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Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were the Three Musketeers back in the day, celebrating college graduation Memorial Day weekend 1971 at Martha’s Vineyard. In the summer of 2015, they reconnect at the same cottage, haunted by the ghosts of their former selves, the Vietnam draft and the missing Fourth Musketeer, the blue-blooded sorority girl Jacy. Ever wonder what happened to her?

Richard Russo’s Chances Are. . . (Random House, digital galley) is part teasing mystery, but mostly it’s a familiar reunion novel of friendship, memory and regret. But it’s also about fathers and sons, small towns, first love, male bonding and things that go unsaid. Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey are all good guys but flawed in recognizable ways. Lincoln’s a commercial real estate broker in Nevada, happily married to his college sweetheart who contends with his tyrannical father. Solitary Teddy, who is about to lose his job as head of a small press, has a secret he’s kept so long it’s like a vital organ. Mickey seems the least changed since college — still riding a Harley and playing in a bar band up and down the Cape. All three were in love with Jacy back when, and she remains the epitome of dream girl, the rich rebel who could sing like Grace Slick.

Russo’s narrative goes down easy, helped by humor and a modicum of suspense. There’s the expected Big Chill nostalgia, and a couple of subplots involving a retired cop and a bully of a next-door neighbor. The ending’s less of a reckoning with the past than a resolution that comes second-hand. Still, this is good-hearted summer reading. Chances are you’ll like it.

I love it when I start reading a book and the next time I look up, I’m four chapters in and eager to return. That’s the way it was with Chanelle Benz’s wonderful first novel The Dead Gone (HarperCollins, digital galley), a daughter’s journey into the past to examine the circumstances of her Civil Rights-era poet father’s death. Billie, a Philadelphia grants writer, hasn’t been to small-town Mississippi in 30 years, but returns to claim the derelict cottage where her father once lived. It’s full of memories and spiders, a suitable metaphor for the web in which Billie’s soon entangled. Her relatives tell her to leave well enough, and the local law proves less than helpful. After she finds a chapter of her father’s memoir of the region’s racist history, she enlists the help of a well-known scholar and becomes involved with the wayward son of the neighboring landowner. Threats and violence stalk Billie and her dog Rufus.

Billie’s is the book’s main voice, but Benz also orchestrates a distinctive chorus that adds to the lyricism and atmosphere. Even an old juke joint, Avalon, has a say, recalling times now dead and gone. Sadly, injustice lingers as the past bleeds into the present.

You don’t have to know a PBR from an IPA, or even like beer, to like J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is as refreshing as a cold one on a hot summer day. Stradal,  who delighted foodies and readers with his novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest, now rides the wave of enthusiasm for craft beer.

Sisters Edith and Helen are close growing up in 1950s Minnesota, until Helen convinces their father to leave her his entire farm so she can invest in her new husband’s family brewing business. The betrayal leads to a long estrangement, until Edith’s orphaned granddaughter Diana displays a talent for making craft beer that also incorporates Edith’s famed pie-making abilities. Turns out a family feud, strong women, beer and pie are just the ingredients needed for an engaging tale. Stradal’s a first-rate storyteller.

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Sorry, I forgot to put out my “Gone Reading” sign at the first of the month, but I’ve been reading so much there hasn’t been time to write. Let’s catch up.

“It’s not what it looks like,” says P.I. Jackson Brodie on the very first page of Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky (Little Brown, digital galley). It never is with Atkinson, the most wily of writers, or with Jackson, my favorite book boyfriend. Returning for his fifth outing after a too-long absence, he’s tracking an errant husband in an English seaside town, sometimes in the company of his 13-year-old son and an aging Labrador, when things get complicated. They always do. This time, it’s a circle of sex traffickers, a murdered wife, a missing hitchhiker, a pair of young coppers working a cold case, assorted villains and innocents. Atkinson uses multiple points of view and quirky characters, zigs when you expect her to zag, and expects readers are smart enough to keep up.

