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.

Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Atria Books 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.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 2/5 Characters: 3/5

Cate is a single, forty-something, lesbian, set designer in Chicago whose friends and colleagues have largely moved on. It is 2016 — Cate’s ultra-paranoid, thrice divorced, ex-husband is shacking up in her extra room; she is struggling to end an ongoing affair with a married woman; and a new girlfriend she sees as her best shot at adult stability is exhibiting questionable ethical behavior. In this setting she simultaneously experiences the “worst event and biggest break”: she rescues a friend during a violent and traumatic home invasion and is offered the chance to work on an exciting off-broadway play.

The book is beautifully written and the characters (especially Cate) are portrayed with great depth. While being a lesbian is not the point of the book, Cate’s queerness (her selection of term) informs a great deal of her thoughts and actions. There is not a lot of action — the home invasion takes place about half way through the book and itself takes up few pages. Instead, it is a thorough portrayal of her life — thoughts, actions, interactions, and world events — during a few months late 2016 / early 2017. I appreciated the scenes about her theater work (I wish there had been more) and the writing is really excellent, but for me there was not enough insight or character change to warrant the book length (without any compensating action). Things moved on in a very slow-paced, realistic, and ultimately unsatisfying, way. I found Cate to be a weak character, still struggling with the same issues (all completely under her own control) at the end of the book as at the beginning.

This book does have great lines — here are a few:

“Living casually in the moment seemed so vibrant, but has left her looking over her shoulder at a pile of used-up hours and days, hearing the scratchy sound of frittering.”

“She has come to understand that room temperature in the demographic she aspires to is a more personally controlled business.”

“The other customers exist somewhere else on the dining matrix, all of them in parallel, convivial but hushed universes.”

“Now, though, the cat’s out of the bag. Now the cat is hopping all over the place, demanding attention.”

“A heavy, standing ashtray is surrounded by a population of emphysemic ghosts.”

“Something delicious about all the secrecy. Now everything’s so in the open, we’re free from fear and oppression, but we’ve traded up for being commonplace. Queer’s as boring as straight now.

“She understand she has arrived on another side of everything. No one is over here with her.”

“Everything about him is aimed at the greater good, but in matters of personal kindness, he often comes up short.

“Her thoughts these days are not her friends. Which doesn’t keep them from stopping by, particularly at night when she is too tired to fight them off.”

Circe by Madeline Miller (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5

A surprisingly engrossing page turner that brings to life the stories of antiquity in a new genre of fictionalized mythology. Circe is a sorceress featured in multiple classic texts including the well-known Homer’s Odyssey. Miller has woven together all references into a gripping narrative that embeds many well-known stories (Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece, etc.) She is astonishingly accurate in her mythology — I was constantly checking some of the stories and always found them documented in some old text — but Miller has brought them to life with a more modern sensibility on the part of Circe herself.

At first I thought this was an “anti-man” book as there were so many scenes of men as raping, pillaging, murdering, beasts, but then I realized that most of the women were pretty awful too: power hungry, scheming, nasty, and cruel. This book will be a big hit with the Games of Thrones crowd. She embedded a different perspective on what had been considered “heroic” literature, allowing the characters (Circe, Penelope, and Telemachus in this case) to question what kind of man Odysseus really was and whether he should actually be considered heroic. All done without getting preachy or pushing an agenda. Also included was a philosophical discourse on the nature of mortality, change, and loneliness.

The writing is excellent — lyrical prose painting vivid mythological portraits of the gods with insight into their motivations and inner world. For example, when her father, Helios the sun god, leaves a place Circe thinks: “Of course he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.”

Good story, compelling writing, and food for thought all in one.

Some good lines:

“I have seen her do a thousand such tricks a thousand times. My father always fell for them. He believed the world’s natural order was to please him.”

“Yet they were both Titans and preferred each other’s company to those new-squeaking gods upon Olympus who had not seen the making of the world.”

“It made me dizzy to realize that this was but a fraction of a fraction of all the men the world had bred. How could such variation endure, such endless iteration of minds and faces? Did the earth not go mad?”

“The revulsion was plain on her face. Once when I was young I asked what mortals looked like. My father said, “You may say they are shaped like us, but only as the worm is shaped like the whale.” My mother had been simpler: like savage bags of rotten flesh.”

“This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters”

“The closest we come is weaving or smithing, but these things are skills and there is no drudgery to them since all the parts that might be unpleasant are taken away with power. The wool is dyed not with stinking vats and stirring spoons, but with a snap. There is no tedious mining, the ores leap willing from the mountain.”

“I had scarcely known true intelligence — I had spoken to Prometheus for only a moment, and in all the rest of Oceanos’ halls most of what passed for as cleverness was only archness and spite. Hermes’ mind was a thousand times sharper and more swift.”

“He did not thank Medea for her aid; he scarcely looked at her. As if a demigoddess saving him at every turn was only his due.”

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

A family drama told largely through recollection in a loosely ordered, but well-timed set of memories. Danny tells the story — full of recognition of his then-obliviousness — of himself, his older sister Maeve, and their sometimes senseless path through life. Much of the story centers around the Dutch House — the outrageously lavish estate purchased by their newly-minted real estate mogul father at the end of WWII) — which purchase begins the unraveling of their family.

I’m a big Ann Patchett fan — her insight into character and how it is expressed and molded by events and situations is incomparable. While sometimes frustrating in the cluelessness of characters (as seen from our safe reader’s perch) and lack of closure, the story is ultimately a realistic portrayal of the way lives and relationships evolve and what we do and don’t learn from the path. It’s one of those books that gets even better the more you think about it after reading, although to be honest it is not one of my favorite Patchetts.

