The Last Mrs. Parrish – Liv Constantine

Amber Patterson has decided she’s going to move up in the world. She’s tired of being a nobody and tired of struggling. Gorgeous Daphne Parrish has everything Amber wants: an uber wealthy husband and a beautiful seaside home in an exclusive Connecticut neighborhood. Amber uses an event from the past to insinuate herself into Daphne’s life and the two are soon best friends as Amber plots to steal Daphne’s handsome husband and become the new Mrs. Parrish. When I started the book, I found it a bit ho-hum although well written. It seemed like a typical psychological thriller, maybe even a little sub par given the heroine is old-fashioned and oblivious to Amber’s machinations. But when the narrator switches from Amber to Daphne, the reader learns all is not what it seems on more than one level and the book is instantly lifted to a higher plane. I would have liked for certain revelations to come sooner, but that would have spoiled the fun and ruined several plot points I didn’t see coming. Toward the end, I couldn’t put the book down. 

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’ve been lucky, reading several exceptional books in a row. This one was probably my favorite. It reminded me of a Sidney Sheldon or a Danielle Steele, only better written. Elderly movie legend Evelyn Hugo wants to leave an honest account of her life, only the woman she hires to write her memoirs is young, inexperienced and perplexed as to why she’s landed such a plum assignment. As Evelyn recounts her life, we learn of her early struggles, and the guy who helped her get away from an unhappy childhood. We follow her through her meteoric rise in Hollywood and the various men she marries to further her career. Throughout it all, however, there’s only one person Evelyn truly loves, a relationship forbidden by the constraints of society and stardom. As the story winds down, we learn the reason she chose the writer she did, a reason which makes the young woman question whether she can do the job despite a guaranteed multi-million dollar payday. Sometimes, it felt as if the author was checking boxes on a list of political correctness, but this is an enjoyable, can’t-put-down read which inspired me to seek out her other books and read them, too. 

Happiness – Heather Harpham

Heather and Brian are madly in love until she gets pregnant. Brian doesn’t want kids, but Heather is getting older and fears she may never get another chance. Because her mom and friends live in California, Heather moves cross-country and sets about having the baby alone, with support from home. It’s not easy, but Heather knows she made the right choice when little Gracie arrives. However, her new mom bliss is quickly interrupted when it becomes clear Gracie is sick, very sick. She’s got a blood disorder which requires constant transfusions, but transfusions bring potentially fatal health problems of their own. Having followed Heather’s situation from afar, Brian reappears and together they make several heart-rending decisions to try to ensure Gracie makes it to adulthood. Told with humor, the author nevertheless manages to convey the horror of coping with a sick child. The book is nicely written and totally authentic since it’s based on Harpham’s own real life experience. Throughout the book, love and happiness come shining through showing that it is possible to retain joy even when circumstances are most dire.

The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner

This is not an easy book to read. Not because of the writing, which is magnificent, but because of the subject. Romy Hall is one of those people who never stood a chance despite being a relatively smart women. Born to a feckless mother, surrounded by poverty, it seems inevitable when she finds herself in prison, sentenced to life for murder. We sympathize with Romy not only because of her circumstances, which include a young son now abandoned to foster care, but because her case isn’t clear-cut and she has no access to the kind of legal representation needed to prove reasonable doubt. In this book, the author manages to make us feel the tragic waste of Romy’s young life as well as the horror of the legal and penal system, unfair and broken. Although the topic is timely and shows the grievous need for prison reform, the real star of the book is the writing which is rich, textured and unique. This isn’t a beach read, but if you like good literature it’s for you. 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

This quirky slice of life novel is so good I never wanted it to end. Eleanor Oliphant is Scottish and the woman no one wants to be: socially awkward, dowdy, unsuccessful and all alone. At first, it’s hard to like her because Eleanor is very set in her ways and more than a little judgmental. She spends her time working, avoiding human contact outside the office, chatting with her mother on the phone once a week and getting blitzed on vodka every weekend. But when glimpses of her deeply troubled childhood begin to surface, it’s hard not to respect the fact that she’s somehow managed to survive. Enter Raymond, the office IT guy who’s far from handsome, but has a heart of gold. Raymond seems to have no problem overlooking Eleanor’s weird behavior and it isn’t long before association with him has her reaching for a different kind of life. This book is exceptionally well written, the Glasgow setting giving it an added element of charm. I found myself rooting for Eleanor hard and did not see the twist coming at the end of the book at all. Highly recommend.

