9780062365583_p0_v4_s260x420How do you react when you know someone is testing you – try your best to pass the test, or resent the pressure? In David Nicholls “Us,” Douglas Petersen has only the family summer trip to Europe to prove his worth to his wife, who has informed him she is leaving after their son goes off to college in the Fall. Makes you wonder why he would bother – but he does.

“There’s a saying…if you love someone you must set them free. Well, that’s just nonsense. If you love someone, you bind them to you with heavy metal chains.”

The first half of the book follows Douglas, the earnest scientist, and his wife Connie, the free spirit artist, as they try to educate their teenage son in the beauty of European art, as the family starts its ” World Tour.” The squabbles will be familiar to anyone who has tried to raise a teenager and the descriptions of the continental surroundings will bring nostalgia to anyone who has been to Paris and Amsterdam. As the reader gets to know the two principal characters, their extreme differences emerge, and it’s a wonder they have stayed together for twenty-five years.  As well-meaning as Douglas is, his starched attitude toward life is annoying. Of course, organization and sensible living has its virtues, but Douglas seems to have become mired in them, and lost all sense of fun and adventure. On the other hand, the mother/son recklessness counters his rigidness, and you may find yourself rooting for him, while wishing he would acquire more spontaneity.

By the second half of the book, the family journey has dissolved into a mother going home alone, the teenager going off with a newfound girlfriend, and Douglas determinedly pursuing his son across Europe – to find him, to apologize for not defending him in a bar brawl, and to save his family. As the tale follows Douglas through Verona, Venice, Florence, and Sienna, his character changes, morphing from stale rules follower and guidebook reader to a sympathetic version of Charlie Brown – a good guy, despite his quirks.  The epiphany in Barcelona leads to a new understanding among the three characters, but Nicholls adjusts the romantic ending I had hoped for, into a realistic amalgam of trust, love, and self-discovery.

The thoughtful exploration of this marriage, with its familiar rhythms, had me hoping for some compassion for Douglas, who could not help who he is – and Nicholls delivers.  But, whenever I decide to venture on a World Tour, I am bringing this book with me – from London, through Paris and Amsterdam, with train rides across Europe to Italy, and eventually Madrid and Barcelona – Nicholls offers a connection better than any guide book.


In the Bag

9780062108050_p0_v1_s260x420If you are in the mood for a light, funny romance – Sophie Kinsella style – try Kate Klise’s In the Bag.  Two teenagers on vacation inadvertently pick up the other’s bag in Charles de Gaulle International Airport.  They reconnect via email and arrange to exchange bags, not realizing their respective parents have already made a connection.  The plot is silly; the characters have silly names – Coco Sprinkle; but the story is romantic and fun.  Eventually, the two teens blossom into boyfriend/girlfriend, with her mother and his father dating – as they head back into the sunset – or rather the Chicago area – after a week of sightseeing and good eating.


La Sagrada Familia

The story is set in Spain, with descriptions of the Prada Museum in Madrid and La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – places I’ve toured – and in Paris, with descriptions of the Rodin

Rodin Museum, Paris

Rodin Museum, Paris

Museum and shopping at Galleries Lafayette – also good travel memories for me.  An added bonus: a reminder of one of the best restaurants in Paris – Le Petrelle.  Klise’s description of duck breast salad and ravioli stuffed with crayfish had my mouth watering.   In the Bag is book candy.

9780805093131_p0_v1_s260x420Although Kate Klise is a prolific writer of children’s books, In the Bag is her first book for adults.  I plan to find her 43 Cemetery Road series targeted for middle grade readers (The Phantom of the Post Office), but I have read her most recent picture book – Grammy Lamby and the Secret Handshake – a touching and funny primer on grandparent/grandchild relationships.

Related ReviewSophie Kinsella’s I’ve Got Your Number

Reading My Way Through Spain

Preparing for a trip can be as satisfying as traveling. As I looked forward to touring the paradores, drinking the Sangria, and eating the tapas, these books were on my Kindle:

Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving

The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson

Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sanson

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s books are based in Barcelona, and I found the street that housed the fictional Cemetery of Lost Books. Now that I’ve caught Catalan fever, I need to reread all my Zafón favorites…

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Hemingway was everywhere in Ronda, the home of the bullfight – his “Fiesta” might be a good alternative to watching the gore. And, if you are a Joyce fan, his chapter on Penelope in Ulysses was set in Ronda.

With the aroma of orange blossoms everywhere, a quiet garden with a view could inspire any reader.



The Prisoner of Heaven

Are you ready to renew your library card for the the Cemetery of Lost Books? Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s latest Gothic tale of mystery and political intrigue – The Prisoner of Heaven – continues the adventure from his The Shadow of the Wind, but the history of that escapade is not necessary to understand or enjoy this one.

Daniel Sempere is grown, married, and a father; he continues to work at the bookstore with his father. Fermin, itinerate lover, spy, and rogue, is about to be married, but the dilemma of his identity becomes one of the threads that Zafón weaves to tie the present to the past. Worrying that he will not be able to rightfully give his bride a name he has stolen, Fermin tells the story of his past in an electrifying series of events during the early days of Franco’s dictatorship – the best part of the book.

The story slows at times, when the present intrudes – with Daniel suspecting his wife of infidelity or mysterious dark figures lurking in corners, and the plot teases the reader with expectations that are never resolved. You may suspect who and where Daniel Martin, the writer, hostage, and prisoner of heaven is, but Zafón will not give you the satisfaction of being sure. Maybe the next book will reveal more.

Despite the vague ending, Zafón has delivered another riveting historical thriller.

Rose of Fire – short story by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Clever marketing isn’t necessary for one of  Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s books, but who can resist a free story? Rose of Fire, a  Zafón short story, is a free download on iBooks, and ends not only with a tantalizing cliffhanger, but also continues with the first two chapters of  Zafón’s latest Barcelona adventure – The Prisoner of Heaven – a tease that’s hard to resist.

Rose of Fire reveals the origin of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the library from which a fortunate patron can take only one book in a lifetime. This secret repository is the premise for Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novels: The Shadow of the Wind, its prequel The Angel’s Game; and now the sequel The Prisoner of Heaven.

If you’ve read Shadow of the Wind, familiar characters reappear – Fermin Romero de Torres, friend and former spy, and Daniel Sempere, now grown and still at the bookstore. The Prisoner of Heaven is the continuation of Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind – more intrigue, mystery, and danger in a Gothic tale- masked by the politics of the Franco dictatorship.

Zafón is one of my favorite authors and Shadow of the Wind is at the top of my books to recommend. The Prisoner of Heaven promises to continue the excitement, and, of course, I had to buy it after reading those first “free” chapters.