11/22/63, by Stephen King

If you’re intrigued by time travel, mysteries, romance, and alternate histories, then 11/22/63 is the book for you. Although this book is anything but a short story, you’ll find yourself unable to put it down until the last page. I found it to be one of his best works to date and proof that King continues to be a great storyteller.

The story begins in 2011, when Jake Epping, an English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, reads an essay from one of his students, Harry Dunning. It’s about the time decades earlier when his father killed his family and injured Harry.

As the story progresses, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, describes how he has discovered a time portal to 1958 in his storeroom. Al has been traveling back in time regularly to buy inexpensive hamburger for his diner and plot Lee Harvey Oswald’s whereabouts. He is planning to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy when he is diagnosed with lung cancer.

Al eventually persuades Jake to take his place as the time traveler who will stop Oswald from assassinating Kennedy. This is where the story really begins because saving Kennedy is only one of the book’s interconnected storylines. Jake’s first test is to go back in time to save Harry Dunning’s family from being murdered. Jake goes through the portal to 11:58 a.m., Sept. 9, 1958 – the portal always drops a person at this exact time and date. After partially succeeding in his mission and learning from his time travelling mistakes, he returns to the present, then goes back to try to save Kennedy. He must live several years in the past, until Nov. 22, 1963 when he can attempt to save the President. Jake becomes George Amberson (an identity provided to him by Al), moves to Jodi, Texas, teaches high school, falls in love, and tracks down Oswald.

There are numerous questions that you will have to read the book to have answered. Will Jake prevent Kennedy’s assassination? If so, how will it change the course of history? Will Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. be imperiled? What about the Race Riots and Vietnam? How will Jake’s personal life be affected by his stepping back into history?

Throughout the book Jake learns that the past and the future are connected in some very unexpected ways … and changing the past is not always as easy as you’d think.


Sister: A Novel

Sister: A Novel, by Rosamund Lupton

How well do you really know your only sister, the sister you thought you knew everything about? How much guilt should you feel when something goes terribly wrong? When you weren’t there to pick up a frantic phone call?

These sisters, Tess and Beatrice (Bee), grew up in London in a dysfunctional family after their brother died at a young age and the parents couldn’t hold the family together. Bee eventually moves to New York to the corporate world, fancy apartment, and an engagement ring. Tess, an artist and a free spirit, stays in London, moves with a rather bohemian crowd, and becomes pregnant. Then Tess goes missing, and Bee’s life takes a drastic turn.

After Tess’s body is found and is deemed a suicide (I am not giving away too much, this is on the jacket), Bee moves into Tess’s shabby, cold, apartment and gets to know the people who had been in Tess’s life—the artsy group and the friends from a medical trial. Bee wants to convince everyone that Tess would never have taken her own life and that she was murdered.

There is more than one likely candidate and clues abound, but the police and medical personnel are determined that they have correctly resolved the issue.

The plot is intriguing, the writing is beautiful, and the characters are finely drawn. There are complicated emotions and staggering sadness, along with a certain sordidness that made the book hard to read. The landlord of Tess’s apartment is a most unusual person—caring and sensitive—he explains to Bee about the “dawn chorus,” describing the order of birds as they sing in the morning, the “blackbirds, then robins, wrens, chaffinches, warblers, song thrushes.” (page 135).

This is a psychological thriller at its best.


Minding Frankie

Minding Frankie, by Maeve Binchy

Young slacker Noel Lynch is astonished to be named guardian of baby Frankie by his former girlfriend Stella, who is dying of cancer. Fortunately, his American cousin Emily has just come to visit Dublin, and is staying with Noel’s parents, Josie and Charles. Emily is a great listener, and has a knack for giving practical advice. Noel joins AA, starts night school, and learns how to take care of a baby. Noel’s parents and assorted neighbors agree to help with babysitting, including local doctor Declan and his wife Fiona, expecting a baby boy. In night school Noel meets Lisa, a graphic artist who’s fallen in love with a young chef, Anton. Lisa moves in to help babysit, but social worker Moira is suspicious of the whole situation and wonders if baby Frankie wouldn’t be better off in foster care. There are a lot of characters and a number of other plotlines is this heartwarming novel, but they all blend together into a delightful read that’s a perfect stress reliever.


