, reading a book that is placed in the middle of a well-established series isn’t always the easiest.  Often you really need the backstory of all the characters to be able to follow the current story, and I found that to be the case with Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good.  There are so many characters to get to know in the town of Mitford and I didn’t feel that Karon did a very good job of providing us enough backstory for each, which meant it was extremely easy to confuse who was who and why they were saying this or that.

I also disliked Karon’s writing style.  It felt choppy and disjointed.  I often couldn’t follow who was saying what in long sections of dialogue.  And there were many times that it seemed Karon was writing for a movie instead of a book and expecting her actors to show what she meant, rather than actually writing what she meant to show.  Here’s an example:

While shaving, he had an impulse toward the ridiculous. He scarcely ever did anything ridiculous.

Puny’s ten-month-old twin boys were in the kitchen in their bouncing chairs, each with a pacifier. He was not a fan of the pacifier but it would be politically incorrect to express that opinion in his own household.

‘Tommy,’ he said, standing near the door while Puny swept the side porch. ‘What do you think?’

Tommy burst into tears, the pacifier fell to the floor; Violet pounced and skittered it to the corner of the room.

Puny opened the door a crack. ‘What’s goin’ on in there?’

‘I asked Tommy a question and he started crying. Sorry.’

‘Could you please pick ’im up? I got to get these steps cleaned off, you wouldn’ believe th’ raccoon poop out here.’ She closed the door.

He picked up Tommy, all eighteen pounds, jiggled him as he had jiggled Puny’s first set of twins, Sissy and Sassy. Jiggling was good—Tommy stopped crying.

Puny opened the door again. ‘What did you ask ’im?’

‘Oh, nothing much. He’s fine now.’

She closed the door; he put Tommy in the chair, went after the pacifier, washed it under the hot water tap, and stuck it back where it belonged.

Timmy, his very own namesake, looked up at him with Carolina-blue eyes.

‘What do you think, Timmy?’

Timmy took the pacifier from his mouth, laughed, and handed it over.

‘Thanks for sharing,’ he said. ‘Maybe later.’

Out of the mouths of babes, so to speak. He kissed both boys on the tops of their heads.

So, what exactly did Father Timothy do while shaving that was “ridiculous?”  Did he shave only one side?  Did he make a weird face with the shaving cream to scare the babies?  Who knows?  I kept reading, watching for reactions from others in the subsequent scenes that would indicate if he’d done some weird shaving of his head or something, but no comments were made, so I finally surmised he must have done something with the shaving cream itself.

Unfinished

I tried, I truly tried, but I couldn’t finish this book.  This is the very first one on our challenge that I’ve not been able to finish.  I made it 45% of the way through and my patience wore out.  Too many scenes like the one highlighted above just wore me down.  Not knowing the backstory of all the characters led me to not care about their current stories.  Perhaps it would have been different if I started with the very first book.

I know small town people and events can be interesting – I used to live in a small town.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why Somewhere Safe With Someone Good was a bestseller.  One of the topics that The Bestseller Code’s algorithm found to be most useful in identifying best-selling novels was the topic of human interactions and relationships, human closeness and connections.  Karon’s novel is all about human connections and relationships. In the end, though, that wasn’t enough for me.  Her writing style that left me cold and confused and I decided there are simply too many good books out there to waste another moment reading one that I disliked so.

 

Have you read Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 57.  Fifty Shades of Gray by E. L. James (2011) – Discussion begins June 25, 2018

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of The Next Always by Nora Roberts

The Next Always by Nora Roberts is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Nora Roberts is an extremely successful and prolific writer.  She has written over 200 novels, many of them bestsellers, and there are over 500 million copies of her books in print.  With that many novels written, I was surprised to realize that I have never read any of her works.  This reading challenge is definitely introducing me to new authors!

This post does contain spoilers.

 

The Next Always by Nora Roberts

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

The Inn

As Roberta stated in her #BookBeginnings post, the Inn Boonsboro that is so lovingly restored in this novel is a real bricks and mortar bed & breakfast in Boonsboro, Maryland, that Nora Roberts and her husband restored and currently operate.  If you love watching renovation shows on cable television, you’ll delight in following the progress of the inn restoration throughout this book.  If you are not as interested, then this book will be a fast read as you skim through all the details of tile and wood and brick.  I’m squarely in that latter camp, but still, I would love to go to Maryland and see the actual Inn.  It sounds quite luxuriant and memorable.

