Category Archives: Fiction

SUMMERLINGS by Lisa Howorth

Summerlings by Lisa Howorth is a short novel about a pack of 10 (11?) year-old boys living just outside Washington, DC in the 1950s. John, the narrator, is best friends with two other boys, Max and Ivan, on his block. Together, they explore the neighborhood on their bikes and conjecture about their neighbors, a mix of expats, diplomats, feds and potential spies. Some are friendly, some are not, and the boys spend their long summer days trying to figure out more about the adults around them. They are particularly intrigued by Elena, Ivan’s glamorous, mysterious Ukranian aunt, who is kind to them, prompting them all to fall in love with her. Meanwhile, John’s mother is off “recovering” in a nearby sanitarium (depression?) and his father has moved out, leaving him and his distant older sister under the care of their grandparents.

Summerlings takes place about 3 blocks from my house, so I loved the DC references sprinkled liberally throughout the book. Howorth even mentioned my street at one point. That was fun. Generally, though, I had a hard time getting into this book. Not much happens, there is tons of detail, and the plot is pretty superficial. Summerlings takes place during the Cold War and people are therefore suspicious of each other, and adults drink a lot and don’t tell their kids much of what is going on. That’s about it. There is one subplot involving the kids’ plot to steal a rare, dangerous spider from the National Museum of Natural History, and that is as close to suspense as I got from the book. (I could actually picture their whole bike ride down to the Mall as Howorth described it, so that was fun.) But generally, Summerlings was disappointing. I almost didn’t finish it, but because it was so short, I powered through.

If you want to read a sweet book about 11 year olds coming of age during a less complicated time, and you’re interested in the 50s in Washington, DC, then give Summerlings a try. But if you’re looking for something more substantive, I’d give it a pass.

THE TRAVELERS by Regina Porter

The Travelers by Regina Porter is a sprawling book covering six decades in the history of two families, one white and one black, as generations grow up against the backdrop of America, from the Vietnam War to Obama’s presidency, from Georgia to New York and California. The two families are connected through one married couple, but both sides of the tree spread widely and include a broad range of people. Chapters are more like interconnected stories, as characters come and go and different threads are picked up and dropped throughout the book.

The Travelers is a tough book to sum up. There are so many characters and so many stories happening at once. The end result is a kaleidescope of love, betrayal, racism, joy and sorrow, seen through many relationships and life events. Porter is a playwright – which explains the (helpful) long cast of characters listed at the beginning of the book – and while she is expert and setting up powerful scenes, she may not yet have mastered the longer story arc. I found the chapters compelling on their own, but looking back a week after I finished the book, I am having trouble remembering many elements of it. Certain moments stand out for me, but my overall recall is pretty uneven.

Porter avoids stereotyping her characters; you won’t find predictable tropes here. In this way, The Travelers feels like real life – messy relationships that are often hard to define, great variation within families, conflicts that are never resolved. Readers who approach the book without expectations of a concrete linear story will enjoy an impressionistic, almost poetic experience rather than a deep, detailed read.

Nicole and I recently discussed The Travelers on the Readerly Report Podcast as our August book club read. Give it a listen to learn more!

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie

I picked up And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie for the Unread Classic category of the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge. I *think* I read it when I was pretty young and was going through an Agatha Christie phase, but I didn’t remember much about it. It’s one of her classic mysteries: ten unconnected people are summoned to a remote island under vague circumstances. One by one, they start dying. Who is killing them, and why?

And Then There Were None is definitely one of Christie’s creepier mysteries. There is no way on or off the island, so the killer has to be one of the ten people there, right? Who can be trusted? When the deaths start mirroring a children’s maudlin poem framed on the wall of the each of the guest rooms, the tension is ratcheted even further. You know HOW the people are going to die, but you don’t know WHO will die, or when.

My podcast co-host Nicole warned me not to read And Then There Were None at night, especially while in strange hotels when I was traveling. So I saved it for the plane ride home, which was a crowded daytime flight flooded with sunlight. That ended up being a good choice, because I wasn’t all that scared. It was a good mystery, and the characters’ backstories made it interesting. The resolution is pretty satisfying, if a bit (!) unrealistic. I was struck by one thing: this book is outdated! One minor character is referred to as a “dirty Jew”, and the deaths two of the victims – a butler and a maid who are married – are barely even acknowledged because they are hired help. I didn’t realize that Christie was anti-Semitic and that other racist language had appeared frequently in her works. This book actually had two earlier titles, both of which were racist and had to be changed.

I could have gone in a million directions with this category of the reading challenge, and this was a painless, if not terribly memorable, way to tick a book off the list.

THE LAST ROMANTICS by Tara Conklin

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin was a buzzy book last spring – it as Jenna Bush’s first Read With Jenna pick – and my IRL book club picked it for our August read. It’s a family drama about four Skinner siblings – Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona – whose father passes away suddenly and whose mother subsequently goes into a deep depression. During the years of the their mother’s depression – which they call The Pause – the kids (aged 4-11) are left on their own. Renee, the responsible oldest, takes on the role of the mother, getting her siblings to young adulthood while missing out on her own adolescence.

Once the siblings grow up, however, they head off into different directions. Renee is driven and focused, attending medical school and becoming a surgeon. Caroline marries her high school boyfriend and has children early, providing them the stability she missed in her own childhood. Joe, the golden boy with the once-promising baseball career, finds the allure of money and booze too hard to resist, and Fiona uses physical connections with men – which she blogs about at “The Last Romantic” – to take the place of meaningful intimacy. Joe’s sisters watch him devolve with increasing alarm, yet they are powerless to stop his decline. How they respond to him puts a strain on their relationships and permanently transforms the dynamics between them.