The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

I don’t read a lot of westerns, but the funny title and striking cover caught my eye. Eli and Charlie Sisters are outlaws based in Oregon City in 1851, during the Gold Rush. Their boss, the mysterious Commodore, has a new job for the Sisters brothers; to kill gold prospector Herman Kermit Warm near San Francisco. The trip doesn’t begin well; Eli resents that Charlie has been put in charge, and Eli’s current horse, Tub, may not be up for such a long journey. 

Charlie got into a lot of fights as a kid, and the larger Eli defended him. Now Charlie likes to drink, and kill people. Eli, however, is starting to listen to his conscience, although he feels obligated to help his brother. But really, Eli’s not very happy, and he might like to be a shopkeeper instead, and settle down with a nice woman. Eccentric characters and numerous adventures enliven their journey, along with comic interludes. The horse Tub continues his decline, but Eli doesn’t want to part with him. Herman Kermit Warm is not the thief the Sisters brothers expected, and his secret to successful gold prospecting comes with a high price. I’m not a bit surprised that film rights have already been optioned for this darkly funny, award-winning, offbeat Western. For an animated video about the book, visit the author’s web site.


The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

At 145 pages, this is a relatively short book that packs a big punch. This novel contains many differet themes, including the consequences of one’s actions that can reverberate through many years, actions taken and then regretted forever, and the nebulousness of memory and recollection. It’s hard to put down on paper what happens in the book without giving away too many things, so I won’t even try. The ending left me thinking for a long time, first about whether I “got it” and then how nasty life’s turn of events can be. See, I’ve already given away too much. Great book; very funny in parts. Won the 2011 Man Booker Prize.


Into the Silence

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis

Before the space race, before the sound barrier, the conquest of Mount Everest was the final frontier, or so the British public thought after the disaster of World War I. The two poles had already been visited, and the British Raj were engaged in a tremendous effort to map India and the surrounding areas. In their endeavors they discovered the highest mountain in the world. Many veterans were terribly disenchanted with the war and its aftermath. Britain’s honor, dragged through the mud and gore at the Battle of the Somme, must be restored, but how? Everest was the answer. The British must conquer it or die trying.

Into the Silence chronicles three British expeditions launched in the early 1920s to attempt to climb Everest. There were numerous factors working against them. First was the woefully inadequate equipment. Clothing, climbing gear, tents, stoves, and oxygen tanks (if they had them), were not made to withstand the rigors of the extraordinary altitude. It would be like sending a man into space without a spaceship or spacesuit. Second was the non-cooperation of the local people. The Buddhist monks held that Everest, or Chomolungma as they knew it, was a sacred place guarded by demons, who would cast out anyone trying to climb its rarified slopes. Sherpas, who really are the unsung heroes in any Everest climb, before or since, were not in the business of climbing at that time. They all thought the British were mad. Why go to all the trouble of climbing the mountain? Of course we know why, “because it is there”, as Mallory famously stated. Thirdly, Nepal was closed to foreigners, and the expedition had to take an indirect route from their base in Darjeeling, India, adding about 150 miles to the route. In the end, the expeditions met with failure. On the second try, ten porters were swept to their deaths. On the third try, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared while attempting to summit Everest.

At 655 pages, this book was a bit of a challenge, with some sections bogged down in detailed descriptions of the expeditions and their privations, but the author gives the reader a great feel for what the people in the expeditions experienced.


The Girl in the Blue Beret

The Girl in the Blue Beret, by Bobbie Ann Mason

Marshall Stone, a commercial airline pilot,  is being forced to retire in 1980 at age 60. Now that he has more free time, he wonders what happened to the people he met in 1944, when his B-17 bomber was shot down and crash landed in a Belgian field near the French border. Recently widowed, he rents a temporary flat in Paris, and  revisits his past. He writes to his surviving crew mates, and meets Nicolas Albert, whose parents hid him and other aviators as part of the French resistance. Nicolas helps Marshall trace the people and places he encountered in the months before he was smuggled back to England. He most wants to meet Annette Vallon, the girl in the blue beret, and her friend Robert. As Marshall remembers his wartime experiences, Nicolas, Annette, and Robert’s daughter gradually explain what happened to them.  The author was inspired by the real-life adventure of her father-in-law, and the people who helped him. A moving and memorable book, it reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. For more information about the book, visit the author’s web site.