After reading The Next Always, I was curious what other readers and professionals had to say about this book – was it a good indication of the caliber of Nora Roberts’ novels?  I found very mixed reviews, but many of the professional reviewers felt that this novel was one long infomercial for Roberts’ and her husband Bruce Wilder’s businesses in Boonsboro (they also own the real Turn The Page Bookstore & Café and the Gifts Inn Boonsboro gift shop).  I see their point, and it would be a valid one if the story itself didn’t work, but I felt that the story did work and that the Inn was a good setting.  Honestly, after writing 200 books, who can blame Ms. Roberts for diversifying a bit and cashing in on her writing fame?  And after writing 200 books, I’m sure she has a large faithful fandom that would love nothing more than to come stay at her Inn, walk the streets of the town where she’s placed one of her series, and even possibly have the chance to see the novelist in person.

It’s The Dialogue

One of the things I liked most about The Next Always was the dialogue.  The dialogue revealed strong love and respect between the three brothers (Beckett, Owen, and Ryder), between the three friends (Clare, Hope, and Avery), and even between Beckett and Clare’s 3 young sons without the author having to tell us about it.  There was very little to none agonizing head talk and angst for the reader to slog through as we’ve had in some recent romance novels.  The dialogue provided the action and the smooth flow of the story.

The family units were strong in The Next Always.  The relationships both within the two families (the Montgomery’s and Clare & her sons) and between the friends are what most readers wish they had in their own lives.  If there is such a thing as a cozy romance, The Next Always is definitely such.  Even the Inn’s ghost was a helpful, friendly ghost.  The side plot of Clare’s stalker played up the strength of the family and friendship bonds to the max, while providing the catalyst for the love declarations at the end between Clare and Beckett.

Three Brothers, Three Loves?

Nora Roberts knows how to write interesting characters.  Some of the romance novels we have read concentrated on the two main love characters to the detriment of the rest of the supporting cast.  In The Next Always, Roberts gives us three strong male characters in the Montgomery brothers. And it isn’t just coincidence that there are three female best friends.  Can you say trilogy here?  One can easily see early on the seeds being laid for two more romance novels to come. And you know what?  I loved it!  I want more and have already reserved the next book in this Inn Boonsboro trilogy, The Last Boyfriend, from my public library.  I do so want Owen and Avery to find true love.

 

Do you have a favorite Nora Roberts novel to recommend? I need more books to add to my “to read” list!

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 58.  Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good (2014) by Jan Karon  – Discussion begins June 11, 2018

#BestsellerCode100: Reader’s Review of In the Woods by Tana French

In The Woods by Tana French is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  In The Woods is also the forty-first book we’ve read, which means we are 2/5 of the way through the list.  Can you believe we’ve read 41 books?  That also means that, between the two of us, Roberta and I have written 82 book reviews for this challenge alone, which is no small accomplishment.  We should throw ourselves a virtual celebratory party!

This post does not contain spoilers.

In The Woods* by Tana French


(*Amazon Affiliate link)

For a summary of In The Woods, read Roberta’s Writer’s Review and her excellent description of the eight key components of a plot.

Debut Novels

Eight of the books we’ve read so far in this challenge were debut novels:  The Mill River Recluse, The Weird Sisters, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, The Silent Wife, The White Tiger, The Weight of Silence, The Marriage Bargain, and now In The Woods.  So 1/5 of the books read so far were debut novels.  I find that fact interesting – it means that 1/5 of the authors figured out early on or intuitively already knew what makes a great novel.

For this Bestseller Code Challenge we are reading through the list of books in The Bestseller Code, Anatomy of The Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer & Matthew L. Jockers for several reasons, one of which is to see how our tastes in books compares with the computer model.  In The Bestseller Code, the authors discuss a writer’s style and how that factors into making a bestselling book.

 

In short, style is important: it is the mechanism through which plot, theme, and character get delivered.  Style is at once mechanical and organic; it springs from a combination of nature and nurture; from innate ability and practiced craft.  And nowhere is the importance of style seen more vividly than in the work of those authors who are hitting the NYT list for the first time.  Saying it is difficult to make it straight onto the NYT list with a first novel is a great understatement.

