Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘literary fiction’

Put down the remote. Take a break from streaming Hamilton. Don’t you want to read books where stuff happens? We have you covered.

Boy, does stuff happen in Lake Life (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), the impressive first novel from UCF writing prof David James Poissant, following his story collection The Heaven of Animals. The Starling family’s annual summer vacation at their old North Carolina lake house is shadowed by parents Richard and Lisa’s plans to sell the house and retire from academia to Florida. But before grown sons Michael and Thad can recover from the news, a drowning gives rise to revelations and recriminations that rock the family, which includes Michael’s wife Diane and Thad’s partner Jake. Poissant fluently rotates perspectives among the six main characters, each with at least one secret: Alcoholism, infidelity, unexpected pregnancy, suicide attempts, grief that won’t let go. Emotions run deep before roiling to the surface. There’s heartbreak, humor, suspense. Yes, it slips into melodrama — the deer incident — and Poissant sometimes overwrites, as in the drawn-out ending. But excess can be forgiven in a book this good. I’ll read it again.

“Bananas.” That’s what I like best about Elisabeth, the new mother in J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel Friends and Strangers (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Whenever Elizabeth catches herself being judgmental, she says “Bananas” before she can blurt out what she really thinks. And Elisabeth is judgy — about the upstate New York College town where she recently moved with her husband; about the members of her new book club, not as cool as her Brooklyn friends; about her nearby in-laws, so different from her own unhappy, withholding parents; about her younger sister, an Instagram star who borrows money; about the women who apply to be part-time nanny to baby Gil. But then Elisabeth meets Sam, a senior scholarship student at the college with babysitting experience who is good with Gil. No doubt Sam is a find. Trouble is, Elisabeth sees her as a friend. Sullivan’s novel is about the complicated relationship between the two women, about good intentions and privilege and boundaries. Elisabeth and Sam share the narrative, and Sam, with her youthful enthusiasms, her hot sleazy London boyfriend, her consideration for others, is a character to care about. As for Elisabeth, “bananas.” I can’t help it. I wanted more Sam and less Elisabeth. Still, I’ll take them both during lockdown.

In Kevin Kwan’s frothy Sex and Vanity (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), lovely Lucie has suitors named George and Cecil, a brother Freddy and a cousin Charlotte. There’s also a room with a view, which is your final clue that Kwan is putting his “Crazy Rich Asians” spin on E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel.  Kwan subs Capri and the Hamptons for Florence and England, the better to satirize the decadent privilege of his 21st-century characters. Chinese-American Lucie sparks with Chinese-Australian George at a lavish destination wedding, but once back home in New York, she becomes engaged to WASP Cecil. Then George reappears. Kwan has fun with fashion, food and footnotes, and takes name-dropping to new levels — the D’Arcys plus Charles and Camilla.  And lest you forget the wonderful Merchant-Ivory film, where Maggie Smith played Charlotte, there’s a passing reference to the Dowager Countess of Grantham.  Tres amusant.

 

Even if Connie Schultz hadn’t used a quote from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an epigraph to her first novel, The Daughters of Erietown (Random House, purchased hardcover), I would still recognize the influence of Betty Smith’s well-loved book. Smith wrote about working-class life in Depression-era Brooklyn. Schultz’s family saga takes place in a blue-collar town in northeast Ohio in the decades following World War II. In a prologue set in 1974, Samantha “Sam” McGinty sets off for college at Kent State. The car ride with her parents, Brick and Ellie, and younger brother Reilly hints at past trauma in the family and life in Erietown, which Schultz then relates in flashback. Ellie, raised by her grandparents, falls in love with high school sports star Brick, and a hurry-up marriage derails plans for college. Brick becomes a union man at the local power plant; Ellie stays home with the kids. It’s the ’50s and then the ’60s, and Schultz writes movingly of the changing times and the McGintys’ struggle to adjust, not always successfully. The period details and cultural commentary, combined with Schultz’s compassion for her flawed characters, makes for a moving and involving story.

 

I binged more books, but I’m having computer problems. Once I get the technical issues resolved, I’ll post about Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas, The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor, The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths, Home Before Dark by Riley Sager, The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Lives of Edie Pritchard by Larry Watson and Hieroglyphs by Jill McCorkle. I liked them all.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Yes, I know I’m a little late with a March post. Ok, a lot late. But I’ve been busy social distancing, washing my hands, playing with the cats, streaming BritBox and reading in place. Not that much difference from my real life, truth be told. I was a stay-at-home person even before I was told to stay home. I miss friends and lunch out and even running errands, but I’m high-risk. Thankfully, there’s no risk of me running out of anything to read.

My favorite new book is Lily King’s witty and hopeful new novel, Writers & Lovers (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), which was the book I didn’t know I needed until I read it in one sitting a few weeks ago, and the reread it a couple days back. Casey is a 30ish writer and waitress in Boston, dealing with her grief at her mother’s recent death and struggling to finish her first novel. Two men complicate her life’s plot. Oscar is an older, well-known writer, a widower with two winsome little boys. Silas is younger, a student of Oscar’s, and still improvising his life and work. I went back and forth between the two, but in the end, I rooted for Casey.

