Writers and Lovers by Lily King (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

A sharply observed tale of a writer’s tumultuous journey.  31-year old Casey Peabody is the very definition of a struggling writer — deep in debt from student loans, living in near-squalor, and six years into her “Great American Novel.” Her mother’s sudden and recent death coupled with a devastating breakup have left her with debilitating panic attacks and general anxiety. Making it through each day is not a done deal.

So what makes this book worth reading? For me it’s King’s writing and her ability to meticulously document every aspect of this character’s experience — both personally and as a writer. In many ways, it was hard for me to read about Casey — because we really don’t know her that well, we also live the stress of not knowing if she will be able to get through this period (I’m going to cheat and tell you that she does get through it). In other ways, though, Casey is such an appealing character — her insights and experiences as a writer are fascinating, as are her thoughts about books, teaching literature, and literary criticism. I particularly enjoyed the details of a writer’s workshop near the end — her engagement with the exercises were intriguing.

I love her writing — I felt like I was highlighting every other line. The opening paragraph was perfect — it set the stage and drew me in with just few short lines:

“I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.”

A few more great quotes:

“I look back on those days and it feels gluttonous, all that time and love and life ahead, no bees in my body and my mother on the other end of the line.”

“It’s like a dream, the way they transform from sloped strangers, a man with a crackled bald spot and a woman in a gold jacket, into my father and stepmother.”

“Bob chooses this moment to put his hind legs through his front legs and produce a soft tan coil of poop at the base of a Japanese lilac.”

“I didn’t much like the writers Paco did, men who wrote tender, poetic sentences that tried to hide the narcissism and misogyny of their stories.”

“I should be wary of the guy who locks in too soon. It’s a sort of premature commitulation.”

“There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose.”

“All problems with writing and performing come from fear. Fear of exposure, fear of weakness, fear of lack of talent, fear of looking like a fool for trying, for even thinking you could write in the first place. It’s all fear. If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world.”

“Admire me. Admire me. Admire ‘judge’ and ‘courthouse’ and ‘seven sharp.’ I don’t like myself around Adam. I don’t think he wants me to.”

“The bees in my chest stir. A few creep down the inside of my arm. One conversation can destroy my whole morning.”

“I love these geese. They make my chest tight and full and help me believe that things will be all right again, that I will pass through this time as I have passed through other times, that the vast and threatening blank ahead of me is a mere specter, that life is lighter and more playful than I’m giving it credit for.”

Thank you to Grove Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 3rd, 2020.

Last Couple Standing by Matthew Norman (General Fiction)

Mitch and Jessica are the last couple standing. When the other three couples in their set all divorce within a couple of years, suddenly their own previously happy marriage seems almost up for grabs. With infidelity at the root of most of their friend’s problems, they decide to experiment with a temporarily open marriage to see if they can forestall what feels like the inevitable. Jessica — a therapist — points out “Love is a feeling. Monogamy is a rule. One we came up with twelve-thousand years ago when we started worrying about property rights.”

While the first chapter is a kind of leaden background — explaining how all four couples got together and what went wrong in the other three — both writing and content picked up after that. Lots of humorous and interesting dialogue and plenty of non-gender conforming behavior. In fact, I really appreciated the fact that each character was an individual with his/her own ideas and standards — none of which felt stereotypical to me. Scarlett — one of Mitch’s wilder students (and simultaneously Jessica’s client — they work out of the same high school) — really throws some good curve balls at them both with her own ideas about sex, love, and the #metoo movement.

I found the book increasingly insightful and relevant and enjoyed how it portrayed a wide variety of viewpoints.

Some good quotes:
“Like we used to before the kids sucked the life out of us like vampires.”

“For Mitch, being married to a therapist had some advantages and some disadvantages. She was unfailingly reasonable. She was incredibly smart. But sometimes it felt like he was talking to a robot that had programmed to read WebMD pages aloud to him.”

“I haven’t had sex with a guy once since my divorce who hasn’t tried to come all over me.” “Same,” said Sarah. “Which is such a delight, because God knows that’s exactly what we’re hoping for.”

“How much easier would life be if, the moment you get married, you take a pill, and everyone else in the world turns plain and boring?”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 17th, 2020.

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (Children’s Fiction)

10-year old Bea has largely adjusted to the big changes in her life — 2 years before her parents divorced so that her father could be the gay man he had always known himself to be. Bea alternates living with each parent day by day and weekend by weekend. Now her father and his boyfriend Jesse are getting married and Bea might be getting a sister — something she has always wanted.