I miss the Sorensons. They’re the Midwestern family at the center of Claire Lombardo’s immersive first novel The Most Fun We’ve Ever Had (Doubleday Knopf, digital galley), which I binged like a favorite Netflix series. So good. David and Marilyn Sorenson live in her childhood Oak Park home, two peas in a pod ever since they fell in love under the ginkgo tree in the backyard in the mid-1970s. This is surprisingly hard on their four grown daughters, who joke about the “magical albatross” of their parents’ love for one another. The bar is set so high, and each tries to measure up — or not — in singular ways. At book’s beginning, the oldest, Wendy, a rich widow, stirs the sisterly stew of rivalries and resentments by introducing a teenage boy into the mix — the child secretly given up for adoption by one of the sisters 16 years ago. Uptight lawyer and stay-at-home mom Violet can’t deal, college professor Liza is coping with an unexpected pregnancy and a depressive boyfriend, and the youngest, Grace, is off in Oregon, supposedly acing law school. The emotionally resonant narrative follows family members over the course of a year with frequent flashbacks to fill in everyone’s past, and Lombardo deftly orchestrates the chorus of perspectives. The book’s maybe a little too long, saggy in spots, and it’s Sorenson-centric — the tumultuous times don’t intrude, although the family is not immune to misfortune and regret. Real life is rich and messy, and The Most Fun We Ever Had feels real. It reminds me of Sue Miller’s classic novel Family Pictures or Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, and I was sorry to see it end.

I’ve read some other good books, too. Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything (Atria, digital galley) follows two sisters over 50 years, and Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes (Scribner, digital galley) features neighboring families tied together by the profound connection between two of their children. In Michael Parker’s atmospheric and lyrically written Prairie Fires (Algonquin, digital galley), the bond between two sisters on the Oklahoma frontier is tested when they both fall in love with their schoolteacher. Kristen Arnett’s morbidly funny first novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House Books, digital galley) is set right here in swampy Central Florida, where Jessa-Lynn Morton tries to keep the family taxidermy business going in the wake of her father’s suicide. Arnett examines grief, loss and love with the same skill that Jessa dissects and rebuilds a raccoon. If that’s not your thing, Denise Mina’s thrilling Conviction (Little, Brown, digital galley) stars a woman whose obsession with a true-crime podcast collides with her secret history.

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lostandwanted“In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently.”

That’s how Nell Freudenberger begins her new novel Lost and Wanted (Knopf, digital galley), a haunting tale of friendship, loss and, well, physics. The latter comes courtesy of narrator Helen Clapp, a MIT professor known for her research on five-dimensional spacetime and two accessible books on cosmology and black holes.  Devastated by the unexpected news that her Harvard roommate Charlotte Boyce has died in California, she’s puzzled by subsequent texts and e-mails from her best friend. There has to be a rational explanation, probably something to do with a missing cell phone. Still…

Freudenberger uses the mystery of the messages to explore the greater mystery of the trajectory of friendship over time. Helen remembers how, 20 years ago, “an upper-middle-class black girl from Brookline and a work-study white science nerd from Pasadena”  bonded during freshman orientation.  The connection has loosened of late. Charlie moved west to pursue her career as a TV screenwriter and producer,  married a surfer, had a daughter, struggled with lupus. Meanwhile, Helen’s been happy with academia and her 7-year-old son Jack, whose father is an anonymous sperm donor. Yet, the sudden fact of Charlie gone, no longer living, knocks her flat, especially when Charlie’s husband Terrence and 9-year-old daughter Simmi move to Boston. Grief for Charlie and their lost past is further compounded by the arrival of Neel, Helen’s college boyfriend and her long-time research partner. He’s a member of a team that’s made the most exciting breakthrough in physics in years. He also has personal news.

Helen can easily explain gravitational waves, the uncertainty principle and chaos theory to her students. She has a harder time reconciling mind and heart to the inexplicable. “Scientific analogies for emotional states are imprecise,” she thinks, “but recently I’ve been finding them difficult to avoid.”

Lost and Wanted takes its title from an Auden poem read at Charlie’s memorial service that takes on greater significance as all who loved Charlie deal with her absence and how it’s reconfigured their world.  It’s a lovely poem, and Lost and Wanted is a lovely book. As soon as I finished it, I started over. It’s that good.

So is Sally Rooney’s new novel. I liked her first one, Conversations with Friends. But I love Normal People (Crown/Archetype, digital galley). And I’m not alone in raving about the 28-year-old Irish writer’s second book, which won the Costa Novel Award and was longlisted for the Man Booker. But my favorite thing anyone has said about this compulsively readable book is what my publishing friend Jen Adkins Reynolds posted on Facebook: “This was so good, even if reading it was a thousand paper cuts to the heart.”

Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron are both seniors at the same school in a small Irish town. Both are really smart, but Connell’s the popular one, a good-looking athlete, while she’s an awkward outsider. At school, they ignore each other, but Connell’s warm-hearted mom cleans house for Marianne’s wealthy, aloof mother, and it’s at her house that Connell and Marianne make small talk and then hook up. Connell insists on keeping their relationship a secret, and Marianne doesn’t care until he asks another girl to the end-of-school dance and breaks her heart.

“I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people,” Marianne says at one point. “I don’t know why I can’t make people love me.”

Marianne’s low self-esteem, burnished by her emotionally abusive family, will continue to be a problem when she and Connell meet again in the fall at Trinity College, Dublin, even though their social roles have reversed. She’s now the admired one in a bright, witty crowd and has a new boyfriend. He’s the outsider, uncomfortable and insecure.

Rooney follows their on-and-off again relationship over four years, deftly alternating perspectives, zooming in on their messy emotions, frequent misunderstandings and most intimate moments. He suffers from depression; she deliberately seeks out men who mistreat her. Their connection to each other is intense, thrilling, painful, impossible, necessary. They can’t talk about it, or when they do, the words come out wrong.

That’s not the case with Rooney’s writing. Normal People is a deceptively simple story told in direct, unadorned prose that is scalpel-sharp. Someone asked me why I prefer it to Conversations with Friends, which is similar in style. I think it comes down to the characters. Marianne and Connell are sympathetic, vulnerable and oh so young. I wish them well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I need a break. Not from school or work or even the large orange cat determined to share my lap with the laptop. (Please move, Peach). No, I need a break from the willful ignorance and hypocrisy floating this way from Tallahassee, where the Florida Legislature is being lobbied by a conservative group that wants to ban certain books from public school readers. Again. Y’know, the books they find objectionable, ones by Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt, Anthony Burgess, Kate Chopin, among others. Yes, that’s the stench of censorship wafting across the Sunshine State. Where oh where are the orange blossoms of yesteryear? Like I said, I need a break, so I’m not going into my standard rant. Instead, I’m going to read some lovely books of my own choosing. I suggest you do the same, right after you read this story from the Tampa Bay Times, “Bills may foster bans on books.”  http://tinyurl.com/yypzeapk

There’s nothing like a good Gothic to make me forget my woes. An island castle, a missing bride, a hidden passage, a rare butterfly. It’s the latter that lures intrepid lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell to Cornwall in Deanna Raybourn’s witty A Dangerous Collaboration (Penguin Berkley, digital galley). She’s posing as the fiance of Tiberious, Viscount Templeton-Vane, who just happens to be the brother of Veronica’s fellow adventurer, Stoker. Her feelings for the dashing Stoker are as deliciously complicated as the secrets awaiting the three of them on St. Maddern’s Isle, where the beautiful Rosamund disappeared on her wedding day three years ago. Maybe a seance will reveal her whereabouts.

In The Stranger Diaries (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), Elly Griffiths takes a break from her Ruth Galloway series to craft a modern Gothic that includes a classic ghost story. English teacher Clare Cassidy’s work on a biography of Victorian writer R.M. Holland is interrupted by the violent deaths of several of her colleagues in ways suggested by Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger.” If that’s not weird enough, Clare finds someone has been leaving her messages in her diary. Add her teenage daughter’s new circle of friends, and you’ve got a chilly puzzle enhanced by excerpts from Holland’s horror tale.

leonAlthough Venetians love to gossip, Commissario Guido Brunetti usually pays no attention to the constant chatter. But in Donna Leon’s absorbing Unto Us a Son Is Given (Grove Atlantic. digital galley), Brunetti’s wealthy father-in-law asks him to investigate when he hears that his elderly art dealer friend Gonzalo plans to adopt a younger man as his sole heir. Gonzalo has said it’s his business and to stay out of it, but then the old man dies suddenly and a visiting friend organizing a memorial service is murdered in a Venetian hotel room. As usual, the procedural atmospherics complement Brunetti’s reflections on human nature, doubt and justice.

