Past Tense, by Lee Child

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I’ve been a fan of Jack Reacher for years. My parents introduced me to him about when book three came out, and I devoured the books in the series as quickly as Lee Child could write them–as did Mom and Dad. I soon introduced my oldest son to Jack … my son was a high school student who wanted to be a US Marine (and has since become one), and he was immediately enthralled. How many authors can have that impact on teens, parents, and grandparents?!

Then Jack and I lost touch for a while, though I thought of him fondly, and probably more often than one should think about a fictional character. When I saw NetGalley was offering up a copy of Lee Child’s soon-to-be-released book, I had to ask for a copy, and I was rewarded with an ebook of PAST TENSE.

If you read Lee Child’s books, you know what to expect. Jack Reacher is wandering through a town, and something keeps him there. The story lines are built on the details surrounding whatever it is that forces his stay in the town in which he finds himself, and Reacher is always Awesome (with a capital A). PAST TENSE follows the formula, and in this instance, Reacher is investigating something is pretty personal: his father’s past. Of course it’s not as simple as hitting the public library, sitting at a computer, going on, and finding out that everything is exactly as it seems. Nope. This is Jack Reacher, so there are mysteries. And secrets. And fist fights. And there’s another part of the story in which a couple of nice Canadian twenty-somethings are being kept captive in a motel for nefarious purposes. What there *isn’t* is Jack Reacher ending up in bed with miscellaneous female character; that surprised me, but it was actually a relief.

All in all, PAST TENSE is exactly what one expects from of a Lee Child/Jack Reacher book. Reacher is Reacher through and through. The mysteries surrounding his dad and the Canadian captives are intriguing. The action scenes are written really well, and although the slower paced moments made me roll my eyes a bit, I knew there would be some mayhem with just a turn of the page. PAST TENSE isn’t my favorite of the Jack Reacher books, but it does its job and the last half of the book ended up being as entertaining as I had hoped.

My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the ebook in exchange for my honest review.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Moscow in 1922 is no place for a count. The Bolsheviks are in charge, and they are not fond of the leisure class. Happily for Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, there are those who feel that despite his membership in the ranks of the elite, he is a hero of the prerevolutionary cause, thanks to an inspiring poem he published in 1913. Thus, rather than execute him, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs decides that he should be confined to his recent place of residence: Moscow’s grand and glorious Metropol hotel. But if the Count should ever step outside of the building, he will be shot.

Thus begins the splendid story of the Count’s decades-long house arrest. The Count—already, in his own gentlemanly way, a man of the people—may find himself in reduced circumstances, but his charm, humor, and powers of observation will serve him in good stead. He makes his attic hovel into a home and accidentally creates a family out of the Metropol staff and guests.

The cast of characters is delightful: the precocious young girl with a fondness for yellow, whose curiosity cannot be contained (and who ends up giving the Count two precious gifts); the brilliant, temperamental chef; the snooty actress; the warm-hearted seamstress; the officer of the Party with a thirst for knowledge (and for film noir); and many, many more. Each character has a role to play, and all offer the Count ample opportunities for bon mots, erudite ruminations, and cheeky capers.

Though occasionally the author gets a little too cute (the bouillabaisse project comes to mind) and the depiction of Stalinist Russia can be a little too jaunty, all is forgiven when Count Rostov begins to muse–which he does often. He is a gracious and endearing companion, a man who manages to make fine wine from the grapes at hand, and saying adieu to him as the book came to an end was sweet sorrow.

Late One Night, by Lee Martin

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Lee Martin’s LATE ONE NIGHT is one of those books that stays with you long after you read the final page. In it, Ronnie Black’s estranged wife, Della, and three of his seven children are killed when their trailer catches fire on a cold Illinois night. The inhabitants of Della and Ronnie’s hometown of Goldengate have already been talking about the pair for the past several months. After all, Ronnie left Della with their kids and moved in with a younger woman—plus he wasn’t a person who inspired many to defend him even before that.

LATE ONE NIGHT is a wonderful study of a small town. Martin’s characters and dialogue bring Goldengate, Illinois to life, and every reader will find someone they know in its pages. I loved the way each person was made more real in some small way to help me further immerse myself in the story, and by the end of the book I felt as much a member of the town as anyone I read about. Shifting points of view ensured that I always had any needed backstory, and it was done in a way that didn’t leave me scrambling to remember whose brain I was sharing.

