Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman (Fiction)

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 March 3rd, 2020.

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

I wanted to like this book — I loved Dating Big Bird and Animal Husbandry — but somehow it just didn’t work for me. What was intended to be “a hilarious, heart-breaking and thought-provoking portrait of a difficult marriage, as fierce as it is funny,” for me was just a thin veneer of attempted humor over a whole lot of neurosis, pain, and sadness. Some stories are too cringe-worthy to be funny.

The book opens with dysfunctional Judy deciding to wear her dog in a baby sling. All the time. Judy is a one-time successful children’s book author who has been suffering from writer’s block for years. She now writes for a self-help website, though she is remarkably unable to help herself. Husband Gary is a self-medicating pothead who has been unable to overcome his intense anxiety and has largely given up trying. They want to divorce but can’t afford to physically separate and so cohabit the family home. And their teenage son is … a teenager. Need I say more?

Zigman writes well and the book does end on a positive note in the very last chapter, but the positive ending isn’t supported by the events and cringe-worthy character actions of the rest of the book. The bulk of the book just tracks our educated, middle-class characters as they continue to not get their act together and irresponsibly run away from their problems (to be fair, Judy really did have to face a lot of depressing things, but I didn’t feel the novel really covered how she handled these things). I’m not a fan of dysfunction – we all have our problems and we all do things we regret — but I’d rather read about how people get a grip and turn things around — not about how they continue to screw up.

A Roomful of Bones by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Number four in the Ruth Galloway series — they just get better and better. The whole series has great characters, good writing, and intricate plots. Each installment includes some new piece of history and plenty of character banter on current social topics.

This story includes the surprising contents of of a medieval Abbott’s coffin, a drug ring with a creative transport mechanism, the push to repatriate a collection of Aboriginial bones, and of course, a couple of mysterious deaths. The regulars — now single-mom forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway, the gruff and somewhat tormented DCI Nelson, and the intuitive Druid Cathbad — are joined by an Aboriginal visiting scholar, a trans local expert on Bishop Augustine, and the Lord who owns the local museum and racing stables.

Fast, engaging, read. I’ve already ordered number five.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (Fantasy / Literary Fiction)

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

A compelling and intricate urban fantasy that explores the myriad ways stories pervade our lives. The narrative is “gamer style” — space and time gateways, bizarre characters and messages, and mysterious options for the traveler. Theatric and literary references abound — and there is no filler — every sentence counts in this elaborate and labyrinthine tale.

Our main character is Zachary Ezra Rawlins — two months shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, the son of a fortune-teller, and a graduate student doing a thesis on gender and narrative in gaming. He is gay (or as his friend Kat says, “orientationally unavailable”) and a nice love story forms a narrative arc through the adventures, intrigues, and quests in the book.

It’s all story — no real messages, the characters are all interesting though not terribly deep (they are all seeking purpose — who isn’t?). The world is fascinating, the pacing is perfect, and the writing flows. Great for fans of Harrow’s Ten Thousand Doors of January, Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and Setterfield’s Once Upon a River.

I liked the writing a lot but didn’t find a lot of specifically awesome lines — here are some quotes to give you a flavor of the writing:

“Much of it revolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia that Zachary missed his invitation to because he didn’t open a painted door when he was eleven.”

“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains an entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”

“Spiritual but not religious,” Zachary clarifies. He doesn’t say what he is thinking, which is that his church is held-breath story listening and late-night-concert ear-ringing rapture and perfect-boss fight-button pressing. That his religion is buried in the silence of freshly fallen snow, in a carefully crafted cocktail, in between the pages of a book somewhere after the beginning but before the ending.”

“He tells her about moving from place to place to place and never feeling like he ever belonged in any of them, how wherever he was he would almost always rather be someplace else, preferably somewhere fictional.”

“The pay phone next to me started ringing. Seriously. I didn’t even think those worked, I had them categorized in my mind as nostalgic street-art objects.”

