Category Archives: Fiction

HOW TO WALK AWAY by Katherine Center

Vacation read #2 was How To Walk Away by Katherine Center. I’ve read some of Center’s earlier books and they are dependably readable and compelling, if a bit on the lighter side. When How To Walk Away opens, Margaret, a woman in her late twenties, is reluctantly boarding a private plane with her boyfriend, who has just learned to fly. While up in the air, they get engaged, and Margaret sees her perfect future ahead of her: dream job, dream guy, dream marriage. Then they hit an unexpected storm and he crash lands the plane, leaving Margaret paralyzed from the knees down and with third degree burns on her face and body. When she wakes up in the hospital after several surgeries, her life is completely different.

As I mentioned, Center’s books are generally light reading, and even though How To Walk Away deals with a serious topic, it was no exception. Margaret’s fiance turns out to be a selfish, terrible person, and he abandons her soon after the accident. She then faces a long recovery ahead, which she must go through without her partner at her side. But she soon develops a crush on her physical therapist, and it’s probably no surprise that they end up getting involved, despite facing several hurdles. I thought that Center’s depiction of Margaret’s spinal injury and recovery was pretty realistic – she clearly did her research – and to me that was the most compelling part of the book. I liked that Margaret wasn’t perfect and that she dealt with her injury in a pretty relatable way. Some subplots involving Margaret’s family were simplistic and a bit outlandish, but overall this was a satisfying vacation read. If you’re looking for a good beach book, give How To Walk Away a try.

 

THAT KIND OF MOTHER by Rumaan Alam

I made it through 7 books on vacation! That’s a lot for me. I crammed in reading the whole time I was gone, waking up early to read and spending a lot of time poolside. To me, 7 books is the sign of a successful vacation.

Vacation Read #1 was That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam. This is my August book club pick and one that I bought  this spring (rare for me) before picking it up at Book Expo (of course!).

Rebecca is a new mother living in Washington DC in the 80s. She has just had her first child, and breastfeeding is proving to be a challenge. Rescue takes the form of Priscilla, a lactation consultant working at the hospital to help new mothers. Priscilla’s calm presence and patient guidance helps Rebecca through the murky early days of motherhood, and when Rebecca decides she wants to hire a nanny to free up her days so that she can resume her writing career, she persuades Priscilla to quit her job and come work for her.

The two women settle into an easy, comfortable relationship – almost a friendship, but a bit more complicated. Rebecca, white, is an open book. But Priscilla, African-American, always remains a bit of a mystery. When Priscilla – already the mother of a grown daughter, tells Rebecca that she’s pregnant, her employer is surprised but promises to make it work. And when Priscilla then dies in childbirth – having given birth right a few weeks before her own daughter has her first child – Rebecca decides takes the baby home and ultimately adopts him.

That Kind of Mother is about parenthood and the many ways having children impacts lives and relationships. The author, himself the father of two adopted boys of a different race, explores what it’s like to be white and parent a black child. Rebecca has to contend with her feelings of sadness about Priscilla’s death, her loyalty to her husband, the competing needs of her two sons, and the responsibility she feels to Priscilla’s daughter and her family. Rebecca is unrealistically clueless about the realities of being black – and in particular a black man – and is shocked by the injustice she is warned that her son may experience. Overall, she means well and through her, Alam empathetically depicts the complexities of motherhood. But in the end she turns out to be pretty selfish and rather naive. And I am not sure that the underlying friendship between Priscilla and Rebecca is convincing enough to merit Rebecca’s commitment to Priscilla’s son.

This was the first book I read on vacation and I am struggling to remember the details – not a great sign. It was a pleasant enough read but it left little impact on me. The treatment of race was pretty shallow in the end, and didn’t add much to what is  currently a pretty robust debate.

Maybe my book club discussion in a few weeks will awaken my memories, but for now this book was just OK for me.

HOW TO BE SAFE by Tom McAllister

How To Be Safe by Tom McAllister opens with a school shooting in a Pennsylvania town. The immediate suspect is Anna Crawford, a teacher at the school who has been suspended due to insubordination. Anna is quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, but her life is upended as the whole town deals with the aftermath of the shooting.

Anna becomes reclusive, withdrawing from interactions with the rest of the town and turning more and more fearful about the dangers of the world she lives in.  She has a boyfriend, but she’s unable to connect emotionally with him and seeks solace instead in fringe groups of religious apocalyptics and vigilante gun-rights activists hoping to enforce peace. McAllister intersperses the book with vignettes about the students and teachers killed in the massacre, as well as an opening chapter told through the eyes of the shooter himself. Meanwhile, Anna is brought further down by her sad family history, her depression and her inability to connect with anyone other than her brother.

