Category Archives: Fiction

THINGS YOU SAVE IN A FIRE by Katherine Center

Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a Katherine Center book.

Things You Save In A Fire, like the other Center books I’ve read (Everyone Is Beautiful and How To Walk Away) is a light-ish, enjoyable read with a bit of heft to it. Cassie, a firefighter in Austin, is receiving an award for bravery when she unexpectedly lets loose on the local politician presenting the award. Cassie has her (understandable) reasons for attacking him, but her very public altercation leads to the loss of her job. At the same time, her estranged, ailing mother summons her to come live with her in Massachusetts for a year to help take care of her, providing Cassie with a convenient place to find a different job.

Cassie moves after finding a position at an old-fashioned, all-male firehouse that doesn’t take well to women colleagues. Her boss in Austin warns her not to give them any additional reasons to dislike her – don’t dress like a woman, don’t cry, don’t show any feelings, and most important, don’t get romantically involved with anyone at work. For Cassie, who has built a brick wall around her emotions since she was a teenager, this won’t be hard. She’s tough, tireless and fearless, and winning over the new firehouse is just the latest in a long string of challenges she has overcome.

Once in Massachusetts, however, Cassie has to confront something she hasn’t before: her own conflicting feelings about her mother and the undeniable attraction she feels for the Rookie, a young firefighter who started the same day she did. And we also learn what the Austin politician did to harm Cassie so much that she beat him up at an awards ceremony. So while Things You Save In A Fire is generally a light read, there are some complex feelings at stake.

I enjoyed Things You Save In A Fire. It’s a good palate cleanser if you’ve read something heavy and need a break, or if you just enjoy a well-told story with a compelling, strong woman at the center. Also – bonus – I learned a lot about firefighting. Things tie up a little nicely at the end, but that’s not so bad every once in a while.

I listened to Things You Save In A Fire on audio. It’s narrated by Therese Plummer, one of my all-time favorite performers, and she was perfect for Cassie. She does romance really well, but she’s also awesome at narrating gruff men with Boston accents and she infused Cassie with humanity and humor. I highly recommend the audio version.

THE REAL MICHAEL SWANN by Bryan Reardon

The Real Michael Swann is a thriller. Why do I keep picking up thrillers when I know how I feel about them? It’s the irresistible fact patterns, I tell you. They pull me in! And The Real Michael Swann was no exception.

Michael and Julia Swann, married with two young boys, live in an idyllic suburb of Philadelphia. Both of them left jobs they loved – hers in local politics and his with a minor league baseball team – to raise their kids in a good neighborhood with a big house and active community. Now, Michael is about to be laid off from his medical sales job, and he has gone to New York City to interview with a different company. When he calls Julia from Penn Station to check in before his train home, there is a loud explosion and the line goes dead. A bomb has gone off under Madison Square Garden, and in the aftermath, Michael has gone missing.

Frantic, Julia tries to reach him, and then (unwisely) heads to New York to try to track him down. The Real Michael Swann unfolds in three directions: flashbacks to their courtship and early marriage; Julia’s attempts to find her husband; and the action unfolding in New York. The pages fly by quickly as the story undergoes some twists and turns to get to the bottom of the mystery. Are the phone calls Julia’s getting from people responding her missing persons flyer legit? Why are the police being so helpful? And why does someone answer Michael’s phone without saying anything?

Like most thrillers, The Real Michael Swann is an adrenaline rush. Rather than focusing on the words on the page, I found myself racing through to find out what happened to Michael. There were some surprises along the way, and Reardon also delves into politics, domestic terrorism, corporate responsibility and the 24/7 news cycle. While there were some questionable moments, and a few too many coincidences to be totally realistic, Reardon has created a plausible scenario and told a fast-paced, interesting story. I always feel a bit unfulfilled when I finish a thriller, because I love rich, complex stories with beautiful prose, and that’s just not what thrillers are. They are here to give us a suspenseful, wild ride that takes us out of our lives for a while – and on that count, The Real Michael Swann definitely delivered.

The Real Michael Swann is the Readerly Report book club pick for September. We’ll be discussing it on the show airing September 26.

SUMMERLINGS by Lisa Howorth

Summerlings by Lisa Howorth is a short novel about a pack of 10 (11?) year-old boys living just outside Washington, DC in the 1950s. John, the narrator, is best friends with two other boys, Max and Ivan, on his block. Together, they explore the neighborhood on their bikes and conjecture about their neighbors, a mix of expats, diplomats, feds and potential spies. Some are friendly, some are not, and the boys spend their long summer days trying to figure out more about the adults around them. They are particularly intrigued by Elena, Ivan’s glamorous, mysterious Ukranian aunt, who is kind to them, prompting them all to fall in love with her. Meanwhile, John’s mother is off “recovering” in a nearby sanitarium (depression?) and his father has moved out, leaving him and his distant older sister under the care of their grandparents.

Summerlings takes place about 3 blocks from my house, so I loved the DC references sprinkled liberally throughout the book. Howorth even mentioned my street at one point. That was fun. Generally, though, I had a hard time getting into this book. Not much happens, there is tons of detail, and the plot is pretty superficial. Summerlings takes place during the Cold War and people are therefore suspicious of each other, and adults drink a lot and don’t tell their kids much of what is going on. That’s about it. There is one subplot involving the kids’ plot to steal a rare, dangerous spider from the National Museum of Natural History, and that is as close to suspense as I got from the book. (I could actually picture their whole bike ride down to the Mall as Howorth described it, so that was fun.) But generally, Summerlings was disappointing. I almost didn’t finish it, but because it was so short, I powered through.

If you want to read a sweet book about 11 year olds coming of age during a less complicated time, and you’re interested in the 50s in Washington, DC, then give Summerlings a try. But if you’re looking for something more substantive, I’d give it a pass.

