Category Archives: Fiction

FATHER’S DAY by Simon Van Booy

I stumbled upon Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy on the remainder shelf at the bookstore. It caught my eye, I made note of it, and ended up picking it up at the library last week. It was (probably) my last book of 2017, and it ended my reading year on a very high note.

Father’s Day is about a girl named Harvey (yes, weird name choice) whose parents died when she was a little girl. With no other family around, she ends up living with her uncle Jason, a violent ex-con who served time for beating up another man and blinding him. At first, Jason is reluctant to take Harvey, but a persistent social worker wears him down until he can’t bear the thought of her going into foster care. Harvey and Jason form a little family, with him learning how to be a father and her helping him learn how to love. It sounds corny, but Van Booy shies away from sentimentality here. Jason is a damaged man, and Harvey has her own bursts of anger and frustration. They don’t have a lot of money, but they get by. Jason sells his beloved homemade motorcycle to pay for Harvey’s orthodontia, but it isn’t until Harvey is grown up that she truly understands his sacrifice.

The book goes back and forth between flashes from Harvey’s childhood (and even earlier) and the present, where Harvey is now living in Paris and Jason has come out to visit for Father’s Day. There is one plot gimmick that I didn’t love – Harvey presents him with little gifts throughout his visit that have meaning to the two of them and trigger more flashbacks and explanation. I don’t think Van Booy needed those presents to tell his story and the whole construct ends up feeling contrived. Because Jason is so flawed, but such a decent man, the story is realistic and very compelling on its own without those triggers.

I really, really enjoyed Father’s Day. It’s a gentle but not saccharine, suspenseful but not stressful, and very well-written. Excellent way to end the year of reading.

THE WIFE BETWEEN US by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen is what I call a popcorn novel – a psychological thriller that keeps you reading but doesn’t necessarily leave much behind when you finish. It’s about a woman named Vanessa who has recently divorced her husband Richard and is now stalking his fiancee (her “replacement”). It appears that Vanessa – short on money, living with her aunt in Manhattan – is the typical cast-off first wife who wants her rich husband and her old life in Westchester back, while her husband heads toward the aisle with a younger version of herself.

But, as you discover as you read The Wife Between Us, little is as it seems.

It is very difficult to review this book without giving too much away, so I will keep this short. There are a lot of twists and turns that kept me reading. At first Vanessa seems sad and pathetic, but then you start to realize that there is more to her than a spurned woman. And then things get interesting.

The Wife Between Us is a tense thriller that keeps the pages turning and the reader interested. I put it a notch above the typical popcorn novel because of the twists and surprises, and also because it ends up being a pretty sympathetic portrayal of a woman who has faced challenges in her life. But in the end, it’s a thriller. If you’re in the mood for that kind of book, I recommend picking it up.

 

GREEN by Sam Graham-Felsen

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen is a novel about David Greenfeld, a sixth grade boy growing up in Boston in the 90s who doesn’t fit in at school. He’s white and Jewish, and while he’d like to go to private school, his hippie parents who “believe in public school” send him to “the King”, a predominantly African-American middle school in Jamaica Plain. David is a frequent target of bullying and teasing by his classmates, and he unsuccessfully he tries to fit in with his black classmates as he navigates the hierarchy of middle school and the complicated world of race relations.

Unexpectedly, David becomes friends with Marlon, a boy from the nearby projects who stands up for him at lunch one day. They share a love of the Celtics and a desire to test into Boston Latin, a public magnet school that would provide an escape from the King and the promise of success and riches down the road. It’s clear that Marlon has a difficult home life, with a mentally unstable mother, but to a naive David, Marlon is just the best friend he never had.

Green is a memorable coming-of-age story that feels authentic and accurate. Graham-Felson grew up in Boston and, like his main character, attended a school in which he was one of the only white kids. (Graham-Felson later served as President Obama’s chief blogger during the 2008 election, so he knows a little something about race in America.) There are so many little details here that lend the story relatability and immediacy – the rants from David’s cranky, Holocaust-survivor grandfather; his father’s Birkenstocks with socks; the bean sprout sandwich that his father packs him for lunch. But the book goes deeper with an insightful look at what it’s like to be in the minority and yet be favored and treated better than most people around you. The principal looks out for David, storekeepers let him loiter in their stores, and he enjoys a home with luxuries around him that many of his classmates can’t afford. And yet Dave’s life is stressful, especially when he is taunted on the bus or mugged on the basketball court. And when his relationship with Marlon becomes distant and awkward, Dave is more alone than ever.

There is a lot of 90s slang in here – did white kids ever talk like that?

