Honestly, We Meant Well, by Grant Ginder****

“All art is appropriation.”

Sue Ellen Wright is a professor of Greek classics; she’s headed for Greece to deliver lectures and reminisce about the experiences of her youth. At the last minute, her philandering husband Dean and the couple’s lovesick son Will decide to tag along. Grant Ginder has made a career of writing hilarious prose about disastrous families, and Honestly, We Meant Well made me laugh out loud more than once.  Thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The book opens as Sue Ellen is conferring with a freshman who’s come to her office to challenge his midterm exam score:

“’I’m pretty sure I got this one right.’

“Connor points to a picture on his midterm…it’s an artifact that he was meant to identify.

“’That’s not a bong, Connor. That’s a Corinthian urn from the fifth century B.C.E…’

“But can’t you see how it could have been a bong?’

“’No,’ Sue Ellen says, ‘Actually, I can’t.’”

Teachers, are you experiencing flashbacks here? And those of you that aren’t teachers can appreciate that Sue Ellen needs a break, one that takes her as far away as possible. Her bags are packed.

Dean is a professor as well, and he’s a celebrated one. As the writer of a bestselling novel, The Light of Our Shadows, he is permitted to cherry-pick which students may enroll in his seminars. He knows he ought not to have sex with any of them, but they’re so insistent; and why shouldn’t they be? He’s a genius. At the moment, though, he’s a genius with writer’s block, and he thinks a Grecian holiday might just be what he needs; it will strengthen his marriage and get his creative juices flowing as well.

Will is a student, but who can chart a course, academic or otherwise, when his heart has been shattered? His boyfriend broke up with him and has instantly turned up on Instagram with kissy-face photos of himself with his new squeeze. It’s humiliating. It’s horrifying. Worse: everyone is liking those photos. Meanwhile, he has committed an unforgivable academic sin, one he’s desperate to keep his parents from learning.

Ginny Polonsky works at the university, and she knows where the bodies are buried. Readers know what Ginny knows—well, most of it anyway—and as the family unknits itself and copes with one unforeseen event after another, we are waiting for Ginny’s other shoe to drop on them. It’s immensely satisfying when it does.

There’s not a lot of character development here, but not much is needed. I believe each of these characters, which are written with admirable consistency. The prose is tight and the resolution surprises me. I would read this author again in a heartbeat.

The Wrights are Caucasian and middle class, and this is the demographic most likely to enjoy this book. It’s just the thing to toss into your suitcase or carry on when you’re headed on a trip of your own.

Nanaville, by Anna Quindlen*****

Author Anna Quindlen is queen of all things warm and wise, and so it’s not surprising that her ode to grandmothering  hits just the right note.  I was lucky and read it free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it would have been worth the purchase price had it come down to it. This friendly little book is available to the public now.

Quindlen’s memoir can double as a primer for her peers that are new grandparents also, but that’s not where its greatest strength is found. The most resonant aspect is that common chord, the eloquence with which she gives voice to our common experience. It makes me feel as if she and I are sitting together with our baby pictures—the grandbabies and our children that created them—and as she speaks, I am saying, “I know, right?” I chuckle as she recounts trends in the advice given by experts to new parents:  when our first babies were born, we were told to put them to bed on their stomachs so they wouldn’t spit up and choke to death on it; then later children slept on their sides, which seems like a safe bet either way, but babies don’t stay on their sides very long; and now babies are supposed to be safer on their backs. And she voices so well the pride we feel when an adult that we have parented turns into a wonderful parent in his own right. And I nod in agreement as she says of her toddler grandson, “No one else has sounded that happy to see me in many, many years.”

Quindlen speaks well to the ambivalent moments as well, to the need to hold our tongues when we want to offer advice that hasn’t been requested; at the same time, there’s the relief that comes of not being in charge of all the big decisions.  And I echo the outrage that she feels when some ignorant asshole suggests that our biracial grandchild is not part of our blood and bones. (A jerk in Baby Gap wants to know where she got him; she replies that she found him at Whole Foods.)

Unequivocally joyful is the legacy grandchildren present. “I am building a memory out of spare parts…someday that memory will be all that’s left of me.”

And then, there are the books:

“’In the great green room…’

“’Mouse,’ Arthur says.

“’There is a mouse,’ I say…falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.”

Go ahead. Read it with dry eyes. I dare you.

Quindlen is writing for her peers. If you aren’t a grandparent and don’t expect to become one anytime soon (or perhaps at all,) then this memoir will probably not be a magical experience for you. But the title and book jacket make it clear exactly where she is going, and I am delighted to go with her.

