Category Archives: Fiction

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett

One of the Hot Books of Summer 2020 is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the second novel from the author of The Mothers. The Vanishing Half is about racism and identity (racial, gender), issues that have taken center stage in our national discourse this summer.

Why I picked it up: The Vanishing Half has gotten a ton of buzz (and a movie deal), and I am making a conscious effort to read and feature more BIPOC authors. It was my June BOTM pick.

Twin sisters Desiree and Stella escape their small Louisiana town in the 50s, moving to New Orleans to find more opportunity. They both have light skin, and Stella ends up moving away after getting romantically involved with her employer, a white man. Desiree, meanwhile, meets and marries a dark-skinned man and moves to DC. Stella reinvents herself as a white woman, turning her back on her sister and her old life and ending up in California. After suffering years of abuse from her husband, Desiree returns to the small town with her dark-skinned daughter Jude in tow, and while she always feels the acute loss of her twin sister, she settles in to life in her mother’s house. The Vanishing Half tracks Desiree and Stella’s lives, as well as the lives of Jude and Stella’s daughter Kennedy, whose lives intersect in Los Angeles.

I liked The Vanishing Half for the most part. The characters are complicated, Stella most of all with her denial of her blackness combined with her loneliness and longing for Desiree’s friendship. The divergent paths taken by the twins lead to parallel – yet wildly different – lives for the next generation. Both Jude and Kennedy, drawn to each other by an unspoken familial bond, pursue their own dreams and their own partners, meanwhile questioning their inscrutable mothers and scheming about how to reunite them.

The theme of disguise is threaded carefully throughout the book, from the premise of the whole town where the girls grew up to the clothes worn by Jude’s boyfriend and Stella’s white veneer. Even Kennedy’s choice of career – acting – underscores the identity issues each of the main characters experiences over the course of the book. Desiree is the least encumbered by her identity, but the stares drawn by her “blueblack” daughter and the questions raised by their contrasting appearances complicate her return to her hometown.

One complaint: the plot of The Vanishing Half depends too heavily on coincidence and symmetry to make its point. The coincidences detract from an otherwise powerful story that needed no such contrivances to hit its mark. I wish Bennett had been more trusting of the reader without manipulating the plot so blatantly. My frustration at these coincidences was blunted by the complexity of the characters, but I did find myself shaking my head at times, wondering, “Was that really necessary?”

I listened to The Vanishing Half on audio. The performance by Shayna Small was excellent. Her voice was rich and lyrical, and it really enhanced the book for me – I suspect I enjoyed it more on audio than I would have in print.

The Vanishing Half was Book #28 of 2020.

ALL ADULTS HERE by Emma Straub

Whether you will enjoy reading Emma Straub’s All Adults Here this summer will depend on whether a lighthearted, feel-good read helps you escape the pandemic for a while or instead makes you impatient due to its incongruity with what is going on around you. I suspect that this book, which came out in the beginning of May, was probably a lot easier to market before we all went into quarantine.

Why I picked it up: I enjoyed two of Straub’s other novels, The Vacationers and Modern Lovers, in particular her precise, observant writing and her depictions of modern love and parenting.

In All Adults Here, Astrid Strick, a woman in her 60s living in a bucolic town a few hours from NYC, witnesses a bus accident that kills another woman whom she knew but did not particularly like. The accident jars Strick, causing her to reexamine her choices, her parenting, and most of all whether she is living an honest life. Her three adult children – Elliot, a real estate developer living in town with his wife and twin sons; Porter, a single woman pushing 40 who has gotten pregnant on her own; and Nicky, a New Age-y former actor living in Brooklyn with his wife and teenager – have complicated relationships with Astrid, which she vows to improve.

When the book opens, Nicky’s daughter Cecelia has come to town to live with her grandmother because of an incident in her school in Brooklyn. Porter is engaging in an affair with her married high school boyfriend, and Elliot is grappling with whether to rent his empty space downtown to a big corporate store. Astrid, meanwhile, is hiding her two-year relationship with a woman.

