Category Archives: Fiction

THE AUTHENTICITY PROJECT by Clare Pooley

I had a terrible reading month in April – only three books, and one was an audiobook. I am surrounded by books I really want to read and am yet paralyzed by pandemic stress, anxiety, exhaustion and the ever-present temptation of the iPhone. I did make it through a book this week, finishing at the end of April – The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley, a lighthearted novel about what happens when people stop being polite… and start getting real. (Bonus points if you get that reference.)

Why I picked it up: The Authenticity Project came out in February and started making the rounds on roundups and book-swapping sites. I was drawn in by the premise and the cheery cover.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist in England, decides one day to leave a journal in which he has confessed his deepest secrets – that he is desperately lonely and was a bad husband to his late wife – in the middle of a cafe. The book is picked up by Monica, the cafe’s owner, who reads Julian’s story and adds her own tale of woe. The book passes into more hands, with each new recipient privately laying bare their biggest fears and insecurities. Ultimately, these characters find their way to each other, forming a motley crew of people who find that they can help each other and meet some of each other’s needs.

Yet some dishonestly persists even after the characters share their notebook confessionals, and The Authenticity Project addresses the difficulty of coming clean to people you care about, especially when your relationship with them is built on a lie. Everyone’s hiding something here, and the question is how and when their lies will be exposed.

This is a cute premise, but The Authenticity Project was just okay for me. It’s too cute, and while I was curious to see how things ended up, it was all too light and breezy. I felt like it was written with the adapted-for-Netflix movie already in mind, down to the cute stray dog who comes into Julian’s life and the happy rom com ending. (Though there were some loose ends that never tied up, which surprised and kind of annoyed me.)

Lighter fare isn’t doing it for me during this pandemic, and The Authenticity Project sadly fell into that category.

The Authenticity Project was Book #18 of 2020.

8 Awesome Books About The 80s

This pandemic has made me nostalgic. Something about quarantine has made me – and clearly other people I know – reach out to old friends and set up Zoom reunions to get back in touch. Seems like we’re all casting back to easier and happier times. If you find yourself in a similarly nostalgic mood… here are my favorite books about my favorite decade, the 80s. Pick up one of these and take a trip back to a really different time.

  1. VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave: Oral history of MTV’s early days told by Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn. From my review: “Give it a try – it’s a light but surprisingly engrossing read about a unique time at the intersection of television and music. MTV will never again be what it once was, nor will the music industry, but VJ: The Unplugged Adventures at least memorializes those bygone days.”
  2. Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins. Memoir of Collins’ life, from childhood through his Genesis and solo careers. From my review: “I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.”
  3. Don’t You Forget About Me by Jancee Dunn. Woman in late thirties returns home to parents’ house in this funny novel about the dangers of romanticizing high school in the 80s. From my review: “Dunn is an entertaining writer, and the book was perfectly paced. I laughed out loud several times while reading it, and didn’t want to put it down.”
  4. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried by Susannah Gora. Detailed, juicy and insightful chronicle of the making of the great teen 80s movies. From my review: “It’s definitely a trip down memory lane, but also a compelling look at a decade of filmmaking that transformed a genre and made a permanent impact on the directors and actors we watch today.”
  5. In The Pleasure Groove by John Taylor. Memoir by Taylor, the bass player for Duran Duran who is thankfully on the other side of a bout with coronavirus. From my review: “Despite my familiarity with this fact pattern, it felt fresh and even suspenseful in Taylor’s words. I don’t know who partnered on this book with him, but it’s smart, well-written and very funny at times. Taylor is pretty honest about his flaws, especially when it comes to his drug use and self-centeredness throughout his addiction, but he is also grateful for – and even a little bit in awe of – all that Duran Duran achieved as a band and the experiences he had.”
  6. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. This is a beautifully written book about Chicago in the mid-80s and how AIDS ravaged the gay community there. It is not a light read, but it is an excellent one. From my review: The Great Believers is about friendship and loyalty, and how our devotion to one person or cause can have consequences in other parts of our lives. It’s a long book, one that requires attention and thought. It took me a long time to get through it, but it was an immersive and very satisfying read.”
  7. Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein. I never reviewed this book, but I love it. From Amazon: “Mad World is a highly entertaining oral history that celebrates the New Wave music phenomenon of the 1980s via new interviews with 35 of the most notable artists of the period. Each chapter begins with a discussion of their most popular song but leads to stories of their history and place in the scene”.
  8. Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore) by Hadley Freeman. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on my TBR and I will get to it at some point soon. It’s about “how the changes between movies in the 80s and movies today say so much about society’s expectations of women, young people and art.”

