Fifteen Years of Great Books

June 2018 marks the end of my fifteenth year of writing a monthly “Reader’s Choice” book review column for “The Town Courier.” (Yes, I was quite young when I started...) Reading back over them, I marvel at the terrific books this new century has brought. Just for fun, I picked my favorite book of each year for anyone who might want reading suggestions. This list also holds several of my all-time favorite books, each marked with an asterisk. Enjoy!

2018 “A Gentleman in Moscow” * by Amor Towles
Delightful novel of a Duke confined.

2017 “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” * by Gail Honeyman
Good days, bad days and better days.

2016 “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi
Sometimes death teaches us about life.

2015 “We Are Not Ourselves”
by Matthew Thomas
A wife’s world shifts seismically when...

2014 “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
A chilling, but dazzling, historical novel.

2013 “The Burgess Boys”
by Elizabeth Strout
Better than her Pulitzer-Prize winner!

2012 “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” * by Rachel Joyce                                                                Simple, fun-to-read, yet powerful novel

2011 “The Paris Wife”
by Paula McLain
A trip to Paris’ Left Bank in the 1920’s.

2010 “The Art of Racing in the Rain” * by Garth Stein
A wise old dog narrates this tear-jerker.

2009 “The Thirteenth Tale”
by Diane Setterfield
Filled with surprises and revelations.

2008 “The Uncommon Reader”
by Alan Bennett
A gem about the Queen’s new addiction.

2007 “The Glass Castle” *
by Jeannette Walls
All-time top memoir of kooky parenting.

2006 “I Feel Bad About My Neck” by Nora Ephron
Laugh-out-loud stories about aging.

2005 “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” by Mark Haddon                                                Protagonist Christopher tells it like it is.

2004 “The Time Traveler’s Wife”
by Audrey Niffenegger
You think YOU have problems with hubby.

2003 “A Year of Wonders”
by Geraldine Brooks
Yes, reading about a plague can be satisfying!

All book reviews from 2010 on can be found here. I look forward to sharing info about good books I read in coming issues of The Town Courier, yet I’ll no longer be writing a monthly column.

"Lilac Girls" by Martha Hall Kelly

The cover of “Lilac Girls” (2017), showing three young women dressed in mid-20th century style, suggests they are chatting as they stroll about…what? Romance? Adventure? Where to have tea? Yet, readers do not have to delve very far into this novel before learning the characters within have much more critical things to deal with.

Martha Hall Kelly’s breakout novel spans twenty years in the darkest period of modern European history, those from 1939 to 1959, from the point of view of three young women. The stories of these women, whose lives were irreparably changed by the cataclysm of the Nazi regime, are woven through the book. Caroline Ferriday is a wealthy socialite, volunteering in New York City at the French Consulate, when her work becomes frenetic as she struggles to help French refugees. Kasia Kuzmerick is a teenager in Lublin, Poland with boyfriend problems, when a careless delivery—her first for the underground—results in her and her mother being crammed onto a train headed to the East German concentration camp Ravensbruck. Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor from Dusseldorf, who begins as a counselor at a camp run by the female wing of the Nazi Party and accepts a position as the only female doctor at Ravensbruck.

Within the novel, Caroline’s involvement as an American working to aid those fleeing from Europe, becomes the positive energy of the book that holds it together. As you might imagine, the stories of Kasia, as a prisoner in the camp, and Herta, as a doctor there who is required to act as directed, involve horrors that are sometimes difficult to read.

Kelly reports in her Author’s Note that her book in based on real people. As a New Englander, she once visited the Connecticut home of Caroline Ferriday’s family and found a treasure trove of information about Caroline’s work which extended long after the war. She learned that this socialite volunteer became an advocate for a group of young women, the real Kasia being one, who were experimentally and brutally operated on during the years they were confined in Ravensbruck camp. Ms. Ferriday worked unceasingly to make the post-war lives of the women, labeled “Rabbits,” better by raising money and arranging to bring them to the United States for medical treatment, respite care, and even some sightseeing.