First Lines, or #BookBeginnings

One of the elements of novelistic style the authors of The Bestseller Code discuss in great detail is the first line of a novel:

We believe that the first line of a novel can tell you a lot about the writer’s command of style.

They give three examples of famous first lines and then explain:

One thing that is immediately clear about all three of these classic writers is that their first sentences create voice.  Someone is talking to us, and that someone sounds authentic, in command of some sort of authority.  There is no wavering, or cautiousness, or lack of surety.  All novelists have the challenge of creating some sort of selfhood, and readers might note that they tend to keep reading when that selfhood, attractive or not, at least knows itself and leads its reader.  The best writers – or those that will achieve the most readers – are able to establish this kind of presence from the opening sentence with tiny and seemingly effortless modulations in style.

This is one reason why Roberta begins the discussion of each of our challenge novels with a BookBeginnings post.  The first line is an important style feature and bestselling authors know how to craft a first line that will hook their readers.  For a debut novelist, this ability is even more important – they cannot rely upon their faithful following of readers to buy their books because they don’t have a faithful following yet!

Here’s the first line from Chapter 1 of In The Woods:

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective.

We don’t yet know if our narrator is male or female, but we do know that we’re being cautioned about him/her being a detective.  Why would he/she warn us about this fact?

This is the stuff a good stylist needs to recognize: that the first sentence is the hook and the hook is a mixture of voice and conflict achieved through the mechanics of diction and syntax. – The Bestseller Code

Are you hooked already?  I was.

Page Turner

From the very first sentence, In The Woods was a page turner.  I enjoyed the interplay of the two main detectives, Rob (“I am a detective”) and Cassie.  I was intrigued by the inner conflict of Rob as he tried to solve one murder that took place in the same location where, twenty years before, his two best friends disappeared and he was left with no memory of what happened to them.

In The Woods is not just a mystery, it is a psychological mystery, and a very good one at that.  I loved the little seeds and distractions that French left for the reader to pick up – I kept wondering who the psychopath was that Cassie warned the reader about and if maybe it was Rob, our detective narrator.

While the ending of the novel wasn’t all I wanted, I can see why French didn’t resolve the twenty year old case.  Rob does his best throughout the book to avoid memories, to avoid dealing with his past in any way, and that spills over into every aspect of his life, so it would have been terribly out of character for him to remember what happened to him and his friends all those years ago.  Knowing French has turned this Dublin Murder Squad division of the Irish police into a series, I hope she eventually resolves that old case, but I guess I’ll have to read the series to find out!

 

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 59.  The Next Always by Nora Roberts (2011) – Discussion begins May 28, 2018
Romance

#BestsellerCode100: Reader’s Review of The Choice by Nicholas Sparks

The Choice by Nicholas Sparks is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Gabby moves to small town Beaufort, North Carolina, to be nearer her long-time boyfriend and hopefully soon-to-be fiancé.  She just happens to buy the house next door to a good-looking, adventurous, and fun-loving confirmed bachelor, Travis.  A series of mishaps and misunderstandings (typical romance novel set-ups) brings these two together and sparks fly (or we’re expected to believe sparks fly).  Can you tell I wasn’t buying it?

This post contains spoilers.

The Choice* by Nicholas Sparks

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

A Tale of Two Romances

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens wasn’t referring to our last two romance novels, but that’s how I felt after reading Me Before You and The Choice back to back.  Me Before You gave the reader the best that romance novels can offer and The Choice gave the worst.  Me Before You created memorable and believable characters; The Choice offered two clichéd main characters and a supporting cast that we barely got to know.  The plot of Me Before You presented each of the main characters with life choices to make and allowed them come to realistic decisions; The Choice had a Hollywood-scripted plot and the pro forma happy (unrealistic) ending.  Me Before You gave me renewed hope that romance novels were worth reading; The Choice only reinforced my previous belief that romance novels aren’t worth my time.

The Choice

This novel is split into two parts.  Part One presents Gabby’s dilemma: will she listen to her head and stay with her long-time boyfriend whom she expects to marry or will she listen to her heart and build a life with her neighbor Travis, who has turned her life upside down in a whirlwind romantic weekend.  But as Roberta writes in her Writer’s Review, due to the prologue, we already know which choice she makes, so there’s no suspense and no emotional investment by the reader.