Overall I liked Green and am glad I read it. It can get a little slow, but Graham-Felsen expertly captures those awkward years, especially as lived by someone who had a hard time fitting in.

I listened to Green on audio and I have one major complaint. The narrator, Prentice Onayemi, is very good, but he’s African-American, which seemed like a weird choice for a book about the one white kid in a black school. Why not go with a white narrator? The whole point is that David isn’t black and feels like an outsider. I enjoyed the audio but this bothered me throughout.

 

THE DOGS OF BABEL by Carolyn Parkhurst

[Warning: second book in a row about death and grieving. Sigh.]

It’s always interesting to pick up a Carolyn Parkhurst book, because you never know what you’re going to get. Whether it’s a fictionalized account of an Amazing Race-like reality show, a novelist re-writing her endings, or a rural compound for families of autistic kids, you’re in for a quirky but interesting ride. The Dogs of Babel, which I believe is Parkhurst’s first novel (it came out in 2004) is about Paul, a man whose wife Lexy is found mysteriously dead in their backyard after falling out of a tree. There were no witnesses other than their dog, Lorelei. With no explanation for why his wife would have been climbing in their tree, Paul, desperate for answers, decides to train his dog to talk so that he can get an answer from her.

Much of The Dogs of Babel is told through flashbacks as we learn about Paul and Lexy’s relationship. Paul is a straight arrow, while Lexy is artistic and impulsive and prone to violent outbursts and mood swings. But we grow to understand why he loved her and what a void she has left in his life. As the complexities of their relationship are slowly revealed, the answer to the question of what happened to Lexy becomes less murky.

So the talking dog part of the book sounds weird, but Paul is a linguist, so his interest in interspecies communication isn’t that strange. He grows interested – warily – in a fringe movement to get dogs to talk. The leader is in prison for maiming and torturing dogs – that part is awful – and Paul knows that the remaining men in the group are cruel and disturbed. But he’s so desperate to get Lorelei to talk that his judgment gets clouded and he interacts with them a little, but with tragic consequences.

Ultimately this is a story about grief, not unlike the last book I reviewed, Goodbye For Now by Laurie Frankel. What lengths might we go to to soothe the pain of loss? At what price? The Dogs of Babel wasn’t my favorite Carolyn Parkhurst but I still liked it and was eager to learn what happened. She’s a very good writer and I’ll probably read anything she puts out. I’ve heard her speak a few times (she’s local) and I am definitely a fan.

I am in the home stretch! The Dogs of Babel was book #49 for the year. I am closing in on my goal of 52, with 12 more days of the year to go. I’m halfway through one on audio, 1/4 through another in print, and that just leaves one more to finish by the 31st. I think I can, I think I can…

 

 

GOODBYE FOR NOW by Laurie Frankel

A fellow book blogger, Catherine of Gilmore Guide to Books, recommended a book by Laurie Frankel as one of her top reads of the year. I am reading that book now – This Is How It Always Is – and when I was researching it, I came across another one of Frankel’s books that caught my eye. That book showed up on audio sooner than the other one, so I picked it up first.

Goodbye For Now is a novel set in Seattle. When it opens, Sam and Meredith are coworkers at an online dating company, Sam a programmer and Meredith in marketing. Sam develops an algorithm that identifies soul mates, which identifies Meredith as his perfect match. They start dating and fall in love, and all goes well until Sam is laid off and Meredith’s grandmother dies. Meredith is devastated, and desperate to make her feel better, Sam creates a program that mines all of Meredith’s emails from and video chats with her grandmother and creates a posthumous, digital version of her capable of interacting with Meredith on her computer. Meredith is horrified at first, but as soon as she finishes their “chat”, she wants to do it again.

From this experiment, a company called RePose is born. The recently bereaved hire RePose to create digital alter egos of their loved ones, and then come to RePose’s office to interact with them. Word of this new service spreads quickly throughout Seattle, and Sam and Meredith find themselves very busy with their new venture.

Goodbye For Now is a thought-provoking exploration of death, grieving and the ways in which survivors try to comfort themselves. There are many types of deaths in Goodbye For Now – sudden ones, deaths after long illnesses, deaths of children, spouses and parents, deaths of friends. There are even non-deaths, as families with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s sign up for RePose to be reminded of what they were like before the disease. Does RePose actually help the people left behind? Or does it keep them from moving on? What about the people who can talk more freely and honestly to the RePose version of their dead spouse than they could to the living one, while he was alive? And does RePose put pressure on the dying, who feel they need to create a positive, happy digital archive for their families so that they can have positive, happy conversations after they’ve died?

Heavy stuff. And I haven’t even mentioned the deaths that actually happen in the book.