Emily St. John Mandel’s last novel, Station Eleven, was about a global pandemic and life afterward, and it’s another favorite, although perhaps not the best choice for rereading just now. So I read her new novel, The Glass Hotel (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley) which differs in subject, following several people afloat in the “kingdom of money,” but which is also moody and haunted. Both Vincent ad her half-brother Paul work at the isolated Vancouver Island resort of the title, but then go in different directions, he as a troubled video performance artist and she as the trophy wife of the hotel’s owner, Jonathan. He’s running a giant international Ponzi scheme, which ensnares a number of people, including a couple of characters from Station Eleven, when it collapses. The story of choice and guilt plays with the idea of parallel/alternate lives, and it is full of ghosts. I liked it, but trying to explain why is like grasping at clouds.

Rats! Chris Bohjalian’s clever thriller The Red Lotus (Knopf/Doubleday, review hardcover) is full of them, all carrying dread and disease and death. Not a comfort read in these times, but it’s tense and diverting, moving between the Vietnamese countryside and a New York research hospital. Alexis is an ER doctor whose boyfriend Austin disappears while they are on a bike vacation in Vietnam. Austin, it turns out, is a first-class liar, and Alexis, wounded and betrayed, is compelled to investigate all the things he never told her. Bohjalian carefully parcels out critical information — about Austin’s darts-playing friend Douglas, an unnamed higher-up in cahoots with Douglas, a former Vietnam vet now a private detective, and antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Rats, too.

 

Louise Erdrich drew on the life of her grandfather in writing The Night Watchman (HarperCollins, digital galley), an involving story set in 1953 on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. Thomas Wazhashk, a night watchman at a jewel bearing factory, is also a Chippewa Council member who is fighting against a bill winding its way before Congress that would terminate the rights of Native Americans to their land as spelled out in long-standing treaties. Thomas’ activism will reach to  Washington, D.C., but it also affects the lives of others, including Patrice Parenteau, a high-school valedictorian and factory worker worried about the disappearance of her older sister Vera in Minneapolis; the boxer Wood Mountain; and white high school teacher and coach Stack Barnes. I vaguely remember studying termination in a college anthropology class — dry, distant facts, nowhere near as fascinating and real as Erdrich’s vividly realized novel.

Several ongoing crime series have new entries that offer escapism from the world’s woes. Detective and apprentice wizard Peter Grant takes on corporate crime in False Value (DAW, digital galley), the eighth book in the always entertaining Rivers of London series. Here, he goes undercover at the Serious Cybernetics Company to investigate tycoon Terrence Skinner and his connection to a fabled machine built by Ada Lovelace. In Meg Gardiner’s third volume in the UNSUB series, In the Dark Corners of the Night (Blackstone, digital galley), FBI behavioral analyst Caitlin Hendrix is trailing the Midnight Man. The serial killer terrorizes family homes in Los Angeles, killing the parents but letting their kids live — at least so far. Deanna Raybourn’s high-spirited Victorian mystery, A Murderous Relation (Berkley, digital galley), is the welcome fifth in a clever, sexy series.   Victoria Speedwell and Stoker Templeton-Vane team to resolve a royal scandal featuring a certain relative of Veronica’s, even as a serial killer stalks London’s streets.

 

 

Read Full Post »

The books were strong this past month. Historical novels, family sagas, literary fiction, crime novels. You can call it summer reading. I call it heaven.

In The Flight Portfolio (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), Julie Orringer artfully mixes fact and fiction, transporting readers to 1940 Vichy France, where journalist Varian Fry is working for the Emergency Rescue Committee. His mission to get threatened European artists and intellectuals away from the Nazis to safety in America is complicated by the personal (the return of his Harvard lover Elliott Grant), the political (closed borders, collaborators, government interference) and the moral (who decides who is “worthy” of the committee’s meager resources). The sunny countryside and port cities teem with intrigue, danger and romance on a grand scale.

Elderly narrator Vivian Morris looks back fondly to 1940 New York City in Elizabeth Gilbert’s entertaining City of Girls (Riverhead Penguin, digital galley). At 19, Vivi’s talent for not attending classes at Vassar is matched by her skill at making dresses for her classmates. When she’s asked not to return, her wealthy parents ship her off to New York and her unconventional aunt Peg Buell, who runs a struggling theater specializing in musical comedy. Vivi quickly and happily loses her innocence in the theatrical milieu, consorting with showgirls and hitting the nightclubs, but her actions have devastating consequences when she becomes embroiled in a tabloid scandal surrounding the hit musical “City of Girls.” Redemption does not come easily, as the reality of war soon changes everything, but Vivi’s witty, confessional voice charms throughout.

There’s a midsummer dreamy feel to Leah Hager Cohen’s Strangers and Cousins (Penguin Riverhead) as relatives and guests gather at Walter and Bennie’s Rundle Junction home for the wedding of eldest daughter Clem. The narrative slips smoothly through the various characters’ heads and memories, quandaries and secrets. Frail, ancient Aunt Glad carries the physical and emotional scars of her involvement in a town tragedy when she was a child. Walter and Bennie’s harmonious life is about to be upended by the arrival in Rundle Junction of a community of Orthodox Jews eager to buy property, and by an unexpected but not unwelcome addition to the family. And mercurial Clem’s elaborate plans for her wedding are soon to be upstaged by her unconventional college friends and the antics of her younger siblings.

