Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Loved, loved, loved this book! It’s clever, witty, full of intra- and inter-personal insights and … it simply made me happy. Our narrator is a 26-year old writer for The Night Owls (TNO — think Saturday Night Live) whose goal is to one day write “non-condescending, ragingly feminist screenplays for romantic comedies.” The book opens with a grumpy and well depicted annoyance that her office mate — middle aged schlub writer Danny Horst — is engaged to a gorgeous and popular celebrity. Her curmudgeonly point? This could never happen if the genders were reversed. And this sets the stage for this laugh-out-loud and deeply satisfying examination of love, romance, gender stereotyping, and personal insight with plenty of grammar jokes, neuroses, soul baring and an extremely funny and yet poignant story of how she got her hamster tattoo.

It is a self-referential, Covid fueled, Romantic Comedy for our times. I always love Sittenfeld’s writing — it is clean, pointed, and intelligent (and allows her audience to engage intelligently) while never belaboring an obvious point and always remaining simultaneously funny and meaningful. I would love to see some of the SNL style skits her characters propose and the whole thing would make a great movie that would easily bear multiple rewatches. Great cast of characters.

Some great quotes — out of context and just a drop in the bucket:
“Did he realize I wasn’t yet wearing earbuds or did he not care? I suspected the latter; every day, things were said at TNO, often on camera, that would have constituted sexual harassment in any other workplace except the current White House.”

“Even with the baked-in sexism, even when I’ve barely slept. I just can’t imagine a job where I laugh more, or the people are more talented and hard-working. And to get paid to make fun of stuff that deserves to be made fun of and have this huge platform — what more could a misanthrope from Missouri wish for?”

“Another of my pet peeves is that the female characters used to all be sort of cutesy, like having flour on their nose after they baked cookies and not knowing it. And now they’re all a mess, like waking up really hungover and getting fired. I want to create characters who aren’t flawless but also aren’t ridiculous or incompetent at life.”

“Just to be clear, I do lead a life of quiet desperation. I wouldn’t want to be friends with anyone who doesn’t, or anyone who isn’t filled with ambivalence, because I assume they’d be incredibly shallow. But I’m sure I’d be ten times more quietly desperate if I were living in the suburbs with a two-car garage.”

“Aren’t we all just looking for someone to talk about everything with? Someone worth the effort of telling our stories and opinions to, whose stories and opinions we actually want to hear?”

“All of which was to say that the sketches I’d written over the years about the absurdity and arbitrariness of beauty standards for women had arisen not from my clear-eyed renunciation of them, but from my resentment at their hold on me.”

“I thought, not for the first time, that plainly expressing what you thought about fraught topics was significantly harder than writing banter between imaginary characters.”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 11th, 2023

Other People’s Houses by Abbi Waxman (Literary Fiction)

My third Waxman book — I love her combination of humor, reflection, and relatable characters. She reminds me of Anne Lamott (in her earlier, less spiritual days). Other People’s Houses focuses on a Los Angeles neighborhood — a block really — with a set of families and children brought together through proximity and friendship. Frances has become the group “designated driver” with everyone agreeing that it just makes more sense for Frances to drive the 7 kids to the various schools every morning and home in the afternoon. One fateful day when a neighbor’s child is delivered to school sans the essential toilet paper roll required for the day’s craft project, Frances drops by the house to pick it up and sees … something she really, really, wishes she hadn’t seen.

An exploration of different lifestyles brought together by the social glue of gossip, the writing is good, the characters engaging, and the dialog and reflections do a good job of presenting different viewpoints (although I can’t help feel that the author’s own viewpoint is heavily represented by Frances, and I don’t totally agree with it but… fun to think about.

I also liked the neologism (to me) of youthsplaining as in “Frances hated it when neonates lectured her about things she already understood — Youthsplaining.”

A few more fun quotes:
“The dogs followed her, wondering if this morning they would get fed in the bathroom; it paid to keep an open mind.”

