Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bardo – (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

I can’t use my standard Writing / Plot / Characters rating scheme as this novel simply doesn’t fit within those parameters!

The death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, on April 20th, 1862, is the precipitating event around which the novel unfolds. The unique storytelling style combines quotes from historical sources (often in conflict with each other) with descriptions of and conversations between the ghosts who inhabit the “Bardo” of the title. This Bardo is manifest within the graveyard into which Willie Lincoln’s body has been interred.

Willie’s death occurs at a critical juncture within Lincoln’s presidency. The civil war has begun and has already incurred a great loss of life. The interplay between the real world and the confusing swirl of ghostly presences finds a center in Lincoln himself as he grieves for his boy in the cemetery and tries to find the resolve to continue his approach to the war. The ghosts vary in age, gender, race, and life time period. Each has been distilled to an essence with a unique presentation and obsession. These are riveting reductions — reminiscent of Hemingway’s famous six word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

A fascinating view of history and a strangely compelling style — I enjoyed this far more than I expected. It really is the masterpiece everyone says it is (which is hard for me to admit as I don’t like agreeing with “everyone”!).

Little Big Love by Katy Regan

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Little Big Love by Katy Regan, which will publish June 12, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4.5

A big story — simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming — about a family that fell apart after a tragedy that occurred ten years in the past and the young boy who now desperately wants to know his missing father. Part coming-of-age for 10-year old Zac and part coming-to-terms-with-the-past for Juliet (his mother) and Mick (his grandfather), the story alternates between their three voices.

Zac is a wonderful kid – sweet, funny, and with a great capacity for love. He is also overweight and subject to a lot of bullying. He traipses around the Harlequin Estates in Grimsby (Southeast of York) working on his Find Dad Mission with his best friend Teagan. I absolutely fell in love with Zac and with several of the other characters as well. Oddly enough, I had the least sympathy for Juliet, though this possibly says more about my “take charge” personality than it does about her :-))

Well-written (though it could be shortened by perhaps 50 pages in the middle which drags a bit), the novel deals with issues of alcoholism, body shaming, childhood obesity and single parenting. I like the fact that each character recognizes and seeks to address their issues not because of external pressure, but because they recognize that both they and the people they love will be much happier if they do.

I had not heard of Katy Regan before but she appears to be a well-known novelist and journalist in the UK. This is her American debut, and it is quite captivating. I’ll keep her on my “look for more” list.

 

The Little French Bistro by Nina George

Writing: 4 Characters: 5 Plot: 4.5

A sensuous novel in the literal sense of the word. 60-year old Marianne is leading a drab, grey, existence when she slips away from the tour group in Paris (and her cold, unfeeling, husband of 41 years) with the intention of sliding into the Seine and letting it all go. Instead, her world appears to burst into color as she follows a pull towards a very different life in the small seaside village of Kerdruc in Brittany.

The book hovers on the line between literary fiction and romance: the language, character and relationship development, and the depth of details are literary; the tales of love at first sight, unrequited love lasting for decades, and makeovers that transform women into goddesses are pure romance. To be fair, the literary does outweigh the romance and I love the fact that those falling in love, rediscovering love, and staying in love for decades are of all ages.

The luscious prose delights in describing the natural world — the vistas, the sounds, the smells. The tone of the book is one of wonder — communing with nature through the senses and resonating with the beauty in the world. A magic thread keeps pulling her forward to the place that feels like home as soon as she arrives — a painted tile, a scrawny cat in the rain, a group of nuns. An added surprise — threads of Breton folklore permeate the story. Did you know the original settlers in Brittany were Celts? I did not.

This is a book of magical coincidences and love in all of its myriad forms. On the whole, I enjoyed reading it — I fell in love with the characters and it was difficult to put down — but don’t expect anything practical or even plausible. It’s just a lovely exploration of the way we wish the world could be.

 

Just the Funny Parts by Nell Scovell

Writing: 5; Importance: 4; Pleasure Factor: 5

Funny, personal, and important – all in one sparkling package!

There’s been a recent spate of celebrity memoirs written by female comedians. I’ve read (or tried to read) them all:  Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Anna Ferris’ Unqualified, Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?, etc.  This one is much, much, better — no doubt due to the fact that Nell Scovell is a comedy writer rather than a comedy performer and therefore can really write!

This memoir is part sitcom, part Hollywood wannabe training material, and part exposé on the difficulties of women getting fair treatment (or any treatment at all, really) in the industry. The very first line is her own paraphrase of Nietzsche: “That which doesn’t kill me … allows me to regroup and retaliate” — a great and apt opening!

