REVIEW: THE BOOKSELLER, BY CYNTHIA SWANSON

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Kitty Miller and Frieda Green own and run a bookstore in Denver, Colorado. It is the 1960s, and their idyllic world includes books and all things bookish.

But at night, Kitty lives in an alternate world created in her dreams: she is Katharyn Andersson, married to Lars, with triplets: Mitch, Missy, and Michael. And Michael is autistic.

When Kitty first begins visiting her dream world, her life is almost perfect. But as she spends more time there, she realizes the challenges of this world.

And then, at some point, she must question which world is real? And which world is a dream?

A captivating tale that took me back to what life was like for me in the 1960s where I could totally relate to both Kitty and Katharyn and what choices were involved for each version of the young woman she was.

The Bookseller: A Novel was impossible to put down, and I didn’t want it to end. Which version of reality would we finally have to accept? And what did these dream worlds tell us about the young woman and the choices she had to make? 5.0 stars.

REVIEW: THREE BROTHERS, BY PETER ACKROYD

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Their lives began in the place that came to define them: Born in Camden Town, in London, in a council estate, in the Mid-Twentieth Century.

Three Brothers: A Novel tells the tale of Harry, Daniel, and Sam Hanway, born one year apart on the same date (May 8); their distant and distracted father is scarcely a presence in their lives. They are also affected by the mysterious and unexplained disappearance of their mother Sally. Sam is the most strongly affected, apparently, but the actions of the other two speak of how the event informed their lives as well.

Coming to adulthood in the 1960s, they live completely separate lives, with Harry as a Managing Editor of a newspaper; Daniel is a lecturer at Cambridge, who also reviews books; and Sam as a compassionate man strangely drawn to the homeless and seemingly finds his path through doing good deeds.

As separate as they are, they are also connected in various ways, seemingly coincidentally. This story of corruption, bribery, and violence is narrated from the perspectives of each of the brothers. In the end, we see clearly how place and history have defined them.

A few mysterious elements left me dangling at the end, forced to come to my own interpretations of events. The character studies and the descriptions of the settings drew me in, but otherwise, the story left me cold. 3.5 stars.

REVIEW: THE GIRL PRETENDING TO READ RILKE, BY BARBARA RIDDLE

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Poised in a moment in time marked by change, Bronwen, age nineteen, is eager to begin a research summer job in Boston. And with the job comes a reunion with boyfriend Eric, a graduate student at Harvard. For the summer, they will be living in Eric’s Cambridge flat.

The 60s had brought remarkable opportunities for young women. At any other time in history, could a young woman have obtained an internship with a Harvard Junior Fellow? Before Betty Friedan’s book hit the stores, had women ever realized all of the possibilities available to them?

But Bronwen is in a state of conflict, too. She is ready for love, but she also wants her life as a scientist.

Over the next few weeks, we watch as she deals with the conflicts in her life, including a less-than-attentive boyfriend, another possible love interest, and her life of commitment to her work. Just as she is ready to complete her summer, sad news erupts. And shortly afterward, she is forced to face another obstacle to her goals.

I enjoyed engaging with this young woman as she confronted her personal and work issues. I liked how she protected herself with her Rilke collection, for as much as she loved science, a part of her clung to another kind of inner life:

“Zipping up her Army surplus parka, she bent her head into the late afternoon breeze. In the pouch-like pocket of her jacket, next to the letter, she felt for the presence of her trusty ubiquitous Rilke volume, her shield against unwanted dinner conversation….”

The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke took me back to my own younger days, when I, too, had to consider my options and make choices. Sometimes impossible choices. 4 stars.

EXPLOSIVE TIMES: A PORTRAIT OF 1960’S MANHATTAN — A REVIEW

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When P. I. Alex Novalis takes a case of a missing eighteen-year-old girl, Lydia Kravitz, he expects it will be a mundane matter. After all, he suspects she is with her artist boyfriend Jerry Pedrosian, a radical who is a rabble rouser.

The time is 1968 and the setting is Manhattan. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Alex Novalis) is narrated in the first person voice of Alex Novalis, who reveals his liberal leanings and his knowledge of the art world. However, he doesn’t seem that adept at investigating, moving along in a rambling way, reaching out for help from characters like Lydia’s friend Andrea, who appears to be playing games and withholding more than she reveals. Others are doing the same. And before the story ends, disaster and danger for all may be right around the corner.

At times, I enjoyed the conversational tone of the narrator, and how adeptly he painted the scenes of the counter-culture times, but when he described his investigation, he appeared to be “telling” a rambling tale of a somewhat lackadaisical journey. At these times, the story fell flat for me. I didn’t like any of the characters and, except for the scenes that depicted Manhattan in the sixties, there was little to engage me. Three stars.

ONE SIGNIFICANT DAY INFORMS LIVES — A REVIEW

As Robert F. Kennedy’s somber funeral train journeys from New York to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968, assorted crowds gather at various points along the way to show their respect.

A fictional cast of characters with numerous hopes and dreams bring sundry tales to the mix.

For Lionel Chase, a young black man on his first day as a porter on that train, and for Jamie West, a disabled Vietnam vet, home from that war and facing the obstacles of his damaged life, the journey of the train seems especially significant. Other characters whose lives do not intersect with these, and whose only connection seems to be their quest to find something inspirational about the train journey, include a young Irish girl who had hoped to earn a nanny position in the Kennedy household; a woman who spirits her young daughter away with her to watch, spinning lies to her disapproving family to cover her absence; and a sixth grade boy, recently “kidnapped” by his father, who joins his friends to “reenact” the assassination near the train tracks during their wait.

Because of an accident early in the journey, however, the train is delayed by four hours. As the anxiety increases, the tension builds. In the interim, the characters’ stories are intensified, with numerous mishaps, misadventures, and opportunities to showcase their individual searches.

Themes of hope, fear, and journeys weave their way into The Train of Small Mercies, creating a melodramatic backdrop for this story of life in the 1960s. With the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and the rift amongst the American people over numerous philosophical differences, this tale is served up elegantly and profoundly. We see ordinary people setting aside their differences on this one day, and how the day plays out for each of them will inform the rest of their lives.

Alternating between the characters, we also notice the dramatic effects of the day on each, while feeling some of the emotions wrought from the experience. In the end, none of the characters intersected, nor did the stories actually bring about any major conclusions. Instead, the tale showed how one day could create subtle changes in individual lives when set against a larger drama.

Four stars.