“Lilac Girls” is a prime example of the kind of beautifully crafted and important historical novel that sheds light on a time, however disturbing, that we should not forget.

 

"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

When you pick up a book titled “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine,” you know you are not getting another “Pride and Prejudice” or “The Sun Also Rises.” Yet, there is a quality about Gail Honeyman’s 2017 debut novel that left me certain we will be hearing about this wonderful, one-of-a-kind book for a long time. I find myself wondering how to describe it to you. Should I put it in the category of a humor book (though it’s often dark), or an inspirational book, a psychological thriller, feel-good story, mystery or what? It happens to be all of the above.

Thirty-one-year-old Eleanor is a quintessential loner in Glasgow who works in the accounts department of a design firm. She finds her artsy colleagues childish and ignorant and makes no effort to hide it. (They find her eccentric and laughable.) She leads a life of unshakable routine—at her job by 8:30 each day, particular dinners for each evening in her apartment, then hours watching the telly, usually with one or two bottles of vodka for company. The only change in her routine comes on Wednesday evenings when her mother calls from an unidentified place. Her foul-mouthed, cruel mother—“the pretty face of evil”—has been locked up somewhere for a crime that becomes clearer with time.

The energy of the story comes from what Eleanor tells us is the first day of the rest of her life. She won tickets in a charity raffle to the performance of a local band, and the moment the lead singer walked onto stage, Eleanor knew he was the one who was perfect for her, would please her mother, and turn her life in another direction. It’s clear to us that notion is ridiculous (we know him only through several of his Tweets), but it starts Eleanor on a path of self-improvement. We see it begin when Raymond, a disheveled, young tech guy in the office fixes Eleanor’s computer and a friendship begins.

Honeyman quietly hints at the fact that the change in Eleanor’s life will be treated with some depth by dividing the book into three sections—Good Days, Bad Days, and Better Days. You see, Eleanor has a massive scar on her face, and Honeyman treats readers, as well, to a sensitively-handled psychological exploration of the scars on Eleanor’s heart. Honeyman has written a heavy, but uplifting, human interest story with laugh-out-loud moments. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

"Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout has done it again. She has written still another novel that deserves all the attention a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author (for “Olive Kitteridge”) automatically gets. “Anything is Possible” (2017) is her stunning new book, categorized as a novel, but one that reads like a collection of short stories, peopled by folks in and around Amgash, Illinois. You have a head start if you’ve read Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton,” since Lucy and her family have a presence here as well. The Bartons were a poor, struggling family in Amgash before Lucy headed off to college and then to New York City where she is a writer. She is only featured in one story, but referred to periodically when someone reports about seeing her on TV or travels to attend a bookstore reading.

Strout’s gift as a writer comes not only from her seamlessly flowing narrative but also from her keen observation of people—how they speak, what they hold back, what they notice. Dottie, who runs a Bed and Breakfast, observes that one of her guests, Shelly, who bragged about the McMansion they had built, but was embarrassed about others’ criticism, “suffered only from the most common complaint of all: Life had simply not been what she thought it would be. Shelly had taken life’s disappointments and turned them into a house.”

The stories are filled with shocking secrets and revelations. With kindness and indifference. With change and refusal to change. One of Lucy’s friends’ mother has a long affair with their Spanish teacher. The husband of a shop owner returned from Vietnam and is never able to live with himself. A farmer loses everything when a raging fire destroys his property and becomes a school janitor who treats the neediest children with such tenderness. For the first time in years, Lucy visits her brother Pete who lives in squalor in their childhood home, and he scrubs away years of filth to make it nice for the sister he’s so proud of.

