A Taxonomy of Love by Rachael Allen

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

When 14 year old Spencer Barton meets Hope Birdsong for the first time, he knows something significant has  happened. They never run out of things to talk about – from her planning adventures all over the world to his encyclopedic (and occasionally disgusting) knowledge of weird bugs and their behavior (he has a tarantula named Lord Voldemort!). They explore the boundaries between being friends, not friends, best friends, and more than friends as they simultaneously grapple with both typical and atypical middle / high school issues: Spencer has Tourette’s which garners him more than his share of nastiness and Hope experiences a traumatic death which seems to knock the very breath from her life.

The story is told in first person from Spencer’s perspective. His humorous and yet deeply reflective voice is easy and fun to read. He likes taxonomies which help him make sense of the world and they offer a kind of orthogonal view of the story. Diversity is fully embraced in the recitation with some consideration of what it means to be “other”  both embodied in the narrative and discussed directly at times. As an aside, some really good descriptions of what it is like to have Tourette’s, what kind of coping mechanisms can be used, and what kind of positive brain side effects might come of having it.

There are some issues with pacing – indeterminate amounts of time seem to have elapsed between chapters and although it’s not that difficult to figure out, it is a little jarring.

Good for fans of “What to Say Next” and “Words in Deep Blue”

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4

New word: Hiraeth – Welsh for homesicknesses for a home you can’t return to or never was.

An ode to the home made family, an homage to Age, and a paen to kindness. Honest, funny, and so moving tears will never be too far from your eyes.

82 year-old Arthur Moses lives with his cat Gordon and lunches in the cemetery with his dead wife  every day.  Lucille is the nosy neighbor who may (in her 80s) finally have a chance at love when her high school beau shows up out of the blue. High school senior Maddy Harris (nicknamed “Saddy”) often hides from school in the cemetery. She has no friends, no mother, and a father who detached when her mother died two weeks after Maddie’s birth. When something happens that causes her to leave home, it is Arthur to whom she turns, and Lucille who pushes her way into the mix.

Beautiful writing and impressive descriptions of the wisdom that one accrues with time, the values that live at one’s core, and the powerful bonds that result when people bring courtesy, understanding, and gentleness to their interactions with others. It’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with Arthur (and why wouldn’t you want to?) and to wish you could spend a little time in Mason, Missouri with the rest of them. One of the warmest and most uplifting books I’ve read all year.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

I loved every single thing about this insightful, beautifully told story about a 16 year old still counting the days since her mother died (747).  A few months before the story starts, her father moves her from her home in Chicago to a swanky area of Los Angeles to live with the “step-monster” (actually a very nice, recently widowed woman named Rachel) and her son Theo, who misses his father as much as Jessie misses her mother. Jessie is enrolled in a private school for wealthy kids and finds it very difficult to start a new life when she is still completely broken by the old.  Enter the mysterious “SN” (for Somebody-Nobody) who has anonymously contacted her via email and offers to help her navigate the difficulties of Wood Valley high school.

Friendship, bullying, sex, self-discovery – all topics deftly considered and discussed by a set of colorful and believable characters: Scarlett, the half Korean, half Jewish best friend from Chicago; Theo, the flamboyantly gay step-brother; Ethan, handsome, broken, poetry nerd who wears his batman shirt every day; Liam, lead vocalist for the band Oville and son of the bookstore owner who gives Jessie a job; and of course, “SN” who quickly becomes the person Jessie texts constantly. The plot is interesting and full of surprising, yet plausible events, but the real attraction of this novel is the excellent writing.  Page after page of insightful thoughts, conversations, and descriptions.  These characters are so real that your heart soars and breaks along with them. I’m always looking for authors who can distill and explain the essence of a character’s experience and Julie Buxbaum does this incredibly well.

Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins

Frankly I’m embarrassed to admit that I read anything from Harlequin. I’m more of a Nowthatyoumentionitliterary fiction reader and I find most romance novels just stupid (sorry but that’s how I feel!). However, I make a complete exception for Kristan Higgins. Her novels are hysterically funny and well written. Yes, they definitely fit the romance genre, but the women featured are all women I would love to get to know (and to join my book club!).

Anyway, this new one is a good one. Tiny Scupper Island off the coast of Maine serves as the beautiful locale for a story with all of the traditional Higgins humor, emotions, and complex relationships. I fell in love with most of the characters – Nora, the “good” daughter, who won the town’s all expenses paid scholarship to Tufts; her sister Lily, beautiful and doomed, and Lily’s daughter Poe, tattooed, angry, living with the grandmother (a character with a real kick herself) on Scupper Island while her mother is in jail. Plus, of course, the men! A whole array of attractive, but sometimes flawed men, for our array of women to choose from! As a side note, I was very impressed with the diversity of Higgins’ characters in this book – without her focussing on the diversity as the main purpose of the novel. Everyone was treated as simply another person with individual characteristics some of which mapped to identified categories of diversity. I’d like to see more novels take this approach.

Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren

Writing: 4; Characters: 4; Plot: 4

I love YA books and this one was a lot of fun.  Best for the 12 – 14 year old crowd.

WeaveCircleRound14 year old Freddie knows she is “doomed to be sensitive forever”. She lives with her younger sister Mel and her step-brother Roland, a tall, hulking, deaf teenager who seems to bring both order and chaos to everything he touches. Freddie works hard to stay as invisible as possible. Enter the weird new neighbors who take the lonely house on Grosvenor Street. Cuerva LaChance is a Mrs. Whatsit like creature who is almost always cheerful and has a capital case of super ADD; Josiah is a humorless, bored 14 year old who  picks fights by simply existing. Freddie is horrified to find him in most of her classes.