Circe – Madeline Miller

Circe, known in mythology only for her brief encounter with Odysseus, is fully realized in this inventive lush novel. A daughter of the Sun God and his alluring nymph bride, Circe is lonely as a child, too compassionate for the world of Gods. She’s also late to discover her power which is awakened only when another nymph steals her first love. Banished to an uninhabited island ostensibly for using magic to turn her rival into a monster, the reality is her witchcraft scares the mightiest Gods who fear her power might rival their own. On the island, she hones her ability taming wild beasts and crossing paths with famous figures in mythology like Hermes, the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, murderous Media and, of course, sly Odysseus. Far from a footnote, this fierce Circe turns men into pigs because they deserve it. In all honesty, I thought the premise of this book iffy, but I’m so glad I took the risk. The writing and creativity are beyond exception. The only good thing about finishing was finding she has another book titled, Song of Achilles. Yay. 

The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah

Leni has it hard. Her dad, Ernt, a Vietnam POW, and her mom, Cora, who gave birth way too young, have a tie as intense as it is toxic. Ernt can’t hold a job and is always moving the family as he chases the next big idea. The one enduring constant in Leni’s life is the love she shares with her mom. When Ernt finds he’s been left an Alaskan homestead he thinks their problems are solved. Cora and Leni are less certain given the remoteness. Unprepared for Alaska’s long cold, isolating winters, they learn to adapt with the help of locals, including Matthew-Leni’s first real friend. Unfortunately, the harsh conditions bring out the worst in Ernt whose paranoia dominates their lives. The book follows Leni from teen years into early adulthood as she copes with her father’s increasing violence and her mom’s refusal to leave. It’s both a love song to Alaska, and the bond between mothers and daughters. A shorter beginning would have improved pacing, and the end is too neatly resolved, but like every Hannah book it sucks you in and leaves you wanting more when done.

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I resisted reading this book for a long time because the main character-cranky old Swedish guy-didn’t sound very appealing. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge. Ove is the angry old man next door. He’s a curmudgeon with sometimes strange principles set in stone. (Only people who drive Saabs are to be trusted.) He has a strict routine and a short fuse. He distrusts the modern world and isn’t afraid to say so. But Ove’s well-ordered yet stark world is upended one day when a young couple with two small children move into the neighborhood. Suddenly, he’s confronted with seemingly endless requests, a stray cat who looks like the devil but won’t go away, and an old enemy who can’t fight anymore and is in desperate need of help. This is a funny book, but one with tons of heart. Set in Sweden, it could really take place anywhere because we all have an Ove in our lives. At its core, the book’s about community and serves as a reminder life is only worth living when shared with others.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia brings about sweeping changes, especially for the aristocracy. Count Rostov finds himself sentenced to house arrest in The Metropol, a grande dame of a hotel not far from the Kremlin. Rostov isn’t permitted his usual accommodations but must make do with a tiny room in the attic. How he adjusts to his confinement and reduced circumstances provides the crux of the novel. Instead of crumbling, the Count uses his charm and wit to carve out a life for himself as year after year slips by while tumultuous events occur outside the hotel’s doors. Even in his small world, Rostov manages to make friends, fall in love, experience fatherhood and find purpose in life. The pacing of this book is slow and it took me awhile to get into it. However, the writing is eloquent and the Count such a gentleman I soon found myself worrying about and rooting for him. An epic story well worth the time and effort.