I have to say, as I write this out, these problems all just seem small. I found All Adults Here to be a pleasant read, in that I cared enough about the characters to keep going, and everything resolved pretty well for them. But frankly, with the backdrop of what’s going on today, looking back on the book with a few days of distance, it all seems insignificant. There also isn’t that much tension or conflict in the book. There is one middle high school bully, and even she is completely defanged by the end. When I finished, I thought to myself, “So what?”

A few quotes in the book did really resonate with me. One was: “That was the problem with being part of a family: Everyone could mean well and it could still be a disaster. Love didn’t cure all, not in terms of missed communications and hurt feelings during an otherwise uneventful dinner conversation. Love couldn’t change the misread tone of a text message or a quick temper.” Unfortunately, for me the rest of the book didn’t really live up to that quote. I didn’t buy the deep-seated issues between the Stricks, and therefore found their resolutions even less meaningful.

All Adults Here was Book #27 of 2020.

TEA BY THE SEA by Donna Hemans

Donna Hemans’ novel Tea By The Sea looks at how a single decision – 23 year-old Lemworth’s taking his newborn daughter Opal away from her 18 year-old mother Plum, hours after the baby’s birth – affects Lemworth’s and Plum’s lives – and ultimately Opal’s. While Lemworth’s actions were reprehensible, he had reasons for them, however misguided, and had to live with them in the decades to come. Plum’s subsequent search for Opal, meanwhile, became the single guiding factor for her life, affecting all of her future decisions and relationships.

Why I picked it up: I was invited by Red Hen Press to join a blog tour for Tea By The Sea, and I was intrigued by the premise of the book.

Plum and Lemworth are memorable characters in heartbreaking situations. The pain Lemworth causes Plum is unforgivable, as is his subsequent treatment of Opal, a girl left without her mother. Plum’s loss of control so early in her life – taken away by Lemworth and her parents – leads to her intense need for control and agency in later years, alongside the acute and constant pain from the loss of her daughter. Hemans’ dual-tracked exploration of the ways in which both Lemworth and Plum try to move on from Lemworth’s actions in Jamaica was interesting, depicting the braiding of their subsequent paths as Plum searches for Lemworth and he consistently slips from her reach.

Hemans seamlessly shifts the action of Tea By The Sea between Jamaica, where Opal was born, and Plum’s hometown of Brooklyn, to which she returned after leaving Jamaica. I enjoyed both settings and found that the contrast between the two only highlighted Plum’s loss and the distance – emotional and physical – she felt from Opal.

Hemans also does a nice job building suspense throughout the novel. Will Plum find Opal, and when she confronts Lemworth, how will she make him pay for his actions seventeen years earlier? While the resolution wasn’t as clean or satisfying as I would have liked, I think that was intentional. There is no happy ending to this situation, given the pain suffered by so many people. The best we – and they – can hope for is a semblance of peace at the end and the possibility of rebuilding what was lost, albeit in a different form.

Tea By The Sea was Book #25 of 2020.

THE HOLDOUT by Graham Moore

The Holdout by Graham Moore is a legal thriller that goes back and forth in time between the past – ten years earlier, when a sequestered jury acquitted a teacher accused of killing his student with whom he was allegedly having a relationship, and ten years later, when the jury has reconvened on the anniversary of the trial to film a special. Maya, one of the jury members, was the sole holdout, and she eventually convinced the rest of the jury to change their verdicts to not guilty, a verdict that was questioned by everyone who had watched the trial on television. When Maya returns to her hotel room on the night of the reunion to find one of her fellow jurors dead, all eyes are on her.

Why I picked it up: The Holdout isn’t my genre – legal thriller – but it was well-received and was my book club’s May pick.

The Holdout looks back on why each member of the jury eventually chose to acquit the defendant, and how Rick, the juror found dead in the “now” section, became obsessed after the trial with finding out the truth. But who would have wanted him dead?

