Category Archives: Fiction

THE ONE by John Marrs

The idea of there being a single “soulmate” out there for everybody is an intriguing one, and it’s the subject of John Marrs’ thriller The One. (It’s also the subject of an AMC show, Soulmates, that may or may not be related to this book – I can’t seem to get a good answer on that.) The One follows five couples who have been matched by a London app called Match Your DNA to see how they fare after they learn that they’ve been matched. There are twists and turns around the way, and few people in the book are who they appear to be.

Why I picked it up: I like the premise (and have watched a few episodes of Soulmates) and I had heard that The One was impossible to put down. Also, it was overdue at the library.

The five pairings in The One are interesting: an engaged heterosexual man matched with another heterosexual man; a serial killer matched with a police officer; a woman in London matched with a farmer in Australia; a woman matched with a man who has just died; and a powerful CEO matched with a kind but unsophisticated man. The chapters rotated among these pairings, exploring what happened after the person who submitted their DNA reached out to their match. There are lots of twists and turns, with surprises that continued until the end of the book.

But despite the adrenaline rush that The One is, I didn’t love it. The characters are pretty one-dimensional and it was hard to feel invested in any of them. Despite the huge complications that the soulmate service could create for society, for existing relationships, for dating, for everything -Marrs addressed them superficially, glossing over them in favor of shocking plot twists. In the end, The One fell flat for me. At least I can now return it to the library.

The One was Book #3 of 2020.

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD by Therese Anne Fowler

My last book of 2020 was A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler. A domestic drama told in part through a Greek chorus of old trees in the suburban neighborhood where the book takes place, it’s one of those books that instills dread from page 1. You know it’s not going to end well, but you’re just not sure how you’re going to get there.

Why I picked it up: My final remaining category for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge was Pick A Book, Any Book, so I sent my son into my room to pick a book from my bookshelves. He came back with A Good Neighborhood.

Two families live side by side on an idyllic suburban North Carolina street. Valerie, a middle aged Black woman, and her son Xavier, a senior in high school with a promising future in music ahead of him, have lived for decades in a modest house with a gorgeous old oak tree in the backyard. When nouveau riche white businessman Brad and his wife Julia build a modern mansion with a pool in the lot next door, the relationship between the neighbors starts out friendly but quickly sours when the health of Valerie’s tree is threatened by Brad’s construction, and Xavier gets romantically involved with Brad’s stepdaughter Juniper.

Valerie’s anger at Brad grows in lockstep with Brad’s creepy possessiveness of Juniper and the development of the teenagers’ relationship. Not a good trajectory. Along the way, Fowler explores racism, power dynamics, environmental degradation and sexual abuse. As the book goes on, Fowler ratchets up the tension and intensity among these characters, increasing the reader’s sense of dread and foreboding and giving little hope of a peaceful resolution.

A Good Neighborhood is a powerful and insightful book, but it’s not a fun read. The Greek chorus lets you know early on that things will get complicated, and they do. Though A Good Neighborhood is a fast read, it stays with you long after you close the book.

A Good Neighborhood was the 66th – and final – book of 2020. It satisfied the Pick A Book, Any Book category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

ATTACHMENTS by Rainbow Rowell

I just read the sweetest surprise of a book.

I needed an epistolary novel for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge (yes, really coming down to the wire here…) and had read somewhere about Rainbow Rowell’s 2012 debut novel, Attachments, which is told in large part via email. Attachments takes place at a newspaper in late 1999/2000, when twentysomething Lincoln takes a night-shift job as an IT guy whose job includes monitoring email for inappropriate content. He starts reading flagged exchanges between two work best friends, Beth and Jennifer, who share confidences over email, not knowing that someone was reading their exchanges. Before long, Lincoln has fallen for Beth, having never seen her in person. Attachments is about whether Lincoln and Beth will find their way to each other despite this inauspicious start.

Why I picked it up: I needed an epistolary novel for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge and somehow Attachments found its way onto my radar. I am so glad it did.