THE TRAVELERS by Regina Porter

The Travelers by Regina Porter is a sprawling book covering six decades in the history of two families, one white and one black, as generations grow up against the backdrop of America, from the Vietnam War to Obama’s presidency, from Georgia to New York and California. The two families are connected through one married couple, but both sides of the tree spread widely and include a broad range of people. Chapters are more like interconnected stories, as characters come and go and different threads are picked up and dropped throughout the book.

The Travelers is a tough book to sum up. There are so many characters and so many stories happening at once. The end result is a kaleidescope of love, betrayal, racism, joy and sorrow, seen through many relationships and life events. Porter is a playwright – which explains the (helpful) long cast of characters listed at the beginning of the book – and while she is expert and setting up powerful scenes, she may not yet have mastered the longer story arc. I found the chapters compelling on their own, but looking back a week after I finished the book, I am having trouble remembering many elements of it. Certain moments stand out for me, but my overall recall is pretty uneven.

Porter avoids stereotyping her characters; you won’t find predictable tropes here. In this way, The Travelers feels like real life – messy relationships that are often hard to define, great variation within families, conflicts that are never resolved. Readers who approach the book without expectations of a concrete linear story will enjoy an impressionistic, almost poetic experience rather than a deep, detailed read.

Nicole and I recently discussed The Travelers on the Readerly Report Podcast as our August book club read. Give it a listen to learn more!

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie

I picked up And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie for the Unread Classic category of the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge. I *think* I read it when I was pretty young and was going through an Agatha Christie phase, but I didn’t remember much about it. It’s one of her classic mysteries: ten unconnected people are summoned to a remote island under vague circumstances. One by one, they start dying. Who is killing them, and why?

And Then There Were None is definitely one of Christie’s creepier mysteries. There is no way on or off the island, so the killer has to be one of the ten people there, right? Who can be trusted? When the deaths start mirroring a children’s maudlin poem framed on the wall of the each of the guest rooms, the tension is ratcheted even further. You know HOW the people are going to die, but you don’t know WHO will die, or when.

My podcast co-host Nicole warned me not to read And Then There Were None at night, especially while in strange hotels when I was traveling. So I saved it for the plane ride home, which was a crowded daytime flight flooded with sunlight. That ended up being a good choice, because I wasn’t all that scared. It was a good mystery, and the characters’ backstories made it interesting. The resolution is pretty satisfying, if a bit (!) unrealistic. I was struck by one thing: this book is outdated! One minor character is referred to as a “dirty Jew”, and the deaths two of the victims – a butler and a maid who are married – are barely even acknowledged because they are hired help. I didn’t realize that Christie was anti-Semitic and that other racist language had appeared frequently in her works. This book actually had two earlier titles, both of which were racist and had to be changed.

I could have gone in a million directions with this category of the reading challenge, and this was a painless, if not terribly memorable, way to tick a book off the list.

THE LAST ROMANTICS by Tara Conklin

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin was a buzzy book last spring – it as Jenna Bush’s first Read With Jenna pick – and my IRL book club picked it for our August read. It’s a family drama about four Skinner siblings – Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona – whose father passes away suddenly and whose mother subsequently goes into a deep depression. During the years of the their mother’s depression – which they call The Pause – the kids (aged 4-11) are left on their own. Renee, the responsible oldest, takes on the role of the mother, getting her siblings to young adulthood while missing out on her own adolescence.

Once the siblings grow up, however, they head off into different directions. Renee is driven and focused, attending medical school and becoming a surgeon. Caroline marries her high school boyfriend and has children early, providing them the stability she missed in her own childhood. Joe, the golden boy with the once-promising baseball career, finds the allure of money and booze too hard to resist, and Fiona uses physical connections with men – which she blogs about at “The Last Romantic” – to take the place of meaningful intimacy. Joe’s sisters watch him devolve with increasing alarm, yet they are powerless to stop his decline. How they respond to him puts a strain on their relationships and permanently transforms the dynamics between them.

I loved The Last Romantics. It’s beautifully written, poetic at times, and I really got to know these four characters well. Some chapters are told from the year 2077, when Fiona is a famous poet at age 102 looking back on her life. This was an interesting construct, both unsatisfying due to very limited parsing of details about the future (hint: it doesn’t sound great) and also poignant because of Fiona’s perspective looking back on her life. Ultimately, this is a novel about love (in all forms), loyalty and loss, and the imperfect ways in which we connect with and support the people we love. [Warning: the end is reminiscent of the Six Feet Under finale. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know why I am issuing the warning.]

This was a good one! Go pick it up.

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa

My second vacation read was The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa, a book I learned about from the Read Between The Wines blog this summer. It’s about a woman assigned to be the housekeeper for a brilliant math professor whose short term memory only lasts for 80 minutes ever since he was injured in a car accident. He can remember complicated math theorems, but he can’t remember people he met two hours earlier. This has led to a string of short-lived housekeepers, as they grow frustrated with having to reintroduce themselves every time they get to work.

The housekeeper of the title, however, is different. She gets to know the professor and pays attention to the math he teaches her and the connections he makes between numbers. Unlike the others, she finds him fascinating, and her world begins to expand beyond her job in his little house. She also introduces him to her 10 year-old son, and the boy bonds with the professor over their shared love of baseball. Although there are limitations on where their relationship with him can progress, they become very fond of him and learn to adapt their interactions to accommodate his memory loss.

The Housekeeper And The Professor is a quiet, poignant book. These lonely characters find connection in unexpected, imperfect ways, teaching the importance of living in the moment and behaving compassionately. It’s a quick read, but a memorable one. Though you never learn the characters’ names, they form a triangle you won’t easily forget. Bonus: it takes place in Japan and there is lots of baseball!