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.”

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 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.”

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Story: 3.5/5 Historical depiction: 5/5

In 1933, Violet Speedwell is one of the many “surplus” women — women for whom there simply are no men, WWI having depleted the stores. This quiet, slow-paced, and yet utterly engrossing novel follows the 38-year old Violet as she slowly makes an independent life for herself without the availability of traditional options.

Leaving her home in Southampton and her embittered and critical mother, she takes a low-paid typing job and a room in a boarding house in nearby Winchester. It is there that she becomes drawn into the community of Cathedral Broderers who have taken on the task of producing the Cathedral embroideries (360 kneelers, 62 stall cushions and 96 alms bags). I am in no way “crafty,” but I found the description of the entire effort, from overall design, to process, to individual effort to be fascinating. As one of the volunteers (also a Latin teacher) says, “sic parvis magna — from small things, greatness,” commenting that these may be the only mark they are able to make on the world. I liked the fact that the lives described may have been “small” by modern dramatic standards, but were rich and full of meaning to those who lived them.

There is more: early forays into independence; friendships with other women who have not made conventional choices; beautiful descriptions of the natural beauty of the region; and some utterly fascinating descriptions of bell-ringing (did you know that in campanology (bell ringing) a “Peal” is a pattern of bell ringing that goes through 5,000 changes without stopping and can take over three hours? I did not. Don’t forget — each bell is pulled at the precise time by an actual human being.)

Excellent historical fiction based on real events and organizations and beautiful writing that stays true to the mores and habits of the period.

Thank you to Viking 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.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

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

Great adventure story! Love, betrayal, and a panoply of creatures, cultures, and “magical” objects that leak through Doors: the thin boundaries between our world and innumerable others.

Our heroine is January Scaller, and the time is ~1900. January is a motherless child of indeterminate color who lives with her father’s employer, the kindly and wealthy Mr. Locke. By comparison, January is told she is “quite improper, willful and temerarious” — temerarious quickly becomes her favorite word :-). However, no thing or person is exactly what they seem in this deliciously complex story that weaves together intricate stories across time and multi-world space.

The Doors represent Change — as January’s father explains it: “Doors are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned… Without doors the worlds would grow stagnant, calcified and storyless.” But not everyone is enamored of the “change” the Doors represent, and someone or something is working hard to close them all down, ostensibly to maintain order and bring Progress and Prosperity to our world (but mostly benefiting themselves).

A number of memorable characters step in to help or hinder including: Mr. Locke and his slightly unsettling Archeological Society; Samuel Zappia, January’s only “non-fictional friend;” Jane Irimu, sent from East Africa by way of a predatory Leopard people world by January’s father; and Adelaide Lee Larson “ born of poor luck and poverty and raised by ignorance and solitude,” whose epic love story begins when she meets a ghost boy in an empty field at 15.

Speculative fiction is often used a vehicle for discussing difficult topics through the guise of “other worlds,” and this book is a thinly veiled portrayal of the perception of Change as necessary (liberals) or as something to be feared (conservatives). While I personally favor liberal policies, I don’t appreciate the over simplified and highly stereotyped cabal of rich, white, men that are literally out to rape, pillage, and destroy the happiness and life potential of everyone else. Well-written fiction can feel so real that it is easy for stereotypes like this to be perpetuated without the reader’s conscious awareness. So … great writing and a tremendous girl-power adventure — but a little heavy handed on the definition of the “bad guys” for me.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

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

Olive Kitteridge — gruff, direct, honest and with absolutely no patience for pretense or pretentiousness. Some people love Olive for just this reason — many others consider her a rude “old bag”.  I love the fact that Olive — in her late seventies now — continues to have epiphanies about herself and her life.

The book is a collection of snapshots of life in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Some are centered on Olive herself, but in others she plays only a peripheral, though impactful, role. Ranging in age from middle school to elderly and incorporating contextual situations such as drug use, sexual harassment, suicide, Somali immigration, and even the value provided by a dominatrix (!) — the stories are full of introspection and reflection. They are more about how people absorb experiences into their own perspective, rather than the experiences themselves.

Strout is the master of the imperfect relationship — no closure, no solutions — just the reality of evolving relationships with ups and downs and fresh interior “ahas” rather than the drama of abrupt discovery via loud confrontation.

For those who loved Strout’s 2008 work Olive Kitteridge, Olive,Again takes up where the latter leaves off, covering the next decade of Olive’s life (it’s not necessary to read the first book, this one stands up well on its own). It’s a fascinating look at life from the perspective of old age, and while there is loss and plenty of “old age indignities,” there is also a great sense of hope, understanding, and wisdom.
Great Quotes:
“It seemed to her she had never before completely understood how far apart human experience was.”

“And then he thought: how does one live an honest life?”

“It’s just the way it was, that’s all. People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they really felt about something”

“…and during the night they would shift, but always they were holding each other, and Jack thought of their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore — and how they hold on for dear life!”

“What frightened him was how much of his life he had lived without knowing who he was or what he was doing. It caused him to feel an inner trembling, and he could not quite find the words — for himself — to even put it exactly as he sensed it. But he sensed that he had lived his life in a way that he had not known.”

“But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish — all those hundreds of students she had taught, the girls and boys in high school she had passed in the corridor when she was a high school girl herself, the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had place before her cups of coffee — All of it gone, or about to go.”

“Because as her heart became more constricted, Henry’s heart became needier, and when he walked up behind her in the house sometimes to slip his arms around her, it was all she could do to not visibly shudder.”

“Cindy Coombs, there’s not one goddamn person in this world who doesn’t have a bad memory or two to take with them through life.”

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 October 15th, 2019.