“I accepted because mysterious ladies offering bourbon under the stars is very much my aesthetic.”

“Sometimes life gets weird. You can try to ignore it or you can see where weird takes you.”

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (Historical and Literary Fiction)

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 14th, 2020.

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

The best kind of historical fiction — a deep, richly painted, description of life in East Texas at the end of the Civil War. It’s an everyday adventure story — not about mythical heroes but about people trying to reclaim their lives in the chaotic aftermath of a devastating war.

Simon Boudlin — the titular fiddler — has simple goals after the war: find a piece of land, marry a woman with similar desires, and make a living with his music. But life after the Civil War is anything but simple. The novel is gritty with detail painting the turmoil of that time with a full sensory experience. While some semblance of government is trying to establish itself and put the country back together again, displaced and ruined people are scrambling to survive and make new lives. From my modern perspective life then was impossibly hard — but in this book it isn’t described in an emotional, complaining way. It just is the way it is. This is the story of people getting on with it — making their way by whatever means necessary, while still not losing their way morally.

Included are beautiful descriptions of music at the time: Simon’s lusting for new sheet music that he can’t afford, the way music draws yearning and memory from the new mash of people from disparate backgrounds, and the business side — how to get gigs, what needs to be played, and how to handle the drunks and disorderlies who insist on disrupting.

If you liked The News of the World, you’ll be just as captivated by Simon the Fiddler (in which Captain Kidd makes a surprise, cameo appearance!)

Beautiful writing that gets to essences. Some quotes:

“His worrying kept him awake. The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led.”

“So he lived in the bright strains of mountain music and the reflective, running pool of the Irish light airs that brought peace to his mind and to his audiences; peace soon forgotten, always returned to.”

“Every song had a secret inside. When he was away from shouting drunks and bartenders and sergeants and armies, he could think his way into the secret, note by note.”

“He knew that he did not play music so much as walk into it, as if into a palace of great riches, with rooms opening into other rooms, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet more mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”

“His first problem was to find a girl who would fall in love with him despite his diminutive stature and his present homelessness.”

“People always tired him, always had, always would.”

“He was ragged, a man of a defeated army and at the dinner he had played his heart out in a borrowed shirt. In short, very like the Irish.”

“So it’s dog eat dog and Devil take the hindmost. So it has been in human memory, wild places where the only law is the strength of your good right arm.” He lifted his arm and made a bony fist. “That’s how it is in all human memory. ‘Vastness and Age! and Memories of Eld!’”

“You expect the government and the diplomatic corps to proceed at some foolish breakneck pace! There are substatutes to argy over and rewrite! And meantime the politicians must be paid their stipends and their travel expenses. Become wise, young man, and cynical, and life will be far more understandable.”

Barker House by David Moloney (Fiction)

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

A set of interconnected stories as told by prison guards in New Hampshire’s Barker County Correctional Facility or “The House.” Each unfolds specific events, though the import of the story comes not from the events themselves but from what they uncover about the life of the person telling the story: a sexual attraction, a fellow officer’s suicide, a softball game between law enforcement branches, the attempted suicide of an inmate, the processing of an accused child killer, etc.

This is way outside of my comfort zone — everything I’ve ever learned about prison comes from documentaries, bad TV shows, and sensationalized news stories. I liked this book because it didn’t appear to come with any specific political agenda — the focus was far more on individual lives. And there were no real stereotypes — each guard is a distinct human being with his/her own motivations, coping mechanisms, and personal context. Some are withdrawn, some mean, some afraid. Many are dealing with their own personal issues while trying to maintain an acceptable demeanor. Not your typical adventure story, it’s all character. It also includes detailed descriptions of typical days in a correctional facility from the perspective of those who run it: the tiers, transportation, property management, and booking. I have no idea how accurate it is, but I found it fascinating and full of depth. Couldn’t put it down.

