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.

10 Great Books From 2019

Stuck at home and looking for an escape from the news? I can’t offer medical advice or easy pantry recipes or tips on homeschooling, but I *can* give book recommendations. I’ll post some lists each week with reading ideas to get you through quarantine.

Here are ten books I loved last year. Because they aren’t that new, they might be available from your library’s digital collection, or by curbside pickup from your local indie.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

There There by Tommy Orange

The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett Graff – WARNING: not escapist!

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Forever Is The Worst Long Time by Camille Pagan

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

I hope that you find reading a solace in these challenging times.

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.

MAID by Stephanie Land

When Stephanie Land was in her 20s living in the Pacific Northwest, she got romantically involved with a man and ended up getting pregnant. She hadn’t planned on becoming a mother then – and was in fact planning to go to college in Montana – but she decided to have the baby and try to make it work with her boyfriend. They ultimately broke up, sending Land down the path of trying to support herself and her daughter Mia as a single mother with no safety net from her family or other means of income. Maid is Land’s memoir about her years working as a housecleaner and living off of the very low wages she earned doing physically exhausting work while trying to keep a roof over Mia’s head and furthering her own education and a career as a writer.

While Maid is a very personal account of Land’s life, it is also a look at low-wage jobs in America and how poverty leads to a precarious existence that is one bad stroke of luck away from homelessness. Land writes about her hopelessness after a car accident that left her without any means to get to and from the houses she cleaned, the black mold and frigid temperatures in the studio apartment she rented (the only one she could afford), and the disdain she felt from those behind her in line at the grocery store when she used public assistance to pay for her food. The chips are stacked against single mothers, and Land’s everyday existence was a struggle, from trying to get access to the welfare money for which she qualified to finding care for Mia when she was sick and Land couldn’t miss work.

So Maid is a pretty controversial book. Some readers have very moved by it, while some found Land whiny and entitled. I fell into the first camp. Land is not perfect and sometimes made some bad decisions, but generally I found her very compelling. She clearly wanted the best for her daughter and did the best she could to provide it. She worked hard, despite hating the work itself, and always had Mia’s best interests at heart. Land was alone, without financial or emotional family support, and her existence was often a lonely one. She bore sole responsibility for Mia’s health and enrichment, except on the weekends when Mia saw her father, and she did it on a very low income. I tried to imagine myself in her position several times, and it was hard – I have family nearby and backup funds and the means to provide basic things that Land had to work so hard for.

Maid provides needed perspective and insight into an often invisible demographic. It made me think harder about the people who do the menial jobs we take for granted – cleaning and custodial work that. How many times have I passed my office’s cleaning staff on my way out the door without giving them much thought? Since reading Maid, I’ve tried to be more aware, more mindful and more appreciative of the people who do these jobs, working very hard to make ends meet and often falling short.

I listened to Maid on audio and I highly recommend it. It’s narrated by Land, and she’s a clear, precise performer. Some listeners complained that she was whiny, but I don’t agree. My only complaint is that there are a lot of unanswered questions about her own family and why they were so unhelpful to her. The sections about her family seemed most unsatisfying on audio, where her narration seemed almost too dispassionate on this topic. Overall, though, I am really glad I opted for the audio version.

Maid was Book #11 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.

IN FIVE YEARS by Rebecca Serle

When Rebecca Serle’s novel In Five Years opens, NYC corporate lawyer Danielle and her banker boyfriend David get engaged, just as Dannie expected they would, the latest step in her meticulously planned life. But later that night, Dannie has a dream that takes place five years later, in which she is living (and sleeping with) a different man in a different apartment. Will that dream accurately reflect her future reality, and if so, how does she get from the present to that future?

Why I picked it up: I didn’t love Rebecca Serle’s last novel, The Dinner List, but the premise of In Five Years was irresistible and the reviews were very positive.

I really enjoyed In Five Years. It’s a quick read, because it’s pretty short and it’s hard to put down. Dannie’s life unfolds, her career skyrocketing and her relationship with David enduring… but with no actual wedding in sight. Dannie’s best friend Bella, meanwhile, falls in and out of love, taking a much more circuitous route forward than Dannie’s straight line trajectory. Dannie and Bella’s friendship plays a central role in In Five Years, highlighting the differences in how the two approach their lives but providing them with the constant presence that a deep, enduring friendship does. Bella challenges Danni to question whether she should stay on her planned track or give in to the impulses that might lead her to the future she envisioned in her dream.

In Five Years is reminiscent of a few other books I’ve read: One Day In December (girl falls in love with man who ends up being her best friend’s boyfriend); You Were There Too (man recurs in woman’s dreams); and The Immortalists, whose author Chloe Benjamin blurbed this book (siblings learn of the predicted dates of their deaths), but it still felt fresh and original. I also liked the depiction of Bella and Danni’s friendship. The plot took a few unexpected turns, which kept me quite engaged.

If you didn’t love The Dinner List, I’d recommend giving Serle another chance and picking up In Five Years. You’ll read it in like two days, and you’ll be glad you did.

In Five Years was Book #8 of 2020. It comes out on March 10.