The Operator, by Gretchen Berg

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Vivian Dalton is a switchboard operator in 1950s Wooster, Ohio. She and the other operators at Bell aren’t *supposed* to listen in on calls, but how were people supposed to fill their days before reality TV?! Unfortunately for Vivian, she taps into a call that completely upends her uneventful middle American world, and all of Wooster ends up shaken as a result.

THE OPERATOR by Gretchen Berg is a terrific book. It’s a commentary on small town life in the 1950s and an examination of family relationships and dynamics. Although I don’t expect character-driven novels to have a lot of action, this one delivered in that, too. I also loved the historical aspects of Vivian’s story—especially the moments spent at the switchboard. My mom was a switchboard operator in Michigan in the 1950s, and I worked at an answering service that had the last functioning cord switchboard in that state during my college years (yes, I’m old), so every time Vivian walked into work, I had a glimpse into my mom’s past while revisiting my own.

You don’t have to have a background that matches the storyline to appreciate this book. Gretchen Berg writes wonderfully well, and there is enough humor and action to keep you turning pages even if you can’t get invested in the characters—though it would be hard not to find someone in the book with whom you can relate. Vera, Vivian’s older sister, is consumed by jealousy for her prettier sister, and their younger sister, Violet, is just trying to keep the peace. Vivian also has a teenage daughter who is alternately mortified and mystified by her mother, and the men in the story—while taking a back seat to the women—add color, depth, and necessary detail to the plot.

I really hope that Gretchen Berg has more books in mind. If she’s taking requests, I want to hear more from Charlotte, Vivian’s daughter, and I need to know what happens to that “four flusher” Betty Miller! In the meantime, I’ll share the book with lots of people so that I can talk about the people of Wooster, Ohio for a while longer.

My thanks to Book No Further bookstore in Roanoke, Virginia and the publisher for a copy of an ARC of the book in exchange for my unbiased review.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

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Quentin is a genius, and he’s pretty depressed. Life lacks color for him, and he immerses himself in a children’s book series about Fillory, a land filled with magic, as a form of escape. Imagine Quentin’s delight when he finds out that magic is real, there are colleges that teach it, and he’s been accepted into one … but disillusionment isn’t far behind no matter how many dreams come true for Quentin. The Magicians has been described as a mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books, but for adult audiences, and the author does not hide the fact that he’s borrowing heavily from those two series.

I first read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians a couple of years after it came out, and I came away from it feeling pretty grumpy. I wasn’t sure why it had that impact on me. At first, I thought it was the general ickiness of most of the cast, but I’ve enjoyed plenty of books without likeable characters. I had lunch with a friend who also disliked the book, and we talked about it for a bit, but I never reached a satisfying resolution to my lack of appreciation for a story recommended by people whose book opinions I value (including my sister).

A couple of months ago, a group of friends and I decided to start a book club, and as I tried to come up with a good first book that would have some appeal to a wide range of people, I suggested The Magicians—in part because I thought that I should give it a second chance. My first reading of it was at an unsettled time in my life, and I’ve had more than a few instances where I’ve enjoyed a book more after a second reading.

The verdict after this reading? Yes, I enjoyed it more this time, in part because I was able to adjust my expectations away from a universe as magical as the ones found in the Harry Potter and Narnia series. This second go also gave me the opportunity to zero in on what was so off-putting the first time around, and the problem is largely with me. One of the reasons I read books from the fantasy genre is to be entranced by a whole new world—or an interesting new riff on the world in which we’re living. Because it borrows so blatantly and unapologetically from previously established worlds, The Magicians didn’t offer me the level of escape and diversion that other fantasy novels do. Every storyline is a distorted view of worlds I already know thoroughly and love, and it was jarring the first time I read it. (For the record, I also didn’t enjoy the Bizarro World storylines that DC put out, so at least I’m consistent.)

What did I like this time? Well, I appreciated Lev Grossman’s willingness to do a deeper character study than is often found in this genre. Although some members of Quentin’s crew are teen movie stereotypes (and icky), Quentin is more than just the typical brooding, brilliant teen/young adult. And I liked the shy-but-strong Alice quite a bit. It’s also a positive that Lev Grossman can write well, of course, though I was often bored during the action scenes.

