Monthly Archives: February 2021

Firefly Lane

So, I’ve sort of known for a little while that Kristin Hannah has a bit of a reputation for wrecking her readers. But I was naively thinking, ‘this isn’t The Nightingale, or other books I’ve heard are so intense to read. Firefly Lane should be a good introduction.” And it had been loaned to me, and Netflix made a series that looked intriguing, so it had everything going for it.

And it absolutely wrecked me. It is too soon for a book like this. I ate a lot of cookies after finishing this book (and they only kind of helped. I think the ’80s did a little more to soothe the pain, per the usual).

Cover of Firefly Lane: shades of blue fading into dark brown/black with yellow blobs to evoke the idea of fireflies.

Despite a bit of a rocky start, Kate and Tully were fast friends, definitely endgame, best friends forever. Through the tumultuous teenage years to college and beyond, they have always been a package deal, chasing their dream of becoming journalism’s favorite duo. When Kate finally owns that the dream isn’t hers as much as Tully’s, they navigate the semi-bumpy road to settle into their separate-but-parallel lives. But despite it all, Kate can’t seem to get out from Tully’s shadow, and Tully is always reaching for something more to fill the void left by childhood rejection and abandonment.

The years, the marriage, success, ups and downs, they have always been there for each other, until the mistakes seem too big to overcome, and pride gets in the way of reconciliation. And when Kate needs Tully most, it seems like she won’t be there. But if Tully isn’t there now, there’ll never be another chance.

Hannah’s characters are incredibly real and they draw you in to the story immediately. Even as you want to point out to them the boundaries they need, the flaws they should address, the confidence they lack, you can’t help but seeing slivers of yourself within them. But while I expected a sort of feel-good story about female friendship– and to a degree, it was– it was also a horribly brutal story that pulled no punches to highlight the real feelings and challenges of adulthood. From feeling second-best to always wanting more, feeling unloved and feeling inadequate, Kate and Tully go through the wringer. And as the reader, seeing yourself in them, you go through it, too.

What really got me was the end, which I suspected for a while in the book. I’m going to give a spoiler here, because it’s directly related to my experience with the book. Kate is diagnosed with breast cancer toward the end of the book, and despite every attempt, everyone is forced to accept that she is dying and there’s no help for it. She has to make her peace with everyone and do what she can to mitigate the inevitable regret of her death. And less than a year ago, my family was staring this possibility in the face. So to expect a feel-good friendship story and get slapped with this close-to-home tragedy pretty much wrecked me. And if Hannah can do that with this story, where she probably wasn’t even unleashing her full emotional-wrecking power, I can only imagine what some of her more intentional works are like. I’m not ready for that right now, that’s all I can say.

Firefly Lane is a great story, poignant and relevant in today’s society where women still struggle with balancing a career and a home. It wrestles with some challenging themes, like loving someone who never says they are sorry or finding self-worth when you’ve lived always feeling rejected and abandoned. The more I describe it, the heavier this book sounds. But Hannah doesn’t write it in a heavy way. Some parts are light and fun. Kate and Tully are best friends, though they are imperfect (and I dare say there is definitely some toxicity in their relationship, but then, who can say they have a perfect friendship?).

It’s a good story, great if you’re into getting emotionally wrecked by an author. And usually I’m down for that, and I wouldn’t even say I wasn’t down for it now, just that it was too soon and I wasn’t ready for this particular story. So read Kristin Hannah carefully, and make sure you have tissues nearby.

The Murder List

You know when you get a book and it turns out to be nothing at all what the synopsis leads you to believe? I hate that.

Hank Phillipi Ryan’s The Murder List is a thriller/suspense book that moves along at a fast pace but misses the key development to bring it all together at the end.

Rachel North is a law student who’s accepted an internship with the local district attorney’s office to learn the ins and outs of prosecution. The only problem is that Jack, Rachel’s husband, is a defense attorney whose mortal enemy is now Rachel’s boss. But what no one knows just yet is that Rachel’s past is more than what it seems, and it’s about to catch up with her.

The book is full of characters who have outwardly committed to justice, through their profession, but definitely appear to care so much more about winning cases, which makes them difficult to like– especially when their words and behaviors are questionable otherwise. Rachel’s character is alternately weak and projecting onto others, then coming into her own for a moment and taking control of her situation. Unfortunately, I don’t think Ryan did an adequate job of making her breadcrumb trail to lead careful readers to her conclusion. Though not a particularly surprising conclusion, as something of a connoisseur of psychological thrillers myself, I wanted more. I wanted to reach the end and suddenly have all these details stand out in my mind that were hints to what happened.