I really wanted to like this book. McAllister is keenly observant and insightful, and there are many passages I marked throughout the book. Like this: “The politicians loved small towns. They thought all we did was sit around eating apple pie and waving flags in our churches. They didn’t like to think about everyone taking opiates and working bad jobs and living in a constant state of fear.”  Or this, about memorials to tragedies: “Each memorial represented a collective commitment not to remembering, but to whitewashing the memories, to creating a more palatable version of the memory for ourselves to hold on to and repeat and eventually accept as the truth. The memorials were there to hide failures, not to be critical of them.” Or this: “In America we send children to school to get shot and to learn algebra and physics and history and biology and literature. Less civilized nations don’t have such an organized system for murdering their children.”

In the end, though, How To Be Safe didn’t really work for me. It was more of a treatise about the awful reality of violence in our country than it was a novel with a character who developed – at all – over the course of 230 pages. There is so much anger in the book – justifiable, to be sure – that it turned into a blur of instructions about how to protect yourself, further spiraling by Anna and examples of violent acts spread around the country. I absorbed it breathlessly, but I can’t say I enjoyed it or really took much from it other than despair.

This is a buzzy book that others have enjoyed more than I did. Like I said, McAllister is brilliant and there are a lot of insights here (and some really good writing). It just didn’t work for me.

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal (A Reread)

In the 12-year history of EDIWTB, I have never re-read a book.  There are just too many books out there that I want to read – why would I spend precious time repeating one?

Until now.

I was flailing around for an audiobook last month, and I found Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal on audio on Overdrive. I’ve always been interested to see if it holds up to my very positive memory from last January (here’s my original review), and since I recommend it to everyone I know, I wanted to be sure that I still felt as strongly about it now.

The short answer is: I do. It’s still my favorite book in recent memory.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest follows Eva Thorvald, a girl who is born in St. Paul, Minnesota to Lars, a chef with an extremely sophisticated palate. Her mother abandoned the family when Eva was only a few months old, and her father died suddenly a few weeks later. Eva was adopted by her aunt and uncle, and the book checks in on her life every few years as she grows up and turns into a world-renowned chef. Each chapter involves Eva in some way – sometimes she’s the main character, and sometimes she’s only mentioned in passing. There is an ingredient featured in chapter too, and in the end, they all come together in a very creative way. It’s almost like a book of linked stories, with themes of food, family and loss threaded through each one.

I always find Kitchens (as I call it) a tough book to describe. There is lots of sadness in the book, but Stradal also has a sharp sense of humor and deep empathy for his characters. His writing is restrained and quiet, which always left me wanting more (in a good way). Almost every word uttered by every character in the book seemed totally realistic – you could just imagine the conversations playing out in front of you. There are so many memorable scenes, each full of detail and emotion, yet also understated and not showy at all. Stradal is my favorite kind of writer – he never underestimates his readers and he doesn’t shy away from tough stuff.

And the audio! It’s perfect. Amy Ryan and Michael Struhlbarg effortlessly transform themselves into Stradal’s motley crew of characters, from poor Lars to angry Braque and hapless Dan, a bit player who made a big impact on me thanks to Struhlbarg’s narration. The audio is amazing – this was my second time listening to the book on audio (both times I also read some chapters in print – I literally can’t put this book down) and again it didn’t disappoint.

OK, if you haven’t read this book yet, what are you waiting for? It’s just that good.

 

ONE TRUE LOVES by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s One True Loves has an irresistible premise.

Emma and Jesse are high school sweethearts from Boston who stay together through college and move out to California together after they graduate. They are adventurous spirits who love to travel, and are glad to have escaped the predictable lives their parents had planned for them. They get married, and on the eve of their first anniversary, Jesse goes on a helicopter trip in Alaska to take photos. The helicopter he is on disappears, and his body is never found. Emma, heartbroken, moves back home to Boston and gives up her adventurous life to take over her parents’ bookstore. She reconnects with an old high school friend, Sam, and they end up falling in love and getting engaged a few years after Jesse’s disappearance. All is going well until one night when Emma’s phone rings… and it’s Jesse.

What to do? She’s in love with two men, and feels loyalty and responsibility to both of them, but she of course has to pick one. One True Loves is about Jesse’s re-entry into Emma’s life and how she comes to a decision about which man to pick.

