Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners – Gretchen Anthony

evergreenEvergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners has a family of cracked characters just trying to do their best for one another, and often failing.

Violet Baumgartner is the quintessential formidable matriarch. She loves her family fiercely, but sometimes that fierceness can be smothering. She is a busybody and a perfectionist who is obsessed with tradition, but every annoying thing she does is done out of love. Her husband, Ed, is just trying to endure her frenetic antics while he’s stuck at home adjusting to retirement. And their daughter, Cerise, has a secret she’s been waiting to share that just erupted unexpectedly at her father’s retirement party. Throughout the story are Violet’s annual Christmas letters that are often as earnest as they are snarky.

Throw in Violet’s best friend whose marriage is crumbling and the other child, a son, who’s being investigated by the feds, and you have a cocktail of crazy for the holidays.

The crisis in Evergreen Tidings leads to some hilarious family blow-ups worthy of “Arrested Development”. I couldn’t stop reading even though the book was shaking in my hands from laughter. Underneath it all, however, are some tender insights about how familial roles change with time.

Definitely pick this up in time for Christmas. It’s one you’ll want to re-read every year.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Harlequin Hanover Square Press for the review copy.

White Elephant – Julie Langsdorf

whiteelephantPerfect for fans of Tom Perrotta and Jonathan Tropper, White Elephant is an impressive debut that I binge-read in a couple of days. These neighbors are so dysfunctional, and yet, so relatable. I wanted to simultaneously hug and yell at every character in this book.

Charming 100-year-old Sears homes, a children’s library, the local coffee shop where everyone has their own mug . . . an idyllic bedroom community for upper-middle class families. All is perfect in Willard Park, until newcomer architect Nick Cox moves in and begins building massive mansions that loom over the cozy smaller houses. His neighbor Ted is at first moved to peaceful protest, but Willard Park is a crucible, boiling everyone’s fears and insecurities into an explosion.

White Elephant is packed with flawed characters that are entertaining and sympathetic (well, most of them anyway). There’s Ted, the do-gooder who just wants his small town back; his wife, Allison, stifled in her sexless marriage and tempted by other options; their daughter Jillian, who just wants to be noticed; their neighbors, the volatile Nick and his trophy wife, Kaye, who is not as vapid as she appears; and new to the neighborhood, the pothead lawyer Grant and his wife Suzanne, who is coming to realize her marriage is going up in smoke.

Animosity simmers until Nick Cox cuts down the maple tree that Ted planted when his daughter was born. The vitriol escalates exponentially, and the residents of Willard Park start behaving in ways they never deemed possible.

This book is quite a page-turner, and each chapter introduces more conflict. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking.  Highly recommended.

Many thanks to HarperCollins and Ecco Press for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

The Eulogist – Terry Gamble

The Eulogist is much more than the typical 19th century abolitionist trope.

euologistjpegThis is the tumultuous story of an immigrant family of three very different siblings: James, the eldest, a chandler, reliable but unyielding; Olivia, the middle sister, inquisitive and intelligent, but forthright to a fault; and Erasmus, the prodigal, itinerant black sheep, taken in with the charismatic river preachers, who leaves the family to follow his heart, often with his priorities askew.

All three siblings clash and reunite out of devotion to a common cause. The book follows this family and their hopes and tragedies through most of the 19th century, exploring the immigrant experience during the dynamic upheaval of a developing nation. The Eulogist presents the moral indignation of slavery felt by many during this time, but also shows the reader a more realistic spectrum of abolitionism, from mild disapproval to vehement activism.

The Eulogist is a comprehensive story of a family, with nuanced detail that enhances the energy of bustling 19th century America. The story is well told, full of twists and revelations, and I tore through it in a matter of days. Gamble’s attention to detail is above reproach, and her characterizations are perceptive without being sentimental.

This is historical fiction at its best.

Many thanks to William Morrow Books (Harper Collins) for the advance copy in exchange for my review. It was a joy to read.

Erebus – Michael Palin

Palin’s Erebus is a comprehensive account of one of the most famous Arctic and Antarctic exploration vessels. Palin provides a detailed yet compelling overview of the life of Erebus, recently rediscovered in only 36 feet of water in the Arctic, where she has remained since her last voyage with Sir John Franklin in 1845.

erebusPalin’s Erebus reviews the life of the ship, from her first uneventful days as a warship to her watery demise in the mid-1800s in the infamous and mysterious Franklin North West Passage expedition. He offers information and direct quotations from numerous primary sources with engaging narrative, often breaking the tension with some levity. The scholarship is commendable and thorough. I found myself taking copious notes while reading, as I didn’t want to forget a thing.