Part Two presents the Real Choice of the novel: will Travis follow his head regarding Gabby’s specific instructions concerning her present medical situation (a long-term coma) or will he follow his heart.  I found Part Two to be even more clichéd and unbelievable than Part One, if that is possible.  Where Gabby was too much in her own head in Part One, dithering back and forth between her choices, in Part Two it is Travis’s turn to bore the reader as we are forced to listen to his feelings of guilt over the accident that caused Gabby’s coma and his anguish about the resultant choice he must make.  Truthfully, by then, I ceased to care.  I won’t even go into just how unbelievable Gabby’s remarkable recovery was from her long-term coma – it was the expected happily-ever-after ending, but totally unrealistic.

The Right Choice

 If you want a feel-good, tear-jerker, realistic romance novel to read this summer and you have two choices on the shelf, Me Before You by JoJo Moyes or The Choice by Nicholas Sparks, do yourself a favor and spend your money on Me Before You.  You won’t be disappointed.

Have you read The Choice by Nicholas Sparks? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 60.  In the Woods by Tana French (2007) – Discussion begins May 14, 2018
Mystery

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Categorized as a romance novel, Me Before You is not your typical romance story.  It’s an engaging take on the Pygmalion story, Worldly Rich Guy (Will Traynor) meets Low-Aspirations Poor Girl (Louisa “Lou” Clark), takes a liking to her, and decides to widen her horizons – only in this story we have a twist.  Worldy Rich Guy has suffered a debilitating accident that left him a quadriplegic and he no longer wants to live.  And, of course, Low-Aspirations Poor Girl falls in love with Worldly Rich Guy and wants to save his life.

This post contains spoilers.

Me Before You* by JoJo Moyes

 


(*Amazon Affiliate link)

A Love Story

 Me Before You is a refreshing and captivating love story.  In addition to its unusual plot, author JoJo Moyes gives us realistic characters and believable dialogue.  The interactions between both Lou’s and Will’s family members ring true.  Lou drew me in immediately and I quickly forgot I was reading a book for the purpose of writing a review and instead lost myself in the story.

It was expected that Lou would fall in love with Will – this is a romance, after all.  But in a true romance, love conquers all, right?  So it’s a bit of a shock when it becomes apparent that Lou’s love isn’t going to change Will’s mind.  What does change is the quality of those last weeks at the end of his life.  Lou provides Will with a challenge that has nothing to do with his own physical challenges, that of broadening Lou’s horizons.  What began as Lou’s challenge to give Will a reason to live becomes Will’s challenge to give Lou a wider world to live in.

Life Meaning

Me Before You compels the reader to contemplate on the question, “What is a life worth living?”  Is Lou truly living or is she just allowing life to happen to her?  Does Will, looking at a life of continually diminished horizons and increasing pain, have the right to decide when he no longer considers that life worth living?  Rarely does a romance novel tackle such difficult questions, but Moyes manages to do so with finesse.

I enjoyed Me Before You much more than I expected to – I find most romances to be too sappy or juvenile.  Jojo Moyes shows that a romance can be a true-to-life love story without the fairy tale “happily-ever-after” ending.  Because of that, I’m looking forward to reading the continuing story of Louisa in the sequel After You.

Have you read Me Before You by JoJo Moyes? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 61.  The Choice by Nicholas Sparks (2007) – Discussion begins April 30, 2018

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  This was author Jess Walter’s sixth novel and it received much critical acclaim.  NPR’s Fresh Air podcast named it the best book of 2012.  Readers on Amazon and Goodreads almost universally love it.  And yet, five days after I finished reading it, I remain ambivalent. There was a lot to like with this book, but equally as much not to like.

This post does not contain spoilers.

 

Beautiful Ruins* by Jess Walker

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Historical Romance or Literary Fiction

Beautiful Ruins is labeled Historical Romance and also Literary Fiction, but it’s definitely not your typical bodice ripping, hero saves the day historical romance.  In fact, so very little romance actually occurs that it’s difficult to see why it would be labeled as such.  The only truly romantic character was Pasquale, whom we meet in the opening scene:

She smiles at him and Pasquale falls in love, and “would remain in love for the rest of his life — not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.”