I loved this book! Rowell’s characters are so real – smart, funny, flawed. They face adult issues – pregnancy, breakups of long relationships, floundering careers. The writing is pitch perfect – in 300+ pages, there were barely any words that didn’t feel authentic. I liked that it’s a romantic comedy told from the man’s point of view. I liked the slow buildup of Lincoln and Beth’s relationship. It didn’t bother me that Lincoln was reading her email – it was his job, and I’m sure I would have done the same in his position. Who could resist? In real life, good relationships can develop in random and unexpected – even inadvisable – ways.

Attachments is a charming, sweet story about likable people that never feels overly cute or saccharine. After a somewhat slow start, I had a really hard time putting it down. I also enjoyed the Y2K and early millennial references, though 20 (!) years later, the book doesn’t feel dated. It was a great note to end this endless year on – oh wait, I still have one more book to read. Never mind.

Attachments was book #65 of 2020 and satisfies the Epistolary Novel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

OONA OUT OF ORDER by Margarita Montimore

Have you ever fantasized about going back in time to a younger version of yourself and giving yourself some advice? Or about jumping ahead in time to help guide you through an important fork in the road? In Oona Out Of Order by Margarita Montimore, at the stroke of midnight on her 19th birthday – New Year’s Eve – Oona Lockhart jumps ahead to another year of her life. At 11:59PM on New Year’s Eve 1982 Oona is 18, and at midnight she finds herself in her 51 year-old body, in 2015. This happens every year – she leaps back and forth in time, while physically, she ages normally. Meanwhile, she retains the knowledge and experience she gains from her leaps, for better or worse.

Why I picked it up: Oona Out Of Order satisfies the Time Travel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge. (I still have two more books to go – ugh!)

I loved Oona Out Of Order. It is a mind-bending emotional joyride that takes Oona through love and loss, testing her patience and trust in her relationships. One year, she finds herself married to a man she knows she later divorces, yet she gets caught up again in the romance of their relationship even though she knows that it won’t work out. Oona leaves herself letters to read at the beginning of each leap to orient her and give some hints for the year, but she is careful not to give away too much so that Oona can experience the year and not affect the future. Like most time travel books, the science (?) can be confusing and doesn’t always make sense, but Montimore does a good job of plugging as many holes as she can and using the time travel to develop and evolve Oona and the other main characters like Oona’s mom and her loyal advisor, Kenzie.

There was no need to be trapped by her flawed chronology or supposed destiny. She wouldn’t tiptoe around her life, suffer the frustration that resulted from chasing stability. She would not be defeated by her known future.

I just found this book so poignant. I loved its message about living in the present, focusing on the journey rather the destination and appreciating the people in your life while you have them. It’s not perfect, though. I wished Oona had found more purpose in her life… that she had been moved to do something meaningful for the world instead of focusing so much on her personal relationships. I guess I wanted Oona to have a little more to her.

Overall, though, Oona Out Of Order was a standout read for me. I am a sucker for time travel and this was a fresh and creative take on it.

Oona Out Of Order was book #64 of 2020 and satisfied the Time Travel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

THE EXILES by Christina Baker Kline

This is a good year to be reading historical fiction, right? What’s better than transporting yourself OUT of 2020 to another time? Christina Baker Kline’s The Exiles takes you to 1840s Australia (though I am not sure it’s all that much better than 2020). The Exiles is about three women: Evangeline, a woman wrongly convicted of theft and sentenced to prison and then exile to Australia; Hazel, an Irish girl also convicted of theft and sent to exile in Australia; and Methinna, an orphaned Aboriginal girl who is adopted by a British governor and his wife in Tanzania. These three women’s lives intersect as they navigate the difficulties of their new lives.

Why I picked it up: I really enjoyed Kline’s Orphan Train (reviewed here) and was in the mood for some good storytelling from an other era. (I also loved her earlier book, Bird In Hand, reviewed here).