I love Nell’s writing – it’s well structured and quite personal but never strident nor overly dramatic. Some great quotes, intriguing character profiles, factual depictions of the diversity (or utter lack thereof) in writer rooms, and a real sense of the frustrations in the field. The book is littered with fabulous (and funny) story ideas that went nowhere for no reason.  Her summarized job timeline in the appendix is full of “shot but unaired”, “unshot”, and “unsold” labels, with what feels like a tiny sprinkling of successes.  Such futility!  Any dreams I had of working in Hollywood (luckily I had none) have been thoroughly quashed by reading through this descriptive tour of a Hollywood writing career. At the same time, Nell’s love and passion for the work is obvious, and it is clear she wouldn’t choose to be doing anything else.

Perhaps you know her from Sabrina the Teenage Witch or perhaps from her co-authorship of Lean In with Sheryl Sandberg.  Even if you’ve never heard of her at all, you’ll enjoy this well-documented peregrination through her life as a writer of comedy. FYI I tend to find non-fiction a slog, rarely making it past the 1/3 mark, but I gobbled this book up in two days.

Secrets, Lies, and Crawfish Pies by Abby L. Vandiver

Thank you to Henery Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of Secrets, Lies, and Crawfish Pies by Abby L Vandiver, which will publish June 12, 2018. All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

A fun, cozy, mystery – full of colorful Southern characters surrounded by good food and music.

Romaine Gabriela Sadie Heloise Wilder is a medical examiner in Chicago, in love with the married Chief of Staff of her hospital. When she loses her job and man through one swift act of downsizing, she is dragged home to East Texas (Roble, to be exact) by her voodoo and herbal remedy-wielding Aunt Zanne. When they arrive they find a surprise guest at the Ball Funeral Home and Crematorium — the family business. He fits right in, though, as he is quite, quite, dead. Romie solves the mystery with the help of her Aunt, the sheriff (a first cousin), and a couple of attractive beaux-in-waiting.

Fun, light, well-written. For those who care about these kinds of things, the author and most (perhaps all) of the characters are African American. I hadn’t heard of this author before, but she is quite prolific with three additional mystery series to her name — so if you like this one, you’ll have a lot more to read!

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4+

On New York’s Lower East Side in 1969, four siblings seek a psychic who is rumored to be able to tell you the exact date of your death. Ranging from 1978 – 2010, the rest of this captivating book takes us through the lives of each of these children as they live their lives in the shadow of this knowledge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it really is the tour de force claimed on the book jacket. The scope is huge, and the detailed descriptions of everything from primate-based aging research to the world of magicians to the gay scene in San Francisco in the 80s are incredibly impressive.

On the other hand, I found the book depressing. These are not happy people and their life stories are full of tragedy, guilt, and angst. In some ways this book reminds me of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (which I could not finish). Beautiful writing, intricate stories with believable characters and captivating twists — and yet the main character is a f*** up who squanders every opportunity to make something of his life. Similarly, The Immortalists is more of a cautionary tale of how not to live, rather than a story of personal growth or redemption. (*** tiny spoiler alert — one character does manage to learn the lesson, but this comes in the final pages and too late for anyone else ***).

Overall an absorbing book — excellent writing, in depth characters, and vivid depictions of a wide variety of times and places. I read the 300+ quickly and didn’t want to put it down; however, I was not happy while I was reading (I had to read an uplifting children’s book before bed so I wouldn’t wake up in a bad mood). If you read with your head, prepare to be fascinated; if you read with your heart, prepare to mope. While the overall message is life affirming — embrace life and spend your time living rather than focusing on how to forestall death — that lesson comes too late for most of our poor characters.

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser, which will publish September 25, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 4 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

I loved this young readers book. It is the second in the Vanderbeeker series and every bit as good as the first. It reminds me of some of my favorite series from childhood — the characters became my friends, and I couldn’t wait to go along on the next adventure.

The five Vanderbeeker children live with their parents on the bottom two floors of a brownstone on 141st in Harlem. When Mr. Jeet, the above floor neighbor, has a debilitating stroke, they decide to create a hidden garden in the abandoned lot adjoining the church as surprise for his homecoming. This simple plot line gives rise to opportunities for a whole array of neighborhood kids to contribute while learning about caring, friendship, and the ability to create beauty from nothing.

I love this book for many reasons. These people are regular people. They are neither rich nor poor. Taking place in Harlem, the cast is decidedly multicultural, and there are little hints as to different backgrounds — but that is not the point. Some kids obviously come from loving nuclear families, while others have absent parents, substitute parents, or bits of tragedy in their histories — but that isn’t the point either. These people come together as friends and neighbors; they care about each other and try to help each other out. The book unashamedly models good values and behavior, demonstrating friendship, caring, self sufficiency, and having the agency to make bad situations better. Five stars.