Although there’s not a lot of new information presented here, Palin’s historical account of Erebus is sprinkled with descriptions of his own travels — to Hobart, where Erebus and Terror visited while Franklin was governor of Van Diemen’s Land, to Antarctica in 2014, to various places where Erebus docked during her service, like the Falklands. Palin includes historical accounts of Erebus’s time in these places, as well as his impressions of the landscape as it looks currently, and Erebus’s long-standing legacies.

Palin left no stone unturned, often literally, while tracking Erebus’s journey. He even reviews the plans by the master shipwright who outfitted her for her expedition to the Arctic. He reviews Erebus’s time in Antarctica under James Clark Ross, as well her time under John Franklin, where she ended her tenure. The last chapter of Erebus covers the recent resurgence in the Franklin mystery, and ends with Palin’s visit to Antarctica in 2017, to see the final places along the parties’ sojourn across the ice. I wish he had actually gotten to Erebus, and I look forward to future books containing new information from the recently discovered ships.

Some reviewers have complained that not enough time was spent discussing the Franklin expedition, but honestly, that’s not what I was reading this for. The book is called Erebus for a reason; and there’s more to this ship than just the Franklin expedition. If you’re looking for Franklin information, I recommend Russell Potter’s Finding Franklin; Palin’s Erebus is a thorough account of Erebus, and I was excited to read this to learn of her lesser-known voyage with James Clark Ross.

Erebus will appeal to Arctic scholars as well as armchair sailors like me. No sentence was superfluous and every chapter offered something engaging.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to LibraryThing First Reviewers and Greystone Books for this advance copy in exchange for my review.

A Ladder to the Sky – John Boyne

Maurice Swift is the most loathsome protagonist, and I was smitten with his vileness.

ladderJohn Boyne has created another masterpiece with Ladder to the Sky. Maurice, self-centered beyond redemption, is an aspiring writer. The barrier to his success is that he lacks the talent of original thought. Blessed with movie star good looks, Maurice charms older, esteemed writers into becoming his mentors, using them for what he can, then dumping them, often with devastating consequences. As the novel progresses, Maurice’s ambition grows into a monster that he must keep feeding.

John Boyne is a rare author who has created such a despicable main character who also captures the reader’s enthusiasm. Maurice’s shamelessness is juxtaposed with his victims’ inexplicable adoration which creates tension that never waivers. The ending is a resounding smash.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to Penguin First to Read for this advance copy in exchange for my review.

Bowlaway – Elizabeth McCracken

Spoon River Anthology meets Cold Comfort Farm in this quirky story of a family-owned candlepin bowling alley that spans generations. There is a whisper of magical realism with a hefty dose of down-to-earth wisdom.

bowlawayAt the turn of the 20th century, Bertha Truitt, described as matronly and jowly,  wearing a split skirt, is found lying face down in the local cemetery. She sits up and explains that she’s the inventor of candlepin bowling. The townspeople are perplexed and mesmerized by Bertha Truitt and are delighted with her candlepin bowling alley, where they can bowl away their problems. Even women are encouraged to go, and it becomes a place of camaraderie.

Bowlaway follows Bertha Truitt and her husband, Dr. Sprague, and all their descendants in this small town in Massachusetts. Every character under the spell of Truitt’s Alley has their own demons, their own agendas, their own desires. As the years pass,  the bowling alley must change with the times as well as the aims of those who run it and those whose souls are captivated by the candlepins. Bowlaway has many stories of love and loss, and is handled with tenderness.

McCracken’s writing is sharp and full of joie de vivre. I had to get out my tape flags to mark pages several times because her wordsmithing was so intelligent. It’s getting a special place on my shelf because I know I’ll smile every time I see it.

Many thanks to HarperCollins for an advance copy in exchange for my review. It was a privilege to read.

Lights on the Sea – Miquel Reina

Lights on the Sea is a mythic story of a meek retired couple on the adventure of their lives.

lightsontheseaHarold and Mary Rose Grapes lead an isolated existence in their small yellow house perched on the edge of a cliff. Facing eviction due to the government deeming their house unsafe, Harold and Mary Rose go to bed after packing their belongings, resigned to accepting the inevitable. They wake in the morning, however, to find themselves in their little house adrift in the middle of the ocean. During the night the house had plunged off the cliff, and because it was built on porous volcanic rock, Harold and Mary Rose are now bobbing like a cork in the yellow house, destination unknown.

Faced with dwindling resources and terror of the open sea, Harold and Mary Rose are stressed to the limits of endurance. The couple also bears the additional burden of grief that cripples their daily life. They meet some others along the way, outsiders from a different culture who help them with their physical survival and their mental stagnation.

Although the message can be heavy-handed towards the end, it is sympathetic nonetheless. Part tall tale, part love story, Lights on the Sea would appeal to any generation of reader.

Many thanks to Miquel Reina, Netgalley, and AmazonCrossing for this advance copy in exchange for my review.