Category Archives: Fiction

RED CLOCKS by Leni Zumas

It has been a week or two since I finished Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, and I am still trying to decide what I thought of it.

Red Clocks fits into the new wave of feminist dystopia, joining books like Vox by Christina Dalcher (reviewed here) in warning readers about the dangers of a world where women are silenced, demoted and deprived of their rights. In Red Clocks, a conservative administration has passed the Personhood Amendment, making it illegal for women to have abortions and outlawing IVF and adoption by single women or gay couples. Zumas tracks four women living in Oregon: an unhappily married mother of two, a single woman in her early 40s trying to conceive on her own, a pregnant high school student, and a woman who lives in the woods and provides herbal remedies to people in pursuit of untraditional (and illegal) medical help.

Through the unique lenses of these four women, Zumas explores the experience of being a woman – a mother, a daughter, a professional – and in particular a woman whose options are increasingly limited. Zumas’ writing is sharp and real; she pulls no punches when it comes to the details – often unpleasant – of these women’s lives. It’s pretty bleak in the world of Red Clocks. As a result, this isn’t the most uplifting read. I am glad I read it; I can’t say I enjoyed it that much. But I think it’s important to read books like Red Clocks – you’d be surprised by how realistic it all seems. (Which is scary.) Imagining a very bleak world that isn’t all that far off is a good reminder of the need for vigilance and action in defeating such a misogynistic agenda.

I listened most of Red Clocks on audio. It’s narrated by Karissa Vacker and Erin Bennett, and I am embarrassed to say that until now I didn’t realize that there were two narrators. They do a good job of conveying the urgency and futility of the women’s situations. The audio is a little confusing because although the women have names, they are unnamed in their own chapters, and are instead called “The Wife”, “The Daughter”, “The Biographer” and “The Mender”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whose story you’re hearing. I ended up finishing this book in print, thanks to a hotel stay when I was under the weather, and in the end I preferred the print.

GIRL UNKNOWN by Karen Perry

I recently moved and my life has been in disarray! I’ve been reading – always reading – but I haven’t been blogging. So I am a few reviews behind and am trying to catch up.

Girl Unknown by Karen Perry is about a family of four in Ireland – Caroline and David and their two kids – who has achieved an uneasy peace after Caroline ended an affair with a parent from her son’s school. They’ve just managed to get things back on track, when David, a college professor, is approached by Zoe, one of his students who says that she is his daughter. Zoe’s entry into their family makes waves, understandably, especially as it becomes clear that Zoe is unreliable and manipulative. Her relationship with David drives a wedge between him and Caroline, as well as with his children, while David tries to determine whether Zoe is telling the truth about her birth parents and her childhood.

I learned about Girl Unknown from another blogger – I can’t remember who! – and I thought it would be domestic fiction about an established family absorbing a new member. I didn’t expect a domestic thriller, so that was a bit of a surprise.

Girl Unknown is very well-written. The dialogue was realistic and I liked how the authors (Karen Perry is a writing duo) really got into Caroline and David’s emotions and gave both sides of this unfolding story. The plot got a little outlandish at the end, but throughout most of the book, I felt like I could really see this story happening. In the end, though, it’s a thriller, and it didn’t leave that much of an impact on me. If it weren’t for the good writing, I might not even have finished it. But it was a good pick to get me through a hectic stretch – easy to pick up and squeeze in a few pages when I could grab some time.

Karen Perry are popular authors of other thrillers – I had no idea who they were, or I might have had some warning that Girl Unknown was going to be a different type of book from what I was expecting. Decent read, just pretty forgettable.

MARY B. by Katherine Chen

Katherine Chen’s Mary B. is a novel told from the point of view of Mary Bennett, the famously plain, ridiculed and unloved middle Bennett sister from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Unlike her sisters Jane, Lizzie, Kitty and Lydia, Mary is presumed not to be interested in frivolities like men and fashion, as she is too often found with her nose in a book or playing the piano. In Austen’s original, Mary is a caricature, one of the many sources of humor in the book.

Chen’s novel opens during Pride and Prejudice, soon after the Bennett’s odious cousin, Mr. Collins, comes to Longbourne.  Before his visit, Mary confides to the reader that despite what people think of her, she has, in fact, been in love three times, immediately signaling that this Mary is not the same Mary from Austen’s novel. Mary B. explores those three relationships and how they shape Mary’s life and her future.