That said, the book does draw you in. And though I didn’t quite care for it, many thriller lovers certainly will. Ryan does a good job at weaving the past and present together to create a twisty plot with plenty to guess and wonder about.

The Secret Life of Bees

This book came recommended by a friend who told me she bawled through it, and despite knowing myself and my icy heart, I expected to be so deeply moved, too. Although I didn’t cry over the book, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful and moving story.

Lily Owens’ life has been overshadowed by the incomplete memory she has of the day her mother died. She has tried and tried to make sense of things, tried and tried to cling to the idea that T.Ray, her father, has some deeply-buried feelings of love for her. But when Lily and Rosaleen, the Black woman who has largely raised her, have a run-in with several racist men, the two end up fleeing town. With no where else to go, Lily leads them to Tiburon, South Carolina, the only other place Lily knows her mother has been. Somehow, Lily is committed to figuring out who her mother was. And while the answers are not quite what she wanted to find, she discovers exactly what she’s needed all along.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is a story of adolescent discovery in all senses. Lily must discover the truth about her mother, which plays a role in the truth of who Lily is, too. She discovers truths about family and faith and self-sufficiency. And set in 1964, it’s a story of discovery regarding prejudices about skin color. Lily’s whole life has been a story of rejection and abuse, with her deceased mother representing all the love and acceptance Lily’s been missing and craving. When she and Rosaleen land in Tiburon and find themselves staying with the Boatwright sisters, Lily begins to realize she has some degree of control over the narrative of her life.

Kidd uses a first-person perspective to give readers insight into Lily’s mind and emotions, and this style is perfect for the story she had to tell. Sometimes seeming like a child, sometimes struggling to function as an adult, Kidd captures the tumultuous growing up that Lily faces in trying to take control of her life. I’m a little uncertain about the ending, however. When T.Ray finally tracks Lily down and comes to try and take her, Lily is still trying to uncover some latent love within his heart, despite all the abuse she suffered (and the abuse her mother surly must have suffered, as well). And while I recognize that would certainly be in keeping with a child or youth’s experience (heck, even an adult’s experience when coming face-to-face with the truth that was never admitted), it was still hard to read. Though Lily stands up for herself and refuses to go with him, it was still so heartbreaking to read how she would still try to convince herself of love within his actions or imagine a new expression. The line between hope and reality can be hard to walk, and even though it’s fictional, it’s hard to read, too.

All in all, The Secret Life of Bees is a sweet story of power and, yes, love. Despite everything, Lily chooses eventually to value herself more than she’s been taught to (in part because living with the Boatwright sisters, she relearns how to value herself). It’s a story of rising above and choosing what defines you.

Keep in mind, the story could prove triggering, in varying degrees, due to the presence of child abuse and neglect.

Series Review: Kingsbridge by Ken Follett

Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series is a sweeping narrative of England’s history, focused around one town and it’s cathedral. The Pillars of the Earth was the first book in the series, written in 1989, and Follett has added to the series over the last 30 years, most recently adding The Evening and the Morning, a prequel story that looks at the beginning of the town of Kingsbridge.

The Evening and the Morning takes place in the Dark Ages in England. Poverty is rampant, Vikings are raiding and destroying, and everyone is engaged in intrigue and manipulation to try to advance themselves and their goals. Edgar is a young builder who has lost everything in a Viking raid. He tries to build himself a new life in the small village of Dreng’s Ferry, but his idealism leaves him disenchanted with the small village and its overlords. Ragna is a Norman noblewoman who has crossed the sea for love. But she soon comes face-to-face with the differences between the countries and must face the consequences of her naivety. Meanwhile, Ragna’s new husband’s brothers are constantly scheming for more power and wealth, within the church and without. They won’t hesitate to take any action that puts them ahead and the intrigue quickly reaches into the lives of Ragna, Edgar, and all the people living in and around Dreng’s Ferry.

The Pillars of the Earth follows Tom Builder, a master builder and mason looking for work after being laid off by a wealthy (and jilted) nobleman. Tom and his family set out to look for work and Tom nurses his dream of eventually designing and building a cathedral– a master builder’s Holy Grail project. Finally landing in Kingsbridge, Tom’s dream is in constant peril from political intrigues and civil war. Kingsbridge’s prior, Philip, does his best to stand against evil nobles and power-hungry church officials, but like everyone, Philip finds England’s dragging civil war keeps everything uncertain and in constant jeopardy. Covering a period of nearly 40 years (1135 to 1174), The Pillars of the Earth encompasses several stories of love, heartache, perseverance, and intrigue. It contains themes of good versus evil, right versus wrong, self versus others, and it covers all the grey areas in between.