While Pasquale remains in love his whole life with the memory of Dee Moray, the movie star who appears in his small village in Italy,  he goes on to experience love and a full life with another woman.  The memory of Dee Moray haunts him, though, and at the end of his life he endeavors to find her and to learn what happened to her and her child.

For all of Pasquale’s romanticism, Beautiful Ruins is a study of relationships and the never-ending quest and need for love, whether from a parent/child, a lover/spouse, or friends.

Beautiful Mess

Beautiful Ruins took 15 years to write and, at 372 pages, it felt like it took that long to read.  The story jumps back and forth between different time periods and locations — Italy in the 1960s, America, England and Scotland in the 1980s, present day in Hollywood and Idaho — so that you almost needed a calendar and globe to keep track.

The writing was a hodge-podge of different styles; in addition to the normal chapters, also included was the script of a play, the complete first chapter of a never-to-be-finished novel, and a screenplay pitch on the infamous Donner party, among other oddities.  It reminded me of one of my attempts at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where I needed to achieve 50,000 words by the end of the month and had run out of things to write, so I included grocery lists and Christmas letters to achieve my word count.

Surprises

 There are several strong female characters in Beautiful Ruins and perhaps that is why I believed the author, Jess Walter, to be female.  Or maybe it’s because historical romance authors are predominantly female.  In any case, when I finished the book and began to read the “P.S. Insights, Interviews & More…” section at the end of the Kindle version of Beautiful Ruins, I was shocked to discover that “Jess” was male!  I’m not sure it makes any difference, but I was truly surprised.  Actually, I think it was the only surprising thing about the whole novel.  The book itself seemed predictable – chaotic but unsurprising.

I was glad for the “Insights, Interviews & More…” section at the end of the book, as that led to more understanding about the Walter’s intent when writing Beautiful Ruins.  For example:

I wondered if the truth we know from physics—that an object has the most stored energy in the moment right before it acts (think of a drawn bow)— was true of romance, too, if potential wasn’t, in some way, love’s most powerful form.

Jess Walter also shared:

I was reading The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera and I came across this: “There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact.” This, I saw, could be the ending of the book, a way of acknowledging the power of certain moments in our lives. These are the ruins of our memories, which loom in our minds like the Parthenon, even as they are decayed and weathered by time and regret. I hoped to convey the significance of such isolated moments in our lives, to show that Pasquale and Dee’s first meeting—which had kicked around in my own head since 1997— might indeed be powerful enough to drive him to find her almost fifty years later.

 As grateful as I was for that section of the book, I shouldn’t have needed it.  I should have gleaned at least some of his intentions from simply reading the book.  The fact that I didn’t frustrates me, and I don’t think good literature should leave the reader feeling frustrated.

 

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

____________________________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 63. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) – Discussion begins April 2, 2018
Literary fiction, won the Man Booker prize

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Orphan Train tells the stories of two young “orphan” girls, Vivian and Molly.  Vivian’s story begins in New York City in 1929, months before the Black Friday stock market crash.  We learn of her voyage from Ireland with her family, the tragedy that leaves her essentially orphaned, and then follow her journey when she is placed on a train to the Midwest by the Children’s Aid Society in the hopes of finding a placement family.  Molly’s story of her early years with her parents and her subsequent journey through the foster care system in the present day intertwines with Vivian’s throughout the book.  As unlikely as it might seem, their stories are remarkably similar and creates an unexpected bond of friendship.

This post does not contain spoilers.

 

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Historical Fiction

 As Roberta mentioned in her Writer’s Review, Orphan Train is categorized as Historical Fiction.  Unlike Roberta, though, I am a huge fan of historical fiction and I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time.  One of the reasons I love historical fiction is that I often learn some previously unknown-to-me historical information, and Orphan Train certainly provided me with that.  I was unfamiliar with the Children’s Aid Society, a non-profit organization formed by Charles Loring Brace in 1853 to ensure the physical well-being of homeless children in New York City (not always orphans) and to provide them with the support and training needed to become successful adults.  Brace felt that placement with a family that could provide work, schooling, and a home situation would be more beneficial to the children than an institutional setting.  He came up with the idea of “orphan trains” – children were placed on a train with Children Aid Society chaperones and taken out of the city to various destinations across the country.  Notices were posted in the destination towns and when the trains arrived, the children were inspected and selected by the prospective foster families – often for the amount of work the child looked capable of handling or a specific talent, such as sewing, rather than for any altruistic desire to provide a loving home.  Baker’s descriptions of Vivian’s early placements with families exposed just how brutal and traumatic those placements could be.