While not as creative as some of Stead’s earlier books, this is a well-done dive into the experiences of a young girl struggling to understand the massive changes in her life. The book serves as an excellent template for how to handle a divorce. The eponymous “List of Things That Will Not Change” is for Bea when she finds out about the divorce — my favorite item: “We are still a family, but in a different way.” And indeed, that is how they behave.

Bea also sees a therapist — Miriam — and the advice she recollects at various points is clear and useful. I’m not a big fan of therapy, but I found this summary of the process and techniques for Bea to be excellent. This would be a useful book for both the target 8-12 year olds and their parents. If I had one small complaint about the book, it is that the focus is all on Bea and the new life of her gay father. Her mother doesn’t get to have much of a new life and although portrayed lovingly, doesn’t get a lot of air time (and she deserves some!).

Thank you to Wendy Lamb Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

The Boys Who Woke Up Early by A.D.Hopkins (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Great historical fiction — peppered with the kind of details that say someone actually lived this story (or something close to it). Most historical fiction can’t help but overlay modern sensibilities on the story, but this one feels completely embedded in the time — from action to dialogue to thoughts.

Thomas Jackson “Stony” Shelor is a high school junior in small town Early, Virginia. His first-person account describes his experiences from Sept. 1959 through Sept. 1960 — working “for free” in the sheriff’s office, getting into trouble with town bullies, hankering after a girl who knows her own mind, and befriending the somewhat crazy new kid in town. This is all amidst much bigger events: massive black voter registration and the resulting Klan rallies; the (very) slowly shifting attitudes of whites towards blacks; and the fine line a good sheriff has to tread to work with corrupt elected officials and still try to keep a town lawful and safe.

It reads like good journalism — no surprise as this is the debut novel of a 46-year veteran journalist. I had forgotten how much I like a real story — not overburdened by excess angst, overly bold characters, and well-defined narrative arcs that bear little resemblance to reality.

I love the way the clean writing describes both the action and our narrator’s perceptions, reactions, and evolving opinions. He does some (to me) stupid things but we are treated to a real understanding of how his worldview and principles led him to those actions. Billed as a YA novel (the main character is 17), for me it was much more a documentation of a particular time and place as experienced by someone growing up in that time period. A nice juxtaposition of history and personal development.

As an aside, lots of interesting details about things like learning to shoot and care for firearms, working at a sheriff’s office, a garage or an apple orchard. Just enough detail to be interesting to someone (like me) that isn’t actually interested in those topics, but never enough to be boring. Also, fascinating attitudes among the largely working class members of the town — they don’t map to any definitions of “liberal” or “conservative” today — just people using their own minds as to the right way to live and treat people.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5+/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

Shockingly good — one of the best books I’ve read in years. The plot follows Washington Black — born a slave on a brutal Barbados plantation in 1818, he becomes a naturalist illustrator, scientist, and inventor via circumstance mingled with aptitude and fortitude. The book defies categorization — it is simultaneously a wild adventure story and a personal reflection on a life propelled by both trauma and serendipity.

The story careens from the Barbados plantation to the open seas to the Arctic to England and beyond. The Victorian pursuit of knowledge and invention permeates every page (especially pertaining to marine life). The relationships across race, sex, and status in a violent and yet rapidly evolving time period are examined in every possible way. I love the depth of that exploration and what feels (to me) like a fair portrayal of the complexities of every one of those relationships — the individuals, the culture, and the time period all coming to bear and the bald fact of each person interpreting behaviors of others in very personal ways — there is no absolute truth, only personal truth. Wash himself is aware that his perceptions are probably flawed and yet that does not change them in any way.

The writing is Pulitzer quality — absolutely stunning — one of the few books I’ve read without skimming a single sentence. I rarely read books about slavery or the Holocaust — I’ve read too many and just don’t want to go there anymore. I picked up this highly recommended book with the intention of reading a couple of pages and then giving it back. I didn’t put it down for 75 pages (and then only because I was called to dinner!).

Highly, highly, recommended.

Here are too many quotes — just know that I winnowed these down from many, many, more:

“Moistening my lips, I sat at a table in the soft, monstrous upholstered chair, across from a white man who possessed the power of life and death over me. I was but a child of the plantations, and as I met his gaze with my own, my mouth soured with dread.”

“The skin round his eyes tightened. He shook his head. ‘Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from heaven, it is this.’ “

“Christopher Wilde had not your best interests at heart. You were a cause to him, not a person — however much he protested otherwise. You were something to be used to further his own crusade, his own sense of goodness.”

“I understood. He meant that I had been a slave, and that the savagery of that past left me a ruined being, like some wretched thing pulled smoking from a fire. It did not matter that he accepted me as a thinking man, that he respected my mind, or even that he was in the midst of taking a favour from me. I was black-skinned and burnt, as disfigured inside as without…”

“I had long seen science as the great equalizer. No matter one’s race, or sex, or faith — there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I’d given to the ways in which it might be corrupted.”