Kline clearly did a ton of research for The Exiles. She includes a lot of detail every step of the way, from Newgate Prison in London to the transport ship, the prisons in Australia and the work assignments women convicts received when they got off the ship, Kline’s storytelling is rich and evocative. I felt as though I could imagine these women’s lives – what they ate, what they wore, where they slept. I was aware that England sent convicts to settle Australia, dislodging of course the native Aborigines who populated the island before the British got there, but I learned a lot more from The Exiles.

The Exiles is relentlessly depressing, though. These women experience unspeakable loss and abuse, and their lives are very difficult and treacherous. This is definitely not light, escapist fiction. Also, in the end, the story and characters were a bit superficial. Methinna’s storyline gets dropped pretty early, while naive Evangeline and scrappy Hazel do not get developed very deeply as characters. The book is about the power of friendship and perseverance, but the strength of the book lies in its historical detail rather than in its storytelling. The Exiles is not terribly long, but it felt like it took me a long time to get through it.

I listened to The Exiles on audio, and the narration by Caroline Lee was excellent. She covers a lot of accents and even has do to some singing at times. She’s perfect. I highly recommend the audio version if you want to read The Exiles.

The Exiles was book #63 of 2020.

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L. M. Montgomery

Anne Shirley of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables is an iconic character from children’s literature, like Ramona or Eloise or Harriet. She’s an orphan living on Prince Edward Island in the 1870s who is adopted by middle-aged siblings, Marilla and Matthew, who thought they were getting a boy to help on their farm when they reached out to the orphanage. Instead, they get a dreamy, chatty redheaded girl who gets herself into no end of trouble but endears herself to everyone who meets her. I *may* have read Anne Of Green Gables when I was younger, but if I did, I don’t remember it. So reading it this year was like reading it anew.

Why I picked it up: Nicole and I are both reading Anne Of Green Gables for a Readerly Report podcast episode about iconic childhood reads to be recorded in early 2021.

Anne Of Green Gables is about Anne’s life after she is adopted by Marilla and Matthew. When she arrives, she is emotional and flighty and completely un-self-aware, but she’s kind and loving and very appreciative of the physical and natural beauty in Avonlea. She begs not to be sent back to the orphanage once she learns that she was supposed to be a boy. Marilla relents, and soon, she and Matthew grow to care deeply about Anne. As Anne matures, she becomes less self-absorbed. She develops a deep friendship with Diana, a girl down the road, and she applies herself to her studies, earning a scholarship to study to become a teacher. She also grows less self-conscious of her red hair and freckles, becoming more confident and comfortable in her skin.

So does Anne Of Green Gables hold up? It’s a sweet old-fashioned story in which nothing really bad happens, and a kind, optimistic girl gets what she wants and deserves. If I had read it as a child (and maybe I did?) I probably would have liked it a lot. Reading it now, as an adult living through a pandemic with so much going wrong around us, it felt quaint and maybe a little dull, but uplifting. Anne is a reminder that there is still good in the world.

I listened to Anne Of Green Gables on audio. There are lots of versions of this book in print and audio. The one I listened to, narrated by Megan Follows, was pretty good, though she performed Anne’s early voice using a falsetto that was a little grating. As Anne matured, the narrator made her voice lower and more tolerable.

Anne Of Green Gables was book #61 of 2020.

BIG GIRL, SMALL TOWN by Michelle Gallen

A few months ago, I was invited to join a blog tour for an upcoming debut novel, Big Girl, Small Town, by Irish author Michelle Gallen. It was pitched as a “bleakly and uproariously funny” book about a young woman living in Northern Ireland with a dead-end job in a fish-and-chips takeout restaurant, a newly-murdered grandmother, an alcoholic mother and a missing father. She’s also most likely autistic. Uproariously funny? Um, no. But still a worthwhile read.

Why I picked it up: As noted above, I was invited to join the blog tour for Big Girl, Small Town in September. I usually like Algonquin titles and thought the book sounded intriguing.