The orphan trains sound like something out of dystopian novel, yet they really did happen.  Over the course of 76 years (the last train run was in 1929), more than 200,000 children rode the trains and began new lives.  Since they were required to leave any and all personal possessions behind, and many were given new first names by their foster or adoptive families, they truly were new lives, for better or worse.

The Children’s Aid Society (now called simply Children’s Aid) is still in existence, providing various support programs (medical, educational, legal, mental health, etc.) to NYC families and children, along with fostering and adoption options. Many of its child welfare programs were considered ground-breaking when begun but commonplace today.  The “fresh air” program is one that I was familiar with while growing up in upstate New York during the 1970s.  Several families I knew would have “fresh air” children from NYC staying with them during the summer.

Unlikely Friends

When we are first introduced to Vivian and Molly, they appear to have nothing in common.  Vivian inherited a business from her parents and she and her now-deceased husband were able to retire to a life of comfort and ease.  At the age of 90, she’s outlived her family and friends and is content to live an isolated life with a housekeeper to cook her meals and maintain the household.  Molly, on the other hand, has bounced around a few foster homes and feels that her current foster situation is tenuous, at best. She’d like to stay where she is currently placed until she “ages out” of the system in another few months, but her present foster mother isn’t really on board with her husband’s desire to foster.  More than once Molly pulls out her duffel bags and begins to pack her belongings while listening to her foster parents argue over whether to keep her.  Life is uncertain at best for Molly.

Molly and Vivian are brought together in a joint effort to clean out Vivian’s cluttered attic, and as Vivian reveals her life’s story bit by bit, Molly’s efforts to maintain an emotional distance from everyone in her life begin to fail.  Christina Baker Kline does a wonderful job of revealing the true essence of these two strong and capable women.

Take Away

Life is not always pleasant and rarely easy if you are an immigrant and/or an orphan child, no matter what time period you live in.  Both Vivian’s and Molly’s stories highlight that, as a child, you have no control and usually very little say over what the adults in your life decide for you.  Yet both of these young girls rise above the trials and traumas of childhood to become strong individuals.  I was struck by their resilience and tenacity.  Orphan Train also illustrates that even the smallest acts of kindness – providing a place to sleep for a few nights, a temporary job, or even just the gift of a book – can give hope and effect real change in the life of an individual, a message we should all take to heart.

 

Have you read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker (2012) – Discussion begins March 19, 2018

Genre:  Historical romance

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Sebold’s novel was published in 2002 and received several literary awards, including the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel.  I first read this book in 2004 and enjoyed it then.  When I saw it on our reading list I wondered whether it would stand the test of time.

This post contains spoilers.

 

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Unique Voice

Alice Sebold has written a unique character in Susie Salmon, a fourteen-year-old girl who is murdered in the very first chapter and then relates what happens to herself in heaven and her family and friends on earth over the next decade.  Sebold’s take on high school, the way in which Susie’s friends react and cope with her murder, brought back to me much of the angst and joys I experienced in high school.

For a first-time novelist, Sebold has a powerful mastery of descriptive language.  Susie’s version of heaven has an interesting smell…

The air in my heaven often smelled like skunk—just a hint of it. It was a smell that I had always loved on Earth. When I breathed it in, I could feel the scent as well as smell it. It was the animal’s fear and power mixed together to form a pungent, lingering musk.

… and feel.

I turned around and went back to the gazebo. I felt the moist air lace its way up along my legs and arms, lifting, ever so slightly, the ends of my hair. I thought of spider webs in the morning, how they held small jewels of dew, how, with a light movement of the wrist, I used to destroy them without thinking.

It made me wonder what my individual slice of heaven would be like.

The Eyes Have It

They say that eyes are the windows to one’s soul and in The Lovely Bones this is certainly true.  Before her death, Susie dreamed of being a wildlife photographer and her most prized possession was her camera.  Referring to one of the early pictures that Susie took of her mother, Sebold writes:

My mother’s eyes were oceans, and inside them there was loss.