Lee Martin has a special gift when it comes to writing literary fiction. He combines suspense and the darker side of people with the comforting rhythm of a small town, and this book is a terrific example of that; Martin captures the wistfulness and yearning for what could have been, the hopes that come with a fresh start, and the suffering caused by a tragedy. It’s one of those rare books that I’ll read again, and I definitely recommend it to others.

They Both Die at the End, by Adam Silvera



The date is September 5, 2017 and Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio are both going to die. Thanks to an app called Last Friend, they find each other and commit to spend their day in the best way possible—whatever that means.

THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END should be an incredibly sad book about dying, but instead it’s a manual on how to live. Author Adam Silvera shows how we’re all part of a single tapestry, and intersections with others can have a significance you might never understand. Mateo and Rufus are both beautiful souls, and though they are each flawed, their imperfections help strengthen the other. The day that they spend together might seem unremarkable to someone who doesn’t know them; fortunately, we get to know them both really well through some great character development.

In the midst of Mateo and Rufus’s story are the stories of many others. We just catch glimpses of some of them, and others receive a longer look. It’s understandable that none of them are as well put together as the two protagonists, but there are instances where the glimpses seem a bit too contrived and they distract rather than sharpen the focus on the two I really wanted to see, but that could be a testament to Mateo and Rufus rather than a failing in the others.

This book would be a wonderful addition to a high school classroom. The conversations and debates I imagine it generating among teens would be awesome. Adam Silvera has created a fascinating, modern, coming-of-age story, and I look forward to sharing it with others, if only so that I can talk about it some more.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine; that is clear from the start. But she is survivor, whether she knows it or not. This book is Chris Bohjalian’s disturbing The Double Bind mashed up with Graeme Simsion’s charming The Rosie Project, with fascinating, heartwarming, and surprising results.

Twenty-nine-year-old Eleanor has worked in an office job for eight years. From Monday through Friday she has her head down at work, unable to figure out how to interact positively with her co-workers. Every night, she goes home to her apartment, has a solitary dinner, and goes to bed. She drinks her way through the weekend, alone, just to get from Friday to Monday. Every Wednesday evening, she speaks with her “Mummy,” a terrifying maternal figure. As the book progresses, we find that Eleanor has had a challenging upbringing that featured abuse and trauma, but the biggest problem she faces is an inability to recognize “normal.”

The first few chapters of the book describe Eleanor’s loneliness in painful detail, but for the reader, the ache is tempered by the laugh-out-loud observations Eleanor makes along the way. Her point of view is definitely unique, but it rings true in the context of what, over time, we find her life experience to have been.

Eleanor’s lonely existence starts to evolve when she develops a crush on a singer in a band. She essentially goes through her teenage years a decade late as she deals with these new feelings. The crush leads to a clumsy attempt to improve herself. At the same time, she begins inadvertently to form friendships with Raymond, the new guy at work, as well as the elderly Sammy and his family. Before she knows it, she has something resembling a social life—and the emotions that she has suppressed her whole life begin to demand her attention.

By page 18, I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen with this book. By page 28, I had revised my assessment somewhat. By page 74, I had surrendered myself to the charm and unexpectedness of the story, rooting for the unconventional heroine and the sweet characters who model normal behavior for her and ultimately help Eleanor to reclaim her own voice.

Comfort Food, by Kate Jacobs


In food terms, Comfort Food is macaroni and cheese, with a little bacon thrown in. In other words, it’s basic fare with just a little something extra–a great choice for the beach or a plane trip, and unlikely to upset your stomach.

The heroine, Gus Simpson, is a 50-ish Martha Stewart type with two feisty daughters, a neighbor who is reclusive for good reason, serious control issues, and a television cooking show that is unexpectedly on the rocks. Gus is forced by circumstances to take some risks, pulling a motley assortment of reluctant friends and family along with her as she tries to revive her sinking career (not to mention her pathetic personal life). The results are extremely contrived, but surprisingly entertaining.