Majella O’Neill grew up in the small Irish town of Aghybogey. An only child, she lives with her mother, but her father disappeared several years before after the murder of his brother during the Troubles. Her mother is an alcoholic who drinks herself to sleep every night while Majella works the night shift at the Salt n’ Battered shop, serving a parade of regulars and looking forward to climbing into bed with her dinner in the wee hours and watching DVDs of Dallas. When the book opens, Majella’s grandmother has just been brutally murdered, attacked in her rural home, and the police are trying to find a suspect.

Majella’s life is one of routine and repetition, which brings her great comfort. She lists what she likes in the beginning of the book (cleaning, her father, her grandmother, eating, sex, painkillers) and what she doesn’t (small talk, physical contact, noise, sweating, make-up and jokes) and lives her life in pursuit of the former and avoiding the latter.

Big Girl, Small Town is a deeply sad book. Majella isn’t appreciated by those around her, despite the kindnesses she doles out to her customers and the stoic support she provides her mother. She has been abandoned by the one person she loved to be with and her life seems very small. Her inability to connect emotionally with others makes for a pretty lonely existence, and it’s clear that she has bottled years of grief without properly processing it.

So why should you read Big Girl, Small Town? First, it is a fantastically detailed portrait of this small Irish town and the people in it. Second, Gallen allows Majella to grow and change just enough during the week when the book takes place that you have hope for her by the end that her life will improve. You feel deep empathy for Majella as she goes about her day, cleaning up after her mother and the people who come into her shop, and small triumphs like her buying a new duvet cover or standing up for herself in a pub become quite rewarding for the reader.

I am glad I read Big Girl, Small Town. It wasn’t exactly a page-turner for me, especially given all the detail and the Irish vernacular, but it was a worthwhile and memorable read. If you especially enjoy books with Irish settings and/or characters like Eleanor Oliphant, give this one a try.

Big Girl, Small Town was book #59 of 2020.

28 SUMMERS by Elin Hilderbrand

I’d never read anything by Elin Hilderbrand before this month. I’ve seen her books all over the place, with gauzy, breezy covers suggesting beachy summer reads about sisters and lost loves, and I never really had any interest. (Clearly I was needlessly dismissive.) This all changed when I read the plot of 28 Summers – two people have a “Same Time, Next Year” relationship that stretches over 28 summers on Nantucket – and decided I had to read it (and recruited three of my best friends to read it with me). 28 Summers ended up being one of my favorite reads of the year.

Why I picked it up: Couldn’t resist the description.

Mallory Blessing is in her early 20s, living an unfulfilling life in Manhattan, when her aunt dies and leaves her a slightly rundown house in Nantucket. She quits her job and moves to the island with no plans other than to slowly rehab the house and build a life for herself there. A few months later, her brother Cooper arrives for a bachelor weekend with a few friends in tow, one of them a college roommate named Jake with whom Mallory had always felt a connection, despite never having met him in person. When she meets him, the connection is there, but Jake is already in a relationship with a longtime girlfriend.

And so Jake and Mallory embark on once- a-year relationship, seeing each other for three nights every Labor Day weekend, no matter what else is going on in their lives. (28 Summers is based on the classic movie Same Time, Next Year.) The years go by, bringing life changes for both of them. Their relationship deepens despite the complications outside them, and keeping it a secret becomes more and more challenging.

Each chapter in 28 Summers represents a different year. I love how Hilderbrand opens the chapters with a list of the current events, trends, pop culture moments and songs from that year, giving some historical and political context to Jake and Mallory’s lives. I also appreciated that not every chapter focused on Labor Day weekend. Some were about other characters and other times of the year, as events transpired that affected Jake and Mallory in different ways. I loved the little details, the fact that no one was a saint or a villain, and the way the relationship lived in the characters’ minds so vibrantly. Basically, I loved this book!