In a delightfully poignant chapter, “Mississippi Mary,” Angelina visits her almost eighty-year-old mother who lives with her new sixty-something Italian husband, in an apartment on the Mediterranean. She cannot hide her disdain for her mother’s decision to leave her old life and her family (and proudly wear a yellow string bikini). Justifying her decision, Mary says, “Look what Paolo’s done for me, honey. He downloaded all of Elvis’s songs onto my phone.” But in the quiet midnight moments as she reconnects with the sadness she’s brought to her daughter, she asks herself, “Who leaves a marriage after fifty-one years?” But the answer comes to her, and she knows her daughter could never understand “what it had been like to be so famished. Almost fifty years of being parched.”

As a conscientious book reviewer, I jotted down every character’s name and relationship to the others, reviewing it with each following chapter to keep the connections straight. Yet appreciating this wonderful book doesn’t require that. It asks us only to consider what might be hiding below the surface in their lives, and our lives, where anything is possible.

"The Vacationers" by Emma Straub

What characterizes a good summer read? I’m no expert on that since I’m generally indifferent to the season when I make my choice. But this year after a string of heavier topics, I decided on Emma Straub’s “The Vacationers” (2014). A trip to Mallorca was just what I needed.

The Post family and friends, Manhattanites all, rent a picture-perfect villa atop a cliff on the island off Spain for a two week get-away. Franny, the matriarch, had high hopes for pulling together her husband Jim, their eighteen-year-old daughter Sylvia, their son Bobby, his girlfriend Carmen, and Franny’s best friend Charles with his husband Lawrence for a relaxing two-week vacation.

Yet shortly before they left Jim, at sixty, was fired from his long-term editorial job at Gallant magazine for reasons we soon learn had to do with an affair he was having with a twenty-three- year-old intern. Franny must live with explosive feelings about this blow to their marriage. And beneath this idyllic setting, it seems that everyone has a story.

Franny and Jim are barely civil to Carmen, a brusque fitness guru who is ten years older than their son and spends most of her time doing lunges and crunches. She and Bobby, who work together at a gym in Miami, are clearly having problems.

Sylvia has just graduated from high school carrying the bitter taste of a cheating boyfriend and looking forward to starting at Brown in the fall. She has only one goal for the summer—to loose her virginity—and a movie-star handsome Spanish tutor looks like he might fit the bill.

Charles and Lawrence await news from New York about an adoption they’ve applied for; Lawrence was the initiator and Charles, the reluctant one. An email notifying them they are on a short list stirs up hidden feelings.

But Franny, a foodie by trade, pulls it all together with her delicious offerings and planned excursions, all the while fuming and grieving over the potential destruction of her marriage.

It turns out this was a perfect summer read for me. It was smart and fun. There was no tsunami, no shark attack, no kidnapping, only a group of people with a boatload of feelings at critical junctures of their lives. Straub brought me along on the trip with her humor and kindness towards the Posts and friends. You know an author has hooked you in when the characters play Scrabble one rainy afternoon and you find yourself hoping she lets you know who won. (She does.) Straub told an interviewer, “For me, in both actual life and fictional life, it's all about emotional shifts and small internal changes. That's what's interesting to me.” And I’ve learned, that’s what hits the spot for me.

"My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout

Intimate. Quiet. Deep. These are the words that spring to mind to describe Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” Her narrator Lucy, a writer with a husband and two young daughters at home, speaks to us from a hospital bed in New York City where she has spent many weeks one spring after an appendectomy brought on a raging infection. Aside from the drop-ins by nurses and technicians, Lucy has been alone for fear of contagion but also because of her husband’s dread of hospitals. Yet one day she awakens to find her mother, from whom she’s been estranged for many years, at her bedside.

My focus on the setting of a hospital and the circumstances of the story is important, because as Elizabeth Strout tells interviewers, it was a critical choice for her. “A crucible” she calls it, a place to withstand the heat of the emotional fires that lie below the present-day lives of the two. Strout plants another symbol in the story, the building Lucy stares at for hours from her window. For Lucy it was “the constellation of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us that allowed us to speak in ways we never had before.”

