Category Archives: 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD by Therese Anne Fowler

My last book of 2020 was A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler. A domestic drama told in part through a Greek chorus of old trees in the suburban neighborhood where the book takes place, it’s one of those books that instills dread from page 1. You know it’s not going to end well, but you’re just not sure how you’re going to get there.

Why I picked it up: My final remaining category for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge was Pick A Book, Any Book, so I sent my son into my room to pick a book from my bookshelves. He came back with A Good Neighborhood.

Two families live side by side on an idyllic suburban North Carolina street. Valerie, a middle aged Black woman, and her son Xavier, a senior in high school with a promising future in music ahead of him, have lived for decades in a modest house with a gorgeous old oak tree in the backyard. When nouveau riche white businessman Brad and his wife Julia build a modern mansion with a pool in the lot next door, the relationship between the neighbors starts out friendly but quickly sours when the health of Valerie’s tree is threatened by Brad’s construction, and Xavier gets romantically involved with Brad’s stepdaughter Juniper.

Valerie’s anger at Brad grows in lockstep with Brad’s creepy possessiveness of Juniper and the development of the teenagers’ relationship. Not a good trajectory. Along the way, Fowler explores racism, power dynamics, environmental degradation and sexual abuse. As the book goes on, Fowler ratchets up the tension and intensity among these characters, increasing the reader’s sense of dread and foreboding and giving little hope of a peaceful resolution.

A Good Neighborhood is a powerful and insightful book, but it’s not a fun read. The Greek chorus lets you know early on that things will get complicated, and they do. Though A Good Neighborhood is a fast read, it stays with you long after you close the book.

A Good Neighborhood was the 66th – and final – book of 2020. It satisfied the Pick A Book, Any Book category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

ATTACHMENTS by Rainbow Rowell

I just read the sweetest surprise of a book.

I needed an epistolary novel for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge (yes, really coming down to the wire here…) and had read somewhere about Rainbow Rowell’s 2012 debut novel, Attachments, which is told in large part via email. Attachments takes place at a newspaper in late 1999/2000, when twentysomething Lincoln takes a night-shift job as an IT guy whose job includes monitoring email for inappropriate content. He starts reading flagged exchanges between two work best friends, Beth and Jennifer, who share confidences over email, not knowing that someone was reading their exchanges. Before long, Lincoln has fallen for Beth, having never seen her in person. Attachments is about whether Lincoln and Beth will find their way to each other despite this inauspicious start.

Why I picked it up: I needed an epistolary novel for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge and somehow Attachments found its way onto my radar. I am so glad it did.

I loved this book! Rowell’s characters are so real – smart, funny, flawed. They face adult issues – pregnancy, breakups of long relationships, floundering careers. The writing is pitch perfect – in 300+ pages, there were barely any words that didn’t feel authentic. I liked that it’s a romantic comedy told from the man’s point of view. I liked the slow buildup of Lincoln and Beth’s relationship. It didn’t bother me that Lincoln was reading her email – it was his job, and I’m sure I would have done the same in his position. Who could resist? In real life, good relationships can develop in random and unexpected – even inadvisable – ways.

Attachments is a charming, sweet story about likable people that never feels overly cute or saccharine. After a somewhat slow start, I had a really hard time putting it down. I also enjoyed the Y2K and early millennial references, though 20 (!) years later, the book doesn’t feel dated. It was a great note to end this endless year on – oh wait, I still have one more book to read. Never mind.

Attachments was book #65 of 2020 and satisfies the Epistolary Novel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

BUZZ SAW by Jesse Dougherty

Last fall, something magical happened in DC. The Washington Nationals, who had started the 2019 baseball season with the pathetic record of 19-31, beat the odds to make it to the World Series. They dispensed with formidable opponents along the way, notably the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers, leading to a World Series against the Houston Astros, who had one of the best records in baseball and a scary lineup of ace pitchers. Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story Of How The Washington Nationals Won The World Series, written by Washington Post Nationals beat reporter Jesse Dougherty, chronicles the 2019 season from sad start to glorious finish, delving along the way into the personal histories and unlikely plays that made the Nats’ journey even more meaningful and historic.