World Without End is the first book I read by Follett, and I was hooked. In the shadow of the cathedral built by Tom and Jack, a new generation is growing up while Kingsbridge seems to be falling down. Merthin is a carpenter and builder looking to get away from the strict confines of conventionality when one bad choice turns his whole life upside down and threatens the security of his love affair with Caris, a young independent woman. Caris, engaged herself in a battle against conventionality, tries to uncover a way to have everything she wants without giving up her freedom. But her freedom ends up becoming the price for her very life, and she must learn to accept that sometimes purpose is fulfilled in the least expected ways.

A Column of Fire is set in the thick of the religious wars erupting throughout Europe. Kingsbridge finds itself split between Catholicism and Protestantism, and Ned Willard aligns himself with Queen Elizabeth and her imperfect pursuit of religious tolerance. On the other side of the English Channel, Pierre Aumande is fighting to rise above his humble origins by making himself indispensable to the Catholic de Guise family as it strives to take control of the French crown. The two men use different techniques to achieve their same-but-opposite goals of keeping their people in power, but they aren’t always the ones who pay the price for their choices.

I was introduced to this series through the Starz miniseries based on World Without End. At that point, Follett had only written the two books and I devoured them quickly, though I do recall thinking they seemed very similar. However, the historic events around the main theme of the cathedral provided enough difference to keep the stories interesting. Each book includes essentially the same cast of characters–lovers separated by intrigue and/or society, religious zealots blinded to their sins because they believe they are serving God, a ruthless man striving to achieve his goal of nobility without a care for who gets trampled in the process. But though characters may be recycled, the story that surrounds them is different enough to make each book an interesting and engaging read.

The political intrigue and motivations throughout the series as a whole are a big part of what keeps it interesting. Though encompassing the themes, Follett doesn’t write basic “happily ever after” stories, instead giving his characters a lifetime of challenges and trials (and a lifetime of evil deeds, for some).

The Evening and the Morning was somewhat of a disappointment to me. Whereas the first two books in the series are full of description and fulfill the sometimes-tricky task of showing instead of telling, this prequel book felt very different. It’s a little challenging to describe, but the prose just felt plain and overly simplistic. In short, it seemed a little bit like Follett didn’t quite sink into the era of the story, and it showed.

The Pillars of the Earth was much as I remembered, an engaging story that moved along at a decent clip (though I did find myself often rechecking the aging of the characters throughout, to make sure it all lined up). Despite occasional slow spots and heavy architectural descriptions, the characters and motivations were realistic enough to make the book a quality read.

World Without End was also mostly as I remembered. It was a little surreal to read the book in the middle of a pandemic when one of the big plot points was the advent of the Black Plague throughout Europe. I found myself a little more exasperated with the characters, however, wanting to sit them down and sort them out.

A Column of Fire, though marketed as part of the series, really didn’t have a lot to do with Kingsbridge. The main characters visited, but spent most of their time moving the story along in other parts of Europe, as to be expected when writing around this period. But because of that, as well as all the historic events Follett incorporated, the book does feel quite different from the other books in the Kingsbridge series. I see Follett trying to use the same storytelling technique to make this book different than just a fictional retelling of religious history in Europe, but even as he does this, the at-times irrelevant threads of story get a little distracting from the general flow of the story. Overall, however, the book was enjoyable.

The series as a whole needs a couple disclaimers, however. Follett doesn’t balk at putting his characters through trauma and showing the dark, power-hungry side of certain men. As such, the series has many instances of violent rape and physical abuse, as well as scenes and descriptions of war and violence. Follett also uses profanity throughout the series (and I’ll admit, this is one thing that does bother me, because he will use words in modern ways, or just modern words, that are very inconsistent with the era of the book).

All in all, I still do enjoy the Kingsbridge series, despite it’s at times vulgar and explicit content. Follett devises characters that are real (down to their dense and irrational thought patterns!) and infuses his stories with intrigue that keeps you reading, even if 1,000 page books aren’t your thing. And though I’m not going to go into a comparison of the books versus the TV miniseries produced for some of these books, I do assure you the books are better.