Books I Finished in October

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
Viking, 2016

couple-next-doorAnne and Marco Conti appear to have an ideal life: a loving marriage, a nice home, and a beautiful baby daughter, Cora. One summer night they are invited to have dinner at the home of the neighbors with whom they share a duplex wall. When the baby sitter cancels at the last minute, they decide it will be all right if they take the baby monitor with them and run home to check on Cora periodically.

And of course the unthinkable happens: on one check-in, Cora has vanished. Anne is swamped by guilt because she agreed to go next door and leave the baby home alone. Marco comforts her, saying that using the baby monitor was not an unreasonable solution. The police believe that the Contis are hiding something and begin to suspect them. Because Anne’s mother and stepfather are extremely wealthy, the police and family anxiously await a ransom call.

This is a pretty typical thriller, with information gradually emerging about the secrets each of the major players is hiding. As usual in this genre, things are not always as they seem and darkness swirls below the surface of life. And the ending involves a standard trope of the genre that I particularly dislike.

This is not a bad book, just an ordinary one that breaks no new ground in the insights it presents. It’s appropriate for reading on a long airplane flight, as I did on a recent coast-to-coast trip.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Knopf, 2015

souls-at-nightIn the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, the setting of Haruf’s earlier novels, Addie Moore, age 70, offers a proposition to her neighbor, Louis Waters. Their spouses died years ago and their children live far away. Now each lives alone and lonely. Addie asks Louis if he’d be willing to spend nights with her so that they’d have someone to talk to and share stories with. Louis initially is stunned but then realizes that he’d like some company just as much as Addie does.

The two soon develop a comfortable relationship, not caring that other people in the town think. When Addie’s son decides he can’t handle his own son, he drops the boy off at his grandmother’s house. Addie, Louis, and the boy bond, creating a surrogate family that enriches all their lives.

The book’s bittersweet ending probes the significance of relationships and of fulfilling other people’s expectations. This is the last book Kent Haruf completed before his death in 2014 at age 71. In its look at the lives of older adults, this short novel is a fitting and large-hearted conclusion to Kent Haruf’s body of work.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
Simon & Schuster, 2010

distant-hoursThe description on the back cover of the paperback edition explains, “In this enthralling novel, Morton pays homage to the classics of gothic fiction, spinning a rich and intricate web of mystery, suspense, and lost love.” The novel is full of gothic trappings: a huge old castle, full of secret passages and creaking stairs, that looms over the surrounding land like a living, breathing entity; eccentric and isolated long-time inhabitants of the castle who harbor long-suppressed secrets; and a mysterious, long-ago story that continues to dominate lives in the present. (For more about gothic literature, see Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” .)

The story opens with a letter delivered 50 years after it was sent—a typical quirky and mysterious catalyst for gothic storytelling. Edith Burchill, an editor at a small publishing firm, is helping her mother, Meredith, peel potatoes when the letter arrives. Meredith doesn’t want to talk about the letter and is vague about its origin and contents. Eventually, though, Edith gets the germ of the story out of her mother: during World War II, at the age of 12 or 13, Meredith was sent away from London to avoid the German bombing. In the country Meredith lived at Milderhurst Castle with the Blythe sisters, a pair of twins and their much younger sister. The girls’ father, Raymond Blythe, wrote a tremendously popular children’s book, The True History of the Mud Man, which Meredith had read to Edith as a child.

Edith and Meredith have always had a troubled relationship. With an interest in literary matters and a desire to learn more about her mother’s background, Edith sets out to visit Milderhurst and discover what her mother experienced there so long ago. Under the guise of a gothic tale, The Distant Hours examines the power of long-kept secrets and their power to continue to dominate lives.

I don’t remember how I heard about this book or why I picked it up, but I came to it at a significant time in my life. Like Edith and Meredith, my mother and I have always had a strained relationship. Reading this novel while my mother was dying helped me to realize that healing can come through trying to understand life from the other person’s point of view. Like Edith, I began to see how the past can influence the present and how learning about the past can help us understand and accept the present.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books, 2011

miss-peregrines-homeAs a young child, Jacob was always fascinated by his grandfather’s box of unusual photos. Then, when Jacob is 16, his grandfather is brutally killed in what police call a dog mauling. But Jacob suspects something else killed him, and he goes off in search of the place where his grandfather came across the peculiar children of the photographs.

When I started reading this book, I thought it would be a typical coming-of-age story coupled with a typical hero’s journey quest. But somewhere along the line these notions evaporated. The book becomes an unfocused wandering in search of something that may or may not exist. The children’s peculiarities are not anything like super powers; they are simply peculiar.

Jacob’s search is sloooooowww,, and I found each plot complication more annoying than the previous one. The book ends with a cliffhanger, with no resolution of Jacob’s search. To be fair, Riggs has published two more books in the series, so I imagine that I’d have to look at the series as a whole to see and understand the resolution. However, I disliked this book so much that I’m not going to spend the time to read two more.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

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