Why I picked it up: I am a huge Nats fan, and I can’t resist any chance to relive the 2019 postseason. It was amazing!

Buzz Saw goes month by month through the baseball season, explaining how unexpected the streak was. The Nats had the oldest roster in MLB, with some players who had considered retirement before getting picked up by Washington. Some were overcoming injuries from the season before. And there were also young stars on the team, like Victor Robles and Juan Soto, who brought explosive raw talent to the Nats. As the wins piled up, the team worked to overcome its most glaring deficiency – the bullpen – trying different combinations and bringing in Daniel Hudson to offer relief to overworked starters like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasberg.

And then, of course, came the postseason, the many elimination games, the come-from-behind wins, the heroics of Howie Kendrick and Juan Soto and the clutch pitching. Ah, it was all so good! And so unexpected. And so much fun to experience. Buzz Saw brings it all back. And in a summer without baseball until just a few weeks ago, it was a great reminder of a season that feels like a lot more than 9 months ago.

I read Buzz Saw out loud with my son, so I guess I read it and did it on audio. The narration (me) – not great. The book is well-written. I like Dougherty’s writing style a lot – lively and descriptive. Overall, this was a really fun read.

So would you care about this book if you weren’t a big Nats fan? Hard to say. If you’re a hardcore baseball fan and/or enjoy underdog stories, then you might enjoy Buzz Saw as much as I did.

Buzz Saw was Book #32 of 2020. It satisfies the Book About Sports category of the 2020 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge.

HOME IS BURNING by Dan Marshall

I have found that some pandemic reads are too light, while some are just too heavy. Others, for whatever other reason, just don’t fit the bill. From what I’ve learned from talking to my friends and those who follow my blog and Bookstagram, we readers today are a picky and fickle bunch. I am not sure what drove me to read Home Is Burning this month, other than that it was on my list of 7 Backlist Books I Want To Read, and I’ve been enjoying memoirs lately. It’s about Dan Marshall’s year taking care of his father, who was dying of ALS, and while it sounds super depressing, it’s also very funny at times.

Why I picked it up: Home Is Burning has been on my shelves for years (it came out in 2015). I don’t even remember where I got it. It thought it might hit the weird reading spot I am in right now. And, I was able to get it on audio via Scribd, which sealed the deal.

Dan Marshall was living the dream – working in LA in his early 20s, seeing his long-distance girlfriend regularly – when his father finally got an explanation for some strange symptoms he’d been having. He was diagnosed with ALS, a crushing blow for a family man who ran marathons and took care of his wife, Dan’s mother, who was in treatment for a second bout of cancer. Despite having three siblings living near or with his parents in Utah, Dan and his brother Greg made the difficult decision to move back home so that they could care for their father full-time. Home Is Burning chronicles the year after Dan returned to Utah, when his father’s condition deteriorated and Dan had to contend with the loss of his father as well as that of his job, home and girlfriend.

The Marshall family, made up of Dan’s parents, two sisters and a brother, was a close one, with his father the source of financial and emotional support for all of his children. Watching his father deteriorate was horrific for everyone, especially Dan, who took on the lion’s share of his father’s physical care. He chronicles the ways they adapted the house to accommodate the wheelchair, the difficult decision to intubate his father so that he could breathe and receive nutrition, and his father’s ultimate decision to end his life by going off the respirator. He’s quite honest about his own shortcomings as a son and a caretaker, and he admits that he was quite hard on his poor mother, who was undergoing chemo while all this was going on. This is all heavy, sad stuff, but Dan is so entertaining and honest that I actually wanted to keep returning to Home Is Burning, even though I knew what was going to happen. He’s really funny. The book is also full of sex and profanity (be warned!), so even at the most touching and poignant moments, there’s always a funny line coming out of Dan’s mouth. There isn’t much here about the nature of loss and how to survive it – Dan’s not the most introspective guy – but it was memorable and thought-provoking and even entertaining.