I have so many conflicting feelings about Mary B. I have a lot of admiration for Chen, who clearly spent a long time with the original to develop the right language for Mary B.  She’s faithful to the era and the writing style of the original, and that’s fun in and of itself. And I was happy just to revisit these beloved characters and extend my time with them.

On the other hand, Chen took these familiar characters and sent them in some unexpected directions. Lizzie, Colonel Fitzwilliam and even Darcy turn into very different people from what one would expect of them. That’s Chen’s right, of course, but when you reimagine a book as beloved as Pride and Prejudice, you’re going to make people mad if you mess with what they love about it. I love Lizzie and Darcy – the romance of their relationship, the fiery passion, the intellectual connection – so I was pretty upset to see that relationship taking a different turn in Mary B. and I seriously questioned Darcy’s judgment. Other characters suffer similar fates: Charlotte Lucas, for example, who is so sympathetic in the original. Mary B. is a darker and more bitter book than its witty, sly inspiration, for sure.

I did appreciate Chen’s feminist update of the novel – Mary’s independence at the end is certainly an anomaly for her era. That was a nice twist.

So if you want to read Mary B., approach it with caution and consider your own feelings about the original. If you can’t tolerate tampering, you might want to stay away. And if you’re looking for other books in the Pride and Prejudice-industrial complex, try Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld or Longbourn by Jo Baker.

I listened to Mary B. on audio. The narration by Marisa Calin was quite good, perfectly capturing Mary’s shrillness and judgmental temperament and showing off Chen’s skillful writing. I definitely recommend the audio.

GHOSTED by Rosie Walsh

When Nicole raved about Ghosted by Rosie Walsh on Goodreads and on the Readerly Report podcast a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a good book to follow A Place For Us, which I liked a lot but found really slow. I wanted something that would suck me in early and go at a faster clip, and Ghosted didn’t disappoint.

Sarah Mackey is a British expat living in America, where she has recently gotten divorced from her husband of 6 years. She returns home to England on her annual monthlong visit home to see her parents and best friends, and while home, she meets Eddie, a man with whom she feels an instant connection. They spend a glorious week together, each admitting by the end that they would like to continue the relationship once Sarah returns to California. Eddie heads off on a pre-planned trip to Spain, promising to be in touch on his trip and to see her on his return, and then… disappears. Sarah has been ghosted.

I don’t want to say a lot about what happens next. as it will detract from the suspense of the story. Poor Sarah is completely distraught; did she imagine or misinterpret the strong connection she felt with Eddie? Where could he have gone, and why is he completely absent from social media? It turns out that there is an explanation, one that has to do with both Eddie and Sarah’s pasts and how they are linked. There were a few times when I was sure the story was heading in one direction, only to be completely surprised by how it played out.

Ghosted is a quick, engrossing read with relatable characters and a few nice twists. It was a great palate cleanser for me – just what I needed when I picked it up.

A PLACE FOR US by Fatima Farheen Mirza

There are good things and bad things about A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Let’s start with the good. A Place For Us is the story of an Indian-American family living in California. Parents Rafiq and Layla have three kids: daughters Hadia and Huda and son Amar. The book revolves around Amar, who grew up struggling with his parents’ Muslim traditions and their expectations for him. When the book opens, Hadia is getting married and Amar has shown up to the wedding, the first time he has seen his family in three years. Through flashbacks, Mirza pieces together Amar’s childhood and adolescence, including the tension he experienced in his relationship with his father, his secret, forbidden love for the daughter of his parents’ friends, and his struggle to live up to the high standards set by his sisters. At the wedding, Amar reconnects with his mother and sisters, as well as the woman he loved as a boy, but the pressure of the situation causes him to drink and confront his mother, ultimately driving him away from the family again.

A Place For Us is a heartbreaking exploration of the relationships and history leading up to the wedding and the many, often subtle, ways that Amar’s family failed him. There is a lot of pain in A Place For Us, with characters acting from a position of love but not being able to communicate or compromise enough to truly connect with each other. The final section, which is told from Rafiq’s perspective, is the most powerful in the book. These two men were so close to reconciliation and understanding, yet due to stubbornness and pride, they never achieved it.

If you like novels about culture clash and the complexity of families, then A Place For Us is a book for you.