Susie used so many rolls of film that her father made her choose only a few to get developed due to the expense.  Several years after Susie’s murder, and after his wife had abandoned their marriage, her father developed the rest of the rolls.  On the very last roll he discovered a series of photos that Susie took of her mother one day just before her father arrived home from work.  This series of photos is a window to the diminished dreams Abigail experienced as she left behind the world of literature she studied in college and became first a wife, then a mother.  Susie’s father had not been aware of this change in his wife, not until he saw these photos.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my father walk through the side door into the yard.  He carried his slim briefcase, which, years before, Lindsey and I had heatedly investigated only to find very little of interest to use. As he set it down I snapped the last solitary photo of my mother. Already her eyes had begun to seem distracted and anxious, diving under and up into a mask somehow. In the next photo, the mask was almost, but not quite, in place and the final photo, where my father was leaning slightly down to give her a kiss on the cheek—there it was.

“Did I do that to you?” he asked her image as he stared at the pictures of my mother, lined up in a row. “How did that happen?”

He finally comes to understand why his marriage disintegrated after Susie’s death and also, interestingly enough, from those pictures he remembers the woman he first fell in love with and falls in love with her all over again, even though she is totally absent from his life at that point.

Possession, Again?

The only bit of this book that I did not really like was where Susie and her friend Ruth essentially trade places – Susie inhabits Ruth’s body for a short while and Ruth is transported to Susie’s version of heaven.  I didn’t like the whole “inhabited body” thing in The Cross Roads and I didn’t like it here either.  I didn’t understand what Ruth was doing in heaven (Ruth was the most unusual and difficult to comprehend character in the novel), and I felt that the whole scene with Susie in Ruth’s body having a relationship with her old school sweetheart was rather gratuitous on Sebold’s part.

Lovely Bones

Upon reading the book description, you expect that the  title The Lovely Bones refers in some way to Susie’s dismemberment, although how that could be considered lovely baffles the mind.  In the very last chapter, though, we learn that Sebold uses bones as a metaphor for the bonds that hold Susie’s family together.

These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.

I’m glad this book was on our list and provided me with the opportunity to read it again.  I appreciated Sebold’s writing much more the second time around.

 

Have you read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 65.  Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013) – Discussion begins March 5, 2018
Historical fiction

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz

The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Dean Koontz is a prolific writer, with 14 hardcover and 14 paperback novels making the number one position on the New York Times Bestseller List.  With that many books, I’m rather surprised that I have not read a single one. I guess all those flashy book covers and prominent positioning in books stores are wasted on me.

This post contains spoilers.

The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Pleasant Surprise

 Since I have not read any of Koontz’s books, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up The Darkest Evening of the Year.  I was pleasantly surprised to be drawn in immediately by both the characters and the plot.  I loved the interplay of conversation between two of the main characters, Amy Redwing and Brian McCarthy.  They sounded like an old married couple, and yet further reading would reveal that they had only known each other a few months.  Their connection on multiple levels was immediately apparent and made several future scenes of the book all the more believable.

“I love October,” she said, looking away from the street.  “Don’t you love October?”

“This is still September.”

“I can love October in September.  September doesn’t care.”

“Watch where you’re going.”

“I love San Francisco, but it’s hundreds of miles away.”

“The way you’re driving, we’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“I’m a superb driver.  No accidents, no traffic citations.”

He said, “My entire life keeps flashing before my eyes.”

“You should make an appointment with an ophthalmologist.”

“Amy, please, don’t keep looking at me.”

“You look fine, sweetie.  Bed hair becomes you.”

“I man, watch the road.”

Koontz obviously has a flair for writing memorable characters.  The two main antagonists, Moongirl and Harrow, are as fascinating as they are evil. The only complaint I have is that I would have liked to learn more of Moongirl’s backstory.  We are given a glimpse into Harrow’s childhood and can see the influences that helped create the sociopath he is as an adult, but we don’t aren’t given the same depth of backstory with Moongirl.

Supernatural or Spiritual

There are aspects of the supernatural in The Darkest Hour of the Night; Brian’s marathon drawing session, the golden retriever Nickie, Amy’s phone call from the long-dead nun.  Or did the author intend the reader to see a more spiritual theme running through this novel?  There were many references to the sounds and shadows of angel wings and a scene of miraculous healing.  Even though this book was categorized as a psychological thriller, I found the spiritual aspect of it much more believable than our previous book, Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young, which was considered Christian fiction.