I listened to Home Is Burning on audio. It’s narrated by Dan himself, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. You know how you can tell when an author is reading his or her book, rather than a professional narrator? You can tell here. But it’s totally worth it for the personal perspective (because this is a highly personal book) – and for his imitations, particularly of his family’s housekeeper.

Home Is Burning was Book #26 of 2020 and fulfilled the Book Sitting On My Shelf For 2+ Years category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing came out to great acclaim in 2017, and even though I picked up an ARC at Book Expo that year, I just never got to it. Perhaps I was daunted by what I expected to be a difficult topic? It sat on my shelf until a few weeks ago, when I decided to try it in an audio/print tandem read. It helped that Ron Charles discussed how good the audiobook was when he came on The Readerly Report, and that Nicole also spoke highly of the book when she, too, finally got to it earlier this year.

Why I picked it up: I was way overdue.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is about a family living in Mississippi. Mam and Pop live with their grown daughter Leonie (their son Given is dead) and their grandchildren Jojo and Kayla. The kids’ father, Michael, is in prison but soon to be released. Leonie is black and Michael is white. Michael’s parents have never accepted Leonie as their son’s partner nor sought any relationship with their grandchildren, while Mam and Pop have basically raised Jojo and Kayla while Leonie is often off getting high. Jojo, 13, takes care of Kayla too, filling a parental void left by Leonie’s frequent absences.

When Michael’s release date approaches, Leonie decides to drive to get him from prison, along with their kids and a friend she knows from work. The road trip to and from the prison takes up much of the book. Along the way, the distance between Jojo and Leonie gets more pronounced, with Jojo increasingly frustrated at his mother’s failures as a parent and Leonie’s resentment of her children’s closeness and lack of need for her. Meanwhile, Jojo, on the precipice between boy- and adulthood, gains a clearer picture of his mother – her limitations and also the tenderness she shows to Michael.

The ride also provides Ward a vehicle to explore racism – the group gets pulled over by the police en route back from the prison, and an unannounced visit to Michael’s parents does not go well. Meanwhile, both Jojo and Leonie are haunted by ghosts along the way, with Leonie seeing her dead brother Given every time she gets high and Jojo being accompanied by the ghost of boy his age named Ritchie who served time in the same prison as Pop decades earlier. These ghosts serve as a painful reminder of the legacy of racism in Mississippi and are a grim foreboding of what Jojo will face in his life as a black man.

Ward’s writing is lyrical and sensuous. I felt like I was in the back of that hot car with the kids, experiencing their mixture of dread, curiosity, anger and the yearning for a family unit that could buffer some of the pain of growing up amidst racism and inequality. There is a lot of pain here: guilty characters trying to redeem themselves and disappointed characters trying to forgive and rebuild. The ghosts – victims of horrific acts of violence – add another layer of unease to the story. So while this is not an easy read – and arguably not the best choice for a pandemic – I am so glad I picked it up.

I listened to Sing, Unburied, Sing on audio and also read the print, probably a 50/50 split. The audio is fantastic. It is performed by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk and Rutina Weley, and they make the prose sound like poetry. Ron Charles (or was it his wife?) was exactly right – it’s a superb audiobook. I recommend having the print available too because there are times, especially those involving the ghosts, when it’s helpful to reinforce the audio with the print just to make sure you’re following what’s going on.

