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 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.

Toil and Trouble by Augusten Burroughs (Memoir/Humor)

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 1st, 2019.

It’s hard to believe but this is my first Augusten Burroughs book! I’ve heard of Running With Scissors of course but somehow never managed to get to it. My loss. Burroughs is funny, clever, and writes in a wickedly delicious, entre-nous style. In this segment of his ongoing memoirs, he and husband Christopher make the move out of Manhattan. This includes convincing Christopher that he wants to move, searching for houses, and engaging with the “perfect” home once purchased. The heavy thread running over, under, and through it all (as you might have guessed from the title) are his “magick” and witchcraft skills. Regardless of your opinion on witchcraft, this is a compelling and comprehensive story, comprising personal experience, historical references, an analysis of what witchcraft really is, and lots of lots of laugh-inducing stories. I tossed skepticism aside and just ate it all up.

Reading this book (and probably all of the others), it’s hard not to want to want to befriend the guy (whether he’d want to befriend us back is another story). He manages to turn his (self-reported) “spectrum directed mind” and anxiety (his “default emotion”) into pure entertainment for his readers. I’d really like to have him over for dinner.

Pretty much every line is a quotable quote, but here are a few of my favs:

“Once we pull into the driveway, I know right away: this house is a vampire. It will want all our neck blood and then the blood of our unborn parallel universe children.”

“I’ve always been incredibly socially awkward. Autism runs in the family like detached earlobes. I obviously got sprinkled with enough of it to make me come across as a horrible snob. I wish there were more opportunities to turn this to my advantage, but so far, no luck.”

“I feel off atrocious news stores the way most people today consume kale. Nutrition comes from abductions, electrocutions, capsized boats, and freeway pileups.”

“Every sound of dropping signals water penetration. I wish I could be injected with ape tranquilizers.”

“Being plunged into the colonial era is informative. I learn that my mental health and stability is directly proportionate to the mount of charge on my phone.”

“Back in 1990, the internet was made of paper and it wasn’t called the internet, it was called the Village Voice.”

“It is moving day and we are already an episode of Hoarders.”

Generation Friends by Saul Austerlitz (Entertainment Industry)

A fun read for those of us who are big Friends fans (and apparently there are a lot of us). I’m not a big TV person — I don’t have cable, and usually just watch a single movie on DVD at night — but I loved Friends, owned all the DVDs, and it was definitely my go to in times of stress. I just never realized how popular it was with everyone else.

The book tracks the show from concept through the ten seasons to the offshoots, residuals, and “where are they now” recaps. Decent (and sometimes excellent) writing, a good structure, and comprehensive in scope, it has just the right amount of gossip and mixes plenty of pleasant recognition with surprisingly fresh insights. I also learned a lot about the making of TV — scheduling, showrunners, production companies vs networks, bidding wars, contract negotiations and some fascinating explanations of what went into the set and costume design.

I liked the first half better — the second half included a lot of bits that needed to be included to be complete but weren’t terribly interesting to me — one female writer’s hostile workplace suit, Matthew Perry’s addiction issues, etc. I didn’t always agree with the author’s conclusions, and sometimes felt there was too much episode recap, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed myself and learned a lot about how things work in an industry far away from my own.

Some fun quotes:
“Chase and Ungerleider had emerged from the same bookish East Coast Jewish milieu as Kauffman and Crane. Chase knew he could instantly summon that overly caffeinated, verbose, linguistically tricky voice.”

“Journalists pored over the results with the nuance of elderly Talmudists, intent on parsing the meaning of the message being sent by the American moviegoing populace.”

“Neither Crane nor Kauffman was familiar with the term going commando, but when the entire staff urged them to include it, asserting that their audience would instantly understand the reference, they acceded. (Eventually, the Oxford English Dictionary would credit Friends with one of the earliest recorded usages of the term.)”

“The world of Friends is notable, to modern eyes,” wrote New York’s Sternergh, “for what it encompasses about being young and single and carefree in the city but also for what it doesn’t encompass: social media, smartphones, student debt the sexual politics of Tinder, moving back in with your parents as a matter of course, and a national mood that vacillates between anxiety and defeatism.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper (Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Loved this book!

Andrew Smith works in Death Administration. His unenviable (and often malodorous) job: property inspections of the recently deceased to find funds or friends to help the local council escape paying for the obligatory “Public Health Funeral.” He feels compassion for those dying in such lonely ways — possibly because he is heading that way himself. His own social connections consist of a distant sister, an anonymous group of online train enthusiasts, and a very comforting, but completely imaginary, wife and children. When he has a chance to make a real friend, he struggles with how to extricate himself from this long-lived and thoroughly detailed fabrication.

This is a feel-good book about friendship, connection, and how people get lost … and found again. Effortlessly great writing (at least it appears effortless). I particularly enjoyed the ambient social commentary and the interactions between good characters.

One of the few books compared to Eleanor Oliphant that actually deserves the comparison.
A few writing samples:
“He’d thought having only just turned forty-two he’d have a few more years before he began accompanying minor physical tasks by making odd noises, but it seemed to be the universe’s gentle way of telling him that he was now officially heading toward middle age.”

