ONE DAY IN DECEMBER by Josie Silver

After I finished Red Clocks (reviewed here) last week, I needed a change of pace. Red Clocks was interesting but heavy, foreboding, and somewhat easy to put down. I wanted something entertaining that would grab me and suck me in. One Day In December by Josie Silver fit the bill perfectly.

Laurie is a twentysomething living in London who is on the bus one cold December evening when she locks eyes with a man sitting in a bus shelter. They stare at each other for a little while, but before either can react, the bus pulls away. Laurie, convinced he was her true love, spends the next year looking for Bus Boy (as she and her roommate name him) to no avail. A year later, however, he enters her life in an unexpected way, and One Day In December tracks the next decade or so, as Laurie and Bus Boy (Jack) go in and out of each other’s lives. Timing, circumstance and pride keep getting in their way… but will they end up together?

Yes, it’s a cheesy premise. But One Day In December is a thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing book with a surprising amount of heft. I felt invested in Laurie and Jack and wanted to see what happened to them. There were a few twists and turns I didn’t see coming. And I liked how One Day In December accurately depicted those unrooted twentysomething days when you’re sort of an adult, but not really, and everything feels so momentous. Silver’s writing is light and conversational and the pages really flew by. So no, this isn’t Meaningful Literary Fiction, but it was exactly what I needed when I picked it up, and I was sad for it to end.

(Speaking of endings – this one was too Hollywood for me. It felt like the ending of every rom com movie I’ve ever seen. I wish Silver had gone in a different direction in that final scene. I was happy with the outcome but not how it got there.)

I alternated between the print and audio of One Day In December. I liked the narration quite a bit. Eleanor Tomlinson and Charlie Anson were very familiar voices to me by the end, and I appreciated how they communicated Jack’s edginess and Laurie’s sweetness. British accents don’t hurt either, right? The only downside of the audio was that sometimes I just had to get back to the book and ended up picking up the print. But I highly recommend the audio too.

RED CLOCKS by Leni Zumas

It has been a week or two since I finished Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, and I am still trying to decide what I thought of it.

Red Clocks fits into the new wave of feminist dystopia, joining books like Vox by Christina Dalcher (reviewed here) in warning readers about the dangers of a world where women are silenced, demoted and deprived of their rights. In Red Clocks, a conservative administration has passed the Personhood Amendment, making it illegal for women to have abortions and outlawing IVF and adoption by single women or gay couples. Zumas tracks four women living in Oregon: an unhappily married mother of two, a single woman in her early 40s trying to conceive on her own, a pregnant high school student, and a woman who lives in the woods and provides herbal remedies to people in pursuit of untraditional (and illegal) medical help.

Through the unique lenses of these four women, Zumas explores the experience of being a woman – a mother, a daughter, a professional – and in particular a woman whose options are increasingly limited. Zumas’ writing is sharp and real; she pulls no punches when it comes to the details – often unpleasant – of these women’s lives. It’s pretty bleak in the world of Red Clocks. As a result, this isn’t the most uplifting read. I am glad I read it; I can’t say I enjoyed it that much. But I think it’s important to read books like Red Clocks – you’d be surprised by how realistic it all seems. (Which is scary.) Imagining a very bleak world that isn’t all that far off is a good reminder of the need for vigilance and action in defeating such a misogynistic agenda.

I listened most of Red Clocks on audio. It’s narrated by Karissa Vacker and Erin Bennett, and I am embarrassed to say that until now I didn’t realize that there were two narrators. They do a good job of conveying the urgency and futility of the women’s situations. The audio is a little confusing because although the women have names, they are unnamed in their own chapters, and are instead called “The Wife”, “The Daughter”, “The Biographer” and “The Mender”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whose story you’re hearing. I ended up finishing this book in print, thanks to a hotel stay when I was under the weather, and in the end I preferred the print.

ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW by Nicole Chung

It’s Non-Fiction November, folks! So I read some non-fiction.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung is a deeply personal memoir about the Korean-American author’s life as an adopted daughter. Born to Korean-American parents in 1980s Seattle, Nicole was given up as a premature baby and adopted by a white couple from a small town in Oregon. She grew up as the only Asian in her whole town, suffering teasing and bullying by those around her who couldn’t accept her being different. As a result, she was shy and insecure, constantly trying to fit in.

