Author Archives: gayle

THE BOOKSELLER by Cynthia Swanson

Ugh – over 2 weeks since my last post. I’m here, I’m reading – I just have a lot going on and haven’t been able to keep up the same pace as the first 2 months of 2018. But I have a lot of good books coming up on my TBR and hope to pick up the speed a little.

I did finish The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson last week. The Bookseller is a Sliding Doors-esque novel in which a single woman in her thirties, Kitty Miller, wakes up day from a strange dream in which she is married with three kids. In the dream, she lives in a suburban part of Denver in the 60s, whereas in her real life, she lives downtown and runs a bookstore with her best friend. She finds the dream intriguing – who is this handsome architect she has married? – and in the subsequent weeks, she finds herself returning more and more frequently to the alternative dreamscape in which she has a different identity. Ultimately, the reader finds herself questioning which version of Kitty is real, and which is imagined?

I don’t want to give away too much of the story, because the fun of The Bookseller is figuring out how the two lives unfold and affect each other. The dual tracks of Kitty’s life turn out to be zero-sum; very little that exists in one life also exists in the other. And this is intentional, setting up a painful contrast between the two and ultimately a difficult choice as Kitty has to commit to one or the other.

The Bookseller of course requires some suspension of disbelief, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it magical realism. I enjoyed Swanson’s storytelling and the depiction of life as a single woman a half-century ago in Denver. Kitty is a bit simplistic at times – Swanson’s depiction of parenting and marriage was cliched –  but I liked this story, which is on the lighter story and provided a more upbeat antidote to the sadder books I read right before The Bookseller.

I mostly listened to The Bookseller on audio. Narration by Kathe Mazur was fine and I found myself engrossed in the story and eager to get back to it.

If you want a lighter read and are willing to tolerate some ambiguity, give The Bookseller a try. It’s not terribly deep but serves as a great palate-cleanser.



NOMADLAND by Jessica Bruder

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder looks at a relatively invisible American demographic: a mobile workforce, made up mostly of people in their 60s and 70s, who live out of vans and cars and follow low-wage seasonal employment opportunities around the country because they can’t afford homes. I wasn’t aware of this demographic before I read about Nomadland, and once I read the book’s synopsis I knew I wanted to get hold of it.

In Nomadland, Bruder looks a range of employers and job opportunities that have attracted nomad workers, including: Amazon, who hires hundreds of workers (“Camper Force”) at warehouses across the country to handle holiday season order fulfillment; national parks who hire “camp hosts” to staff campgrounds over the summer; amusement parks; the sugar beet industry, who needs seasonal harvesters; and more. These employers hire nomad workers who descend on their locations, setting up temporary mobile home communities while the work is still paying. When the work dries up, the vans pull out and the communities disappear. The work is usually tedious, physically taxing and low paying, but the workers come anyway. They need the money.

In addition to looking at the jobs, Bruder spends a lot of time on the nomads’ way of life. Where do they shower? Park? How do they get mail?  Bruder did an incredible amount of research for Nomadland, including getting her own van and spending time on the road with her subjects. She even took a job at Amazon as part of Camper Force to truly understand the experience of nomadic work. The result is a very thorough and empathetic view of the challenges of this type of lifestyle.

Bruder focused on one nomad – a woman named Linda – throughout Nomadland to lend the book a narrative structure. Linda went from a national park in California to a casino to an Amazon warehouse in search of income. The depiction of Linda’s story really captures the dichotomy of the nomadic lifestyle. On one hand, Linda enjoys an untethered existence, free to come and go as she wants, while still enjoying the benefits of a vibrant community of friends. Without rent to pay, she is unshackled from some of the financial stress that her peers share. Yes, she lives on a tight budget, heading to Mexico for cheap medical treatment and postponing needed repairs on her van, but she is debt-free and able to support herself. But Linda’s story is emblematic of so many Americans whose fortunes were decimated by the 2008 financial crisis. They lost jobs, savings, retirement plans, and the comfort of knowing that their needs would be covered into old age. Faced with financial uncertainty, they take to the road because they tave no other options. And while living on the road may sound romantic, it’s also hard in many, many ways.

Nomadland was a fascinating book. There were a few places where Bruder veered off course a little and I found myself losing focus. The chapters focusing on Linda were the easiest to follow, but some of the other nomads’ stories tended to ramble a little. That said, I still found this to be an interesting and disturbing read. Of the many casualties of the financial crisis, these older Americans without good options are among the saddest.

I listened to Nomadland on audio. It was narrated by my friend Karen White, who gave it just the gravity it needed. Her precise delivery, verging on alarmed, conveyed the substance and urgency of the topic, yet she handled the book’s wry and humorous moments just as well.




The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston is a novel about a couple – Lila and Perry – who meet in Charlottesville, VA in 1943 a few weeks before Perry is due to ship out for World War II. After a very fast courtship, Perry proposes, and they elope in a “furlough marriage” in which they spend exactly three days together as husband and wife before he leaves for the war.

Lila decides to keep a scrapbook of their relationship, and The War Bride’s Scrapbook is exactly that – Lila and Perry’s relationship told through her diary entries, their letters back and forth, and a collection of real memorabilia (articles, postcards, photos, souvenirs, receipts, ads, trinkets, and much more) that help tell their story along with Lila.

Lila moves to Cambridge to live with Perry’s family after he leaves, and the book is as much about her gaining her independence and pursuing a career as it is about their relationship and Perry’s time in Europe. There is suspense throughout the book too, as you worry along with Lila about Perry’s safety as an engineer on the front lines against the Germans.

