Category Archives: Fiction

WOMAN 99 by Greer Macallister

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister is what I call “historical adventure fiction”. It’s about Charlotte Smith, a wealthy young woman growing up in 1880s San Francisco whose sister Phoebe has been sent to Goldengrove, a renowned insane asylum in Napa Valley, due to her erratic mental health. For a few reasons, Charlotte feels responsible for her sister’s being sent to Goldengrove and decides to rescue her by getting herself committed there too.

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister is what I call “historical adventure fiction”. It’s about Charlotte Smith, a wealthy young woman growing up in 1880s San Francisco whose sister Phoebe has been sent to Goldengrove, a renowned insane asylum in Napa Valley, due to her erratic mental health. For a few reasons, Charlotte feels responsible for her sister’s being sent to Goldengrove and decides to rescue her by getting herself committed there too.

This may not be a smart plan, but it allows Woman 99 readers to follow along as Charlotte ends up at Goldengrove, a place that turns out to be much more sinister than it’s purported to be. Not everyone at Goldengrove is insane, it turns out – many of the women there are simply inconvenient, and their husbands or families want them to disappear. Conditions at the asylum border on inhumane, and as Charlotte learns more about the doctors, nurses and “cures”, she becomes increasingly outraged at the ways the women are treated. She also has to locate her sister, which proves to be much more challenging than she’d hoped, and find a way to get them both out.

Woman 99 is a story about female resilience and the loyalty between sisters, as well as a sad statement about the treatment of women at the end of the 19th century. Goldengrove is fictional, but Macallister did her research into private asylums at that time and created a place that is sadly entirely conceivable. Charlotte’s character is inspired by Nellie Bly, a real American journalist in the 1880s who herself exposed brutality and neglect at asylums for women, and Bly’s writing clearly informed Macallister.

Woman 99 is a bit of a departure for me – I don’t usually read books heavy on adventure and twists, but I enjoyed this one a lot. Charlotte was forced to be resourceful in the face of very long odds and depended on help from the friends she makes within Goldengrove, women whom others have written off. There are many disturbing images throughout Woman 99, but is ultimately a hopeful story of empowerment and justice.

I was very luckily invited to moderate a panel with Greer Macallister and Lynda Cohen Loigman last night at Kramerbooks in DC to talk about Woman 99 and Lynda’s new book, The Wartime Sisters (reviewed here). It was a great time! Here’s a pic of us during the discussion.

TIN MAN by Sarah Winman

Tin Man by Sarah Winman is a quiet novel about three friends – Ellis, Michael and Annie – and the legacy of their complicated friendship. When Tin Man opens, Ellis is a widower living a lonely, isolated life in his town in England. It’s clear that Michael and Annie – now dead – formed with Ellis a very tight threesome, made complicated by the fact that Ellis and Michael were once more than just friends. As the book goes on, Winman teases out how Michael’s relationship with Ellis and Annie waxed and waned over the years, and what eventually happened to Michael and Annie. The first half of the book is set in the present day and told through Ellis’ perspective, and the second shifts to Michael and tracks where he was during the times he was out of Ellis’ and Annie’s lives.

This is a sad book! Ellis’ grief is enormous – in his relatively short life, he lost his mother, his wife and his best friend – and he is simply lost at sea, with almost nothing tethering him to life. The discovery of a box of Michael’s belongings in his father’s attic finally gives him insight into Michael’s thoughts and actions, and ultimately releases him to try living again.

Tin Man is a tough book to review. It sounds like not a lot happens, right? And it is a short and straightforward read. But it’s achingly lonely and sad, and it makes you want to reach out and give each character a long hug. Winman’s writing is eloquent – spare but also powerful, with little details that pack a punch.

I listened to Tin Man on audio, which I don’t recommend. Narration – by the author – was fine, though Winman has a relatively strong British accent that I had to get used to. I don’t recommend the audio because the book has short chapters that jump around in time quite a bit, and it was a little hard to follow on audio. I usually have the print copy along with the audio, but this time I didn’t and I missed it. I even ducked into a bookstore once just to orient myself with the print copy!

Tin Man was a recommendation by a number of reviewers I follow, and I am glad I read it. This simple yet profound story will stay with me for a while.

THE WARTIME SISTERS by Lynda Cohen Loigman

Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut novel The Two Family House (reviewed here) is about two Jewish families connected by brothers who live above and below in each other in a house in Brooklyn in the 40s. Her new novel, The Wartime Sisters is also set in the 40s and focuses on two sisters, Ruth and Millie, who grew up in Brooklyn but move to Springfield, MA during the early days of WWII to work in the armory there.

Ruth and Millie have had a strained relationship since childhood. Ruth, resentful of Millie’s beauty and the attention she received from their parents and suitors, has grown brittle and bitter, despite her loving marriage to an army officer and twin daughters. She moves happily to Springfield to get out of her younger sister’s shadow, eager to start a new life where she wasn’t compared to Millie. Meanwhile, Millie is courted by Lenny, a rough, working-class man who her parents don’t approve of, and despite their efforts to keep them apart, she agrees to marry him soon after they die suddenly in a car accident.