Although the title of Alice Quinn’s rousing historical novel The Huntress (Morrow, digital galley) refers to a ruthless Nazi war criminal, it also applies to the fascinating Nina Markova, who survived her encounter with the Huntress in war-torn Poland and is now bent on revenge. After the war, she is joined in her search by British war correspondent Ian and his sidekick, former American soldier Tony, who are tracking Nazis wanted for war crimes. Eventually, their stories will intersect with aspiring photographer Jordan McBride, who lives in Boston with her Austrian stepmother. The story moves back and forth between time periods and continents, but it’s Nina who kept me flipping pages. Her fierceness owes much to her childhood in the wilds of Siberia, which she uses to her advantage to learn to fly and then talk her way into the infamous regiment of female Russian bomber pilots known as “the Night Witches.” Her flying exploits, and those of her comrades, are terrifying and adrenaline-fueled, and they scar her forever. As in her last best-seller The Alice Network, Quinn has done her research, and facts bolster her fiction.

Flashback to February when I read several engrossing family dramas. In Tara Conklin’s The Last Romantics (Morrow, digital galley), the four Skinner siblings are all marked by the three-year interval they refer to as “the Pause.” It occurs when they are children and their father suddenly dies and their mother abdicates her role as parent because of mental illness. At just 11, Renee assumes most of the burden of caring for Caroline, Joe and Fiona, who narrates the story from advanced old age. Still, demons follow them into adulthood, where they face another tragedy that illuminates family ties. Anissa Gray’s affecting first novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (Penguin/Berkley, digital galley), is told through the alternating voices of the three Butler sisters. When pillars of the community Althea and her husband Proctor go on trial for scamming a local charity, middle sister Viola returns from Chicago to help younger sister Lillian care for Althea’s troubled twin teenagers, Kim and Baby Vi. But these strong sisters, whose backstories artfully unfold, also need to learn to care for themselves. Right after I read Nickolas Butler’s Little Faith (HarperCollins, digital galley), I read a newspaper story about parents arrested for withholding medical treatment from their sick child because of religious reasons. In Butler’s book, which gracefully chronicles one year in the life of a rural Wisconsin family, grandparents Lyle and Peg become concerned when their adopted daughter Shiloh becomes involved with a charismatic evangelist who convinces her that her five-year-old son Isaac is a budding faith healer. There’s further conflict when Isaac is diagnosed with diabetes, and Shiloh chooses prayer over medicine. The ensuing drama plays out thoughtfully, unlike a TV medical show that wraps up everything in an hour episode.

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Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six (Ballantine, digital galley) has it all. Think of it as your fun, flashy ride back to the 1970s. Just put Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” on shuffle, shift into cruise control and off you go. Sure, yesterday’s gone, but that doesn’t stop the characters in Reid’s novel from talking about the past.

The talk is essential because Reid structures the book as an oral history of a ubiquitous ’70s band that mysteriously combusted 40 years ago at the height of its popularity. Imagine a Rolling Stone cover story expanded into a book, a mockumentary charting the early rise of Billy Dunne’s blues-rock band, the Six, which really takes off when a producer suggests adding aspiring singer and songwriter Daisy Jones. Free-spirited Daisy — tall, blonde, gorgeous, with a distinctive raspy voice — has been hanging around the Sunset Strip since her early teens, popping pills and sleeping around with rockers and roadies. She and Billy — dark, denim-clad, sober after rehab — have both creative and physical chemistry. But he’s married to high school sweetheart Camila, who keeps him grounded after he went off the rails on the Six’s first tour. Bandmate Warren remembers those days: “I was getting laid, Graham was getting high, Eddie was getting drunk, Karen was getting fed up, Pete was getting on the phone to his girl back home, and Billy was all five, at once.”

If Daisy Jones & the Six were just a compilation of cliched memories, it would be pretty boring. Fortunately, Reid offers soapy drama, star-crossed romance, bad-band behavior and a lot of authentic-sounding details about making a hit album. The stock male characters play second fiddle to the more complicated women in their lives — Daisy, Camila, keyboardist Karen. There’s a photo shoot in the desert for an album cover that sounds so familiar as to be iconic. There are all-night sessions in the recording studio  and sold-out, weed-hazed gigs in anonymous cities. Reid also provides the lyrics to the songs that underscore Billy and Daisy’s rollercoaster of yearnings and regrets.