The book starts slowly, appearing to be a typical coming-of-age story, but around 30% of the way in it takes off stratospherically, or rather time-ospherically, as time travel suddenly reaches in and literally yanks Freddie and Josiah off on a pinball machine like journey covering 9th century Sweden, prehistoric China,  17th century France, and 92nd century (yes, 92nd!) England.  Characters from  Norse, Polynesian, and Chinese mythology are woven in and as a bonus, we learn the identity of the “person from Porlock” – historically blamed for interrupting Coleridge as he scribbled the poem Kubla Khan.  While Josiah is blasé about the adventure, having literally lived though it before, Freddie is given every possibility to learn and grow up and help unravel a world altering mystery facing them in the current time.  What or Who exactly is Three?  And why is their “Choice” so important?

FYI, as a veteran SF reader, I was impressed with her handling of the time travel – both philosophically and mechanically.  I was also very impressed with the literary and mythological references. It’s not often you find a book that can move through such different areas so smoothly.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

manhattanbeachWriting: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4

New word for me: apotropaic (supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.)

A cross between A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and an action oriented WWII novel.

I enjoyed this book and read it quickly. It’s unusual in that it is both character and detailed action driven, by which I mean that equal emphasis was placed on the characters and their environments. The story takes place in New York City during WWII.  It revolves around three interconnected characters, each with their own narrative arc:  Anna is a quick witted and focussed young girl growing up in Brooklyn who likes accompanying her father on his “bag drops”; Dexter Styles, a polite gangster married into an upper crust family who seems to have more depth and sense of morality than many in his position; and Eddie, Anna’s father, who mysteriously disappears one day after several years working for Dexter Styles.

The settings have been given equal, if not greater, time and focus in the story.  Anna takes a job in the Navy Yard during WWII and gets a strong urge to become a diver after glimpsing a dive on her way home.  We are treated to in depth descriptions of her war work, diving equipment of the time, dive protocols and processes, and the ease with which a woman could get into that line of work (hint: no ease at all!). In another narrative stream we learn about life as a merchant marine during the war, including a detailed shipwreck survivor scenario. Lastly, details about the world of upper class banking and gangsterhood (hint: one is legal but that is about all that separates them!) abound.  For me, some of the technical descriptions went on a bit longer than I found necessary but I am good at adjusting reading speed to match my interest in the section so this was not a problem. I know others will find these action scenes / technical details more exciting than I did.

While the story revolves around the three primary characters above, there are many additional, well drawn supporting characters. Each was representative of a certain “type” in the era, but also a clear individual with their own personality, quirks, and goals. Lydia, Anna’s sister, born with an undefined wasting disease (sounded like cerebral palsy to me); her mother Agnes, the beautiful follies star who gave up working to love and care for Lydia; the Berringer family, a wealthy Episcopalian family into which Styles marries; Marle, the only negro in the dive class; Paul who thought diving might help him get into the navy and others.

Good writing, interesting characters, complex plot – a good combination of action oriented and character driven – rare in novels.  A little long winded for me in parts, though I’m guessing others would pick the opposite parts to shorten.  Definitely worth reading.

Millard Salter’s Last Day

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 3

New word for me: Lordotic (an abnormal forward curvature of the spine in the lumbar region, resulting in a swaybacked posture)

MillardSalterMillard Salter – a Consulting Psychiatrist who “provides mental health services for the physically ill in hospitals” has decided to commit suicide on his 75th birthday. In his own terms, his is a “rational suicide”, a “curated death”.  He simply doesn’t want to end his days in the same painful, feeble, isolated way of so many others. This book is the story of this last day.

The story is told completely from his perspective – we see events, characters, and the past, solely through his eyes.  Poignant memories, surprising interactions, and a panoply of characters fill the pages.  Reading the memories of the old Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx felt like a love letter to me. We are deftly moved from childhood memories to current events to recent memories, from minor irritations at work (a baby lynx has gone missing at the hospital) to major irritations at the graveyard (his burial plot has been usurped!). This is no painful Proustian obsession – quite a bit actually happens on this day – I was surprised to reach the end and realize that only a day had passed.

The writing is excellent – clear and incisive and full of brilliant lines.  Millard says of his recently deceased wife Isabelle: “she possessed a knack for distilling people”.  I would say the same is true of the author.  Character after character, line after line, just nailed it.  Thinking about his son, Lysander, Millard finds himself “pondering whether a man who hadn’t yet amounted to a bucket of warm glue might not generate  an artistic or literary masterwork at the age of 43…”.  I really had to read that line a few times. Great use of fun words too (I’m always pleased when someone can use tatterdemalion persuasively in a sentence.

One note – the descriptive blurbs on Amazon are completely misleading.  This book has nothing in common with “A Man Called Ove” aside from the two main characters sharing initial thoughts of suicide.  Ove is a curmudgeon (a bad-tempered or surly person according to dictionary.com), but Millard is not. He is neither bad-tempered nor surly – he does have many opinions that don’t always adhere to the accepted norms of the society but I find it interesting that non conformity automatically stamps with him with curmudgeonhood!  Millard has many opinions that are clearly his own – well thought out and adhering to no particular ideology.  I found it insightful and refreshing.

I really loved this book – Millard’s voice is one I will remember for a long time.