Not too long ago suspense writer Harlan Coben offered some summer reading suggestions on the Today show. One of his choices was Ann Packer’s new book Swim Back to Me featuring two novellas and three short stories. Initially I was surprised that he was recommending shorter fiction for summer reading. But as a long-time fan of the format and Ann Packer in particular, I decided to give it a go, and I am glad I did. Packer hits all the right notes as she examines the daily lives of characters trying to make their way in the world, whether it’s the two teens in the opening novella “Walk for Mankind,” whose relationship is complicated by their growing romantic attraction and their complicated family lives, or the mother in “Molten” who is mourning her late adolescent son while listening to his extensive music collection.
Packer is an author who is able to convey vividly all the joy and messiness of daily life as we try to forge ahead and understand those around us, particularly those we love. In addition, Packer is not afraid to present a narrative that has no easy answers or resolution, particularly in the first novella about the two California teens coming of age in the 1970s. The reader is left wondering about the teens long after the piece is finished. Of course in this volume we meet the teens Sasha and Richard three decades later in “Things Said or Done.” But leaving stories to end without tying up all the loose ends with a bow is not new for Packer. Her first novel, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, was steeped in all the ambiguity of life when it comes to love and making one’s way in the world when faced with hard choices. That would make a great summer read as well.
Another terrific summer read, or listen, in fact, is the audio book version of the Julia Glass novel The Widower’s Tale. Narrator Mark Bramhall does a wonderful job capturing the distinctive voice of Percy Darling, 70, whose life in retirement is undergoing major changes as his younger daughter copes with divorce and custody issues; he meets a woman three decades after his beloved young wife Poppy died; and he donates his late wife’s beloved barn/dance studio for use as a local school. Glass does a marvelous job capturing the complicated relationships within the Darling family in a quirky New England town. The book is filled with humor, touching emotions and great literary references. Three Junes, the first novel Glass wrote, was a wonderful read, and this novel is going to lead me back to her other novels. It’s also going to prompt me to look for other audio books narrated by Bramhall.
Room by Emma Donoghue is the kind of novel that I wasn’t sure I wanted to read, given the grim-sounding subject. Did I really want to read a book about a teen abducted and held against her will in isolation who has a child with her captor and must raise that boy in a 11-square-foot room? But the book was selected by the Library’s Third-Thursday Book Discussion Group, and it generated one of the most lively, intense discussions our group has had. By focusing on the loving bond between the mom (simply called Ma) and her 5-year-old son Jack, we see their daily lives unfold in a world where all objects have simple names. Donoghue uses Jack to narrate the tale and in doing so gives readers a fascinating look at lives that are curtailed by their physical limitations, but are nonetheless expansive due to the love, and the delight in language and story that Ma imparts to Jack. The group discussed how the author handled the abusive nature of the chilling crime, which could easily be ripped from today’s headlines, and how she depicted their lives both inside and outside the room. Using Jack as the narrator gives the novel a special poignancy, and speaks volumes about parent-child relationships, how we view the world around us, and how we raise children in our culture. In short, a moving read that has you thinking about the characters long after the last page.