I loved The War Bride’s Scrapbook. I found myself reading it as slowly as possible just to draw out the experience. The scrapbook element is a lot of fun, as I spent as much time on each page studying the collage of artifacts as I did reading Lila’s story. Seeing all the minutiae really brought the story to life, much more so than just reading a diary. It’s also a pretty sad story, as Lila and Perry’s marriage doesn’t turn out to be the storybook romance she hoped for in the beginning. Don’t let the sunny photo on the cover fool you.

I highly recommend The War Bride’s Scrapbook, especially for people who enjoy historical fiction. Preston clearly invested a lot of time and research into this book (her second scrapbook novel) and it shows. What a treasure.

THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is about four siblings, Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon, who, as children, visit a fortuneteller in Manhattan who reveals to them the dates of their deaths. Each child learns his or her date privately. The Immortalists follows the lives of the four children in the following four sections, exploring how the fortuneteller’s prediction affects their decisions about how they live their lives.

About 10 years after the fortunetelling, Simon and Klara move to San Francisco, as far as they can get from their Manhattan childhoods. Simon joins the gay scene of the early 80s, finally out and true to himself. Klara follows in her late grandmother’s footsteps and pursues her dream of being a magician/performer. Varya and Daniel, dutiful and responsible, comfort their mother and forgo their own dreams to take care of her. The siblings, who aren’t particularly close as the years pass by, remain bound to each through the invisible thread of the fortuneteller’s predictions. Some share their date with the others, and some don’t.

The Immortalists is about free will vs. fate. Are they destined to die on those days? Or do they live their lives in a way that brings the date on? That’s the fascinating question at the core of the book. I think some sections succeeded better than others – I liked the first, Simon’s, the most – but I found this theme to be powerful and thought-provoking throughout. Don’t expect an upbeat read – each of these characters is burdened by a weight and sadness that persists throughout their lives. The knowledge of the date propelled some of them to live more fully, while it had the opposite effect on the others.

I found The Immortalists to be well-written and thought-provoking – almost haunting. It’s one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve read it. It has gotten a lot of buzz this year, and deservedly so. I am glad I withstood the stampede at the BEA Buzz panel last May to grab a copy – definitely worth it!



Bobcat And Other Stories is a collection of stories by Rebecca Lee that generally focus on love, infidelity and intellectual connection, often in academic settings. I read about this book in my Book A Day 2018 calendar and found it intriguing, and picked it up at the library. It’s a pretty uneven collection of stories. In the title story, a dinner party forces two marriages to come to terms, although the one that fails is not the one you would suspect. In another story, a student at a small midwestern college plagiarizes a paper, only to find herself thrust into the limelight when her professor, who is aware of the plagiarism, arranges for her to present it for his own political agenda. In the most memorable story, a woman finds herself in Hong Kong serving as a surprisingly matchmaker for her male friend, at the request of his father.

Bobcat And Other Stories has some beautiful writing, and Lee’s stories definitely have those unexpected twists that can make short stories so compelling. But in the end this collection came up short for me. I think it’s a bit too esoteric – lots of academia and strange names and odd settings that I had trouble following. In the end I had trouble connecting with it. Too intellectual maybe.

If you go to Goodreads, you will find a lot of people who loved this collection. So if you’re intrigued, go check it out. It just wasn’t for me.


BEST DAY EVER by Kaira Rouda

Sometimes you just need a little popcorn.

I was traveling last week and wanted a book that I could get into and finish quickly, and Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda fit the bill. It’s a psychological thriller – the kind with an unreliable male narrator who grows increasingly dangerous (you’ve read that one before, no?) – that grabs you from the start and sucks you in but ultimately leaves you kind of empty.

Paul and Mia have been married for several years, with two young sons and a beautiful suburban home. Paul has planned a perfect getaway weekend for them at their lake house outside Columbus. He has thought of every detail, from the playlist on the ride up to the romantic dinner they will have at a new restaurant – even the brandy he’ll pour her before they go out. But as Paul describes his marriage to Mia, you start to realize that he is not what he seems. He’s controlling, demeaning, duplicitous, scheming, and a cheater. But how much does Mia realize, and is this really going to be the best day ever for her?

There are twists along the way, and Rouda does a nice job of racheting up the tension as the date proceeds (each chapter covers another half hour or so of the getaway). I was hooked on the story and the pages flew by until I finished.

Again, this one is popcorn. It was entertaining and fast-paced. Just don’t expect a rich read that will stay with you for a long time (though Paul is actually pretty memorable as a villain, made even more so because you get into his head and see just how dysfunctional he is).

LONER by Teddy Wayne

David Federman, the protagonist of Teddy Wayne’s novel, Loner, is a quiet, nondescript Jewish boy from New Jersey  starting his freshman year at Harvard. He’s eager to reinvent himself at his new school, where he hopes he’ll make friends, especially with the more popular, well-liked kids. During his first night of orientation, he meets Veronica Wells, a beautiful blonde, wealthy New Yorker whom he immediately falls for. His infatuation with Veronica takes over his life, as he picks classes based on which ones she is taking, propels his friendship with Veronica’s roommate Sara into a romantic relationship so that he can be near her, and generally inserts himself into her life whenever possible.

Loner is a darkly entertaining book. David is observant and funny, but deeply unlikeable. His singularity of purpose – the doomed pursuit of Veronica – pushes him from nerdy and awkward to deranged and highly manipulative. The book is less of a sendup of Harvard  – though that’s in there too – but an exploration of the mind of a sociopathic young man whose obsession turns ugly. The end is disturbing, to be sure, but I have to say that I enjoyed this book anyway. It’s a glimpse into the mind of a deluded, dangerous person that’s funny and suspenseful at the same time. And I also liked that the icy Veronica had a few tricks up her sleeve as well.

Loner was a quick and satisfying read, but be warned that it’s also unsettling and that the humor can get pretty dark.