“He was a wretched man, a pox, but I did not rejoice at the brutality of his end, however well deserved. He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senselessness and cruelty. He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.”

“…her silence was marked by a held-in rage that I have only now, several years later, come to understand as the suppression of will. For she was a ferociously intelligent woman, and it strained her to have to conceal it.”

“The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.”

“He was sixty years old at least, with pulsing red hands and extravagant wrinkles.”

“And despite all, his dark eyes seemed to me soft, restless, thoughtful, with a kindness so rarely granted to one like me that, meeting his eyes, I shivered.”

“How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them? I thought how Titch had risked everything for me. I knew he had preserved my person despite the death of his own flesh and blood, and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving.”

“After a long moment of trying to muster my courage to speak, I remained silent.”

“He had a thick black mustache and a very pale, grey mouth, as if his lips suffered for sunlight.”

“I saw him, and I kneeled dripping in the low entrance, staring. For he was short, fat, and under his scraggly whiskers was a face very much alive and quite brutally ugly.”

“For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from he dimmest of shadows.”

“Staring into her sharp face, her brown front teeth edging over her lower lip, I felt a kind of despair, sensing the solitary mornings of the world fade from me, and grow dim.”

“Sometimes when I spoke she’d stare on with quiet ferocity — but it was not pity I sensed there, nor morbid fascination, but something like a greed to fully enter my consciousness.”

“What an agony it was, to see them together: old Goff, earnest and probing and high-minded and utterly oblivious; Tanna, sharp-tongued and brilliant and stifled and yet somehow devoted to that self-absorbed man. It was clear to me that both were intelligent, kind people, but careless with each other’s feelings, and poles apart in temperament. I liked both immensely; I hated their way together.”

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland (Fiction)

Edinburgh resident Ailsa is not your typical heroine — born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, it’s a miracle she has made it the age of 28. As the book opens, she is rapidly winding down until she is given the miracle of a matching donor heart. This is the funny, insightful, and intimate story of what happens to someone who suddenly gets to think about a future she never thought she would have.

Ailsa is a blogger. She blogs as BlueHeart — named for the constant bluish tint to her skin due to lack of oxygen. To make the blog more interactive (and to ease the burden of choice from her own shoulders) she polls her large community of followers whenever she needs to make a decision. Post-transplant polls lead her to tango classes, a trip to London to help a new (and pretty sexy) “friend,” and an exciting role in an Edinburgh Fringe Festival gig.

Told through blog posts, emails, and narrative, we follow Ailsa through her adventures of coming to life and forming a relationship with her brand-new heart. Funny, heartfelt, and deeply philosophical, this book took me on a journey I never expected to make (and hope to never have to in real life).

I liked this book, though it felt a bit long in some places, but not quite as much as The Lost for Words Bookshop (which I loved).

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 29th, 2019.

Backpacking Book Review #3

The end of the backpacking trip was a little surprising.  Slipping down a sandy friction pitch I was pushed over by the pack and landed right on my face — specifically my poor nose — on a flat but very hard rock.  Did not even realize that this was possible.  Don’t think I’ll include a photo because really — you don’t want to see it!  But no broken teeth or nose, just some very strange bruising and a better attitude to scampering down friction pitches in the future …

Meant to Be Yours by Susan Mallery

Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 22nd, 2019.

Hunky Vietnam Vet Jasper (who is not as “broken” as he thinks) is freshly returned from his book tour. A successful action adventure writer, he wants to finish off one series so he can start another but is flummoxed by his utter inability to write women. Enter Renee Grothen — wedding planning extraordinaire — who herself has given up on men after some very bad experiences. And guess where they both live? Happily Inc — a (fictional) wedding destination town with a real Disneyland flair. We learn this all in the first few pages and we know how it’s going to end — but the journey is fantastic.

I really don’t care for the romance genre but I read everything Susan Mallery writes. Her characters are interesting and nuanced (yes — sexy as well) and the plots are twisty and fun with captivating side stories. To start with, Renee works on theme weddings, and although I am personally not into decorations, weddings, etc, I loved hearing about the “Dallas Cowboys,” Nutcracker, and Apple themed weddings, just to name a few. Add to that a town that features an animal preserve, a horse ranch run by the adopted daughter of the King of El Bahar, and a woman who can actually sense what animals are thinking — and you have all the ingredients of a pretty engaging story. Some extremely well-written and steamy sex scenes as well. This is not a “cozy romance” — the attraction between our two is palpable rather than polite.

Fun read!