Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan

I’m giving this 5 stars because I thought it was really well written and I loved it. I kept describing this book to my friends as “kind of slow and nothing happens” but I couldn’t put it down. For real.  Henry is 74-75 year old man, happily married for 49 years, with grown children, and assorted grandchildren. He has his daily routines of general life and marriage and housekeeping, he putters, he fixes, he listens to Pirates games, he goes to Home Depot a few times a week, he walks his dog. All very ordinary things, but there’s something about this that just made it great. Is it Henry’s reflections? His honest look at marriage and fatherhood? I don’t know. I mean, I’m the age of Henry’s children so it’s not like I have a lot in common with this protagonist, but it was not hard to find myself thinking about my own future and what I might be like at that age and how we get through life.
I also enjoyed the structure of the book. Some chapters were very short and episodic, some were longer.
As an aside, for myself I loved the deeply detailed Pittsburgh setting. I only lived in Pittsburgh for one year (in fact….it would have been 1 to 2 years before this story takes place) but I knew almost all the places he talks about and especially loved his memories of Phipps Conservatory.

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Love and Death Among the Cheetahs by Rhys Bowen (Her Royal Spyness)

I’ve been especially looking forward to this one since it is enticingly set in Africa (Kenya, to be exact.)
As usual there is a little of the Queen, Mrs. Simpson and cousin David (the Prince), and fussy sister in law Fig. (Fig, Binky, Diddy–these names crack me up) which is all very entertaining, but the bulk of the story has Georgie and Darcy in Kenya, ostensibly on their honeymoon, but really Darcy is investigating something and then of course someone gets murdered and they investigate that.
It is so interesting to read about how they get to Kenya–a long and difficult journey, which included a surprising amount of glamorous air travel. And once there everything was new to me–how the Brits were “settling” in valleys and farming, but also being aristocrats, terrible to the natives, and so on. Just like Lady Georgiana I was fascinated by the big animals and how they were just in the wilderness with them-but also horrified by how casually people talked about killing them.
The biggest surprise of all I won’t explicitly state here-I’ll just say that I was TOTALLY surprised and the author’s note afterward explains that she didn’t make it up-it really happened. Fascinating.

 

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

This book was bonkers! And I really liked it. I am left with some questions and need to talk to someone else who read it. (There are some things that I can’t quite tell if I just didn’t understand, need confirmation of what I think, or are deliberately vague. Either way, I think the story works.)
On a remote island off the coast of Maine there is a girls’ boarding school. BUT this is not a boarding school book such as I usually read. No, this is a story that feels more post-apocalyptic. In this case we join in the story a year and a half after some kind of biological epidemic has swept the island. Consequently, the school is shut off from the mainland, they have no contact with the outside world, many girls are dead and continue to die, and it’s somewhat of a Lord of the Flies situation. Basically, the disease (or whatever), that they refer to as the Tox, is making the girls mutate. MUTATE! And just to make it extra scary, the grounds of the school are fenced in, keeping them safe from all the mutating wild animals on the other side.
Woven into this are some intense girl relationships. And overall there is a mystery pushing the story forward–why don’t they get enough supplies? why did she overhear the staff talking to someone? etc.
I found this to be somewhat un-put-downable because you are convinced there is a sinister plot that you are eager to figure out exactly what’s going on (as are the characters. They also want to know what’s what.)

I think the most surprising thing about this book was just how violent it was!  It was definitely pretty bizarre and out there, but I liked it in a weird way.

Ellie and the Harpmaker by Hazel Prior

I really enjoyed this. In fact, I read almost all of it in one lovely summer day. I feel that since The Rosie Project (or, as my friend ML suggests, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) there has been a surge in novels featuring adults who have autism (whether or not it is explicitly mentioned.) In this case it’s Dan. Dan lives in Exmoor by himself in a barn where he surrounds himself with the harps he makes.  He is content and happy and absorbed in the beauty of nature around him. He stays mostly by himself because he doesn’t like groups of people and knows he has trouble with specific social situations.

One day, Ellie meets him. Ellie is a lovely woman who is married in a somewhat unsatisfying marriage. She is a housewife and the reader will immediately see that her husband is emotionally abusive. When Dan spontaneously gives Ellie a harp as a gift the two begin a deep friendship. Ellie visits Dan every day to practice the harp and the two enjoy companionable silence together as well as sandwiches and walks. Unfortunately it all must be kept secret due to jealous Clive (the husband.)

I thought this was a beautiful story. I loved seeing the natural world through Dan’s eyes, and I loved their relationship.  I did get very upset at the end though as I felt one character was terrible and damaging and that was just allowed to slide.

Home for Erring and Outcast Girls by Julie Kibler

That title is awfully catchy, and it is the actual name of a home in Texas. The story goes back and forth between two time periods. In the present day a woman with her own vague past and mysterious issues becomes quite fixated on researching (she is a university librarian) the home for errant girls after she sees the small remaining cemetery and plaque. She delves into her local history collection, and also befriends a college student who seems to have her own issues. Basically the present is mirroring the past. The errant girls are young women who’ve been cast out, become heroin addicts, turned to prostitution to survive, etc.  There is sexual abuse in all the time periods and truly the most horrific displays of inhumanity. And yet, the book is heartwarming and hopeful. In the past (this is in the 1910s and then through the 30s) the story focuses on Lizzie and Mattie, two young women who become like sisters.

I really liked seeing how everything tied together, and also that we did get to see what happened to Lizzie and Mattie as they tried to make their way through life, discovering that they are good women, that wrongs were done to them, not that they were sinful. The afterward is worth reading as it explains which parts of the book were true.

I really enjoyed this and found it a very engrossing read.

Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith

What a delightful romantic story. Hugo is British, Mae is American, both are 18 and the cusp of heading off to college. Hugo is one of 6 children, sextuplets, which has been a huge part of his identity and also determined his future. He’s set to go to college with siblings at the local university, which has been in the works since their birth. Mae lives with her two dads is an aspiring filmmaker. She is crushed that while she was accepted to the college of her choice, she was not accepted into the film program. The two do not know each other, but Hugo has tickets for a train trip across the U.S. His girlfriend bought them for them, but the tickets are in her name, nontransferable, and now they are broken up. He can only take the trip if someone with the same name as his ex can go with him. Mae is that person and they meet for the first time at Penn Station as they board the train, ready to embark on the adventure of sharing a tiny cabin and a lengthy journey with a stranger.
I love stories that are journeys both in actuality (a train trip, a road trip, etc.) and also clearly journeys of self (coming of age, falling in love, self discovery.) That’s what this story is and it’s lovely and romantic and also really, really made me want to take a nice train trip some day.

The Late Bloomers’ Club by Louise Miller

I’m giving this a 4 on Goodreads, but it’s really more of a 3.5 to me. That said, just right for vacation reading. A pretty cover, an easy story, a charming setting, and a good dog story too.

This is set in the quaintest of small towns where everyone knows everyone else and somehow Nora finds herself somewhat responsible for what happens next. A giant corporation (aka Walmart) wants to purchase the huge parcel of property she recently inherited (along with her sister.) There’s quite a few threads going on in this story: lost dog, corporate guy who is actually quite a naturalist and sparks fly between him and Nora, sister issues when her flighty sister shows up, and the mysteries Peggy left behind that Nora is now unraveling.
I think I would have liked this story a little bit better if it was more focused on what Nora found on Peggy’s land and Peggy’s story. Those parts were so interesting, but I felt like they got a little short shrift because there was so much other stuff going on. Also, I couldn’t stand her selfish sister.