When The Wartime Sisters opens, Millie has followed Ruth to Springfield, arriving on her doorstep with her young son and bearing the news that Lenny is gone. Ruth takes her in and Millie gets a job putting rifle triggers together at the armory. The sisters negotiate an uneasy truce in Springfield, but as the story unfolds, Loigman reveals that each sister is hiding secrets from the other, preventing them from truly understanding and accepting each other.

Once again, Loigman has vividly recreated a very specific time and place, this time through painstaking research into the community that built up around the Springfield Armory. I enjoyed the details of life in Springfield – the social strata determined by the roles on the base, the role of women as “soldiers of production” necessitated by the exodus of men into the army – and I admire Loigman’s creation of her fictional world within the physical structure of the Armory.

Loigman teases out Millie and Ruth’s complicated relationship, exploring how years of resentment and miscommunication have ossified into emotional estrangement. Circumstances ultimately force Millie to reveal what she has been hiding, forcing Ruth’s own reckoning with the past and the role she herself played in leading to Millie’s dire situation. Loigman shifts perspective throughout the book and goes back and forth in time to paint a full picture of the sisters’ past and the new lives they are living as adults.

Like The Two-Family House, The Wartime Sisters looks at how the grooves forged in childhood by parents and siblings only deepen with time and can determine the course of adulthood until they are addressed and softened. In The Wartime Sisters, Loigman has created another well-written story with memorable characters and a compelling historical setting.

THE ONES WE CHOOSE by Julie Clark

This year I made a resolution to read only books that came highly recommended by sources I trust. For the most part, I’ve stuck to that resolution, and the results have been stellar. I’ve only deviated a few times, with mixed results. One book I didn’t finish, and the other was The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark, which I picked up on impulse at the Elliott Bay Bookstore because the premise looked interesting and it had some 5-star Goodreads reviews.

The Ones We Choose is a debut about paternity, identity and expectation. Page is a geneticist living in southern California with an 8 year-old son, Miles, who she conceived using a sperm donor. When The Ones We Choose opens, Miles is asking more about who is father is and complaining that he’s different from everyone else because he doesn’t have one. Paige, meanwhile, is dealing with paternal issues of her own. She is leading a study on the role of oxytocin in fathers and whether levels of that hormone can predict the strength of paternal bonding with children. She has a complicated history with her own father, who has come and gone intermittently her whole life, leaving her feeling extremely protective of her own emotions and even more protective of her son’s. And finally, her romantic relationship with a kind, understanding man is at a crossroads, as he becomes increasingly impatient with her unwillingness to open up emotionally and let him get close to her son.

Fathers, fathers, fathers.

Unexpectedly, Paige comes face-to-face with her sperm donor – someone she and Miles have a connection to – and she has to decide whether to reveal their connection and cause reverberations for all parties involved.

I enjoyed The Ones We Choose. Clark has a nice handle on relationships, particularly those between women. She also does a good job with realistic dialogue and the ways people interact, physically and verbally. (In an interview in the back of the book, she said that as a 5th grade teacher, she spends a lot of time observing kids and how they behave.) There are also interesting explanations throughout the book about genetics, sperm donation, and related topics, which I liked a lot.

My one complaint about The Ones We Choose is that the theme of paternity was just too strongly and conveniently threaded throughout. I read in the interview that Clark didn’t make Paige a geneticist when she first started writing, and I kind of wish she hadn’t in the end. It was all too much – her issues with her father, her use of a sperm donor, her abandonment issues – and on top of all of it her own research on what makes fathers bond – or not – with their kids. There are too many parallels (and coincidences!) throughout the book, and it all felt a bit contrived. The book would have been more powerful if she had focused on one or two threads along this theme, rather than the four she included.

The Ones We Choose is an interesting and well-told story, and for a debut novel it is very promising. I’d like to read more by Julie Clark.

THE DINNER LIST by Rebecca Serle

The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle opens with its main character, Sabrina, walking into her birthday dinner and finding 5 guests waiting for her: her best friend Jessica, her ex-boyfriend Tobias, her late, estranged father Robert, her favorite college professor Conrad, and Audrey Hepburn. This list of guests came from a game she used to play with Jessica: which five people would you invite to a dinner party?

Sabrina has unfinished business with some of the guests. When he died, she hadn’t seen her father since she was an infant, and had been angry at him for years for his abandonment and for moving on with a new family and daughters. She also feels abandoned by Jessica, with whom she had lived in New York City in their twenties but who has graduated to a house in Connecticut with a husband and a new baby. And most complicated is her relationship with Tobias, a man she was involved with for almost a decade but with whom she is no longer together. The Dinner List goes back and forth between the conversation at the restaurant and the recounting of Sabrina and Tobias’ relationship.