Highly recommended to grandparents, and to those on the cusp.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman*****

This quixotic little book had me at hello. Set in Australia in the 1960s, it tells a story of love, loss, and redemption in a way that I’ve never seen anywhere from anybody. I’ve finished reading other books since I finished this one, and yet I am still thinking about Tom Hope.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy. It will be available to the public April 9, 2019.

At the outset, Tom’s last name seems cruelly ironic, because the guy can’t seem to catch a break. Trudy, his perpetually dissatisfied wife, up and leaves him with no warning and no discussion. Just takes off. Tom is heartsick, but a ranch is still a ranch, and so he woodenly goes through all of the tasks—milk the cow, herd the woolies—that must be done. He is such a sad fellow, and he berates himself for not having done more to make that woman happy and comfortable. The ranch is not long on frills; an indoor shower would be nice, and a big old bathtub would be even better.

He actually makes lists.

 But then one day Trudy comes back. She’s been gone for a whole year, and now she’s pregnant. Say what?

When Tom takes her back, I look at the things he has said and done and wonder whether he is maybe a little on the simple side. But just as the question takes hold in my mind, we hear people in town talking about him. One of them tells another that after all, Tom Hope is not a stupid man. And so again I wonder why he lets her back in the house. But he does. He welcomes her. Sssh, he says to her self-recriminations, don’t worry about it. You’re back now.

Trudy has the baby, and then Jesus calls her and she leaves again—without the baby. So there’s Tom. You can see what I mean about that last name. Hope? What good has hope done for him so far? He’s stuck raising an infant while he runs a ranch, and it’s exhausting, nearly impossible, but he adores this little boy that isn’t his, just loves him for years, right up until the time Trudy decides that Jesus has called Peter to come to the religious compound with her.

So when the flamboyant Hannah, a woman older than himself, a Hungarian immigrant, comes to town and decides she likes the looks of Tom, all I can think is, thank goodness. Let the poor man have a life post-Trudy and post-Peter. There’s nothing like a fresh start.  But Hannah comes with baggage of her own, a refugee who’s experienced the horror of Auschwitz.

Before I requested access to this novel, the Holocaust reference in the description very nearly kept me away. Younger readers less familiar with this historical war crime need to know about it. The survivors are mostly dead and gone, and there are revisionists trying to deny it, or to say that stories of it are greatly exaggerated. So yes, there’s a need for its inclusion in new literature, and yet I feel as if I have had my fill. But the other piece of it—Tom, the ranch, the child, the romance—won the day, and I am so glad I decided to go for it. And indeed, it’s not a Holocaust story; instead, we see how the horror through which Hannah has lived informs her present day choices.

So yes, Hannah is an interesting character, and the bookshop is hers, but the story is really about Tom. One heartache after another comes his way, and he deals with every single one uncomplainingly, telling those that love him that he’s fine. Really. At times I want to push my way into the pages to say to him, what the hell? Go ahead and throw some dishes or something. You are entitled to your anger. But instead, he forges stolidly on, not because he is free of pain—we can tell that he isn’t—but because there’s no use in burdening others as well. And as one violent act after another works its way into his experience, the story builds, and builds some more, and we have to wonder when he will draw the line and say, that’s it. Enough. And the way Tom develops from the outset to the end is so resonant, so believable.

This novel is one of the warmest, most affectionately told stories that I have read in a long time. It’s never mawkish or overly sentimental; Hillman strikes the perfect balance. I would read more of his work in a heartbeat, and I highly recommend it to you. If you can find it at a discount, that’s great, but if you have to pay full cover price, you won’t be disappointed.

Best Historical Fiction 2018

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Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.

 

How to Walk Away, by Katherine Center***-****

howtowalkaway3.5 stars, rounded upward.

Maggie swallows her misgivings and agrees to let her boyfriend, Chip, give her a ride in a small plane. He’s taken lessons, but doesn’t have a license yet. Naturally, he crashes. And naturally, he walks away without a scratch, but Maggie is paralyzed and burnt to a crackling crisp.

My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the DRC. This title is now for sale. I missed the release date and am sorry about that; I struggled with how to rate this title and how to review it. More on that in a minute.

Most of the story is set at a hospital, where Maggie is treated for burns and receives physical therapy to help her learn to move again. It’s painful and it’s horrible, and on top of that, nobody will let her have a mirror. Once she has one, she wishes she hadn’t looked.

“I would forever be a person that other people tried not to stare at in the grocery store. I would forever be someone who made other people uncomfortable.”

