As always, Anne Tyler delivers a well-written story with vividly drawn characters. A Spool of Blue Thread follows the fortunes of three generations of the Whitshank family — Abby her husband Red, and their grown children, with glimpses back into the past at Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie. The story is woven around a beloved family home and a family business that stretches across three generations, but the threads (see what I did there?) that really hold the three generations together are the two things that run through every family: love and lies. Throughout the story the Whitshank family’s many secrets are gradually revealed — some of which are quite surprising, and would be disturbing if everyone knew the truth. But the story suggests that when it comes to love and lies, you can’t have one without the other.
There’s a change in point of view about two-thirds of the way through the novel that is unavoidable but jarring, and I wondered if I would continue to be as engaged with the story after that point, but Tyler is more than equal to the task of keeping a reader involved in the story even as other characters’ points of view move to the forefront. The ending of the book — which actually happens before much of the story occurs, because the novel doesn’t unfold in chronological order — is bittersweet, suggesting how complicated family relationships always are, now much love and how many lies simmer below the tranquil surface of a well-loved family home.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August travels territory already explored in Kate Atkinson’s brilliant Life after Life, but in quite a different way. Like Ursula in Life After Life, Harry August lives his life, then is reborn in exactly the same place and time to re-live his life again. And again, and again, and again. Always the same starting point — same parents, same location, same birthdate. Unlike Atkinson’s main character, who only gradually begins to sense that she might be re-living her life, Harry August is aware, very early in his second life, that he has been here and done all this before, and the knowledge very nearly drives him mad. But of course, he gets another chance.
The fact that Harry is completely aware of his re-lived lives changes the direction of this story, as does the fact that he is not alone — during his third life he learns that he is one of a worldwide network of such people who are living their lives over and over. They keep in touch, look out for one another, and pass useful information back through time. So in this novel, along with the reflections about the value of an individual human life that I enjoyed so much in Life After Life, there is an added sense of urgency when an emissary from the future lets Harry know that something is going very wrong in the near future, and he and others who live in the present time have to attempt to fix it.
From that point on, the novel takes on the feel of a thriller, as Harry works to defeat a villain who, like himself, has an infinite number of lives at his disposal. This book was an intriguing page turner with lots of twists and turns. If, in a regular thriller, the reader’s fear is that the hero may be killed before he gets to carry out his mission, that fear doesn’t apply here. If Harry is killed, it’s inconvenient, because he has to start over from scratch and go through childhood again, but he’s able to put plans and resources in place that he can use again in future lives. The real danger is not that he might be killed — but that his enemy might somehow be able to prevent him from ever being born at all.
Really, all I need to say about Catherine Fox’s Unseen Things Above is that it picks up the story from her earlier book, Acts and Omissions, which was my completely unexpected favourite-book-of-the-summer, and that the sequel is just as good as the original. Once again we are in the fictional diocese of Lindchester, where an omniscient (and sometimes intrusive, but amusingly so) narrator gives us glimpses into the lives of the clergy and others who live and work around Lindchester Cathedral. Fox is quite consciously modelling this series about a Church of England diocese in the 21st century after Anthony Trollope’s 19th-century fictional Barchester novels, and my greatest hope is that with the upcoming next book, she does not conclude a trilogy but rather follows in Trollope’s footsteps and gives us at least half a dozen Lindchester novels. These rich, vividly realized characters and their inner and outer struggles inhabit a world I would happily revisit over and over again.
This extremely popular book was one I read quickly — the story of unhappy Rachel, who leaps to conclusions about the lives of a couple whose backyard she glimpses through the window of her London commuter train kept me turning pages, wanting to find out how all the pieces would git together. In this sense, it did its job as a thriller, and crafted a satisfying ending that made sense of all the plot threads that had gone before. However, in terms of engaging with the characters and caring deeply about their fates, the book fell a little flat. I tore through it in a day, but the characters haven’t lingered in my mind to the extent that I’m still thinking about them a few weeks later. Good, but by no means great, is my judgement on this novel.
This is an odd, quirky little book about a character who goes to work in an out-of-the-way bookshop where all is not what it seems to be. Clay becomes curious about the regular customers who show up to borrow a series of mysterious books. There is a secret society, an ancient mystery, a quest, a journey, and even a very light dash of romance. The book is intriguing enough that I found it hard to imagine how the author could pull together an ending that would be truly satisfying and answer all the questions the story raised. As is often the case with such an intricately plotted book, the payoff at the end was not quite as satisfying as I’d dreamed, but still satisfying enough to make it an enjoyable reading experience, and I would recommend it.