Category Archives: Fiction

FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is about a married fortysomething couple – Toby and Rachel Fleishman – whose relationship goes south. Toby, a doctor at an Upper East Side hospital, and Rachel, a successful talent agent, were once happy and in love, but now detest each other. They’ve separated, with their two children shuttling between their two apartments, and Toby has moved on, thanks to a long string of sexual encounters with women he finds on Tinder-esque apps. When Fleishman Is In Trouble opens, Rachel has dropped the kids off at his apartment, unexpectedly – and then promptly disappears.

The majority of the book tells Toby’s story. The narrator turns out to be Libby, a woman who Toby became friends with during a high school summer trip to Israel and who is now living in New Jersey and taking a pause from her career as a journalist for a large men’s magazine. This narrative structure is a little strange at first, but it makes more sense over time, as Libby’s role in Toby’s present life grows more consistent.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a very smart, funny book. Brodesser-Akner takes no prisoners: the rich women in cheeky workout tank tops; the desperate single divorcees texting obscene photos via apps; the Instagram-obsessed teenagers Toby’s daughter hangs out with. But this is not a satire. Instead, it’s a blistering look at the pressures on modern marriages between two working adults, from income disparity and fights over childcare to rote sex and the double standard that punishes working moms and makes saints of men who walk their kids to school every day.

But just when you think you know where Brodesser-Akner has gone with this book, she throws a curveball that makes you realize you’ve only been seeing half the forest. My perspective completely changed late in the game – and not just once – making me appreciate that the author was telling a much more complex – and sadder – story than I had expected, especially where women are concerned.

I listened to Fleishman Is In Trouble on audio. The narrator, Allyson Ryan, was fantastic. She handled urbane New York voices perfectly, both men and women (not always easy to pull off), and gave the recording the perfect tone of urgency with an everpresent undercurrent of anger. This is a long audiobook at 14.5 hours, but it’s easy to follow and never tedious. Ryan really did a great job with it – great casting!

I rarely buy books these days since I get so many via ARCs or swaps, but this is one I shelled out cash for. I don’t regret it at all – worth every penny.

THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA by J. Ryan Stradal

I approached The Lager Queen Of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal with some trepidation. EDIWTB readers know that Kitchens Of The Great Midwest is one of my all-time favorite books, and the only book I’ve reviewed twice on this blog (here and here). How could any book, let alone Stradal’s second novel, possibly live up to the high expectations set by Kitchens? My Readerly Report co-host Nicole answered that question simply and and concisely for me on a recent episode: It couldn’t.

I decided Nicole was right, and chose to read Lager as if I’d never read Kitchens, letting it live on its own outside the shadow of its older sibling. And that’s what I am going to do with this review.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota centers on two sisters, Edith and Helen, who grow up in Minnesota in the 1960s. Edith marries early, while Helen, enthralled by beer at an early age, marries the heir to a beer company after college and vows, together with him, to turn the brewery into a famous name outside the state. Helen sells her parents’ farm when they pass away, sharing none of the inheritance with her sister. Edith lives her life modestly, and while she is content, works hard throughout her life and finds herself in her 70s, alone, supporting a granddaughter and never really catching a break. Meanwhile, Edith’s granddaughter Diana also develops the family passion for beer, and, as a teenager, launches her own craft beer label.

The Lager Queen Of Minnesota traces the ups and downs of these three women’s lives – the losses, the disappointments and the aspirations. I love that Stradal focuses on older women – a demographic so often missing from modern fiction – as well as people who work at Arby’s and can’t afford to replace cars when they break down. He infuses them with humanity and sympathy, but he has deep respect for them as well. Edith is generous but unassertive, her sister Helen is rigid and ambitious and Diana is a true blend of the two. Like another book I’ve mentioned in this review (damn it!), this one is filled with food (or drink), family and loss – three themes that Stradal handles beautifully.

I like beer a lot, though I like the kind of beer Stradal mocks throughout the book – mass-market stuff that goes down like water. I am not a craft beer person at all, and I was worried I’d be overwhelmed by talk about hops and grains and the subtleties of brewing ale. Happily, while there is a lot of beer talk, there is a lot more to Lager. And the sections about brewing are almost always about something else too, so it’s not like you’re reading a craft beer primer.

I highly recommend The Lager Queen of Minnesota. If you enjoy quieter stories about regular people with rich interior lives, sprinkled with humor, sadness and wry observations about life, then J. Ryan Stradal is your guy. I will read anything he writes.

SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE by Jean Kwok

Searching For Sylvie Lee – which has dominated summer best-of lists and is the June Today Show Read With Jenna pick – is the third novel from Jean Kwok (after Girl In Translation (reviewed here) and Mambo In Chinatown (reviewed here). It came out at the beginning of the month and I just finished it on audio.