When Nicole got to college and was surrounded by other Asians, she started to think more about her identity and what it meant to be Korean. After a few years, she decided to pursue a search for her birth family. When she initially learned that her parents were alive – but not living together – and that she had two sisters, her reticence about hurting her parents and her fear of rejection were both overpowered by her intense curiosity about her birth parents and her roots as a Korean girl. All You Can Ever Know is a detailed, emotional and very clearly written memoir about the experience of tracking down her birth family and what their reunion was like.

I liked All You Can Ever Know a lot. I appreciated the insights into her unique circumstances, including her interactions difficult birth mother and formal, academic father. Chung is so honest and forthright that it’s hard not to get emotionally involved with her story and feel affected by what happened to her. The book is a good look at adoption from the point of the adoptee, with all of the conflicting emotions and identity questions that it raises.

I listened to All You Can Ever Know on audio. It was narrated by Janet Song, who did a decent job with it. Song’s precise, clear delivery mirrored Chung’s writing style, and it was easy to follow. I was surprised that it wasn’t narrated by the author, which I think would have been very powerful. Ultimately, I felt a bit of a remove from the content, knowing that it wasn’t the author herself that I was listening to. I wonder if it was just too personal for Chung, and that she didn’t want her own voice out there talking about her parents and her feelings.

All You Can Ever Know is a short and satisfying read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in adoption, particularly trans-racial adoption.

GIRL UNKNOWN by Karen Perry

I recently moved and my life has been in disarray! I’ve been reading – always reading – but I haven’t been blogging. So I am a few reviews behind and am trying to catch up.

Girl Unknown by Karen Perry is about a family of four in Ireland – Caroline and David and their two kids – who has achieved an uneasy peace after Caroline ended an affair with a parent from her son’s school. They’ve just managed to get things back on track, when David, a college professor, is approached by Zoe, one of his students who says that she is his daughter. Zoe’s entry into their family makes waves, understandably, especially as it becomes clear that Zoe is unreliable and manipulative. Her relationship with David drives a wedge between him and Caroline, as well as with his children, while David tries to determine whether Zoe is telling the truth about her birth parents and her childhood.

I learned about Girl Unknown from another blogger – I can’t remember who! – and I thought it would be domestic fiction about an established family absorbing a new member. I didn’t expect a domestic thriller, so that was a bit of a surprise.

Girl Unknown is very well-written. The dialogue was realistic and I liked how the authors (Karen Perry is a writing duo) really got into Caroline and David’s emotions and gave both sides of this unfolding story. The plot got a little outlandish at the end, but throughout most of the book, I felt like I could really see this story happening. In the end, though, it’s a thriller, and it didn’t leave that much of an impact on me. If it weren’t for the good writing, I might not even have finished it. But it was a good pick to get me through a hectic stretch – easy to pick up and squeeze in a few pages when I could grab some time.

Karen Perry are popular authors of other thrillers – I had no idea who they were, or I might have had some warning that Girl Unknown was going to be a different type of book from what I was expecting. Decent read, just pretty forgettable.

MARY B. by Katherine Chen

Katherine Chen’s Mary B. is a novel told from the point of view of Mary Bennett, the famously plain, ridiculed and unloved middle Bennett sister from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Unlike her sisters Jane, Lizzie, Kitty and Lydia, Mary is presumed not to be interested in frivolities like men and fashion, as she is too often found with her nose in a book or playing the piano. In Austen’s original, Mary is a caricature, one of the many sources of humor in the book.

Chen’s novel opens during Pride and Prejudice, soon after the Bennett’s odious cousin, Mr. Collins, comes to Longbourne.  Before his visit, Mary confides to the reader that despite what people think of her, she has, in fact, been in love three times, immediately signaling that this Mary is not the same Mary from Austen’s novel. Mary B. explores those three relationships and how they shape Mary’s life and her future.

I have so many conflicting feelings about Mary B. I have a lot of admiration for Chen, who clearly spent a long time with the original to develop the right language for Mary B.  She’s faithful to the era and the writing style of the original, and that’s fun in and of itself. And I was happy just to revisit these beloved characters and extend my time with them.