“You might think that cotillion, which is basically a class where kids learn to be overly polite, to use the right fork, and where boys learn to open doors for girls, is a trivial offering, but you would be wrong. It is a fulcrum of dispute between parenting paradigms, at least in Los Angeles.”

“She pulled on the same pair of jeans she’d had on the day before and the hooded sweatshirt she found under them. Look, if they hadn’t wanted to be worn a second day they could have run away, but instead they just lay there overnight, asking for it.”

Out of Patients by Sandra Cavallo Miller (Fiction)

Story: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4/5 Enjoyment: 5/5

Norah is the tending-toward-cynical but unfailingly caring and dedicated family practice doctor in the Arizona desert. In her 50s, she thinks of retirement almost every day, but can’t get herself to pull the trigger.

With a jaded but humorous and never bitter tone, Miller brings to life the modern family doctor. Forget Marcus Welby, Norah and her colleagues are beset with endless regulations, condescending specialists, arrogant medical students, health insurance battles, and a plethora of patients who don’t always (ie hardly ever) advance their own cause. On top of this, the practice seems to be losing money despite a full waiting room, and someone is leaving nasty-notes on car windshields. Norah had to kick her do-nothing boyfriend of three years out of the house for … continuing to do nothing, and she has nearly daily calls with (possibly my favorite character) her 86-year old mother who has a crush on the elderly, but well-built mailman and gives detailed instructions on what to do if she doesn’t answer the phone (wait several days to make sure she is dead!). While too grumpy to even consider dating, Norah does come across some potential love interests — an even grumpier vet and a shy radiologist who suffers at her side during endless student admissions committee meetings .

I loved the tone, loved the characters, and appreciated the peek into a real doctor’s life by someone who a) has lived through it themselves and b) translates her knowledge into a highly self-aware and comical story. Some very interesting medical tidbits and asides as well…

Some good quotes:
“To give your life more purpose, for what that’s worth. I’m not sure anyone has ever convincingly proved that human life actually has a purpose. Evolution just does its thing. Sunrise, sunset.”

“I guess when your spirit pales to a washed-out shadow, you grow tentative.”

“Once upon a time we became physicians, but now we also must perform as secretaries and transcriptionists and file clerks and coding authorities and billing experts ad regulations enforcers.”

“And I wondered how anyone can eat baloney, that mash of pig snouts and ears and genitals. You can feel gritty little bits of bone.”

“That made me sad, but why should it? Why should I impose my arduous overdrive, my endless quests, on a quietly contented person?”

“No, apparently my ego needed to analyze and try to fix them. Make a difference in their lives. Maybe I worried that my failure with Grace, a previous student, might repeat itself. I may have mentioned how doctors often obsess about doing things right.”

“Nobody listens. Sometimes I feel like a tiny squeaky voice in a wind tunnel, about to be blown away.”

“And even before I say this next sentence, I’m aware it isn’t fair, because I know tons of great physician men, smart and intuitive, generous and wise. But between Jeremy Newell and Carter Billings, I’d drink my fill of medical males that day.”

“A long afternoon, but mostly rewarding. Nothing easy, nothing cut and dried. Everyone needed to talk. Mostly good patients, all with real problems. No one surly or defiant, no one acting like I owed them good health because they demanded it, no matter how unwilling they might be to earn it. Every now and then those petulant people stayed home and I felt in my element, listening, sorting, treating. Come on, Norah, I told myself, settling in with my charts after everyone had gone.”

“What would fix me would be better healthcare systems, not spending hours grappling with a convoluted computer program. Where I got more than ten minutes with an addict. Consistent medical billing and affordable insulin. Free insulin, Where medical students didn’t lose their glittering idealism in a few short years, while a handful of ego-besotted attending physicians badgered them into despondency. Until some students lost themselves under the crushing demise of their dream. The statistics on physician suicide are dreadful — every day, at least one physician or medical student is lost forever. What an unforgivable waste.”