Like Kwok’s earlier books, Searching For Sylvie Lee is about immigration, identity, family and loss. Sylvie Lee was born to Chinese parents in New York City but was sent to live with her grandmother and cousins in the Netherlands as an infant. She moved back to the States as an awkward 9 year-old, joining her parents and baby sister Amy in New York, but never felt that she fit in. She worked hard, attended Princeton and married a white guy from a rich family and got a job at an investment bank. When the novel opens, she has gone back to the Netherlands to see her dying grandmother and reconnect with her family in Amsterdam. When Sylvie disappears while in Amsterdam, her cousin Lukas calls Amy (now in her 20s) to see if she has heard from her. Amy, frantic, travels to the Netherlands to retrace her sister’s steps and try to find out what happened to her.

Kwok is expert at communicating the loneliness and isolation that comes from feeling that you don’t belong, or that you are far from people who love and understand you. She does it again here in Searching For Sylvie Lee. Sylvie never fit in in Amsterdam as a child, one of only a few Chinese kids in her school, and when she moved back in with her parents in New York, their family unit had formed without her. Meanwhile, there are secrets and resentments among her Amsterdam family that Sylvie never understood, relying only on her grandmother and cousin for emotional intimacy. The theme of disconnection and misunderstanding is threaded strongly through Searching For Sylvie Lee, even as the thriller-y mystery of Sylvie’s fate propels the story along.

I especially enjoyed Kwok’s atmospheric descriptions of Amsterdam and Venice, where Sylvie and Lukas spend a weekend. Those cities play their own role in the book, with the buildings and water in both providing backdrops to pivotal scenes and interactions. The gondolas, the bicycles, even the food come into sharp relief through Kwok’s sensuous writing. The scenery also reinforces the sense of loneliness that often pervades the book.

Searching For Sylvie Lee is a bit of a departure from Kwok’s earlier books, and while I am not naturally drawn to thrillers, there is enough else here to make for a very compelling read.

I listened to Searching For Sylvie Lee on audio. There are three narrators, one each for Amy, Sylvie and their mother. The narrators – Angela Lin, Samantha Quan and Caroline McLaughlin – did a very good job of conveying these three characters’ different viewpoints and personalities. The rapid rotation among the three voices kept the audio moving at a fast pace, but not too fast to blur the emotional impact of Kwok’s writing. On the most recent episode of The Readerly Report podcast, Kwok talked to Nicole and me about the process of choosing narrators for the audio version (she was heavily involved) and why she felt it was so important to have three different voices.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes

Tonight I finished a book that I really enjoyed, and I’m sad because I wanted it to keep going. The book is Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes.

Evvie Drake is a thirtysomething woman living in Maine. Her husband Tim was killed in a car accident, and almost two two years have passed with her living in seclusion in the large house they shared. When her best friend Andy suggests that she rent out an apartment connected to the house, and also supplies the tenant – his old friend Dean, a World-Series-winning pitcher who can’t hit his target anymore – Evvie reluctantly agrees. She can use the money, and, it turns out, the company.

Dean moves in with Evvie, and thus begins a friendship between two flawed adults that has the potential to turn into something more. Evvie and Dean’s relationship is at the heart of Evvie Drake Starts Over, and I found it totally irresistible. They are adults, and they have adult conversations and do adult things. They’ve got their issues, which they slowly reveal to each other, and they are both just completely relatable. (Well, Dean is an MLB pitcher, so he’s not that relatable, but he’s very appealing nonetheless.)

It helps that Holmes – a pop culture reporter for NPR and the host of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast – is a funny, observant writer who puts her characters into totally believable situations. She is full of empathy for them too, which made this book so compelling. Evvie Drake Starts Over is an easy read, but not necessarily a light one. There’s death, disappointment, estrangement, emotional abuse – a lot of difficult things to deal with. AND THERE IS BASEBALL! I am a HUGE baseball fan and I loved the baseball parts. (But if you don’t like baseball, don’t worry- the baseball parts aren’t that long or very technical). I just wish Dean hadn’t been a Yankee.

There are so many little details in the book that I loved… Dean’s pinball machine, the depiction of a hotel restaurant they went to, a domestic mishap at the end involving a can of nails – these are the types of things that I notice and that make me feel like I am there experiencing what’s happening in the pages. I can’t believe this is Holmes’ first novel.

Evvie Drake Starts Over is a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable summer read. I am so glad I read it. I just wish I still had 20 pages left.

THE MOTHER-IN-LAW by Sally Hepworth

The Mother-In-Law is a domestic thriller with a complex character at its core: Diana, devoted wife and mother and mother-in-law to Lucy. When Diana turns up dead of an apparent suicide and the facts don’t add up (the autopsy reveals that she didn’t have breast cancer, as she had told her kids, and her suicide note is buried deep in a drawer), the question becomes, did someone kill her? Why?