The Holdout has a lot going for it – jury dynamics are fascinating, and there are a number of plot twists throughout that I didn’t see coming. It turned out to be a well-timed read as well, given its treatment of race and the criminal justice system. It’s a relatively quick read, too. But The Holdout just didn’t do much for me. I don’t love thrillers and I particularly don’t love courtroom books. (There’s a reason I left the law.) There are some pretty unrealistic elements to the story, one of them being Maya’s own behavior after she was accused of the murder, and I found myself sighing at several points over how unlikely they were. And most of all, it has been almost a week since I finished The Holdout and I’ve barely thought about it since our book club discussion – never a good sign.

If you like thrillers and are looking for a beach read this summer, The Holdout might fit the bill. Otherwise, I’d pass.

The Holdout was Book #24 of 2020.

Blog tour: TEA BY THE SEA by Donna Hemans

One book that I am adding to my summer TBR: Tea By The Sea by Donna Hemans. I was lucky enough to be invited by Red Hen Press to be part of a blog tour for Tea By The Sea, and hope to get to it in the next week or two.

What it’s about: A mother’s circuitous route to finding the daughter taken from her at birth. From the publisher: “A seventeen-year-old taken from her mother at birth, an Episcopal priest with a daughter whose face he cannot bear to see, a mother weary of searching for her lost child: Tea By The Sea is their story—that of a family uniting and unraveling. To find the daughter taken from her, Plum Valentine must find the child’s father who walked out of a hospital with the day-old baby girl without explanation. Seventeen years later, weary of her unfruitful search, Plum sees an article in a community newspaper with a photo of the man for whom she has spent half her life searching. He has become an Episcopal priest. Her plan: confront him and walk away with the daughter he took from her. From Brooklyn to the island of Jamaica, Tea by the Sea traces Plum’s circuitous route to finding her daughter and how Plum’s and the priest’s love came apart.

Why I want to read it: Family drama, secrets and a long-overdue mother-daughter reunion… what’s not to like? I am also excited to read a book from a Jamaican-born author.

Would you like to read it too? I have a copy of Tea By The Sea to give away, along with a special tea blend that Hemans created just for the blog tour. (U.S. and Caribbean readers only.) If you’d like a chance to win Tea By The Sea, leave me a comment here on the blog. I’ll pick a winner at random on Friday, June 12.

Please add Tea By The Sea to your library hold list or order it from your favorite bookstore. It comes out on Tuesday, June 9.

BEACH READ by Emily Henry

I am pretty new to the romance genre. I read a few of them last year – both Sally Thorne books (The Hating Game and 99 Percent Mine), which I enjoyed. I just read a third – Beach Read by Emily Henry – and the ones I’ve read have followed a pattern: 1) take a pair who have historically hated each other or had some other impediment to a civil relationship; 2) throw them into a situation requiring sustained contact; 3) reveal her to be stubbornly protective yet emotionally vulnerable and him to be quiet but deeply passionate; 4) build up the physical tension until it snaps; 5) give them a week or two of bliss; 6) throw a major wrench into the budding relationship; then 7) quickly remove the wrench and allow them to move on happily ever after. It’s a fun pattern, but definitely a pattern (at least gleaned from my admittedly small sample size).

Why I picked it up: Beach Read was an April 2020 Book Of The Month pick and got good buzz when it came out, so when I was invited by Berkley to join a blog tour for it, I thought I’d take a chance on another romance.

January Andrews is a romance novelist who finds herself broken and jaded about love after her father dies, leaving behind a secret mistress and a heretofore unknown beach house in Lake Michigan. January retreats to the beach house to try to finish her latest book, due to her publisher in a few months, and try to get over the loss of both her father and her trust in him. At the house, she discovers that her next door neighbor is her college rival Gus Everett, a literary fiction writer who is also plagued with writer’s block after his own emotional trauma. Gus and January were not exactly friends in college, so finding him living in the house next door is not a welcome discovery.