Sing, Unburied, Sing was Book #21 of 2020 and it satisfies the “Book That’s Been On My Shelf For 2+ Years” category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

INSIDE OUT by Demi Moore

One book genre that has unexpectedly been holding my attention during quarantine is what I call pop culture nonfiction. The Office was an engaging audiobook, one of the few books I finished in April, and after finishing it I turned to Demi Moore’s memoir, Inside Out. It turned out to be surprisingly interesting, and was a book I returned to eagerly whenever I had the chance. (I know I’m into a book when I bring my iPhone in the shower to get a few extra minutes of listening in. Weird?)

Inside Out is the story of Demi Moore’s chaotic childhood, entry into acting, rise to superstardom and experience as a wife and mother. As a child of the 80s, my Demi Moore consciousness was shaped by movies like St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night, but her bigger hits – movies like Striptease and G.I. Jane – and celebrity marriages propelled her into the echelon of highest-paid actresses and cemented her place on Hollywood’s A-list. In recent decades Moore has perhaps been best known as the mother to her three daughters with Bruce Willis, as Ashton Kutcher’s wife – and ex-wife, and for her well-publicized struggle with drugs, topics she covers with honesty in Inside Out.

Moore was born to two alcoholic parents who provided their daughter with an extremely unstable home life punctuated by frequent moves and school changes, separations and reconciliations, exposure to drugs and alcohol and a complete lack of parenting and guidance. Moore’s crazy childhood and adolescence, coupled with her complicated relationship with her troubled mother (her father committed suicide in 1980), formed the root of problems that would follow her throughout her life – alcoholism and drug addiction, lack of self-confidence, disordered eating and issues with intimacy and reliance on others. Moore is very honest in the book about her doubts about her acting ability and her attitudes about her body, exercise and dieting. She also goes deep into her relationships with the men in her life – Emilio Estevez, Willis and Kutcher, explaining what attracted her to them, what worked, and what eventually broke them up.

I found the sections about being a mother to her three daughters especially poignant, as Moore identifies parenting as the one activity and accomplishment in her life that she is most proud of. After a drug overdose in the early 2010s, she endured three years of her family not speaking to her, a very painful time for Moore. After reconciling with her daughters, she embarked on the book project, publishing Inside Out in 2019.

Moore does like to play the blame game, shifting responsibility for some of her poor decisions onto her parents, her exes, her critics, Hollywood’s expectations, etc. That got a little tiresome. But I liked a lot of what she had to say about pay equity, balancing motherhood with career and not losing your identity in your relationships.

I listened to Inside Out on audio, narrated by Moore. I couldn’t imagine hearing these words in anything other than Moore’s signature raspy voice. Great audiobook (and pretty short too, at 6.5 hours).

Inside Out was Book #20 of 2020 and satisfies the Celebrity Memoir category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

TWENTY-ONE TRUTHS ABOUT LOVE by Matthew Dicks

If you’re having trouble focusing on reading prose right now, how about reading lists instead? Matthew Dicks’ entertaining novel Twenty-One Truths About Love is exactly that: a collection of lists written by Daniel Mayrock, an insecure man in his thirties who is haunted by his wife’s dead first husband and his fear of being bankrupted by his failing bookstore. Lists are about my speed right now, so this was an easy book to get through during quarantine.

Why I Picked It Up: I’ve had Twenty-One Truths About Love on my TBR ever since it came out last year, and when my book club said they wanted a lightish read because we’re all totally stressed out, this was one of the ones I suggested.

Daniel Mayrock quit his teaching job to open a bookstore, thinking he could spend his days surrounded by beloved novels, which he’d recommend to a steady, respectful stream of passionate readers. Instead, he is faced with razor thin margins, customers with bad taste and surly employees. He watches his savings dwindle as the store becomes less and less profitable, a fact he keeps from his adored and newly pregnant wife Jill for fear of disappointing her and invoking inevitable comparisons to her successful, deceased first husband Peter.

Daniel is antisocial, generally friendless and opinionated on all kinds of topics. He’s also smart and funny, and his lists are entertaining, thoughtful and sometimes poignant. He loves his wife and his unborn child, and as he gets increasingly desperate to make (or win, or otherwise procure) money, he goes a little off the deep end. But Twenty One Truths About Love is funny throughout, and I didn’t have trouble sticking with it like I have with other books in recent weeks.