But I have to warn you: A Place For Us is an unnecessarily long and slow book. It took me forever to read it. The reading is dense and detailed and beautiful, but it’s also quite repetitive. I think the author took many years to write it, and it shows. It could have been pared down considerably without shortchanging the flashbacks or compromising the complexity of the relationships. So while I really loved this story and recommend the book, it’s with the huge caveat that it’s really, really slow.

VOX by Christina Dalcher

We’re living in troubling times, and that’s reflected as much in current fiction as in the news we read every day. Novelists are just as concerned as the rest of us. Vox, Christina Dalcher’s new dystopian novel that takes on the precariousness of women’s rights in America, is grim and alarming, but ultimately unsuccessful.

It’s the near future, during the presidential administration of an unnamed man whose term succeeds that of America’s first black president. In an incredibly short period of time, religious fervor has taken hold and women have lost almost all of their rights. They can no longer work; all decisions are made by husbands; girls go to school only to learn home ec; and worst of all, women must wear bracelets that restrict them to speaking 100 words a day. If they go over 100, they suffer electric shocks. Premarital sex is a crime, as is homosexuality; those in same-sex relationships are sentenced to hard labor and imprisonment until their sexual preference is “corrected”.

Ugh.

Dr. Jean McLellan, a formerly renowned linguist and scientist, lives with her husband Patrick and four children in Washington DC. Patrick works in the president’s administration, and Jean is silent at home. Their youngest, Sonia, is a girl, and Jean is dismayed at Sonia’s future as well as her oldest son’s dangerous support of the values-based policies of the administration. She’s also pining away after her secret lover – an Italian scientist she hasn’t seen in months.

The possibility of change comes when the president’s brother is in a skiing accident and has suffered speech aphasia – Jean’s area of expertise. The president makes her a deal – if she’ll come back to the lab and develop a cure, she can take off her – and her daughter’s – word counter. This brings Jean back in contact with her former colleagues – and her Italian boyfriend.

Vox is thought-provoking – and terrifying – to be sure. Dalcher started out with a great premise. But as a book, it kind of falls apart as it goes along. It turns into a thriller rather than a serious novel, with a rather preposterous conclusion that also ends a bit too cleanly. I can’t say I enjoyed reading Vox, and not just because it’s incredibly depressing. I wish Dalcher has stuck to dystopia rather than veering into action thriller territory. The writing also really repetitive.

If you’re a guy, be warned: men don’t come across too well in this book.

I listened to Vox on audio. It was narrated by Julia Whelan, who infused Jean with the fury and stridency the character required. It’s not a relaxing listen. But my issues are with the plot, not the narration – Whelan did what she could with it.

Vox was a buzzy book at the end of the summer. I am sorry to say that I can’t recommend it.

EVERY OTHER WEEKEND by Zulema Renee Summerfield

Zulema Renee Summerfield’s new novel Every Other Weekend is one of those books that starts out a little weird but grows on you while you’re reading it, so that by the end you realize that, damnit, you really do care about these characters.

Nenny, an 8-year old girl in Southern California in the 80s, lives with her mother and two brothers. Her parents get divorced, and she spends time with her father on weekends. Then her mother moves in with a man with two kids, and Nenny joins the “every other weekend” club of broken homes and blended families. She’s an anxious girl with a lot of fears, but she keeps them to herself and doesn’t confide in her mother, despite desperately wanting to. She does her best to navigate the tricky waters of humorless stepfathers, moody older stepsisters, a befuddled father, and a mix of classmates dealing with their own issues.

Every Other Weekend is a quiet book. Nenny is introspective, an observer, and so it’s through her eyes that we watch the fragile bonds of this family get tested and strained. Things often go wrong, and while there is a lot of sadness, there is also a fair amount of gentle humor here. I think the most poignant parts for me were the references Nenny made to years later, when she asked her siblings and stepsiblings about what they were thinking during the time period in the book. Each of them was dealing with his or her own issues and problems, and yet they were barely connecting with each other, when they could have been a source of solace.

I like Sumerfield’s writing. It’s atmospheric and almost poetic at times without being pretentious. There’s also some 80s period detail in here, which I enjoyed. As to why Summerfield set the book in the 80s, I think there are two reasons: 1) divorce was becoming more common but it was before there was so much emphasis on the helping the kids handle it; and 2) the lack of social media and technology only heightened these kids’ feelings of isolation.

Every Other Weekend is a quirky, mostly sad book, and I am glad I picked it up. I am excited to see what this author does next.