Category Archives: Fiction

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.

THE FARM by Joanne Ramos

I am back from Book Expo! I had a great few days in NY last week picking up books, meeting authors and hearing about what’s coming out later this year. When the book boxes arrive, I’ll take some pics and let you know what I am excited about. Lots of good titles heading our way later in 2019! I am most excited about the upcoming J. Ryan Stradal release, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, and some new buzzy fiction that I got my hands on, like Ask Again, Yes and Miracle Creek.

Back to reviews.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos takes on a fresh, original topic: the business of surrogacy and its class implications in America. Golden Oaks is a compound outside of New York City that caters to the superrich who want to have children without having to carry them. Golden Oaks carefully screens surrogates, implants them with fertilized eggs, and then once they are pregnant, provides them with healthy food, medical supervision, supervised exercise and seclusion so that the babies they are carrying have the best chance at a healthy full-term pregnancy. Golden Oaks clients are extremely wealthy, while the women carrying their babies are mostly poor minorities who serve as surrogates for the big payout.

Jane is a Filipina nursing home aide with a baby of her own who is referred to Golden Oaks by her much older cousin, Evelyn. Serving as a Host at Golden Oaks is very lucrative for Jane, but it comes with a cost: she cannot see her own daughter while she’s there, except on the rare occasions when her Client approves. Jane befriends a white Host named Reagan, who, after a rocky start, becomes a trusted friend. Together, Reagan and Jane start to question some of the policies at Golden Oaks, where the surrogates have none of the power and lose control over their own bodies and actions.

What’s good about The Farm: I loved the beginning, where Ramos explored the business of Filipina nannying and baby nursing. Her explanation of the dynamics between white Manhattan mothers and the women who care for their kids was fascinating. (One image that stood out at me: the plastic takeout containers that are fished out of NYC apartment trash cans, cleaned, and removed by nannies, only to be sent to the Philippines in large shipping crates and used by their families back at home, thousands of miles away.) And the setup at Golden Oaks was interesting too, not quite verging on dystopian, but certainly thought-provoking. The Asian-American brainchild behind Golden Oaks, an MBA wunderkind named Mae, is ruthless and calculating, viewing her Hosts as uteruses with the occasional irritating personal issues to be dealt with.

What’s not as good: The Farm changed about halfway through to a thriller, as Jane, unable to reach her cousin to check on her daughter, decides she needs to escape from Golden Oaks. I didn’t enjoy the second half nearly as much as the first. I much preferred the first half, which had a lot to say about economic inequality and the difficult choices women face when they have to provide for their own kids while taking care of those of another.

So this was a mixed bag for me. Nicole and I are discussing The Farm on The Readerly Report for our June book club discussion, so stay tuned for what promises to be a spirited conversation.

THE BODY IN QUESTION by Jill Ciment

The Body In Question – a new summer 2019 release coming out on June 11 – is a relatively short but addictive novel by Jill Ciment about a woman in her 50s who is chosen as a juror for a murder case in Florida. The jury is sequestered due to the sensational nature of the charges – a teenage girl is accused of setting a fire that killed her baby brother – and during the trial, the juror (#C-2) develops a sexual relationship with one of the other jurors (#F-17). She has a much older, infirm husband, and the first half of the book covers her affair with the juror and the culmination of the trial, while the second half explores her relationship with her husband after the trial.

I really enjoyed The Body In Question, for a bunch of reasons. First, jury dynamics are fascinating. I don’t like courtroom dramas and find trials really tedious (hello, ex-lawyer here), but I really like learning about juries and how they come to their decisions. Ciment did a great job here with realistic characters and dialogue, relatable situations and consistent tension throughout the book. I felt invested and wanted to know how the trial would come out, as well as whether C-2 would end things with F-17 before they got caught by the other jurors or the guards at the Econo-Lodge.

There are a lot of big issues at play here – loyalty, mortality, guilt and obsession for starters. C-2 has a coldness to her, reflected in her interactions with both her husband and F-17, which keeps the reader at arm’s length, emotionally. But it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book. The writing is spare and efficient, with no extraneous detail or dialogue. The last section is particularly powerful, where Ciment looks unflinchingly at difficult choices made at the end of life.

I listened to The Body In Question on audio. It was narrated by Hillary Huber, who was a perfect choice for this book. Her raspy voice conveys confidence and brashness, just like C-2. It’s like she’s daring you to judge C-2, while at the same time communicating that she doesn’t care if you do. Excellent audiobook.

BEYOND THE POINT by Claire Gibson

Beyond The Point by Claire Gibson was recently described by Anne Bogel on the Readerly Report podcast as “the military meets women’s fiction”, and I think that’s pretty accurate. It’s about three women – Avery, Hannah and Dani – who meet as freshmen at West Point where they are have each been recruited to play basketball. They make it through four years of college together, bonding over their awful coach, grueling summer trainings and relationships with men (or the lack thereof). When they graduate, they go their separate ways – one to be deployed overseas, one to civilian life, and one remaining on base in the U.S. – and start to grow apart the way friendships often do after college. But when tragedy strikes one of them, they are brought back together and the strength of their friendship is put to the test.

Beyond The Point is definitely women’s fiction, but with a bit of heft. It’s more about relationships and friendship than it is about the military, but the Army definitely plays a prominent role. If you’ve ever been intrigued by military schools like West Point, Beyond The Point provides a little insight, and even better, from the female perspective. I definitely felt invested in these three women and was intrigued to see what happened to them.

Some Goodreads reviews complained that there was too much God and religion in Beyond The Point. That’s something I am usually pretty sensitive to, but it didn’t bother me here. There are some cliched characters who talked a lot about faith, but they were pretty minor.

Beyond The Point is a pretty light read, but its chapters set in Afghanistan and within the Academy elevate it a bit. A good summer choice.