What she can’t provide is the music itself, which is why I’ve been listening to Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, and why I’ll probably add Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles to my playlist for the book. But Daisy Jones & the Six may yet get a soundtrack of its own. Reese Witherspoon is reportedly working with Amazon on a 13-part streaming series, and someone’s got to write those songs. I hear Lindsey Buckingham might be available.

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Some books, you know, are just nice. And it seems this is the time of year when I need them most, when, like Langston Hughes, I am waiting for the world to be good and beautiful and kind.

Second chances, second acts. In Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), the title character’s car skids off an icy road and lands in Lake Superior, but he escapes with a concussion and some memory and speech loss.  His ensuing recovery becomes something of a rebirth for the part-time town clerk and movie-house owner, who is helped by the quirky residents of his small Minnesota town. Enger (Peace Like a River) mixes whimsy, nostalgia and a touch of magical realism to record Virgil’s odyssey.

Joy Davidman was an unhappily married writer and mother of two young sons when she first started writing letters to Oxford don, theologian and author C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia).  Her questions about faith and religion impressed “Jack,” and their burgeoning friendship in the 1950s eventually led her from New York to England and an unexpected love. In the novel Becoming Mrs. Lewis (Thomas Nelson, review copy), Patti Callahan realistically explores the meeting of two minds and hearts whose relationship was challenged by Joy’s ill health.

Readers of Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful 2016 middle-grade novel Raymie Nightingale will remember Raymie’s irrepressible friend Louisiana Elefante. In Louisiana’s Way Home (Candlewick, purchased e-book), it’s 1977. 12-year-old Louisiana is forced to leave Central Florida and friends Raymie and Beverly when her grandmother decides a middle-of-the night road trip is in order. Only Granny isn’t planning on returning. When Granny’s toothache lands them in a small Georgia town, Louisiana finds kindness, friendship “and free peanuts” in the midst of hard times. Her narration is often a hoot as she despairs of the adults around her, but her resilience is real and endearing.

I’m not surprised Josie Silver’s rom-com One Day in December (Crown, digital galley) is already on the bestseller list. It’s Love Actually meets When Harry Met Sally meets One Day as Londoners Laurie and Jack lock eyes through a bus window. But they don’t actually meet until a year later, by which time Jack is Laurie’s friend Sara’s boyfriend. Mutual attraction, missed opportunities and a few surprises mark the next decade of their friendship, and happily-ever-after remains in doubt until the very end. Sweet.

 

If you’ve ever watched Escape to the Country, Britain’s answer to HGTV’s Househunters, than you’ll know the extraordinary pastoral beauty of South Devon, the setting for Marcia Willett’s contemporary family saga, The Songbird (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Several cottages make up the Brockscombe estate, home to an extended, blended family presided over by Francis, an elderly retired MP. The newcomer is Tim, a renter hiding the secret of his recently diagnosed neurological illness from his friend Mattie and her relatives. But others — a former ballerina, a young navy wife, a man whose wife has moved on (maybe) — have secrets, too, all of which are eventually sorted out in leisurely fashion.

 

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Santa isn’t the only one keeping a list. Everybody and her brother who has read a book this year has opinions to share. I don’t mind because I’m always looking for recommendations to add to my TBR tower. I do mind labeling lists “Best,” because who has read everything?! So I’ll just say the following are my favorites from what I read in 2018, the books I’ll buy for myself and friends, the ones I’ll reread in the years to come. All of them except one I’ve reviewed on the blog this year. I missed Rebecca Makkai’s remarkable third novel The Great Believers (Penguin, digital galley) when it came out in June. But on a recent weekend I was transported by this chronicle of the fallout of the AIDS epidemic told in two intertwining narratives, one from 1985 Chicago, the second in Paris 30 years later. Now I can’t stop caring about Makkai’s characters, both those whose lives were cut short and those who survived and loved them. Absent friends, a lost generation. Thanks to whoever first put this on their best list. Now it’s on mine. (Credit: “A Woman Reading in Bed” by Frederick Serge).

My 2018 favorites, in no particular order:

 

 

 

 

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