Examples of some of Daniel’s lists: “Why raspberries are a bullshit food”, 3 reasons why I am a terrible man”, “People I hate for being too accomplished”, “6 ways to annoy a child”, “Lyrics that make total sense and are the shit” etc. If those sound compelling, plus more plot-driven ones that won’t make sense in this post, then you’ll like this book.

It turns out that books in list form, when done well, are a lot of fun. Twenty-One Truths About Love is a pretty good choice for right now. Watching Daniel try to make himself into a better man without getting in his own way was a decent distraction.

Twenty-One Truths About Love was Book #16 of 2020 and satisfies the “book with the word ‘love’ in the title” category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

LONG BRIGHT RIVER by Liz Moore

Long Bright River by Liz Moore is a hybrid domestic fiction/police procedural about two sisters in Philadelphia: Mickey, a police officer, and Kacey, a drug addict who has been in and out of rehab. When the book opens, Mickey is trying to locate her sister amid a series of unsolved murders of young women in the Kensington area of Philadelphia.

Why I picked it up: I’d read very good reviews of Long Bright River since it came out in January and it was a December 2019 BOTM pick. But Sarah’s interview of Liz Moore on Sarah’s Bookshelves Live sealed the deal. I started it in audio, but brought it on a business trip this week and finished it in print.

This was a good one! In Long Bright River, Moore expertly teases out two stories – the Then and the Now. Then covers Mickey and Kacey’s childhoods and how they ended up taking such different paths in life. The daughters of an addict, they were raised by their grandmother after their mother’s death and father’s disappearance. They were given very little support as kids, and while Mickey studied hard and did well in school and Kacey turned to drugs as a teenager, their upbringing had deep ramifications for both women. In Now, Mickey, troubled by the rash of murders of similarly situated women, embarks on a desperate search to find her sister, often ignoring police protocol and putting her own career at risk.

Mickey is also the single mother of a young boy, Thomas, struggling to provide him with security and consistency but without the means to pay for proper daycare or private pre-school. She cobbles together childcare, often leaving him under less than ideal conditions while trying to find her sister. (This added a layer of tension to the book.)

Despite its 470 pages, I flew through Long Bright River. It’s incredibly suspenseful, and Moore masterfully teases out both timelines, revealing what happened little by little and and throwing in a few curveballs along the way. It’s a deeply sad book; Mickey’s loneliness and estrangement from what remains of her family and the details of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis combine for some pretty bleak reading. She made some bad decisions, but I had a lot of empathy for her (and ultimately for her sister).

The ending took the book down a notch for me, as I felt it wrapped up hastily and implausibly. Moore raced through some key scenes where I wanted a bit more dialogue and explanation, which left me a little unsatisfied. But overall I really enjoyed Long Bright River and am so glad I picked it up.

I listened to the first quarter of Long Bright River on audio before I turned to the print. It was narrated by Allyson Ryan, who was mostly businesslike and firm in her performance, like Mickey. I thought she did a good job with it. I realized early on that her voice was familiar – she was the narrator of Fleishman Is In Trouble, a very different book. Warning: if you listen to Long Bright River on audio, have the print available too, because you’re going to want to read ahead. Trust me.

Long Bright River was Book #9 of 2020. It satisfies the Recommended On A Podcast category, though I already have The Cactus League in that slot.

IN FIVE YEARS by Rebecca Serle

When Rebecca Serle’s novel In Five Years opens, NYC corporate lawyer Danielle and her banker boyfriend David get engaged, just as Dannie expected they would, the latest step in her meticulously planned life. But later that night, Dannie has a dream that takes place five years later, in which she is living (and sleeping with) a different man in a different apartment. Will that dream accurately reflect her future reality, and if so, how does she get from the present to that future?