Thank you to University of Nevada Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 16th, 2022.

The Shop on Royal Street by Karen White (Mystery / Fiction)

I love Karen White’s Tradd Street series — ghosts, mysteries, and the kind of characters you’d want to befriend (while simultaneously being tempted to wring their little high maintenance necks at times). This book is the first in a spin-off series about Nola Trenholm (step daughter of Tradd Street’s protagonist) who is setting up shop on her own in the Big Easy (where I am conveniently visiting atm for the first jazz fest in three years — hooray!)

Nola buys an historic fixer-upper that comes complete with dissatisfied spirits, a long festering mystery and plenty of architectural pearls.

Well-written and plenty of fun. High in puzzle solving but low in stress.

The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5


Very engaging story about Isabel Cooper — a crack codebreaker serving in Hawaii during WWII. While the plot is a little clunky, the writing draws you in, the characters are wonderful, and the descriptions of Hawaii, code breakers, and smart women playing chess were well done and lots of fun. I thought the author did a decent job of portraying intelligent, working women at the time: no heavy handed agenda — just women getting along as well as they could (and that was pretty well!) given their situation. Decent male characters as well. Romance and an a multi-generational mystery thrown in. Very Enjoyable.

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 2nd, 2022.

For the Love of the Bard by Jessica Martin (Rom-com)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5
A delightful rom-com immersed in all things Shakespeare. Miranda Barnes — literary agent and anonymous author of the fantastically popular YA series Elf Shot — heads home to Bard’s Rest to finish her next book amidst fan outrage at the ending of the previous installment. Privacy and quiet do not appear on the horizon, however, as she is roped into directing one play at the annual Shakespeare festival, mentoring a teen director on another, and serving on the well-functioning (ha!) festival steering committee.

While fairly predictable and not terribly realistic (but what rom com is?), it is laugh out loud funny and wins major points for continual snappy banter and quirky gotta-love-them characters. Plenty of enjoyable detail about the town of Bard’s Rest, its Shakespearean themed shops (e.g. Tempest Tossed Pizza), and the sausage making stagecraft involved in simultaneous theater productions.

Requisite LGBQT… characters included.

Very enjoyable read.

Fun quotes (the last one is the best!):
“You put gold leaf on a truffle. You sped past too much hours ago and blew it an air kiss.”

“It’d been a while since I’d seen Bunny, but she still had that look of someone who’s decided that the FDA wasn’t credible when it came to sunscreen. She reminded me of those mango chews that Portia snacked on — orange and leathery and completely dehydrated.”

“She writes a series called Elf Shot — it’s basically a call to arms for the women of this generation to not settle for the status quo and rise up to change it.”

“I was just going to have to pretend like I hadn’t committed outdoor frottage with Adam while I sat here with a pair of teenagers who were bloodhounds at sniffing that kind of thing.”

“Took me forever to suture it because he kept batting me with his paw as if to say, ‘Hurry it up, human. The backyard isn’t going to patrol itself.’”

“My traitorous id emerged from a cave worthy of Grendel to spin visuals involving Adam’s hands.”

“More importantly, I don’t want you dating the emotional equivalent of Splenda because you think that’s all you deserve.”

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 28th, 2022.

The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth (audio book)

Once their mother heads to the nursing home with an advanced case of early onset Alzheimers, sisters Tully and Rachel are shocked to find their father planning to marry a (much) younger woman — Heather. That is the basic premise of this family drama, but what starts as one kind of story rapidly turns into something else. Or does it? Rotating narration among the three girls, what emerges is gripping, surprising, and a little insidious. The chapters for each woman are narrated by a different reader, and they are all good (lovely Australian accents for those of us who like that kind of thing).

Good writing, lots of character depth, and plenty of slowly creeping plot twists.

Great for fans of Liane Moriarity.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 12th, 2022.