Lucy is happy to have her mother nearby and is comforted as she talks about families they knew and the unfortunate things that happened to them—a neighbor who fell in love with one of her children’s teachers causing her husband and children to never again speak to her; Aunt Harriet whose husband went out to get cigarettes and never came back. Lucy tells her mother about her older friend Jeremy from her apartment building in New York who made her less lonely. “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life and it was always there…”

Lucy revels in the care and kindness of her doctor who visits regularly while her mother is there, and he watches the two interact. When examining her as she prepares to leave the hospital, he tells her, “The scar is healing nicely,” and we readers understand. And years afterwards, the time she spent in the hospital with her mother becomes the subject of her writing.

There is no barrage of family secrets spilling out. Strout is too gifted to let that happen. Instead she gently plants things that suggest a depth to the darkness in Lucy’s impoverished childhood that she never fully reveals—a grown brother, “not slow” according to Lucy’s mother, who sleeps with pigs about to be slaughtered; a brown snake with young Lucy who’s been locked in the back of a truck.

It is the strong and delicate writing of this affecting short work that makes it stay with me long after putting it down.

"Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande

To read Atul Gawande’s powerful bestseller “Being Mortal” (2014) is to engage in an unflinchingly honest discussion with a brilliant, but humble, doctor about end-of-life issues. Not everyone may be ready for that. It’s easy to put off thinking about the complicated choices we may face, given the medical advances that now exist to prolong life. But as Gawande reminds us, we will someday need to confront them for family members and ultimately ourselves. A death certificate requires just one cause of death, as if people are swiftly felled by one trauma. The truth, he says, is that it’s actually “the accumulated crumbling of one’s bodily systems.” A noted physician, responding to Gawande’s question about how to characterize death’s arrival, told him, “We basically all fall apart.”

That down-to-earth description leads to an examination of how prepared our society is, and we as individuals are, to face the reality of an often slow decline. Nursing homes, you might guess, are the answer. Though nursing homes satisfy societal needs, they are not made for what people need, and therein lies the heart of this book. Gawande asserts that the goal that should matter is, how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves. The lack of privacy, the inability to make personal decisions and the loss of familiar people and surroundings that generally go with nursing homes are the opposite of what people really want.

We get a look at what innovators in the elderly care business are doing to address that. Keren Brown Wilson first came up with the concept of an independent living center with assistance. In her Park Place in Portland, residents lived in small apartments, where they brought or purchased their own furniture, had locks on their doors, kept pets and had a nurse available on site at all times.  He reports that early assisted living facilities were meant to serve people until the end of their lives, but they have become more of just a step between independence and nursing homes.

Gawande closes by recounting personal experiences with his father at the end of his life. The young doctor was forced to draw upon what he has learned, not from medical school or fellow physicians, but from hospice caregivers and palliative-care workers who strived to make his father as emotionally comfortable and pain-free as possible. For a physician who once dismissed the concept of hospice care, he has become an ardent supporter.

Gawande says his goal for writing ‘Being Mortal” was to raise the issues and start a conversation. He certainly left me thinking and talking to others at length about these important topics. It’s a must read for those ready to address the uncomfortable but unavoidable idea of end-of-life care.

"What Comes Next and How To Like It" by Abigail Thomas

Abigail Thomas’ books have called to me ever since I saw one in a bookstore and was struck by her style—short, powerful entries of a page or two, occasionally even just a sentence or two. Her highly acclaimed earlier memoir, “A Three Dog Life” (2007) covered her struggle with the tragic loss of her husband from an accident. Her newest memoir, with its intriguing title “What Comes Next and How to Like It” (2015), is an honest, no-nonsense and often witty look at her life in the years that followed, the bleak, joyful, significant, and incidental moments.

This is an enormously readable book. Who wouldn’t like a peek in the window of such a bright, accomplished woman? From Thomas’ direct and unsentimental narrative, we learn that she is messy, she binge-watches TV series (mostly horror), she naps indiscriminately, she claims not to think much about death but seems to have it on her mind constantly (she’s around seventy), and she’d much rather live with a bunch of dogs than with a man. (What if he wanted to talk about mortgage rates or cesspools, she muses. “You can’t shut people up with the offer of a dog biscuit.”)