Maggie develops a crush on her physical therapist, a handsome, abrupt, unfriendly Scotsman whose poor bedside manner is surpassed only by his outstanding skill at helping Maggie learn to maneuver her body. At the same time, Chip—who for no reason I can understand, has not been arrested or cited for flying unlicensed or for stealing an airplane—goes all to pieces, turning his few hospital visits into a pity party for himself.

The story is quixotic in its combination of romance, medical information that is sometimes more detailed and gruesome than I want to read, and a beginning that is more an adventure or disaster tale than romance. 14% of the way in I flipped back to the cover, the tiny, almost unnoticeable plane flanked by giant floral bouquets, and I didn’t get how this story went with that jacket. I think the beginning scene with the plane, the toxic boyfriend turned fiancée, and the crash should have been edited down and presented as a prologue.

When Maggie is astonished to see a “lady firefighter”, I roll my eyes and check the copyright to make certain this isn’t a re-release of a title from the 1960s.

I originally designated this galley as my lunch and midnight snack companion, but soon it became obvious that there were too many detailed descriptions of bodily functions, particularly related to the bowel and the bladder, that I didn’t want to dine with.

The parts I like best here have to do with Maggie’s sister Kitty, who left suddenly many years ago and has been estranged due to a mysterious conflict with her mother. Kitty’s character is developed wonderfully and injects light and humor into the narrative.

The other characters at times seemed overdrawn. Chip is too obnoxious; I already hated him when he patted Maggie’s fanny and told her to get onto the plane. As ugliness is added to more ugliness, I find myself rolling my eyes and saying, yes, he’s a dick, I get it already. Maggie’s mother (is there a novelist out there that is comfortable with a protagonist and her mother having a solid relationship?) is too shallow, too obviously obsessed with surface beauty, and although there is some small redemption for her in the end, I want to see more than one attribute given this character, and I want it sooner.

And there’s the wealth, the privilege, and the wealth wealth wealth. When Maggie’s father brings a printer to her hospital room so he can crank out articles for her to read; when her mother hauls in curtains and lamps and redecorates the hospital room; a thousand times I find myself highlighting passages and arching my eyebrows. The hell?

The romance itself, however, is a winner. As I watch the electricity pop between Maggie and Ian, I can’t help smiling. The romance is what most readers are here for, and I find it heartwarming and satisfying. It’s a quick read, and although I had no trouble putting it down, I also had no trouble picking it back up again, which is not always true of the galleys I review.

Recommended to Center’s faithful readers, and to those that like a light romance.

Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell****

ThenSheWasGone3.5 rounded up. Thanks to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC. This book is now for sale.

This is my third title by this author, and she is consistently strong. Our protagonist is Laurel, who is struggling. Her daughter Ellie–her favorite child—is missing. She’s been missing for years, and it hasn’t really gotten any easier.  Her marriage is over because Paul could move on, while Laurel could not; she is no longer close to their other two children, because all her thoughts and feelings went to the child that was missing.

Then one day she meets Floyd. He is warm and delightful, and his daughter Poppy, who seems too good to be true, calls to her.

I have read other reviews that suggest that the mystery here is easily solved. That’s true. But it hardly matters, because I wasn’t in this thing for the mystery. I was in it for the character. There are so many observations, small tidbits of mom-philosophy, some of which I didn’t know anybody shared with me. I have notes in my reader, where I usually ask questions or point to technical aspects of a story, that simply say, “I know, right?”

All of the characters in this story are Caucasian, and so I suspect that the main target audience is white mothers in their forties and beyond. I recommend this story to everyone in that demographic that enjoys women’s fiction.

White Houses, by Amy Bloom*****

 

“Lorena Alice Hickock, you are the surprise of my life. I love you. I love your nerve. I love your laugh. I love your way with a sentence. I love your beautiful eyes and your beautiful skin and I will love you till the day I die.”

I pushed out the words before she could change her mind.

“Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, you amazing, perfect, imperfect woman, you have knocked me sideways. I love you. I love your kindness and your brilliance and your soft heart. I love how you dance and I love your beautiful hands and I will love you till the day I die.”

I took off my sapphire ring and slipped it onto her pinkie. She unpinned the gold watch from her lapel and pinned it on my shirt. She put her arms around my waist. We kissed as if we were in the middle of a cheering crowd, with rice and rose petals raining down on us.”

 

WhiteHouses

A sea change has occurred in the way mainstream Americans regard lesbian relationships. This book proves it. We would have laughed at the possibility in the 1980s, that a major publishing house would one day publish this novel depicting a revered  First Lady in such a (covert) relationship—while she was in the White House, no less. But Amy Bloom tells it, square and proud, and she lets us know that this is only fiction by an inch or two. Many thanks go to Random House (I will love you till the day I die) and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.  This novel is now for sale.