Why I picked it up: I didn’t love Rebecca Serle’s last novel, The Dinner List, but the premise of In Five Years was irresistible and the reviews were very positive.

I really enjoyed In Five Years. It’s a quick read, because it’s pretty short and it’s hard to put down. Dannie’s life unfolds, her career skyrocketing and her relationship with David enduring… but with no actual wedding in sight. Dannie’s best friend Bella, meanwhile, falls in and out of love, taking a much more circuitous route forward than Dannie’s straight line trajectory. Dannie and Bella’s friendship plays a central role in In Five Years, highlighting the differences in how the two approach their lives but providing them with the constant presence that a deep, enduring friendship does. Bella challenges Danni to question whether she should stay on her planned track or give in to the impulses that might lead her to the future she envisioned in her dream.

In Five Years is reminiscent of a few other books I’ve read: One Day In December (girl falls in love with man who ends up being her best friend’s boyfriend); You Were There Too (man recurs in woman’s dreams); and The Immortalists, whose author Chloe Benjamin blurbed this book (siblings learn of the predicted dates of their deaths), but it still felt fresh and original. I also liked the depiction of Bella and Danni’s friendship. The plot took a few unexpected turns, which kept me quite engaged.

If you didn’t love The Dinner List, I’d recommend giving Serle another chance and picking up In Five Years. You’ll read it in like two days, and you’ll be glad you did.

In Five Years was Book #8 of 2020. It comes out on March 10.

WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS by Andrew David MacDonald

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald is a novel about siblings trying to make their way through life despite a lot of adversity. Zelda and Gert’s parents are gone – their mother, an alcoholic, died of cancer and their father disappeared when they were young. Zelda was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, compromising her mental development and limiting her independence. She is obsessed with Vikings, and turns to Viking culture and rules to guide her throughout life.

Why I picked it up: I got When We Were Vikings as an ARC at Book Expo last year and recently started seeing reviews as its January publication day approached. I’ve seen comparisons to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which I enjoyed a lot.

Zelda and Gert have a lot going against them. They’re young and living on their own, having moved out of their uncle’s apartment after he started sexually abusing Zelda. Gert has dropped out of college and now deals drugs in order to support them, and Zelda, who spends her days either at the community center or seeing a therapist or hanging out at home, is dependent on Gert for everything.

When Zelda discovers that Gert is no longer attending classes, she draws inspiration from her beloved Vikings to try turn his life around while contributing more substantially to their home. She gets a job, experiments with having a boyfriend, and tries to repel the shady characters who have started invading their already fragile household, thanks to Gert’s new livelihood.

Zelda is an interesting narrator: she is articulate, engaged and compelling, but she is also naive and has poor judgment. MacDonald walks a fine line here – he has to make Zelda complex enough to feel invested in, but if she comes across as too smart, she’s not plausible as a character. For the most part, I think he did a good job achieving this balance. There were a few times when she seemed too sophisticated and used words that she wouldn’t have known, but in general MacDonald did a good job creating a consistent character.

Gert and Zelda are flawed but fundamentally good people who have been dealt some tough cards. I felt a sense of dread as the book went on, worrying about what was going to happen to them and how they would get through it. (Hint: it’s never good when a gun appears in a book.) When We Were Vikings is a touching novel and Zelda a winning protagonist. I also learned a lot about Vikings. It could have used a little more editing and the end is a bit abrupt (and unrealistic), but for a debut novel, When We Were Vikings was pretty impressive. And Macdonald did a very nice of getting into a woman’s head.

I listened to When We Were Vikings on audio. The narrator, Phoebe Strole, had a perky, upbeat delivery that at times was incongruous with what was happening in the book, but her narration gave Zelda a naivete and optimism that was entirely consistent with her character. I recommend the audio version.

When We Were Vikings was Book #6 of 2020 and satisfies the Debut Novel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.