Koontz’s love of dogs, specifically Golden Retrievers, shines throughout the novel like a warm candle glow, lighting the way in even the darkest hour.  His belief in the redemptive and healing powers of a dog’s love is one of the main themes of The Darkest Hour of the Night.  Nickie is much more than a dog in this novel – she’s one of the main characters and also the conduit for angels (and thus God) to eliminate evil and right the wrongs perpetrated by the evildoers.

 The Title

 We’ve been reading these books to discover why the computer algorithm in The Bestseller Code chose them as bestsellers.  One of the variables looked at by the algorithm was book title.

Bestselling titles might also capture an event, and we can presume that if an event makes the title page it is not just a plot point but something that provides the story with a more fundamental structure and meaning. Accident is one such title…. Nothing will be the same before or after that moment, that day, that kiss, that accident.  The fate of the characters is to respond, to react, to reacclimatize.  But the characters are not the primary agent: the event is bigger than they are.

The Darkest Evening of The Year is an apt title for this bestseller. We know even before we begin to read that something dire is going to happen, that the darkest night isn’t referring to a lunar eclipse.  Every page, every theme, every plot device is propelling the characters forward on an inevitable trajectory to that darkest evening and we are along for the ride.  It’s definitely a ride worth taking.

 

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 66. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002) – Discussion begins February 19, 2018
Mix of genres

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young Reviewers

Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Wm. Paul Young is also the author of the international bestseller The Shack and its sequel The Shack Revisited, all categorized as Christian fiction.

This post contains spoilers.

 

Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Who Cares?

 I found Cross Roads to be incredibly difficult to read.  In the first chapter the reader is introduced to Anthony (Tony) Spencer, an extremely successful business man, but also an obnoxious and unlovable human being.  The author goes over the top in presenting Tony in the most unflattering light, to the point where, by the end of the chapter, when Tony suffers a brain aneurysm and is in a coma, you are 1) relieved to not have to deal with his obnoxiousness anymore and 2) you don’t care one iota what happens to him, either physically or spiritually.

The rest of the novel presents Tony in some altered state of existence spiritually, while his body is still in a coma.  In this altered state he is forced to come to terms with his past behaviors and given the chance to grow spiritually.  It all sounds well and good, but like I stated in the previous paragraph, I had ceased to care whether Tony grew spiritually.  I had ceased to care about Tony at all!

Possessed

Tony meets Jesus, “The Grandmother” (the Holy Spirit), and even God, albeit in an unconventional form, in this altered existence, and they send him back to earth to “inhabit” the bodies of various individuals as an opportunity to grow and learn and redeem himself.  This is the point where I almost gave up on the book.  Not only did he inhabit these bodies, but he could talk to the owners of these bodies and they could hear him and talk back to him, carrying on long conversations.  And then he could be passed to another body by a simple kiss. I felt like I was reading a science fiction or fantasy novel.

To Finish or Not To Finish?

I’ve made it a personal rule to never start reading the next book in our challenge until I’ve written the review for the previous book, and for the most part I’ve stuck to that rule.  Often I read at least one other book in between the books in our challenge as a way of “resetting” my reader’s brain, if you will.  I wanted to get ahead a bit in my reading, though, as I have a rather busy February, so I started reading The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz the very next day after finishing Cross Roads.  Wow.  What a difference!  Whereas I had to force myself to finish reading Cross Roads, I simply cannot put down The Darkest Evening of the Year.  The writing style is compelling, the characters are fascinating, and the plot reveals all come at just the right time.

Christian fiction is not my favorite genre or one I normally seek out, so that could explain some of my dislike of Cross Roads and my disbelief in the whole “altered state” and “habitation of souls” concepts that this novel relies so heavily on.  But more than that, I disliked the author’s writing style, his phrasing (choppy, strident, almost military in feel), and the way he obfuscated his message, talking in circles without really saying anything clearly.  I’d read an entire paragraph and not have a clue what the author really meant.

If you enjoy Christian fiction or stories of spiritual journeys, you might like Cross Roads.  From the number of stars the book has garnered on Amazon, it’s obvious that many people have enjoyed reading it.  From my perspective, it was a waste of my time.

 

Have you read Cross Roads by Wm. Paul Young? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 67. The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz (2007) – Discussion begins February 5, 2018 — Psychological thriller

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