The Magicians ends where I’m sure book 2 begins, and it left me intrigued enough to be tempted to continue the series. However, this may end up being an instance where I watch the tv show instead.

Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger

We first meet Virgil Wander soon after he dies. Or not. (It isn’t entirely clear.)

Virgil is an inhabitant of Greenstone, a small, steadily declining town in Minnesota. He works as the town clerk, lives in and operates the local cinema house, and for years now has run his life on autopilot—until his car flies off the road and into Lake Superior, leaving him impaired, reflective, and reluctantly needing in-home assistance.

Enter Rune, a new-to-town Scandinavian who has recently discovered that he is the biological father of a minor-league baseball player named Alec Sandstrom. Alec—a talented but erratic pitcher–had had a brief moment of glory with the Greenstone team, then disappeared mysteriously, leaving behind his stunningly attractive wife Nadine, their brooding young child, and a lingering mystery. Rune has come to Greenstone to fly kites, talk to the residents, and try to understand the son he never knew.

Virgil and Rune are on intersecting journeys of discovery, with the gritty widow Nadine at the hub. Their journeys are made a little more challenging by the return of the town’s prodigal son, who is Satan. Or not. (It isn’t entirely clear.) We’re also distracted by 10-year-old Galen Pea and his quest for revenge on a killer fish, and by sad Jerry Fandeen and his dissolving marriage. But really, this is just a loose premise for Enger’s amble through Midwestern quirkiness, gilded with a coating of magical realism. Each sentence contains a wry smile; each character is imbued with gentle melancholy. The story itself moves slowly and ends with a fizzle. Still, Enger’s characters tug at the heart, and his prose—which first captured me nearly 20 years ago with his enchanting Peace Like a River—is as sweet and warm as a cup of hot chocolate in a Minnesota snowstorm.

Beartown, by Fredrik Backman

I understand Beartown: Always the afterthought, populated by misfits and hard-working scrappers, looking down the road with envy at Hed, the town next door that always gets the money, the jobs, the attention. Anyone who grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, just down the road from Kalamazoo, as I did, understands the dynamic. Throw in a rivalry between the towns’ two ice-hockey clubs, populate the story with the kinds of characters that both small towns and ice hockey attract, and you have a surprising, insightful, emotional book that is about so much more than sports.

When we first are introduced to Beartown, the community is on a nervous high, waiting for the town’s junior ice-hockey team to compete in a huge national semifinal game. For once, the team—and by extension, the town—has a real chance to come out a winner, thanks to Kevin, the star player, and the Beartown team that has grown up around him. But things don’t go quite as planned: as the game approaches, the community is split apart by a violent act. The decisions that must be made as a result test the loyalty and ethics of Beartown’s residents.

I loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (see Kristie’s review here) so much that I was afraid that I would be disappointed by this book. Silly me. Backman’s deep understanding of emotions, motivations, and relationships made A Man Called Ove shine in its portrayal of an individual; with Beartown, the author masterfully depicts an entire community, making us feel that we know each member, that we’ve sat with them in the Bearskin pub and listened to their innermost thoughts. We root for them to do the right thing, and care about them even when they don’t. We understand the mistakes they make, even if we sometimes find it hard to forgive them.

Backman’s extraordinarily pleasurable writing is worth spending time with, no matter what the subject, and if I were the sort of person who highlights great sentences in a book, Beartown’s pages would have been glowing like a radioactive lemon. The author’s insightful offhand comments and wry humor mark every passage. But perhaps the most unexpected aspect of this book with a boys’ sport at its core was its feminist streak–subtle at first, but by the end of the story, there’s no missing it.

If you know the world of ice hockey well, Backman’s portrayal of the coaches, players, parents, and fans will have you nodding your head and grinning in recognition. But even if you don’t know a faceoff from an offsides, Beartown’s story resonates with its examination of family, community, sacrifice, and what it means to be a good person.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

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Where the Crawdads Sing was the book that you saw everywhere this summer—the season’s “It” book. I’ll be honest, with an “It” book, I usually wait until I’m pretty sure that we don’t have another TwilightFifty Shades of Grey, or Girl on a Train on our hands—or at least until the paperback is released. But I was heading out to the beach and in need of something to hold my attention between naps, so I took a leap and bought the hardcover. I’m not sorry; this was a solid, emotional read with some unexpected twists.