The two writers eventually learn that they are in the same predicament, and challenge each other to swap genres and see who produces the better work. Meanwhile, January will force Gus to take romantic outings with her on Saturday nights – all for the sake of research, of course – while Gus will bring January along on interviews he is conducting about mass deaths at a remote cult camp in order to expose her to grittier fodder for her literary fiction novel. (See steps 3-7 for the rest.)

Beach Read is a fun, light read that will likely please most romance fans. Henry does a nice job with the physical buildup between the Gus and January and simultaneous breakdown of the protective walls they’ve each erected. Despite (or perhaps because of) the incongruity between its subject and tone and the reality happening on TV and literally one mile from my house, I flew through this book. I don’t think I will ever become a romance fan – I like my books to surprise me more – but Beach Read provided a nice respite this month. The genre swap subplot felt a little forced at times and I’m not sure that either writer was truly pushed into unfamiliar ground, but it provided a nice pretext for put these two into some interesting situations. The banter between Gus and January was also sexy, smart and funny.

I listened to Beach Read on audio. It is performed by narrator extraordinaire Julia Whelan, which I found to be an interesting choice for January because she has a serious tone to her voice that didn’t necessarily match that of the book. (She’ll always be Tara Westover to me.) Nevertheless, it was a good audiobook and certainly kept me interested.

Beach Read was Book #23 of 2020. Thank you to Berkley for inviting me to participate in this book tour.

RODHAM by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of the most scrutinized, analyzed and discussed public figures in the world. Most of us are pretty familiar with her narrative at this point, from her Yale Law School days through her years in Arkansas when Bill Clinton was governor, her 8 years as First Lady, and then her post-White House career as senator from New York, Secretary of State, and candidate for U.S. President. But what if that narrative had taken a very different turn? What if Hillary had turned down Bill’s multiple marriage proposals? How would her career have turned out? Would she have run for office, and would she have won? This is the subject of Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham.

Why I picked it up: I am a big fan of both women – Sittenfeld and Clinton – so this was a no-brainer for me. (I am also a Sittenfeld completist.)

[A confession upfront: I love Hillary. I voted for her, I wish (hourly) that she were our president. My husband worked for her at the State Department, so I’ve met her and know (through him) what she was like to work for. I also feel a little protective of her, so I approached Rodham with a little trepidation too.]

I liked Rodham and found it engaging and thought-provoking. Sittenfeld is a master storyteller, and she doesn’t disappoint in this latest book. There’s a lot to unpack here – Hillary’s relationship with Bill, the origins of her public service career, the misogyny she has faced from the beginning of her professional life. The book is very sympathetic to Hillary, offering her perspective on some of the statements that have dogged her for years (remember the “home baking cookies” comment?) and expressing her own confusion over why she often provoked such enmity. And of course, it’s interesting to think about the ways in which our history would have changed if Hillary hadn’t taken the path she had: the elections she would have fun for, the offices she could have held, the presidencies (ahem!) she could have prevented. I had to remind myself often of Sittenfeld’s timeline, replacing history in my mind with this new fact pattern.

I did have a few issues with Rodham First, I am not sure Sittenfeld sufficiently made the case for why Hillary was so polarizing beyond just being an accomplished, smart woman. Without Whitewater, her failed health care reform and the scandal of Bill’s presidency, the foundation for why she was so hated by the time she ran for president was a little shaky. Second, I think Bill gets a raw deal here. (This Bill is pretty awful.) I mean, the man has flaws, but there were some great things about Bill Clinton. And finally, Trump plays a role here too – not the one he’s in now, thank god, but one that felt inconsistent with the rest of the book. (Sittenfeld does portray him pretty accurately, though.)