I am not really a fan of magical realism, so the suspension of belief needed to accept that Sabrina was at dinner with dead people didn’t come easily to me. The dinner conversation is strange, of course, given the company at the table and the circumstance of their gathering. I preferred the chapters that told Sabrina and Tobias’ history: a typical twentysomething relationship with its ups and downs as they tried to make lives for themselves that worked for each other too. The book is full of sadness , as Sabrina tries to work through the ways her relationships changed over time, ultimately disappointing her and leaving her feeling alone. The inclusion of Conrad and Audrey Hepburn seemed gimmicky to me. Neither added much to Sabrina’s understanding and acceptance of the turns her relationships took – especially Audrey – so while the dinner list idea was cute, it didn’t actually contribute much to the story in the end.

The Dinner List is not a light read. It’s a bittersweet story about accepting that the people we love aren’t always who we want them to be, nor can we always be who we want for them. Life is full of loss and disappointment; the best we can do is appreciate the moments and people we have for the time we have them.

I started The Dinner List on audio and DO NOT recommend it. It’s narrated by the author, and while she can write, she can’t narrate. Each character was performed in the exact same breathless, monotone. I read a review that said that the audio reminded the reviewer of a writing student sitting in the front of the room reading her story out loud. YES. I switched to the print copy about halfway through the audiobook and it made a HUGE difference in my enjoyment of the book. So if you’re tempted to do this on audio, don’t.

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange

There There, the debut novel by Tommy Orange, takes a group of 12 Native American characters living in Oakland, explores each person’s history, and then throws them all together at the same event, a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. There are recovering alcoholics, kids whose parents have left them behind, drug dealers, drug counselors, aspiring filmmakers and obese gamers… a kaleidoscope of interwoven lives of sadness, disappointment, resignation and the occasional glimpse of hope.

There’s quite a lot to like about this searing novel. Orange takes his readers through a shameful litany of the ways America has treated and depicted Native Americans over the centuries before introducing his cast of characters, hanging a backdrop that provides the grim context for their lives. He revisits each character a few times throughout There There, tracking their progress toward the event that brings them all together at the end and exploring the reasons why they attended it. Some worked at the powwow, one went to meet his birth father, one discovered her birth mother, and some just went to get a better understanding of their Native American heritage.

This isn’t a light read, but it’s a good one. Orange is an efficient, incisive writer who isn’t afraid to shock his readers with the harsh reality of our shameful history with Native Americans. Some of the characters ran together, but I started jotting notes at the beginning at each chapter, which helped. In the end, it’s the cumulative effect of their stories – not the individual threads – that really heighten the book’s power.

I was disappointed by the ending, where Orange turned to violence to wrap up these stories. Is that his message? The only way out from these lives is blood and murder? History may have proved him right, but it felt like a cop-out here, especially after such a rich buildup.

I listened to most of There There on audio, and it was narrated by four people – Darrell Dennis, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Kyla Garcia and Alma Cuervo – who each took on a few characters. The narration was quiet and moving, fitting for the book. It’s a little confusing to listen to There There on audio, simply because the chapters are short and there are so many changes in perspective. I recommend having a copy of the print as well, and as I mentioned earlier, jotting down a few notes while characters were fresh was very helpful for me.

Despite the ending, I recommend There There, both for the importance of the subject matter and the merits of the writing. It’s a worthwhile book and I am glad that I read it.

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT by Kent Haruf

My hot reading streak in January continued with Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls At Night. Addie and Louis are single, in their early 70s, living in a small Colorado town near Denver named Holt. Both lost their longterm spouses within the last few years. One night, Addie appears on Louis’ doorstep with a proposition: she is lonely, and suspects he is too, and wonders if he would like to come over and night and sleep in her bed. She’s not suggesting a physical relationship, just companionship at night.

Louis is surprised, but intrigued, and decides to give it a try. The two embark on a sweet, gentle relationship in which they reveal their true, flawed selves to each other, acknowledging mistakes they made in their marriages and their disappointments in their lives. Not only do they accept each other as is, they genuinely enjoy each other’s company. This is a grownup, realistic relationship, one without expectations or delusions of forever.

Their quiet routine – which has attracted the attention of their small town – is disrupted when Addie’s young grandson Jamie comes to stay with her while his parents navigate a separation. Addie and Louis absorb Jamie into their lives, providing him with love and stability while their relationship deepens around him. Sadly, Jamie’s father, Addie’s son Gene, distrusts Louis and puts pressure on his mother to stop spending time with him.

There is a melancholy that pervades Our Souls At Night, turning the sweet moments bittersweet. It is not surprising that Kent Haruf was himself dying as he wrote Our Souls At Night; mortality and looking back on one’s life are pervasive themes. (And the ending is simply heartbreaking.)

I loved Haruf’s spare, quiet writing, his depiction of simple scenes that carry deep meaning and significance. I can’t believe I haven’t read anything else by him before – I am going to add some of his other Holt-set books to my list this year. What a lovely book this was.

One caveat – no quotation marks! Annoying.