Gus starts out a little too strident, but the many (maybe too many?) odd characters surrounding her soften the edges. Like the author’s hugely popular The Friday Night Knitting Club, this book touches just enough on themes of commitment, loss, friendship, and family to keep the book group talking. But there’s no need for deep thought—with this book, just sit back and enjoy the action, the unusual characters, and a couple of twists at the end.

One warning, though: As you read Comfort Food, keep a pile of snacks handy, because the food descriptions will have you salivating.  

The Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen

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Jane Yolen’s collection THE EMERALD CIRCUS is pure delight for anyone who craves inspired retellings of classics from literature, or re-imaginings of the lives of real literary figures. Yolen takes a slanted look at the lives of Emily Dickinson, Hans Christian Andersen, and Edgar Allen Poe, and she creates some stellar “what if” moments for Lancelot, Dorothy (from Oz), Alice (from Wonderland), and others. Yolen’s writing is beautiful, her pacing is perfect, and the way she takes stories that have been done over and over again in a whole new direction is sublime. My favorite part of the collection (if I have to choose just one) is her take on Peter Pan and Wendy’s story in which Peter and the Lost Boys are pretty contemptible, and the girls of Neverland exist only to serve them until … well, you should read it and find out.

It’s rare to find a short story collection that doesn’t contain at least one “meh” story, but THE EMERALD CIRCUS nails it.

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

Okay, Skippy dies. That’s no surprise; it happens in the first few pages of the book, on the floor of a Dublin doughnut shop frequented by acne-ridden adolescents from the boys’ school up the road. The surprise lies in how fervently I hoped throughout the rest of the book that that scene somehow didn’t happen, that it was all a hoax, that Skippy was in fact alive and well and off somewhere getting his life together.

From the first chapter, Paul Murray shifts through time with assurance, showing how sweet, sensitive Skippy’s death affects those around him while also revealing, slowly, how he came to be sprawled on the floor of the doughnut shop with his friend Ruprecht looking on in the first place.

The adults in the book are hugely disappointing–indeed, the complete ineptitude displayed by Skippy’s teachers and parents is one of the weaknesses of the book. But the author draws upon Skippy’s friends for the story’s humor and wisdom: the observations about school and life are sharp and witty, and Skippy’s pal Dennis gives an interpretation of Robert Frost that still makes me laugh out loud.

Funny, tragic, and occasionally even uplifting, Skippy Dies is a roller-coaster ride through the good, the bad, and the ridiculous–i.e., adolescence–with a main character whose death serves, too late, to bring him to life.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal


KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal revolves around Eva Louise Thorvald, the only child from the brief marriage of a chef and a sommelier. The reader meets Eva as an infant, follows up with her as a preteen, catches a glimpse of her during her teen years, and then finishes their relationship with her as Eva settles into her 20s. Stradal tells Eva’s story in a manner reminiscent of a short story collection, and with each chapter she is viewed largely through the eyes of people whose lives she touches as she navigates the world. As one would expect from a character with a “once-in-a-generation palate,” Eva’s interactions with others are largely food-focused, and the author happily includes a few recipes for those inclined to try out the food that sounds so delicious on the page.

KITCHENS is a beautifully written bit of fiction that manages to make the reader pause and think about the meaning of family, the importance of community and friends, and the role food plays in our lives. It somehow does all of that without being overbearing and stuffy. For a time I wanted the entire book to be completely from Eva’s perspective, but I think something would have been lost if the author had gone that route. Twenty-something-Eva is a mysterious and elusive character, and the author’s method added to that. As I finished KITCHENS, I was left wanting more of Eva and her food–much like the characters in the book.

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

In his study of three extremely complex characters, Robert Goolrick creates a compelling meditation on love, greed, addiction, passion, death, forgiveness, beauty, wealth, madness, and redemption, set in wintry Wisconsin in the early 1900s. The author does not over-describe, instead leaving the reader to fill in the blanks about the characters’ past and present lives.

Each character has a clear desire, but not everyone in this story can get what he or she wants, and much of the book’s suspense is created as the competing plans unfold. The characters undergo tremendous internal changes over the course of several months, changes that are largely (but perhaps not entirely) believable. Still, there are a few aspects of the plot that are a little too coincidental to be comfortable, and one main character seems a little too good to be true.

This is an engaging book that will leave you thinking about the meaning of parenthood, the rewards of forgiveness, and the nature of love.