Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett (Literary Fiction)

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

Wonderfully fun and engaging book — one of the most creative I’ve read in a long time.

Emma was born with “The Charm” — magic hands that could heal injuries in her small New Hampshire community. But the charm appears to have deserted her as she is called back from medical school (which she never exactly started) to “heal” her rapidly declining father. As part of his degenerative brain disease, he sees things — hordes of rabbits, stray cats, and a long-dead naturalist (Ernest Harold Baynes — the real life Dr. Doolittle!) who keeps him company. You would assume these were all hallucinations but then the narrator of the book is the collective “we” of the local grave dwellers who provide occasional opinionated commentary on events. And from here it just gets weirder and more fun. Despite tackling a number of disturbing issues: the opioid crisis, degenerative brain disease, a missing person, and drastic and unintentional life plan changes, this novel is always cheerful and always fun. A highly responsible stray dog, an expensive imported Russian fox, and some pretty adorable 5th graders join the living and the dead in the cast.

Some random fun quotes:
“That’s why we like living with animals so much; they exhibit their joy so outwardly, remind us how to be better alive.”

“Emma found that Moses had ripped open a bag of flour on the couch, another way the dog was dealing with his separation anxiety: challenging himself to make messes that were increasingly difficult to vacuum up.”

“Auggie rolled his eyes toward his skull, and Emma regretted hoping Auggie could pull his life together. In fact, she didn’t care if anything good ever happened to him.”

“It was her wedding china, but she didn’t care. Her marriage wasn’t doing her any favors lately.”

“And Clive knew he was loving, really loving, when he remembered to be.”

“Nothing to be embarrassed of. Just the imperfect human body having a hard time.”

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 April 12th, 2022.

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.

Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb 5, 2019

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 3.5

Daphne Maritch inherits one thing from her recently deceased mother: a 1968 High School Yearbook with regularly updated snarky marginalia. Newly divorced and living in a postage-stamp sized apartment in New York City, she tosses the tome and focusses on her “recovery project” — a course in chocolate making. However, thoroughly obnoxious neighbor, Geneva Wisenkorn, has another plan. Purporting to be documentary film maker (her main claim to fame is a Matzoh docudrama), Geneva has latched on to the yearbook (procured through dumpster-diving) as her path to fame and fortune. Thoroughly horrified, Daphne spends the book alternating between the shocking discoveries unearthed and trying to keep those discoveries quiet. She is helped by her father — whose move to New York fulfills a life long dream — and hunky across-the-hall neighbor, Jeremy, who plays a small part in the successful series Riverdale.

Entertaining and reasonably well-written with great humor. The plot is a little thin, and the characters are a little too stereotyped for my taste. We find out at the end that it’s really a (happy) love story though it doesn’t read that way from the start. I would have been a little happier if our heroine found something she actually wanted to do with her life rather than just find a boyfriend … but that was not to be.