Thank you to Harper Collins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 24th, 2019.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 5

11 year-old Reuben was born to witness. Coming into the world with troublesome lungs, his father called him to life after the doctors had long given him up for dead. In this book, he bears witness to the events in Roofing, Minnesota that cause his elder brother, Davy, to shoot two boys dead; Davy’s subsequent escape from prison; and the long search that Reuben, his father, Jeremiah, and younger sister, Swede, take looking for him.

Beautiful descriptions of a harsh landscape that yet evokes “home” to our characters and a moral undertone that is never preachy and yet fully covers each individual’s worried contemplation of the situation. Well-drawn and intimate characters — Jeremiah has a special relationship with God and performs miracles that only Reuben seems to see; Swede has an off-the-charts imagination and bangs away at her typewriter working her ideas into narratives and poetry; Roxanna Crawley runs a gas station in a remote town and is big, warm, and has possession of an astonishingly large vocabulary; and Andreesen — the “putrid fed” — chases Davy, but is slowly revealed to be honorable and compassionate.

I had some trouble getting started with this book. The first third — taking us through Davy’s escape — was slow, stressful, and full of (what felt to me as) injustice. I didn’t like it at all but kept plugging away as I was reading it for a book club. Then it simply took off into something wonderful. It’s rare that I read a book with that kind of composition (probably because I give up too soon) but I recommend skimming if necessary to get to the good part.

Good for fans of Ivan Doig or Markus Zusak.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (Historical Fiction)

A slow-paced, deeply interior book about love, marriage, and faith. It follows a linear progression through the lives of four individuals, two marriages, and a forty-year shared ministry.

The real center of the book is the place of God in people’s lives. Each character has his or her own relationship (or lack thereof) with God: Charles knows absolutely that there is a God and that he has a calling to the ministry; his wife Lily is equally certain that there is no God and has no affinity with the tasks expected of a minister’s wife, preferring an academic life. Nan is a minister’s daughter and has never questioned her faith; James is not religious and has doubts about God, but feels the ministry would be a good platform for his drive towards social justice.

As each character grows into his or her life and faces difficulties both large and small, God is at the center of many thoughts and actions and is present on most pages. This was surprisingly non-repetitious, and the arguments, discussions, reflections, and historical references were balanced and intriguing, even to someone like myself who has no interest in religion.

The characters are all very earnest — even in their doubt and questioning, there is no cynicism (or any humor which I’m now realizing is often predicated on cynicism). It was somewhat refreshing and made me realize how very cynical the world feels today and how it wasn’t always that way.

The prose is beautiful, though at times over wrought. It is a philosophical and reflective look at life and marriage and documents the details of a healthy approach to personal growth — listening, discussing, reflecting, and resolution.

I was initially quite put off by the number of references to God and faith — it really isn’t my thing — but I found myself quite taken by the four individuals and their personal quests for understanding and a fulfilling life. I learned quite a bit more than I expected.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 13th, 2019.

The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman (Fiction)

Plot: 5 Characters: 4.5 Writing: 4

A taut thriller and (ultimately heart warming) family drama all in one.

Alice and 10-year old Oren are running away from an abusive man. A call to a hotline sends them to Delphi, NY where they are taken in by Mattie. Mattie is a spinster living in a decaying mansion who puts all of her time, energy, and money into The Sanctuary. Alice is highly suspicious of all do-gooders; Oren is a boy who seems to always know things he shouldn’t.

I’d forgotten how much I like Carol Goodman — she is a fantastic writer. The story is paced perfectly, with completely unpredictable twists and turns. No cliches or stereotypes (with one exception — see below)! The story of domestic abuse, the social structures and people who try to help, and the attitudes and interactions of the participants have depth and variety. I liked the balanced views — not all abusive relationships are the same, not all the male characters are scumbags, and not all the social workers are competent or effective.

Big themes are woven throughout — Justice; Vengeance; Forgiveness. Goodman has a Classics background and that figures in as well — Greek mythology keeps popping up, and I particularly liked the story of Orestes, Athena, and the Furies as the introduction of the concept of Justice replacing Vengeance in the scheme of human affairs. Lastly, the feeling of a ghostly presence lends an otherworldly quality to the story.

The only part of the book that didn’t quite work for me were the two nasty, abusive men. They are the only two characters whose behavior and dialogue felt like stereotypes rather than real people. I guess Ms. Goodman really didn’t want to be in their heads any longer than necessary. However, this was an issue in only a tiny fraction of the pages. This was one of those books that is almost impossible to put down (although due to the tense nature of the story I didn’t let myself read it too close to bedtime!)

Highly recommended!

Some quotes:
“I’m a woman on the wrong side of fifty, back where she started, with no way out but one.”

“Some people look up at the night sky and see random scatter, others read stories in the chaos. That’s what I do when I adjudicate a case. I make sense out of chaos.”

“She looks up when she reaches the shelter of the porch, and there’s so much anger and resentment in her eyes that I flinch, I’ve seen that look in abused women, that look that doesn’t just expect the next blow but says, I know I deserve it. But I’ve never gotten used to it, or liked how it made me feel, that little split-second flicker of Maybe you do.”

“But at some point I catch a satisfied smile on Oren’s face and realize that here is a child who takes on the weight of the emotions around him by playing the peacemaker.”