Life happens and much of it is hard—an aging body with its problems, a daughter’s cancer, the pull of addictions to alcohol and tobacco, and the terminal illness of her best friend. That friend is Chuck and he plays a central role in her story. They met in ’79 at a New York publishing house where “It was my job to train him,” she writes, “but all I wanted to do was make him laugh.” She details a catastrophic episode that blew the friendship up years before, but it survived and became even stronger.

Throughout the book we watch Thomas find joy and peace as she paints. She doesn’t think of herself as a painter but more a writer who happens to paint with toxic oil-based house paint on large surfaces of glass. She instinctively tilts and jars the wet surfaces to see if she can make something beautiful. As the story develops, I came to understand that is also what she does with her life. Her prescription for liking what comes next, is working with what comes to you in life, not wasting energy by fighting it and allowing for the surprises and pleasures you get from what you have made of it.

Her message was not wasted on me. I’m eager to hear more from Abigail Thomas.

"We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas

The title grabbed me in an airport bookstore and despite the novel’s heft (620 pages) I excitedly took it on. “We Are Not Ourselves” had such a familiar ring to me, though not from the voice of Shakespeare’s King Lear, whom Matthew Thomas references, but rather, my mother. “We’re just not ourselves today,” rang in my ears, as a description of the off-kilter feeling that we’ve somehow ended up where we didn’t expect to be. The haunting phrase is the skillfully rendered undercurrent of the book.

Rarely does a first novel get the accolades Thomas’s 2014 book has garnered. It seems that others find the story within as deeply touching as I did. It’s a surprisingly quick-moving and entertaining read for a book that covers the rather unremarkable life of Irish-American Eileen Tumulty, her husband and son from 1951 to 2000.

There are many similarities between Thomas’s life and those of his characters. He tells reviewers he worked on it for ten years—writing most of it longhand in a notebook—while holding a job as a high school English teacher. It was obviously a very personal endeavor. There is no other way to explain the incredible level of emotional truth he is able to convey.

Eileen’s Irish background shapes her young life in the borough of Queens. Her mother, who refuses to become an American citizen, stays close to her relatives, as they emigrate to the U.S., and houses whole families for months at a time in their small apartment. Eileen’s charismatic father holds court at the local bar each night with his pals but he is the only source of joy in her life.

Eileen plans for a more refined life in her future, one more suited to New York’s classier suburbs than the teeming streets of Queens. She’s thrilled to meet and marry Ed Leary, a brilliant but unambitious scientist and college professor, hoping he’ll be her key to getting out of their cramped apartment. His indifference keeps them right where they are.

The realities of life as a hardworking nurse with a husband who refuses two promotions in order to continue teaching at a community college, especially after their son Connell is born, frustrate Eileen. Her dissatisfaction with her daily life and her rigid husband consumes her life. But then Ed starts acting strangely. It begins as “torpor,” slides into depression then shows as confusion, and before long their world shifts seismically when he is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

These were also the circumstances of Matthew Thomas’s life, so he gently leads readers through the overwhelming effect this has on the family—the mixture of stress, anger and guilt Eileen feels and the looming disorientation young Connell experiences. Yet it’s not a depressing book. Eileen and her son transcend the circumstances, slowly and realistically and Thomas gives us a wonderfully-crafted, satisfying ending.

"The Other Language" by Francesa Marciano

“A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger,” Stephen King once wrote. I must admit I wasn’t always a believer in the titillating impact of a short story, but I’m coming around, especially after reading this wonderful collection by Francesca Marciano. “The Other Language” (2014) covers a lot of territory—from an island in Greece to the streets of Paris, around the world to India before coming back to Scotland. Marciano is a native Italian but is truly a citizen of the world, having lived for periods in European capitals, here in New York and New Mexico and in Kenya. She’s naturally nomadic, she tells interviewers. “I like to live out of my comfort zone.”