Julia Phillips’ haunting debut of crime and connection, Disappearing Earth (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), takes place on the desolate Kamchatka peninsula in northeastern Russia, where the landscape has been shaped by earthquakes and tsunamis. The baffling disappearance of two schoolgirls at the book’s beginning reverberates through the community over the next twelve months. In chapters titled simply “April” or “June,” Phillips deftly concentrates on those individuals affected by the presumed kidnapping, from the girls’ grieving mother, to the college-student daughter of a reindeer hunter, to a policeman’s wife on maternity leave. The links of loss and longing among the characters accumulate, and revelations at a summer solstice festival lead to an unexpected conclusion.

New additions to three ongoing detective series prove more than welcome. The Scholar, (Penguin, digital galley), Dervla McTiernan’s follow-up to last year’s The Ruin, is a complex police procedural that finds Galway’s Detective Cormac Reilly investigating a sticky hit-and-run at a university research center. Researcher Emma Sweeney, Reilly’s girlfriend, finds the body, believed to be Carline Darcy, the brilliant heir apparent to Ireland’s largest pharmaceutical company. Both academic and police politics play into the plot, and suspicion undermines Reilly’s relationship with both Emma and his colleagues. A third book is on the way.

In the first entry in Elly Griffith’s sterling Ruth Galloway series, 2009’s The Crossing Place, forensic anthropologist Ruth meets DCI Harry Nelson while investigating missing girls near the Norfolk fens. Now, in the 11th book in the series, The Stone Circle (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), Ruth and Nelson are working on another missing girl case with ties to the first. Of course, they’ve other ties in common, including a 7-year-old daughter conceived during a one-night stand. Nelson’s wife Michelle knows about Kate, but not their two grown daughters. Their discovery that Kate is their half-sister, plus Michelle’s surprise pregnancy, works into the new plot, which is already complicated enough. Series fans will appreciate the recurring characters and references to the past, but newcomers may want to start with The Crossing Place.

Anthony Horowitz is his usual clever self in The Sentence is Death (HarperCollins, digital galley), the second in the meta-mystery series featuring fictional PI Daniel Hawthorne and his sidekick, author Anthony Horowitz. The conceit, of course, is that the prolific Horowitz is taking time off from penning Foyle’s War screenplays and Alex Rider novels to play Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock and write about it, as he did in last year’s playful The Word is Murder. The case of a divorce lawyer bludgeoned by an expensive bottle of wine turns out to be quite tricky with suspects aplenty. Horowitz provides witty insider details about the film and publishing worlds, and he as self-promotional as Hawthorne is secretive. Jolly good fun.

Read Full Post »

brightdaysTime marches on, both for Jay McInerney, who is never going to escape the aura of  1984’s Bright Lights, Big City, and for his characters, golden couple Russell and Corrine Calloway. They first appeared in his 1992 fourth novel, Brightness Falls, set against the the financial turmoil of the late 1980s, and returned in 2006’s The Good Life, coping with the aftermath of 9/11. Now, McInerney picks up their story in Bright, Precious Days (Knopf, digital galley), chronicling the years 2006-2008, when Art and Love again collide with Power and Money.

Although the Calloways have always seen themselves as belonging to the first category, they’ve hung around enough with those in the second that lines have blurred. Literary editor and publisher Russell rues that they can’t afford to buy the $6 million Tribeca loft that’s going condo on them, while Corrine, who works part-time for a non-profit food bank, has to wear one of two or three same-old-things to the charity galas they attend with friends’ tickets. Then there are the 11-year-old twins’ private school fees, and the borrowed summer house in the Hamptons is on the market.

That sounds a bit snarky, and I don’t mean to be, at least not much. The Calloways may be older — in their 50s — but they’re not especially wiser, and I still enjoy their company, despite and because of their flaws, as well as the voyeuristic appeal of their glittery New York life. Russell’s feeling overshadowed by the hot young writer he’s edited and mentored, while Corrine is again attracted to her former lover, multimillionaire Luke, who first showed up in The Good Life. Corrine’s younger sister Hilary pops up in unexpected places, detonating one family secret and covering up another. Everyone misses writer Jeff Pierce, who succumbed to drugs a long, long time ago, but whose reputation is being resurrected by a new generation.

The story may feel soapy and the writing a bit cliched, but on the whole it’s still engaging.  There’s substance as well as style, wit and wistfulness, irony and nostalgia. McInerney goes Tom Wolfe every now and then, what with the ladies who lunch and gossip, and does Fitzgerald too, with Russell’s yearnings and Corrine remembering what it was like to be 22. The title Bright, Precious Days suits the book. In the end I liked it, so much so that I asked for a copy for my upcoming birthday. Yep, time marches on, but some books I want to hold on to.

 

Read Full Post »