TWENTY-ONE TRUTHS ABOUT LOVE by Matthew Dicks

If you’re having trouble focusing on reading prose right now, how about reading lists instead? Matthew Dicks’ entertaining novel Twenty-One Truths About Love is exactly that: a collection of lists written by Daniel Mayrock, an insecure man in his thirties who is haunted by his wife’s dead first husband and his fear of being bankrupted by his failing bookstore. Lists are about my speed right now, so this was an easy book to get through during quarantine.

Why I Picked It Up: I’ve had Twenty-One Truths About Love on my TBR ever since it came out last year, and when my book club said they wanted a lightish read because we’re all totally stressed out, this was one of the ones I suggested.

Daniel Mayrock quit his teaching job to open a bookstore, thinking he could spend his days surrounded by beloved novels, which he’d recommend to a steady, respectful stream of passionate readers. Instead, he is faced with razor thin margins, customers with bad taste and surly employees. He watches his savings dwindle as the store becomes less and less profitable, a fact he keeps from his adored and newly pregnant wife Jill for fear of disappointing her and invoking inevitable comparisons to her successful, deceased first husband Peter.

Daniel is antisocial, generally friendless and opinionated on all kinds of topics. He’s also smart and funny, and his lists are entertaining, thoughtful and sometimes poignant. He loves his wife and his unborn child, and as he gets increasingly desperate to make (or win, or otherwise procure) money, he goes a little off the deep end. But Twenty One Truths About Love is funny throughout, and I didn’t have trouble sticking with it like I have with other books in recent weeks.

Examples of some of Daniel’s lists: “Why raspberries are a bullshit food”, 3 reasons why I am a terrible man”, “People I hate for being too accomplished”, “6 ways to annoy a child”, “Lyrics that make total sense and are the shit” etc. If those sound compelling, plus more plot-driven ones that won’t make sense in this post, then you’ll like this book.

It turns out that books in list form, when done well, are a lot of fun. Twenty-One Truths About Love is a pretty good choice for right now. Watching Daniel try to make himself into a better man without getting in his own way was a decent distraction.

Twenty-One Truths About Love was Book #16 of 2020 and satisfies the “book with the word ‘love’ in the title” category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

FOLLOWERS by Megan Angelo

Followers, Megan Angelo’s new novel, is split between the late 2010s and 2050. In late 2010s, Floss and Orla are roommates in New York City who test the limits of influencer culture and social media, leaving destruction in their wake as America faces a reckoning over its dependence on devices and oversharing of private, personal information. In 2050, Floss’ daughter Marlow lives in a Truman Show-esque community in California where her entire life is watched by millions of followers while an entertainment network, motivated solely by sponsor dollars, choreographs her every move.

Why I Picked It Up: I was intrigued by the storyline and suggested Followers for my book club. I got it from the library in both print and audio and listened to almost the whole book on audio.

There’s a lot of good in Followers. Angelo has written a creative, interesting dystopian story, imagining two worlds that don’t feel too far from where we are now. The cost of fame can be steep, as can the cost of pouring attention onto undeserving reality stars and relying on phones for connection and fulfillment. I didn’t love it in the end, though. It’s longer than it needed to be, and it really slowed through the middle (though it picked up in the last third). It could definitely have been shorter and tighter. Also, Angelo jumped right into the story with little explanation, which I found disorienting. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, who was who, etc. Followers is not an uplifting book; it’s dark and angry, without a lot of joy.