28 Summers is going to be a top 5 book for me this year. A very unexpected surprise.

28 Summers was book #57 of 2020.

THE GIVER OF STARS by Jojo Moyes

Ok, I finished Jojo Moyes’ The Giver Of Stars about a week and a half ago and I am just now getting to review it. November has been crazy. Between the election and work and a rambunctious, distracting foster dog who’s been with us the last four days, my reading and blogging have ground to a halt. So much for my strong year-end reading pace. Hopefully December won’t be so busy. But on to the book. With most Jojo Moyes books, you know exactly what you’re going to get. And with The Giver Of Stars, I got it.

Why I picked it up: I had the print at home and the audio was available on Scribd, and I was in the mood for some dependable Moyes storytelling.

The Giver Of Stars is about a group of traveling women librarians in Western Kentucky in the 1930s who brought books via horseback to people in remote regions of Appalachia. Alice, one of the librarians, has come to America from England to marry a man she thinks will give her a better, more exciting life, but she finds herself trapped in a small town with a man who doesn’t love her and his oppressive father. Margery, the leader of the group, is a fiercely independent feminist yet also deeply in love with a man who wants her to marry him. Three other women round out the group.

Jojo Moyes’ books are engrossing and well-paced, and some are totally predictable. You know what’s going to happen from page 1, and while there might be a small surprise or two, that’s pretty much how things play out. I enjoyed the history lesson in The Giver Of Stars, even if the characters weren’t terribly deep or dimensional. There is a lot of historical interesting detail and an unnecessary murder trial which I could have done without. But overall it was a good read during a time when I was having trouble focusing.

There is a plagiarism scandal around The Giver Of Stars. If I had the time, I’d read Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman Of Troublesome Creek, but now that I’ve read one book about the Pack Horse Library Project, I doubt I’ll pick up another. I feel a little guilty that I may have read the wrong one. 🙁

I listened to The Giver Of Stars on audio. It was narrated by the always dependable Julia Whelan, who did a great job (I think?) with the accents. I highly recommend the audio, which kept me focused and involved with the story.

The Giver Of Stars was the 55th book of 2020.

THE BOYS’ CLUB by Erica Katz

So, I used to be a lawyer. I was once a first-year associate at a big law firm, wearing a suit, trying to learn a whole new language, putting in long hours and feeling insecure about where I stood among the other associates. That was a lifetime ago – I left law 16 years ago and have been happily employed ever since in jobs that are a better fit. But I do remember those days. So when The Boys’ Club, Erica Katz’s fictionalized account of a young woman’s first year at at a big law firm in New York hit the book scene this summer, I knew I wanted to read it.

Why I picked it up: See above.

Alex Vogel, a recent Harvard Law School graduate, joins Klasko and Fitch, a top New York law firm as a first-year associate. She is excited to start her legal career and anxious about the process of picking a practice group. She’s been told to avoid the Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) group, which is known for being the most intense and working its associates the hardest. But she’s also drawn to its high octane, fraternity-esque nature, and gets sucked in when one of the partners asks her to work on a deal. From then on, Alex becomes completely immersed in her work, pulling all nighters and then partying with her colleagues (and clients) to prove that she’s one of the boys and worthy of a spot on the team.

What follows is a fast-paced story that careens from coke-fueled nights, office affairs and high-stakes deals to the strain Alex’s job causes in her personal relationships. Alex also endures sexism and harassment, which she mostly stays quiet about to protect her tenuous standing in the group. As a protagonist, Alex can be annoying – she’s arrogant and materialistic, and she makes a number of really bad decisions. But the story is fun and the pages fly by. As for the ending: it’s disappointing, unrealistic and kind of bizarre, sorry to say. I think the author intended The Boys’ Club to be a feminist statement, but I’m not sure it worked in that regard.

Overall, I had fun reading The Boys’ Club. It ultimately bore little resemblance to my own experience as a lawyer in a big firm (thankfully), and it certainly doesn’t portray BigLaw in a flattering light. If you enjoy getting an action-packed glimpse of someone else’s profession (or maybe your own), however distorted, you may enjoy this one.

The Boys’ Club was the 54th book of 2020.