It’s the story of a remarkable girl, Kya, called “the Marsh Girl” by the denizens of the small nearby town on the North Carolina coast. Abandoned as a very young child, first by her beloved mother, then by her older siblings, and finally by her abusive father, she manages to avoid the authorities long enough for them to lose interest in capturing her, then essentially raises herself in the wild. Though a few of the townspeople provide her with subtle assistance, most consider her a freak. As she grows older, a careful friendship with an older boy tempers her loneliness and gives her the tools to educate herself; then a less careful friendship with another young man leads to heartbreak and tragedy.

The book does require some suspension of belief. The idea of a six-year-old girl surviving on her own in the marshes without starving or injuring herself is a bit of a stretch. (On the other hand, I read books where time travel and vampires are de rigueur, so who am I to judge?) I also found it hard to accept Kya’s character development through her relationships–by her late teens she had been abandoned by everyone she ever loved, which made her initial reaction to a major betrayal difficult to process. And the ending, while surprising and emotional, does rely on the reader to avoid thinking too hard about how secrets are revealed.

Still, a good story populated by appealing personalities trumps all for me, and the author does a beautiful job of incorporating the marsh and its wildlife as characters worthy of a lonely young girl’s love. Kya may be lonely, but with the marshland around her, she is never alone.

How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig

What if your life expectancy were measured in terms of centuries rather than years? Would it be a blessing or a curse? How would it affect your relationships, your choices, your enjoyment of life?

These are the questions with which How to Stop Time wrangles through its protagonist, Tom Hazard. Tom has been alive since the sixteenth century. His development was normal until puberty, when the ageing process slowed markedly: outwardly, he aged one year for every 15 he lived. The condition comes with a heightened immune system, providing extra protection from diseases. So although Tom isn’t immortal, in many respects he may as well be. He’s over 400 years old, but he looks like a robust 41-year-old.

Tom’s condition is rare, but not unique. There are others like him around the world, and a secretive group has formed to offer support and protection, though its assistance comes with a price. Among other requirements, he must never fall in love. This is not a problem for Tom; his wife, Rose, died during the Black Plague, and even the centuries since haven’t dimmed his love for her. But his emotional isolation is about to be tested as he returns to live in a city brimming with memories of Rose and meets a charming French teacher who draws him in, despite the danger.

This poignant story is dotted with glimpses of history—William Shakespeare plays a key role, as do Captain Cook and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald—but these mainly serve to provide an entertaining structure for a fantastical romance, and for thoughtful, wry philosophical musings on what it means to live.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

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Well, friends, here we have another instance where my sister told me to read a book, gave me a copy of the book, and I waited a year or so to do what she said. I should know better. Since she has already posted a review of A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles. go ahead and read that here: https://thesisterhoodofbooks.com/2018/08/18/a-gentleman-in-moscow-by-amor-towles/. She has covered it all pretty well.

When I texted Sherry to tell her that I had read the book, I said this: “… I finished A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW and holy cow. What a phenomenal book. Yes. You were right again.” I followed up with “I’ll do a review of GENTLEMAN, but it might just be sighs and staring off into the distance in remembrance of the stunning prose and terrific plot.”

So I’ve decided that that’s almost all you get for my review. However, I will note that Sherry’s review states that the bouillabaisse project in GENTLEMAN is a little “too cute.” I disagree on that point. I think it was an indication of the dedication of the triumvirate to a perfect dish–which was key to their personalities and their connection to one another.

Although I agree with Sherry’s assessment that the depiction of Stalinist Russia is a little too “jaunty,” I also think that since the main character’s view is the focus of the book, it’s perfectly in keeping with the Count’s understanding of the time for that time period to be portrayed as it is.

So. I think A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW may be a perfect book. However, Sherry and I haven’t talked about it in person. We’ll post a follow-up to our reviews when we’ve had that opportunity. In the meantime, I suggest you read the book. Perfect or not, it’s absolutely charming and a complete delight.