There is also the issue of timing, which isn’t the author’s fault. Followers is a cautionary tale about the price of ambition and fame and the dangers of dependence on technology and social media. It was a timely book… until about a month ago. I am not in a social media-bashing mood at the moment. Social media has become a lifeline for so many, a source of information and connection in a time of isolation and loneliness. Perhaps if I have read this earlier it would have lended on more receptive ears, but it didn’t rile me up at this difficult time.

I listened to Followers on audio. The narrator, Jayme Mattler, did a nice job with these characters, from vapid Aston to Kardashian-esque Floss and ambitious Orla. Her delivery was precise and urgent, a perfect fit for the tone of the book.

Followers was Book #15 of 2020.

SEPARATION ANXIETY by Laura Zigman

In Laura Zigman’s new novel Separation Anxiety, 50-year old Judy has nailed the trifecta of disappointment: her marriage is failing, her writing career is stalled, and her teenage son won’t talk to her anymore. She’s completely adrift in a bewildering stage of life, when “life eventually takes away everyone and everything we love and leaves us bereft”. Insecure and anxious, Judy turns to the one creature in her house she can count on for affection: her dog. She randomly puts the dog in a never-used baby sling stashed away in her basement and becomes immediately dependent on the dog’s physical presence to keep her calm, a move that only further alienates her family and raises eyebrows at her son’s school.

Why I picked it up: I read a number of Laura Zigman’s books (Her, Animal Husbandry) a long time ago, pre-blogging, and loved them. I was excited by a new Zigman novel and intrigued by her take on middle age.

Zigman’s books are funny and wry and observant, and Separation Anxiety is no exception. But there is a depressing stream that runs throughout the book, making it melancholy and ultimately less hopeful than her earlier works. Judy makes a number of questionable decisions, particularly where her estranged husband is concerned, and while I often nodded in recognition throughout the book, in the end I didn’t connect with Judy as much as I’d hoped. So while I liked Zigman’s lampooning of Montessori schools and meal kits and wellness websites, the darker side of Separation Anxiety was harder to get through.

Perhaps it’s the time we are in now. I find it harder than usual to be sympathetic to characters simply going through the challenges of new life stages, given what’s going on around us. Maybe if I had read Separation Anxiety a few weeks earlier, I would have felt differently. But now, as our collective anxiety has been raised by a real and very dangerous threat, Judy’s loneliness and lack of professional clarity seem almost old-fashioned. (How has the world changed so quickly?)

Separation Anxiety was Book #14 of 2020.

10 Light Books For Heavy Minds

Sometimes you need light reading to take your mind off whatever’s going on. This is one of those times! Here are 10 books I liked that are entertaining and relatively light while still satisfying and worth your time.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice)

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (will they won’t they among feuding coworkers)

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan (middle aged mom meets tech workplace)

The Book Of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir (will teenager escape her fundamentalist reality TV family? NOTE there are some dark/heavy themes here, so it’s not really a light read, but it’s a fast one)

Lost And Found by Carolyn Parkhurst (literary fiction meets “The Amazing Race”)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (man with Asperger’s seeks wife)

One Day In December by Josie Silver (soul mates kept apart by fate)

Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper by Hilary Liftin (Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes marriage imagined in fiction)

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (dsyfunctional family)

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (WASPs behaving badly)

Stay safe and happy reading.

DARLING ROSE GOLD by Stephanie Wrobel

Munchausen’s Syndrome – where a person seeks to get attention by inducing or feigning an illness in another person (usually a child) – is a fascinating premise for a novel. There is a lot to unpack on both sides, especially once the abuse has been uncovered and brought out into the open. That’s the story behind Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel, a novel about Patty Watts, who for years starved her daughter Rose Gold and claimed she had “chromosomal defects”.

Why I picked it up: I was invited by Berkley/Penguin to participate in a blog tour for Darling Rose Gold, which came out on March 17. I received an advance review copy of the book in exchange for this post.