Nobody can tell a story the way that Bloom does it, and this is her best work yet. The story is told us by Lorena Hickok, a journalist known as “Hick”, an outcast from a starving, dysfunctional family, the type that were legion during America’s Great Depression. The voice is clear, engaging, and so real that it had me at hello, but the story’s greatest success is in embracing the ambiguity at the heart of the First couple, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So many great things done for the nation; so many entitled, thoughtless acts toward the unwashed minions they knew. A new friend, a favorite visitor brought from cold hard poverty, here and there, to occupy a White House spare bedroom and provide stimulating conversation, a new viewpoint, and to demonstrate the administration’s care for the common folk; then dumped unceremoniously, often without a place to go or money to get there, when they became tiresome or ill or inconvenient. The very wealthy, privileged backgrounds from which the Roosevelts sprung provided them with myopia that comes with living their whole lives in a rarefied environment. It is fascinating to see history unspool as Eleanor visits coal camps and picket lines, visits textile mills where children labor; but then of course, she repairs to the best lodging available before her journey home commences. And Hick is welcome when she is convenient, but she is banished for a time when there’s too much talk.

And yet—oh, how Lorena loved Eleanor, and the reverse was true, but not necessarily in the same measure, with the same fealty, or the same need.

Social class, the dirty secret America has tried to whitewash across the generations, is the monster in the Roosevelt closet. And FDR, perhaps the greatest womanizer to grace the Oval Office, has his PR people tell everyone that he has no manly function what with the paralysis, and that all those pretty girls that come and go are just there to cheer him up. He makes JFK look like a monk in comparison.  Yet we cannot hate him entirely, because of the New Deal:

He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day…He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?”

I have a dozen more meaty quotes I’d like to use here, but it’s much better if you get this book, by hook or by crook, and find all of them for yourself.  It’s impressive work by any standard, and I defy you to put it down once you’ve begun.

Highly recommended.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende*****

IsabelAllendefall2017Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you already know that Allende is a luminary that owns the literary lane of magical realism, and is renowned for her fictional immigration stories. But it’s her accessibility, the way she spins her tale as though speaking to a good friend, along with her sparkling great humor and feminist spirit that keep me coming back for more. My bookshelves may be crowded, but when I have to clear old books away to make room for new, my Allende shelf is never up for grabs. These are books I will read again, and that’s a thing I don’t do much. In the Midst of Winter is one I read digitally and free, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review, but sooner or later I will have to find a hard copy to complete my shelf.  You will want to read it too.

The narrative shifts between three main characters. Richard Bowmaster is a 60 year old human rights scholar that has recruited 62 year old Lucia Maraz, a lecturer from Chile, to his university. Evelyn Ortega is an undocumented Guatamalan refugee that works as a domestic.  She filches her boss’s Lexus to go buy diapers for her charge on an icy day in Brooklyn and collides with Bowmaster’s car. Bowmaster is a pain the ass, but he nevertheless agrees, by inches, to help Evelyn.  The story shifts between the present day crisis—there’s a body in the trunk of the Lexus, and it’s impossible to call the cops if there’s a chance Evelyn may be deported—and the back stories of all three characters.

Allende never pulls her punches. There’s no realistic way to talk about Guatemala, about the atrocities that people like Evelyn flee, without including violence, and the details here ensure that we won’t forget once the book is done. There’s rape here, and some rape survivors may have to give this one a miss. For everyone else this is a no holds barred must-read. The author deftly alternates the difficult, horrific scenes with lighter material, and this not only makes the book an easier read, it heightens the pace and makes the gritty passages more memorable. There is also less magical realism in this novel than in her others; but make no mistake, Allende’s signature style is here in full force and voice.

The way Bowmaster is developed, inch by inch, into a civilized human being is indeed mesmerizing. Feminist readers will cheer for the way Lucia owns her destiny. Older women aren’t old ladies; they are women first, and nobody drives it home better than this writer.

My favorite moment is that between Marco, Lucia’s Chihuahua, and a moose, a memorable bit of side business.

Undocumented immigrants are a greater part of our national conversation than ever, and so there’s no better time to read Allende. Like all of her work, this book is funny, smart, tender, wrenching at times, and in the end, it tells us that humans are intrinsically good. I came away with a lighter heart and a spring in my step.

You have to read this book, and it will be for sale Tuesday, October 31, 2017.