I love Frankel’s writing and her sense of humor. She’s smart and thoughtful, which shows through in both Goodbye For Now and This Is How It Always Is. I wish we were friends IRL – she seems like a very cool person. (Laurie – friend me!) I also liked Sam and Meredith’s relationship, which was not plagued with conflict (unusual for a novel) but was built on love, attraction and respect.

Overall, I liked Goodbye For Now, though it dragged in places and seemed to take a while to get through. There is a lot of detail and a lot of conversation, some of which could have been trimmed. But it’s a moving and sad book, and it’s one that will stay with me for a long time. If you can stomach the sadness and grieving, it’s a worthwhile investment.

I listened to Goodbye For Now on audio. It was narrated by Kirby Heyborne, and even though it was written in third person, he was the perfect narrator for Sam, the main character. He sounded like a programmer – precise and focused, yet kind and passionate (and emotionally broken, when necessary). The audio was well done and I recommend it, though it too was a little long.

HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT by Kaui Hart Hemmings

How To Party With An Infant by Kaui Hart Hemmings is a novel about Mele, a single mother living in San Francisco. Her daughter’s father (her ex-boyfriend) left her while pregnant to return to his fiancee (the existence of whom Mele was unaware of). As a new mother, Mele cast around for a group of other parents to hang around with. She started with the San Francisco Mom’s Club (SFMC), and was mismatched with a group of wealthy SAHMs before finding her tribe at a less tony playground, and the book is about those friendships and the imperfection of modern parenting.

How To Party With An Infant has an interesting structure. Mele is a foodie and a blogger, and when the book opens, she is submitting an application to the SFMC to supply recipes for the group’s cookbook. Hemmings teases out the backgrounds of each of Mele’s playground friends through the application, as Mele concocts a recipe inspired by each person and his or her individual story. (This construct reminded me a bit of Kitchens Of The Great Midwest, though it was used much better in that book.) I found the cookbook application structure to be forced and ultimately unnecessary. Hemmings could have written the book without it and nothing would have been lost. There’s a meal at the end where Mele serves her friends the dishes they inspired; this meal could have taken place without the cookbook application. Hemmings also switches back and forth between first and third person narration depending on whether Mele was doing the application, which is a little jarring.

On the other hand, How To Party With An Infant is entertaining and incisive, skewering a lot of mom types and relating the bittersweet nature of parenting small children. I laughed out loud several times while reading it, and I was always happy to pick the book back up again. There isn’t much of a plot, but there are a lot of funny vignettes throughout involving Mele or her friends. It’s an easy read, a wisp of a novel that doesn’t leave much of a mark but is enjoyable in the process. My favorite scene is a wedding that takes place at the end – Mele’s ex-boyfriend’s – which was just totally relatable and ultimately uplifting.

Reviews of this book are a bit all over the place. My best friend loved it, and she’s a very reliable barometer for books. In the end, I was glad to have read it, but honestly can’t remember all that much about it since finishing it 5 days ago. If you want an entertaining, breezy read, give it a try.

 

YOU THINK IT, I’LL SAY IT by Curtis Sittenfeld

When I learned that Curtis Sittenfeld had a collection of short stories coming out next spring, I had to get my hands on it. Immediately. I don’t usually love short stories, but we’re talking Curtis Sittenfeld here. I will read anything she writes. So I got it, and I read it, and it was great.

The ten stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It are about relationships – friends, exes, acquaintances – and the moments in life when they reappear or emerge in a surprising way, often against the backdrop of fame or marriage. In “A Regular Couple”, a woman is on her honeymoon when she comes across someone she went to high school with. Their power dynamic has shifted, which plays out in interesting ways when they end up spending a few unexpected days together. “The Prairie Wife” is about a mother of young kids who discovers that someone she knew at camp is now famous for creating a persona that is quite different from how she was as a teenager. In “Plausible Deniability”, a sister and brother-in-law play a dangerous game via text that ends when they both realize that he can never be what she wants him to be.

I don’t love short stories because they are unsatisfying; the good ones always leave me wanting a lot more. The stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It are no exception. But damn, these are good. They combine two crucial elements: convincing, honest observations and dialogue, plus some sort of twist or surprise. There were situations in each of these stories that I could strongly relate to, and as always, Sittenfeld just nails them. Like her other books, high school plays a big role, but there are also stories about marriage and parenthood. I read this book slowly, savoring each story because I didn’t want it to end.

It’s not fair for me to write this review now, when You Think It, I’ll Say It isn’t out until April 2018. But I’ll post it again next spring and urge people to read it. If you’re a Sittenfeld fan, then this will be right up your alley.