Patty raised Rose Gold as a single mother, so Rose Gold had little defense against her mother’s poisoning and endless trips to doctors for feeding tubes and tests. She grew up using a wheelchair and being homeschooled to avoid taunting and bullying from classmates. Finally, she caught on to what her mother was doing and accused her of child abuse. Patty stood trial, with Rose Gold testifying, and received a five-year prison sentence. Patty is now free, having done her time, and… is invited by Rose Gold to come live with her and her new baby, Adam. It seems strange that Rose Gold would welcome her mother into her home, an early clue that Rose Gold has an agenda of her own.

Darling Rose Gold is twisty and surprising. Wrobel gives us glimpses into each woman’s motivations, delving into the complex feelings they have about each other. Is there forgiveness on either side? Love? Or are they just out to get each other? Rose Gold seems sympathetic given what she’s been through, but… what kind of a person is she?

If you need some escapist fiction right now that will have you turning pages, Darling Rose Gold fits the bill. There are some holes in the story, but it’s a psychological thriller that has nothing to do with contagion or dystopia or home confinement, so it’s got that going for it (which is nice). This was a fast read for me at a time when my ability to concentrate is severely limited.

Darling Rose Gold was Book #13 of 2020.

WRITERS & LOVERS by Lily King

I know reading and books aren’t top of mind for many people right now, which is entirely understandable. I turn to reading in times of stress, and keeping up the blog is important to me to maintain normalcy and a sense of control over my life. So I’ll keep reviewing what I’m reading, and if you’re looking for book recommendations and escape for yourself, please keep reading the blog. I’ll understand either way.

Aspiring authors are often told to “write what you know”, so it’s not surprising that authors often write about writing. Sometimes that can be kind of boring to read, especially if you’re not a writer yourself. But Lily King’s new novel Writers & Lovers is anything but boring. It’s a glimpse into the writing process and a good reminder that books represent years and years of someone’s life and that being a writer can be a very difficult road.

Why I picked it up: I have read and enjoyed other books by Lily King (though not her best-know, Euphoria) and this was my March Book Of The Month pick. Catherine at Gilmore Guide To Books (mostly) liked it, and that helped.

Casey Peabody is 31 and single, waitressing, and trying to finish a novel to which she has devoted many years. Things aren’t going too well for her: she’s renting a potting shed in someone’s backyard in Cambridge, she’s waitressing so that she can write during the day, she isn’t making progress on her book, and she’s mourning the death of her mother and a relationship with a man who turned out to be married. In Writers & Lovers, every aspect of Casey’s life – her romantic relationships, her job and her writing – go through tumult and transformation, as she gets pulled inexorably into true adulthood.

I liked Writers & Lovers a lot. This book isn’t for everyone – some will be turned off by the lack of action and the gentle pace. I did read it pretty slowly, perhaps because it isn’t a page-turner and it’s not that hard to to put it down. But I liked the detail and the honesty in King’s depiction of Casey’s life, and I felt genuinely invested in her and how her life would turn out. The beginning of the book was a bit disorienting, as King doesn’t really introduce backstories and characters, but just drops them in. By the end, though, I was fully clued in and hanging on every word to find out what would happen.

Ok, that’s the best I can do with this review tonight. My next book will be a page-turner – I need the distraction.

Writers & Lovers was Book #12 of 2020.

MAYBE IN ANOTHER LIFE by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Our lives are made up of a million different little decisions, every day, and the implications of one choice vs another can be significant. It’s always fascinating to think about the road not taken, the path never charted. Maybe In Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid is one of those books with an irresistible Sliding Doors-esque plot that explores two different ways a woman’s life plays out, depending on whether she goes home one night or stays out at a bar.

Why I Picked It Up: I went on a business trip and didn’t bring enough books with me. (This almost NEVER happens!) I was trying to fit everything into a carry-on and didn’t want to stuff in another book. I figured Long Bright River would take longer to get through, but then I ended up finishing it the day before I left and I had book panic about the flight home. So I headed to a bookstore in search of a book I didn’t already have at home, and Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Maybe In Another Life was on the shelf. I’ve liked 4 of her other books, so I picked it up.