“Andrew could think of many things he’d rather be doing that evening — most of them involving his testicles, some jam and some aggrieved hornets — but he suddenly felt a rather strong urge not to disappoint Peggy.”

“When it came to model trains, one of the most satisfying simple things Andrew had learned was that the more you ran a locomotive, the better it performed. With repeated use, an engine starts to glide around the track, seeming to grow in efficiency with every circuit. When it came to making connections with people, however, he was less of a smoothly running locomotive and more a rail replacement bus rusting in a rest stop.”

“After said shunt finally materialized, Andrew and Peggy hauled their bags off the train along with a few hundred other passengers traveling back that Saturday whose phasers were all set to “grumble,” only to be elevated to “strongly worded letter” when they were told it would be forty minutes before a replacement train could get there.”

“His shoes were well-polished but starting to look worn. Too many nicks from churchyard gravel, too many times the leather had strained where he’d curled his toes at a vicar’s verbal stumble.”

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (Humorous Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

Lillian Breaker has a huge chip on her shoulder about rich people, but when the beautiful and very wealthy Madison Roberts springs up out of her distant and checkered past asking for help, Lillian goes running. The job? To care for Madison’s husband’s children from a previous marriage. Sounds simple enough except for the minor detail that these children spontaneously burst into flame when upset. While they are completely unharmed by the fire, everything around them, including their clothing, is torched. And an additional detail — Madison’s husband Jasper is a U.S. senator under consideration for Secretary of State, so discretion is critical.

What sounds like a silly premise is actually a cover for an intriguing, humorous, and psychologically interesting book. Lillian is an angry, bitter, person who insists on seeing the worst in people (and usually doesn’t have to look far to find it). The children’s fire bursts are an external manifestation of a toxicity that Lillian feels internally. As she helps the children deal with their own anger and bitterness towards the hypocritical, self-serving man who is ostensibly their father, she also gains a deeper understanding of herself.

Hugely enjoyable. The writing is excellent — tight, sardonic, and hugely streaked with wit. I found it much better than I expected from the marketing blurb and now plan to go back and read one of his previous novels — I’ll start with The Family Fang.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 5th, 2019.

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (Fiction)

Characters: 3 Story: 4 Writing: 5

Another wild ride from Lisa Lutz. The setting: pervasive sexual harassment at a New England prep school and the girls who decide not to put up with it any longer. The boys at Stonebridge have a long standing practice of ranking the girls’ sexual prowess on a secret web site. It’s been going on for years, handed from one head boy to the next and tacitly approved by an administration that seems to know all about it.

Alternating between four first-person perspectives, Lutz’ hysterical and sardonic writing puts us in the heads of four characters: Ms. Witt, a new teacher who is appalled by what she sees (and who feels like my favorite — Izzy Spellman — with a new name and career); Mr. Ford, a long-time teacher who is writing a novel based on the school; Gemma Russo, a scholarship student hiding her background from the others; and Norman Crowley, the weak, guilt ridden, webmaster who supports the secret website even though he hates everything about it. Lots of other fun characters — newby Linny who takes matters into her on hands in delightfully inventive ways; Claudine Shepherd the bitter librarian; Martha Primm, the world’s worst guidance counselor; and Greg Stinson, the well-meaning but completely inadequate Dean of Students.

The female characters are well-developed; the male characters are stereotypes — like the old madonna / whore dichotomy, the men in this book are either evil or weak and ineffectual. I did enjoy one section where Gemma tells Jonah (one of the weak and ineffectual variety) that he is sweet — maybe too sweet. He responds that it is hard to know how to be a guy and that he was always confused. A small tip of the hat to how the new “norms” of behavior can be difficult and confusing for men. Ms. Witt takes the education of the girls in hand when she creates the Blowchart — a cartoonish flowchart that helps a girl understand when she should give a guy a blowjob (spoiler alert: the chart leads to “No” a lot more often than it leads to “Yes”). I have no doubt that this graphic will spread rapidly on the web once the book is published.

It’s over the top and lots of fun to read, if not totally plausible. Plenty of good messages exhorting girls to take matters into their own hands and not succumb to pressure or tradition.

Great quotes:
“The young may have a better excuse for cruelty, but they are no less capable of it.”

“I have a visceral memory of our fight to the death over the title. It feels like a migraine in my solar plexus.”

“She got up close to the coffeepot and was watching the drip, like a kid staring at her pet goldfish.”

“I also have a few strong and well-documented theories associating personality disorders with specific tie knots.”

“He looked exactly like I thought he would. Shaggy blond hair, skinny, with Mr Potato Head lips and a nose that should have been on a girl.”

“Having a marginally intelligent teenager regard you with superiority can put a man into a deep psychological trough.”

“Some people count sheep. What finally sent me to sleep was cycling through possible job alternatives in alphabetical order. For soporific purposes, you can’t leave anything off the table. I fell asleep sometime after carpet installer”

“Shame is cunning. Even if it doesn’t come from a rational place, it sticks. But that doesn’t mean it’s real.”

“You can keep telling girls to be polite, to keep a level head and it’ll all work out in the end. But don’t be surprised when they figure out that you’ve been feeding them lies. Don’t be alarmed when they grow tired of using their own voices and playing by your rules. And don’t be shocked when they decide that if they can’t win a fair fight, they’ll just have to find another way.”