Thank you to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

A beautifully written book — a kind of delayed coming-of-age story about a naive young women from a privileged class. Shalini grows up in Bangalore with a successful businessman for a father and a manipulative depressive for a mother. After her mother dies during Shalini’s last year of college, she seeks to combat the ennui of a life without purpose by searching for a dimly remembered Kashmiri merchant — a frequent childhood visitor to her home.

As her search takes her deep into the Kashmiri conflict of the early 2000s, a parallel narrative unfolds the details of her childhood. Strong themes of cowardice and courage, misplaced love, friendship, injustice, and the impact of depression on a family weave through the story.

The writing is outstanding with deeply drawn characters and profound reflective insight dappled with (sometimes scathing) social commentary. While this ticks all my boxes, I did find the overall experience to be somewhat depressing, primarily because I didn’t like the main character. She is privileged and guilt-ridden but spends most of the book being too cowardly (her words) to really do anything about the injustice she sees. The story is her “memoir” — six years after the events — to go public about what happened. To me it felt more about her attempt to expiate guilt rather than actually draw attention to things that happened. If the purpose was to highlight atrocities that had been kept under wraps, there was far too much middle-class angst taking center stage; and if the story was about her own development, I wish she had managed to develop a little further.

Having said that, I read the whole quickly, completely immersed in a masterfully depicted world.

A few quotes:
“His whole lanky body seemed to be one nervous tic: his knees bounced, his shoulders shook, his toes curled. But his hand, I noticed, rested quietly on the bulky, complicated-looking camera beside him, as if it were an infant that drew comfort from his touch.”

“I glanced at my mother, but she was unreachable now, offering no clue. It was the single most devastating habit she had, to withdraw, to take back the thrilling gift of her joy as casually as she bestowed it.”

“Was this what made her tilt her chin back and gaze down at you with contempt and say those unfeeling things? This terrible, ungovernable anger, which threatened to sizzle a hole through her veins unless she turned around and poured it into somebody else?”

“She was smiling, but I could sense the loneliness that lay behind her smile, and I could hear, too, the entreaty in her voice, for a woman’s understanding, a woman’s sympathy. And to my lasting shame, I denied her both.”

“I had not expected to like college. I wasn’t sure why. But from the minute my parents drove away, my mother’s hair snapping in the wind, I was armored, prepared to dismiss each of my lecturers, my fellow students, to look down on all of it. I suppose it was, like so many other things, a trick I’d learned from my mother. To keep approval in reserve, to lead with mockery and distrust, for to reveal affection was to reveal weakness.”

“A manic, holy gleam in my eye, as in the eyes of hose ragged, hippie Westerners I sometimes saw around Bangalore, with bare feet and billowy clothes, matted blond dreadlocks, consecrated by their first exposure to yoga and the poor? Prayer beads around my wrist, a curly Om tattooed on my shoulder, and a cache of photos in which I smiled next to a pair of gaunt village women, to whom I would later casually refer, at dinner parties or in bed with new lovers I wished to impress? They have so little, you know, but that just means they’re more connected to the things that really matter.”

The Astonishing Life of August March by Aaron Jackson (Fiction)

August March grew up in the theater — literally. Tossed in a laundry basket at birth by an empty-headed starlet, raised by the laundress who found him, but left him in the theater at night so she could sleep, and educated by a typically vain and pompous leading man (who was the only one to know he existed), August indeed had the titular astonishing life advertised.

A fast romp through New York from the 30s to the 60s, the best parts of the book are August’s classics inspired dialog and soliloquies. He was trained in the theater (never, in fact, leaving the physical building until he was in his teens), and he behaves like a character in the dramas he observed. While the tone is light, there is a serious thread throughout — August craves family and belonging as most of us do, but has never been in a position to find it. He adapts, he survives, but it’s often a lonely existence.

I wouldn’t call the plot realistic in any sense, but who cares? Lots of fun, well written, and featuring a character who, while understandably flawed, forges a strong path through his own life.

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 April 7th, 2020.