Hannah is in her late 20s and a bit adrift in life. She’s lived in a few different cities but never really rooted anywhere, and has just gotten out of a relationship with a married man. With little keeping her in New York City, her most recent home, she decides to move back to Los Angeles, where she grew up and where her best friend Gabby lives. On her second night back, Hannah and Gabby go out to a bar to meet up with old friends. Hannah’s old boyfriend Ethan is there, and after a night of flirting and dancing with him, Hannah goes home with him… OR she calls it a night and goes home with Gabby.

In both versions of Hannah’s life, major things happen to both Hannah and Gabby. Reid does a nice job of teasing out the stories, throwing in some twists and surprises along the way. In the end, though, Maybe In Another Life was my least favorite of her books. It was kind of superficial, with major conversations between characters dispensed with in half a page. Serious, big issues are dealt with quickly, with little introspection or emotion, and people fall in love within a matter of weeks. Hannah herself isn’t all that interesting and most of the characters are pretty bland and inoffensive. I read the book pretty quickly and while I liked the way it was constructed, in the end it didn’t make much of an impact on me.

Maybe In Another Life was Book #10 of 2010.

LONG BRIGHT RIVER by Liz Moore

Long Bright River by Liz Moore is a hybrid domestic fiction/police procedural about two sisters in Philadelphia: Mickey, a police officer, and Kacey, a drug addict who has been in and out of rehab. When the book opens, Mickey is trying to locate her sister amid a series of unsolved murders of young women in the Kensington area of Philadelphia.

Why I picked it up: I’d read very good reviews of Long Bright River since it came out in January and it was a December 2019 BOTM pick. But Sarah’s interview of Liz Moore on Sarah’s Bookshelves Live sealed the deal. I started it in audio, but brought it on a business trip this week and finished it in print.

This was a good one! In Long Bright River, Moore expertly teases out two stories – the Then and the Now. Then covers Mickey and Kacey’s childhoods and how they ended up taking such different paths in life. The daughters of an addict, they were raised by their grandmother after their mother’s death and father’s disappearance. They were given very little support as kids, and while Mickey studied hard and did well in school and Kacey turned to drugs as a teenager, their upbringing had deep ramifications for both women. In Now, Mickey, troubled by the rash of murders of similarly situated women, embarks on a desperate search to find her sister, often ignoring police protocol and putting her own career at risk.

Mickey is also the single mother of a young boy, Thomas, struggling to provide him with security and consistency but without the means to pay for proper daycare or private pre-school. She cobbles together childcare, often leaving him under less than ideal conditions while trying to find her sister. (This added a layer of tension to the book.)

Despite its 470 pages, I flew through Long Bright River. It’s incredibly suspenseful, and Moore masterfully teases out both timelines, revealing what happened little by little and and throwing in a few curveballs along the way. It’s a deeply sad book; Mickey’s loneliness and estrangement from what remains of her family and the details of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis combine for some pretty bleak reading. She made some bad decisions, but I had a lot of empathy for her (and ultimately for her sister).

The ending took the book down a notch for me, as I felt it wrapped up hastily and implausibly. Moore raced through some key scenes where I wanted a bit more dialogue and explanation, which left me a little unsatisfied. But overall I really enjoyed Long Bright River and am so glad I picked it up.

I listened to the first quarter of Long Bright River on audio before I turned to the print. It was narrated by Allyson Ryan, who was mostly businesslike and firm in her performance, like Mickey. I thought she did a good job with it. I realized early on that her voice was familiar – she was the narrator of Fleishman Is In Trouble, a very different book. Warning: if you listen to Long Bright River on audio, have the print available too, because you’re going to want to read ahead. Trust me.

Long Bright River was Book #9 of 2020. It satisfies the Recommended On A Podcast category, though I already have The Cactus League in that slot.