Marciano gives us richly drawn settings in which to watch her complex characters experience the challenges life has thrown at them. Besides her three earlier novels, she has also done screenwriting and that experience shows in her captivating scenes and easy dialogue. The settings are varied but the stories all involve relationships between men and women, with the focus on a woman. She is not interested in your garden-variety couples but rather she likes to explore interactions between fathers and daughters in the title story or couples who meet coincidently over a lifetime in “Quantum Theory” or a famous rock star and the girl he left behind in “Roman Romance”.

In “Big Island, Small Island” an Italian woman, Stella, visits an old friend she hasn’t seen for fifteen years who’s living on a tiny island off sub-Saharan Africa. With a new religious identity and a child bride, his life is far different than what she had expected from her fun-loving pal.

In “The Presence of Men,” Lara’s renovation of an ancient house in a small village in southern Italy angers the neighbors, but her brother’s appearance with his client, a well-known actor, changes the dynamics of her relationship with the townspeople.

A serious car accident opens “Quantum Theory” and readers cannot be sure how the driver and passenger know one another. Sonia’s car has tumbled down a ravine and rolled over. She and her handsome passenger, a love interest we suspect, escape and walk barefoot through the bush to a hospital hand in hand.

“The Other Language” offers up something refreshing for those who generally stick to novels.  These stories are longer than one might expect, richer and more captivating, making it a surprisingly satisfying reading experience.

"Euphoria" by Lily King

Lily King’s prize-winning novel, “Euphoria”, is an intoxicating read that stayed with me long after finishing it. The gifted writer takes us to a time and place we might know only from National Geographic magazines—Papua New Guinea in the 1930’s. King reports that she’d known little about anthropology before reading about a drama-filled episode in the life of Margaret Mead that caught her attention. While working on that island in 1933, Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune, met by chance fellow anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, then began a collaboration with him. Shortly thereafter, Bateson became Mead’s third husband. King said in an interview “ with the heat, mosquitos and malarial fevers, it was just a wild mess”. King creates a fictionalized account of that story that is atmospheric, enlightening and steamy in every sense of the word.  

King’s version of Mead is American anthropologist, Nell Stone, who is in New Guinea studying a local tribe with her husband and coworker, Fen. The two have just left their work with a difficult, combative tribe and moved down river to study a more compliant group. The couple encounters Bankson a fellow anthropologist Fen casually knew. Bankson had been living for twenty-five months alone in a hut studying a nearby tribe, and was depressed to the point of attempting suicide. Meeting the couple, he feels revived and yearns to be part of their lives and work.  

Bankson is the narrator of the events that follow that meeting and the drama that arises around the threesome. Describing Nell in a letter to his mother, he says, “She’s American, quite well-known but a sickly, pocket-sized creature.” What he does not mention is that this fragile, injured but glowing woman consumes his thoughts from the minute he sets eyes on her. A love triangle forms quickly, with personal ambitions, professional jealousies and sexual histories juicing it up.  

King weaves her vast knowledge of the work done by these anthropologists in and around the story of their relationship.  I admit to having known little about the day-to-day life of a working anthropologist, but through the delightful diary entries of Nell that King scatters throughout, we hear about such challenges as interviewing people using only gestures, learning languages with 16 genders, routinely brushing scorpions off your leg and sneaking into secret ceremonies. From now on, whenever I hear the name Margaret Mead, I will visualize her seated cross-legged on a dirt floor, in a stifling, moist room with at least one baby in her arms and young children crawling in delight all over her. 

When Bankson asks Nell, soon after meeting her, what is her favorite part of the work they do, she answers, “the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” When she turns the question back to him, he says, “A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.” The euphoric moments and the grimly-detailed realities are my favorite things in this fascinating book.

"Did You Ever Have a Family" by Bill Clegg

As I headed toward the stacks at the library, “Did You Ever Have a Family” leapt off the New Books shelf right into my hand. Well, not exactly, but as soon as I saw it, I just had to take it home. I had heard the hypnotic title of Bill Clegg’s novel when they announced the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker prize and knew that the book centered on a woman who must deal with the loss of her entire family in a freak accident. I was drawn to it—a potential international award winner exploring one of life’s most unimaginable challenges.