Overall, Rodham was a very good read. It kept my attention and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I finished it. I will read anything Sittenfeld writes, but I did seek this one out and was particularly excited to read it. It’s well-researched and never boring. And it will certainly get you riled up by the end, angry at the way women are treated in politics, the double standards and the extra hoops women jump through that men don’t even think about.

I listened to Rodham on audio and the narrator Carrington MacDuffie did an excellent job. She sounded kind of like Hillary – articulate, precise and rational. This was a take-the-phone-in-the-shower listen for me.

Rodham was Book #22 of 2020.

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.

NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney

Normal People by Sally Rooney is enjoying a moment, because not quite two years after its release, it has been adapted into a series on Hulu. With everyone stuck at home in search of new entertainment options, the series has caught on, fueled by strong reviews and word of mouth. I read, and did not particularly like, Rooney’s earlier book Conversations With Friends, but I found the buzz around the TV series hard to resist. And of course, I wanted to read the book before I watched the show, so Normal People was my latest quarantine book.

Why I picked it up: I wanted to watch the TV adaptation, and reviews of the book Normal People were good enough (though definitely mixed) to convince me to give it a try.

Normal People is about two people living in Ireland – Marianne and Connell – who go in and out of each other’s lives from high school into graduate school. Marianne is wealthy and smart but also socially awkward and not well-liked in high school. Connell is not wealthy, but he is popular and smart. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s home, so the two often cross paths both at school, where they have classes together, and at Marianne’s house, where Connell comes to pick up his mother. An undeniable physical attraction between the two starts off a relationship that’s on-again, off-again over the course of many years.

In high school, Connell is afraid to go public with his feelings for Marianne, an act of weakness that forms an uneasy foundation for their future. They end up in college together, where their fortunes change: Marianne becomes popular and finds her footing, while Connell feels out of place. They find their way back to each other at different points throughout their years at Trinity, but always seem to implode eventually, due either to lack of communication or the pressure of outside forces like family dysfunction or mental illness.

I ended up really liking Normal People. Unlike Conversations With Friends, where I found the relationships implausible and not compelling, I felt totally invested in Marianne and Connell. Rooney’s strength is her depiction of emotions and the angst that accompanies romantic relationships, especially those among young adults. While keeping Marianne and Connell apart sometimes made for frustrating reading, the scenarios that caused the distance were totally reasonable. I liked Rooney’s writing quite a bit this time and had a really hard time putting the book down! She really nails intimacy and longing, as well as the comfort of finding someone who makes you feel safe.

So Normal People was definitely a departure for me from Rooney’s last book, and I am firmly in the “read it!” camp on this one. I started the Hulu series last night and watched the first episode. So far, I like it! A good book to movie/TV adaptation can be so satisfying.

Normal People was Book #19 of 2020.

7 Backlist Books I Want To Read

Are you running out of books to read? (If yes, I can’t relate, given the stacks of books piled up in my house). If you want to borrow ebooks or audiobooks from your library without a wait, here are 7 backlist books that remain at the top of my TBR. They may be available from your library sooner than new releases.

Someday, someday I’ll get to them.

  1. The Ensemble (2018) by Aja Gabel – relationships between four musicians in a classical quartet tracked over the years
  2. The Dream Daughter (2018) by Diane Chamberlain – time travel + a mother with an unborn child with a heart defect + amazing reviews
  3. Home Is Burning (2015) by Dan Marshall – memoir about twentysomething who moves home when his mother, who has cancer, calls to tell him that his father has ALS. Incredibly, this is supposed to be funny.
  4. Christodora (2016) by Tim Murphy – novel tracking characters through many changes in East Village, with focus on heartbreak caused by AIDS
  5. Saints For All Occasions (2017) by J. Courtney Sullivan – not sure how I haven’t gotten to this book about secrets between sisters, because I’ve loved her other books
  6. Plainsong (2000) by Kent Haruf – I fell in love with his Our Souls At Night last year and can’t wait to read this book about unexpected friendships
  7. The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) by John Boyne – this book about an Irishman in search of his identity comes very highly recommended