Out of the Clear Blue Sky by Kristan Higgins (Women’s Fiction)

A real feel good book with a surprising amount of depth and plenty of trademark Higgins humor. The book opens with our protagonist — forty-something midwife Lillie — sneaking a live skunk into the cozy love nest of her recently ex-husband Brad and his new bride — the younger, more gorgeous, home wrecker Melissa. How can you not want to continue? Taking place in Cape Cod during the winter, the story features Portuegese fishermen (one “as chatty as a barnacle”), lesbian couples, and the spirits of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis urging our heroine in different directions vis-a-vis her issues). Plenty of snark, bubbling over with a cast of close friends and gotta-love-them (or do you?) family, some dogs, and a love interest that is not at all the center of the book, but is content to develop slowly in one small corner of Lillie’s life. Some real issues addressed — date rape, self-improvement, divorce, body-image, and bullying. Also some descriptions of midwifery that were quite beautiful.

Couldn’t put it down — it was a lovely break from reality. I’ve read most of Higgins’ books, and this might be one of my favorites — right up there with Just One of the Guys.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.

The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery (Women’s Fiction)

Three women combine resources to open a combined business in a gorgeous piece of boardwalk real estate. Bree (bookstore) is walled off emotionally in a desperate attempt at self protection; Mikki (gift shop) is three years into a “friendly” divorce but is having trouble moving on; and Ashley (Muffin shop) whose boyfriend is everything she could possibly ask for, except for his tenacious anti-marriage stance.

But while their businesses are flourishing, their personal lives are not. The story comprises family history and relationships, realistic scenarios requiring improved self awareness and difficult decisions, the requisite (and utterly unrealistic but who cares) hunky but deeply sensitive and supportive men, and a special guest appearance by a vibrator named Earl.

Another fun, warm, and self-help worthy offering from Susan Mallery.

Thank you to Mira Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 31st, 2022.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Literary Fiction)

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

A retelling of Austen’s popular Pride and Prejudice: Sittenfeld did a masterful job at “modernizing” the characters while keeping their essential personalities and issues intact. (As a quick recap, one could summarize P & P as about a family with five daughters that tries to marry them off, although the book is much more interesting than that). Jane, the eldest, at 40 is trying to have a baby via artificial insemination, while Liz (#2) has been dating a married man, having been led on for decades. While Jane and Liz both live in Manhattan, they are home in Cincinnati to help care for their father who is recovering from a heart attack. It is from this setup that they meet newly local doctors Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. What follows is hysterically funny and completely engaging, including Reality TV shows, tech millionaires, Atherton estates, and — wait for it — a trans husband. My absolutely favorite part, though, oddly enough, is Mr. Bennet with his ROFL sardonic one liners.

Sittenfeld is a seriously good writer. While this review may make this sound like a light weight beach read, it really goes much deeper than that — full of the insight, reflection, and social commentary featured in the original. I guess I’m going to have get over my prejudice against modernizations because this was hilarious, fun, and a good piece of literature. Put me in a great mood for the New Year.

Quotes:
“There’s a belief that to take care of someone else, or to let someone else take care of you — that both are inherently unfeminist. I don’t agree. There’s no shame in devoting yourself to another person, as long as he devotes himself to you in return.”

“The truth, however, was that he did not seem egomaniacal to her; he seemed principled and thoughtful, and she felt a vague embarrassment that she worked for a magazine that recommended anti-aging creams to women in their twenties and he helped people who’d experienced brain trauma.”

“At the table, Caroline was on Darcy’s other side and had spent most of the meal curled toward him in conversation like a poisonous weed.”

“Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care.”

“‘Fred’, the nurse said, though they had never met. ‘How are we today?’ Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, ‘Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?’”

It occurred to Liz one day, as she waited on hold for an estimate from a yard service, that her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could not longer see, touch, or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he — they — had grown weary and inflexible.”