It’s Clegg’s first novel—he’s a big-time New York agent who has written two memoirs—and even with its dispiriting premise, it is a richly written and life-affirming story. The book concerns June Reid, an attractive 50ish woman in Connecticut whose life turned upside down on the eve of her daughter’s wedding to be held at June’s sprawling home, when a horrific explosion kills her daughter Lolly, the girl’s fiancé Will, June’s ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke, while she is outside. Numbed with grief, June gets in her car and heads west, ending up in a small town along the Washington coast that resonates with her.

Clegg creates an unusual energy in his story, using a number of people touched by this tragedy, to recount stories that paint pictures for us about June, her family members and, ultimately, the accident. There is Silas, a pot-smoking teen who lives in the town and may know something about how this happened. Rebecca and Kelly, the lesbian couple who own the motel on the Washington coast to which June has escaped. Lydia, the mother of Luke and June’s closest friend, who must endure overheard conversations in town, even those accusing her son of causing it. George, the father that Luke had never known. Cissy, the bi-racial woman who cleans June’s motel room, leaving her a cup of soup each day that is often the grieving woman’s only food.

This chorus of voices is compelling (once you keep track of the names), and I couldn’t put it down. It was hard to imagine how a short novel that covers only a few months after such a tragedy can end is a satisfying way, but I found the ending simply stunning. Clegg shows us that he knew exactly how all the pieces would come together. The story, after all, was not as much about losing a family but more about finding a family as we move along the roads we travel.

"Us" by David Nicholls

I knew I was falling in love from the very first page of David Nicholls’ fourth novel, “Us”. This gifted screenwriter/novelist promises and delivers on a novel full of hilarity, warmth and poignancy. Yet beneath the humor lies a sharp portrayal of the challenges of marriage and parenthood. His prowess in mingling the two was not missed by the Man Booker Prize judges who put “Us” on their 2014 long list.

The stakes are high for our narrator Douglas as the story opens. His wife Connie announces that their twenty-year marriage “has run its course”, and she thinks she wants to leave him. The idea is unthinkable to Douglas, a research scientist and a bit of a fuddy-duddy. He can’t imagine life without his Connie, a free spirit who had been leading a bohemian artist’s life in London before they married and moved to the suburbs. He tells us, “I have loved my wife to a degree that I found impossible to express, and so rarely did”. Douglas begs Connie to go through with their summer plans for a Grand Tour of Europe with their only child, Albie, before the boy leaves for university in fall. Lucky for us, she agrees.

The challenges are great for Douglas to plan a trip so special that Connie changes her mind. His experience on the Continent was almost non-existent. He grew up with a father disdainful of “anything suggesting ‘abroad’—olive oil, the metric system, eating outdoors, yoghurt…” Whereas for years Connie has been rhapsodizing about youthful experiences, “sleeping on the beach in Crete”, attending a “wild party at an abandoned factory in Prague” and hooking up with a Citroen mechanic in Lyon “whose hair smelled like engine oil”.

The finicky scientist has made the arrangements with the hope of a vacation full of the art and street life that Connie loves and enrichment for their son. This creates one comical situation after another. Douglas views their stay in Amsterdam as a chance to show off his trip-planning talent. The boutique hotel he signed them up for resembles a “top-of-the-range bordello” He and Connie are assigned to the honeymoon suite, “Venus in Furs”, with an enormous four-poster bed and black sheets, while Albie is next door in “Delta of Venus”.

Douglas says “married life is not a plateau…there are ravines and great jagged peaks and hidden crevasses that send the both of you scrabbling into darkness”. Throughout the story of the family’s summer Nicholls seamlessly weaves the backstory in bits and pieces as Douglas remembers them—their meeting, their courtship and the twenty years of marriage.

David Nicolls has offered up a trip you will definitely want to take.