So One True Loves isn’t perfect. It’s repetitive – Emma says the same things about both men over and over – and there are aspects that are really unrealistic, most revolving around Jesse’s return. (Also, three years on a rock island?) I also think that Reid favored one man over the other, making Emma’s wrenching choice just a little less wrenching.

But damn if this wasn’t a really addictive read. I finished it in a few days and I was very, very eager to find out who Emma picked. This is my second Taylor Jenkins Reid in the last seven books. There is something about her characters that I really like – they are relatable and compelling, especially the women. This novel wasn’t quite as good as After I Do, but I still liked it. When I got to the end, the premise seemed more outlandish than at the start, but I certainly enjoyed it while I was reading it.

Who will Emma pick? The soul mate she mourned for three years, or the man who helped her get her life back?

You’ll have to read One True Loves to find out.

2018 Summer Reading List

It’s June, which means it’s time for the annual EDIWTB crowdsourced reading list. Thanks to my readers and Facebook friends for submitting their favorite reads from the last year. I always like this list because there are many books on it that I’d probably not read on my own, and therefore would not include on the blog. You’re getting a much more well-rounded list than I’d come up with myself.

Here’s what the crowd came up with. I’ve put ** next to those that were recommended by more than one person. When it’s a book I’ve read too, I’ve included a link to my EDIWTB review.

**The Nix by Nathan Hill

**Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

**Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (reviewed here)

**The Power by Naomi Alderman

**American Fire by Monica Hesse

**The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

News Of The World by Paulette Giles

Hunger by Roxanne Gay

Brotopia by Emily Chang

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Bad Blood: Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Young Jane Young, Gabrielle Zevin

**The Leavers by Lisa Ko (reviewed here)

**The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

**Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (reviewed here)

**This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (reviewed here)

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (reviewed here)

Unabrow by Una LaMarche

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (reviewed here)

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here)

**Saints For All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

Star Of The North by D. B. John

Mrs. by Caitlyn Macy

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Between Me And You by Allison Winn Scotch,

We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

**A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

**Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Circling The Sun by Paula McClain

March by Geraldine Brooks

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

Time Of The Locust by Morowa Yejide

A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

The Black Penguin by Andrew Evans

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

**Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (reviewed here)

Summit Lake by Charlie Donlea

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (reviewed here)

Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky 

The Lost Girls by Heather Young

**The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

The Wife by Alafair Burke

A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The Genius Plague by David Walton

The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Vacationland by John Hodgman

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein (reviewed here)

Vintage Hughes by Langston Hughes

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond

Educated by Tara Westover

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (reviewed here)

Silver Girl by Leslie Pietrzyk

White Houses by Amy Bloom

Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

**The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (reviewed here)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi (reviewed here)

The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (reviewed here)

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (reviewed here)

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Circe by Madeline Miller

The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Calypso, David Sedaris

The High Season by Judy Blundell

The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

 

THE QUEEN OF HEARTS by Kimmery Martin

The Queen Of Hearts by Kimmery Martin came out earlier this year and instantly got a lot of buzz. I got myself on the waitlist for it at the library, and when it came in, I jumped on it.

The Queen Of Hearts is about two friends – Emma and Zadie – who met in med school. They now live in Charlotte NC, where Zadie is a pediatric cardiologist and Emma is a trauma surgeon. They’re both married with kids, and their lives are knitted together socially and professionally as they enjoy their successful careers. Then – dum dum DUM – a man from their past re-enters the scene, and all havoc breaks loose. Emma loses a young patient, perhaps due to her own negligence, while Zadie copes with the appearance in Charlotte of this man from her past and all of the memories he unearths. While the events of the present day unfold, Martin takes us back to the women’s med school years, showing us how their friendship has evolved and slowly revealing the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other.

The Queen Of Hearts gets a big meh from me. Lots of foreshadowing and buildup for a twist that was both implausible and underwhelming. Lots of medical drama and jargon that ultimately did little to advance the plot but certainly showed off that the author is also a doctor. I think Martin didn’t know whether she wanted to write a medical drama, a thriller or a book about friendship, so she wrote all three at once. In the end, it was a thin amalgamation that didn’t really satisfy on any front. I found it hard to finish this one.

Pretty cover though!

Lots of people liked this book – many 5 star reviews on Goodreads and glowing posts on the interwebz. So maybe it was just me (and my best friend, who felt the same way.) Proceed at your own risk.