I loved The Last Romantics. It’s beautifully written, poetic at times, and I really got to know these four characters well. Some chapters are told from the year 2077, when Fiona is a famous poet at age 102 looking back on her life. This was an interesting construct, both unsatisfying due to very limited parsing of details about the future (hint: it doesn’t sound great) and also poignant because of Fiona’s perspective looking back on her life. Ultimately, this is a novel about love (in all forms), loyalty and loss, and the imperfect ways in which we connect with and support the people we love. [Warning: the end is reminiscent of the Six Feet Under finale. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know why I am issuing the warning.]

This was a good one! Go pick it up.

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa

My second vacation read was The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa, a book I learned about from the Read Between The Wines blog this summer. It’s about a woman assigned to be the housekeeper for a brilliant math professor whose short term memory only lasts for 80 minutes ever since he was injured in a car accident. He can remember complicated math theorems, but he can’t remember people he met two hours earlier. This has led to a string of short-lived housekeepers, as they grow frustrated with having to reintroduce themselves every time they get to work.

The housekeeper of the title, however, is different. She gets to know the professor and pays attention to the math he teaches her and the connections he makes between numbers. Unlike the others, she finds him fascinating, and her world begins to expand beyond her job in his little house. She also introduces him to her 10 year-old son, and the boy bonds with the professor over their shared love of baseball. Although there are limitations on where their relationship with him can progress, they become very fond of him and learn to adapt their interactions to accommodate his memory loss.

The Housekeeper And The Professor is a quiet, poignant book. These lonely characters find connection in unexpected, imperfect ways, teaching the importance of living in the moment and behaving compassionately. It’s a quick read, but a memorable one. Though you never learn the characters’ names, they form a triangle you won’t easily forget. Bonus: it takes place in Japan and there is lots of baseball!

THE OTHER’S GOLD by Elizabeth Ames

I am back from vacation! It was a great trip. Not much downtime, which means not much time for reading. I did manage to make it through four books, which of course was only half of the eight I brought with me. Sounds about right for me and vacation – I always overpack books. (Because running out of books on vacation would be awful.)

Here is one of my favorite reading spots on the trip – the balcony of our hotel in Sagres, Portugal, also known as “the end of the world”:

The first book I read was The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames. It has one of those plots I like – four friends from college and how they fare into adulthood. Margaret, Lainey, Ji-Sun and Alice meet as freshmen when they share a suite at an elite East Coast school. They come from different backgrounds, but become fast friends, enjoying an intimacy and closeness that persists through four years in the same suite.

The Other’s Gold is structured around four mistakes, one made by each of the main characters at some point in their lives. They are pretty significant mistakes, which impact the course of their lives and affect their families, and later, their friends and husbands. I don’t want to spoil anything by saying what the mistakes were, but they form the narrative structure of The Other’s Gold, allowing Ames to shift focus among the four women and delve more deeply into their individual stories.

I really enjoyed this one. It read quickly and Ames is a beautiful writer. The women were frustrating at times, and made questionable decisions, but I felt invested in their lives and friendships and wanted to see how things ended up. I liked Ames’ use of detail – never extraneous, always making me feel a part of the scene. My only complaint is that I had trouble connecting to one of the women – Lainey – throughout the book. I found her inconsistent and difficult to relate to. Maybe we are just really different, but she isn’t like anyone I have known and I didn’t find her all that credible.

The Other’s Gold is a debut novel, coming out on Tuesday. I really liked it and recommend it – makes a great end of summer read.

HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE by Richard Roper

I am not sure what made me pick How Not To Die Alone by Richard Roper as my next read a week or two ago. I think it’s because I had a review copy on audio and had swapped a book for the print copy, so it was easy logistically. In retrospect, I’m not sure it was what I was in the mood for, as I’ve had a run of lighter books lately.

How Not To Die Alone is about Andrew, a man in London approaching middle age, who is (like the last book I read) an introvert stuck in a stagnant life. He works for the city doing the difficult job of going into the homes of people who have died without leaving a will or next of kin. He goes through their apartments looking for clues about who might be able to pay for – or even attend – their funerals, and when he finds none, he attends himself. It’s a grim, sad job, but Andrew has done it for a years, all while living in a dreary flat where he obsesses over his model trains and communicates online with other train enthusiasts whom he knows only by their online handles.

Andrew’s world is ripe for upending. Three things happen in short order: he suffers the loss of an estranged family member; a new female co-worker starts work in his office; and his officemates come closer and closer to discovering that Andrew’s life as they know it as a lie. For he has fabricated a wife and two children in order to fit in at work, and when his boss proposes a rotating series of dinner parties at team members’ homes, Andrew’s falsehood becomes harder and harder to maintain.

How Not To Die Alone is a cross between a dark book and a rom-com. The book is infused with loneliness – Andrew’s as well as that of the people whose homes he searches – and he’s a pretty depressed guy. But at the same time, the book takes on a lighthearted feel as Andrew bumbles his way through a crush and navigates an IRL meetup with his train friends. The constant straddling of both paths makes How Not To Die Alone, in the end, not terribly successful on either front. It was pleasant enough, but I wasn’t really compelled to return to it after having a break.

I listened to How Not To Die Alone on audio. It’s performed by acclaimed British narrator Simon Vance, and he did a good job with it. (Anything performed in a British accent is automatically good, right?) I think I enjoyed the book more on audio than I would have in print, thanks in large part to the narration. He gave Andrew the stammering, well-meaning persona that you expect him to have, while infusing the whole book with dignity and poignance (perhaps more than it deserved).

I’ve seen this book described as the male version of Eleanor Oliphant Is Fine (reviewed here). I don’t really agree. Andrew isn’t as awkward as Eleanor, and his backstory isn’t as dark. That seems like convenient marketing to me. In the end, this was just OK for me.