Diana is an interesting woman. She’s deeply in love with her husband, and a loving mother to her children, but she refuses to use her sizable wealth to help them, even when they plead. She’s very judgmental of her daughter-in-law, and does typical mother-in-law stuff intended to undermine Lucy and withhold affection. The book is told through flashbacks after Diana’s death, as Hepworth teases out Diana’s relationships from Lucy and Diana’s perspectives, offering a view of a woman who was highly principled but also imperfect. Diana made mistakes where her family was concerned, and those mistakes created motives that conceivably could have fueled a murder by more than one suspect.

The Mother-in-Law caught my eye because of unique setup and the relationship at its heart. It is a fast read, one that I’d characterize as popcorn. It gets you hooked, but in the end, it’s pretty light. To be honest, I couldn’t even remember how it all resolved when I sat down to write this review. (I think I remember now but I am not near the book and can’t confirm.) I am not always the biggest fan of psychological thrillers, as I find them light on character development and ultimately forgettable. And while there is more emphasis on character in The Mother-In-Law than in many other thrillers, in the end, it’s a psychological thriller and a mystery, which just aren’t my favorite genres.

I’d recommend The Mother-in-Law as a beach or travel read. It’s engrossing and engaging while you’re reading it, but in the end it’s still pretty popcorn-y.

FOREVER IS THE WORST LONG TIME by Camille Pagán

Forever Is The Worst Long Time by Camille Pagán is a bittersweet story about the unexpected paths that life can take – and the adjustments we make to accommodate them. The book centers on a love triangle: in his mid 20s, James Hernandez travels from Michigan to NY to meet his best friend Rob’s new girlfriend, Lou. Unfortunately for him, he falls in love with her, kicking off a frustrating decade of longing and stasis in the rest of his life. An aspiring author, he can’t commit to a book, and, in his romantic life, he shies from longterm commitment as well. When Rob and Lou hit a rough patch in their marriage, James find himself with an opportunity to act, finally, on his feelings – a reckless decision that has serious ramifications for all three.

I was expecting a light read when I picked up Forever Is The Worst Long Time, and it started out that way. But as the book progressed and the characters got older, the book got more serious. I don’t want to give away too much in this review, but I found this book to be moving and quite memorable. There are a lot of relationships to explore here – friendships, parents and children, and couples – and Pagán skillfully conveys how they evolve and mature over time.

I can only find one thing to complain about: I didn’t find Lou as compelling as I needed her to be to be the convincing center of this long triangle. She was sort of opaque, with her inner feelings a mystery through a lot of the book. I wanted to understand her better – or at least understand why she deserved to be the object of Jim’s love for so long.

I listened to Forever Is The Worst Long Time on audio until I chose to finish it off in print. The narrator, Timothy Andres Pabon, was an excellent choice for James, who narrates the book. His depiction of James as steady, understated and quiet was spot on. (Unfortunately, like many male narrators, his female voices were not good.)

Forever Is The Worst Long Time was a pleasant surprise for me. I’ll be looking into other books by Pagán.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens

Does this book need any introduction? Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is the debut novel that came out last August, was selected by Reese Witherspoon as a book club pick, and has simply exploded ever since, with over 1.5 million books sold through March. I mean, it’s everywhere, right? My book club read this New York Times article about it and was intrigued, so we picked it for our June book.

Where The Crawdads Sing is about Kya, a girl living on the North Carolina coastline whose family abandons her, one by one, leaving her to raise and fend for herself in a barebones shack without running water or electricity. She grows up on her own, known to people in neighboring towns only as the Marsh Girl. She never attends school and supports herself by selling seafood early in the mornings. Kya does develop an intense love for her surrounding, teaching herself about the creatures living in the marsh and the patterns of the water.

As a teenager, Kya befriends Tate, a boy who fishes near her shack. Tate pulls Kya out of her shell, teaching her to read and becoming the first person Kya trusts, emotionally. When Tate goes off to college, their relationship is put to the test. Kya becomes involved with another man from the nearby town, and when he shows up dead a few years later, she becomes the prime suspect.

Crawdads is a compulsively readable mix of a murder mystery, a love story and an ode to nature. While I was reading it, I kept thinking, “This is all very unrealistic and too convenient,” and yet I had a hard time putting it down, especially toward the end. Is all the hoopla over this book deserved? Maybe not. But it was a good read and I am happy for Owens for the success she has enjoyed with this debut novel. It has a fresh premise and feels different from a lot of the books I’ve read lately. If you’re on the fence about Crawdads because you fear the hype, give it a try. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.