On the other hand, Chen took these familiar characters and sent them in some unexpected directions. Lizzie, Colonel Fitzwilliam and even Darcy turn into very different people from what one would expect of them. That’s Chen’s right, of course, but when you reimagine a book as beloved as Pride and Prejudice, you’re going to make people mad if you mess with what they love about it. I love Lizzie and Darcy – the romance of their relationship, the fiery passion, the intellectual connection – so I was pretty upset to see that relationship taking a different turn in Mary B. and I seriously questioned Darcy’s judgment. Other characters suffer similar fates: Charlotte Lucas, for example, who is so sympathetic in the original. Mary B. is a darker and more bitter book than its witty, sly inspiration, for sure.

I did appreciate Chen’s feminist update of the novel – Mary’s independence at the end is certainly an anomaly for her era. That was a nice twist.

So if you want to read Mary B., approach it with caution and consider your own feelings about the original. If you can’t tolerate tampering, you might want to stay away. And if you’re looking for other books in the Pride and Prejudice-industrial complex, try Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld or Longbourn by Jo Baker.

I listened to Mary B. on audio. The narration by Marisa Calin was quite good, perfectly capturing Mary’s shrillness and judgmental temperament and showing off Chen’s skillful writing. I definitely recommend the audio.

GHOSTED by Rosie Walsh

When Nicole raved about Ghosted by Rosie Walsh on Goodreads and on the Readerly Report podcast a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a good book to follow A Place For Us, which I liked a lot but found really slow. I wanted something that would suck me in early and go at a faster clip, and Ghosted didn’t disappoint.

Sarah Mackey is a British expat living in America, where she has recently gotten divorced from her husband of 6 years. She returns home to England on her annual monthlong visit home to see her parents and best friends, and while home, she meets Eddie, a man with whom she feels an instant connection. They spend a glorious week together, each admitting by the end that they would like to continue the relationship once Sarah returns to California. Eddie heads off on a pre-planned trip to Spain, promising to be in touch on his trip and to see her on his return, and then… disappears. Sarah has been ghosted.

I don’t want to say a lot about what happens next. as it will detract from the suspense of the story. Poor Sarah is completely distraught; did she imagine or misinterpret the strong connection she felt with Eddie? Where could he have gone, and why is he completely absent from social media? It turns out that there is an explanation, one that has to do with both Eddie and Sarah’s pasts and how they are linked. There were a few times when I was sure the story was heading in one direction, only to be completely surprised by how it played out.

Ghosted is a quick, engrossing read with relatable characters and a few nice twists. It was a great palate cleanser for me – just what I needed when I picked it up.

A PLACE FOR US by Fatima Farheen Mirza

There are good things and bad things about A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Let’s start with the good. A Place For Us is the story of an Indian-American family living in California. Parents Rafiq and Layla have three kids: daughters Hadia and Huda and son Amar. The book revolves around Amar, who grew up struggling with his parents’ Muslim traditions and their expectations for him. When the book opens, Hadia is getting married and Amar has shown up to the wedding, the first time he has seen his family in three years. Through flashbacks, Mirza pieces together Amar’s childhood and adolescence, including the tension he experienced in his relationship with his father, his secret, forbidden love for the daughter of his parents’ friends, and his struggle to live up to the high standards set by his sisters. At the wedding, Amar reconnects with his mother and sisters, as well as the woman he loved as a boy, but the pressure of the situation causes him to drink and confront his mother, ultimately driving him away from the family again.

A Place For Us is a heartbreaking exploration of the relationships and history leading up to the wedding and the many, often subtle, ways that Amar’s family failed him. There is a lot of pain in A Place For Us, with characters acting from a position of love but not being able to communicate or compromise enough to truly connect with each other. The final section, which is told from Rafiq’s perspective, is the most powerful in the book. These two men were so close to reconciliation and understanding, yet due to stubbornness and pride, they never achieved it.

If you like novels about culture clash and the complexity of families, then A Place For Us is a book for you.

But I have to warn you: A Place For Us is an unnecessarily long and slow book. It took me forever to read it. The reading is dense and detailed and beautiful, but it’s also quite repetitive. I think the author took many years to write it, and it shows. It could have been pared down considerably without shortchanging the flashbacks or compromising the complexity of the relationships. So while I really loved this story and recommend the book, it’s with the huge caveat that it’s really, really slow.