Musical Chairs, by Amy Poeppel*****

We need more writers like Amy Poeppel. Her previous novels, Admissions and Limelight, are whip-smart and hilarious; both involve well-developed characters stuck in odd but credible situations. Her new novel, Musical Chairs, shares these attributes, but it’s even funnier, and even more insightful. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s available to the public August 1, 2020.

Our protagonists are Bridget and Will; they are family to one another in the modern sense, the sense that sometimes we adopt our most important friends and declare them to be kin. They’ve been together as performers in the Forsyth Trio since college. Bridget has never married; Will is divorced. They have seen one another through thick and thin, and well meaning outsiders think they must surely harbor romantic feelings for one another. Will has no children, but has served as a father figure to Bridget’s twins, both grown.

Summer is here, and Bridget is preparing to spend it in her summer house in Connecticut. Her boyfriend, Sterling, will be joining her; she thinks that he may be the one. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Sterling dumps her on her ass without a moment’s hesitation, and both of her children descend on her unannounced. Her octogenarian father lands in the hospital. Nothing that happens is the way she had planned it.

At the same time, Will has been looking forward to some time on his own in the city, but Bridget is in distress and so he drops his other plans for her. Not one thing goes as planned.

I don’t usually enjoy books about rich people, and Bridget’s family is wealthy indeed. This one works for me because the disparity in wealth between Bridget and Will, who is an ordinary starving artist, is addressed in a natural, organic way throughout the narrative; but beyond that, I feel I know Bridget, and so she is not the rich woman, not the heiress, but instead she is Bridget, and she feels like a friend. We always forgive our dearest friends for things that are generally deal breakers with others. Finally, Poeppel has no tolerance for pretension, and more than anything, her honesty turns a good story into a terrific one.

The pacing here never slackens; one crisis is nearing resolution when another one pops loose. At one point I am convinced that Poeppel is driving home a message about the destructive nature of secrecy, but by the ending I can see she’s done no such thing. Sometimes secrets are great. Sometimes they work out well. And sometimes they are only secrets for a while as their owner waits for an appropriate time to reveal them.

The side characters here are brilliant as their perspective contrasts with that of the protagonists. The internal monologue involving Bridget and Will is personal, even intimate, and so we see everything as they do; but then Jackie, the ambitious young assistant that Edward has hired for the summer, looks these folks over and weighs in, and her observations make me laugh out loud. In fact, this book marks the first time since the pandemic began (at the beginning of March, here in Seattle) that anything I’ve read has made me laugh. It felt great! Then later, another side character’s pet parrot Ronaldo pipes up and it happens again. (My laughter woke my husband, and I was a little bit sorry, but also not.)

The dialogue between Edward and Will near the end makes me shake my head in awe.

At the outset, I am puzzling over the title. Musical Chairs turns out to be a website for job-searching musicians, but later I see a broader reason that this title was chosen. Throughout the chaos that unfolds for Bridget and Will this summer, the characters are constantly changing places, rotating, and assuming new positions, and it’s fine, because—and here’s our real message—change is not failure.

The references to the musical “My Fair Lady” are icing on the cake.

Highly recommended, and likely to be one of this year’s best books.  

Old Newgate Road, by Keith Scribner*****

I fucking love this book. I received an advance reader’s copy free courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday, and I am late with my review, but it’s not too late for you. This dark, brooding tale of family secrets that intertwine with the present is both a literary gem and a deeply absorbing read. It’s for sale now.

Cole owns a construction business in the Pacific Northwest, but he returns to his childhood home on a mission to purchase some wood, a hard-to-find variety of chestnut. He hasn’t been back in thirty years, but now he is mature and ready to face the old house, or so he thinks. It’s the first time he’s been to his family’s Connecticut home since it happened. The family’s historical colonial home is located on Old Newgate Road, which leads to Old Newgate Prison; the way that he recalls that his parents posed and made much of this place and then the way that they treated each other and their children are juxtaposed in a way that I find absolutely believable.

There is a host of ominous foreshadowing, and the events of the past are revealed a layer at a time, like an onion, and the way Scribner uses them in developing his protagonist is brilliant. Each time that I think I see something in Cole’s behavior that doesn’t make sense, it comes up later and turns out to be an intentionally included inconsistency related to the character’s inner struggle.  And right now I feel as if I am making this thing sound so dull—struggle, development, blah blah blah—but I am not providing specific information the way I ordinarily would because it would be a disservice to even reveal what we are told at the ten percent mark, or the twenty.

I read a few negative early reviews, and I suspect these are due to the unfortunate tendency to overuse specialized terms used mostly by architects and builders. Perhaps the aim was to make us believe that Cole knows his field, or maybe it’s a part of the setting. One way or the other, the author has gotten carried away with it, but the reader that soldiers through that junk at the outset can expect to see much less of it during the great majority of the book. I read it digitally and occasionally ran a search as I was reading, but if any of these terms is useful in understanding the book, then I am too shallow to see it. You can safely skip over them if you want to do so, and you will be none the poorer for it.

The best lines of the story go to Cole’s adolescent son, Daniel, a social justice warrior who gets into trouble at school when he pushes boundaries; Cole brings him to Connecticut to work the fields as he himself did in his teens, and this is when the story starts to hop. I spent my career teaching adolescents, and over the years I had five of them at home. If there were a weak point in Scribner’s construction of Daniel, I would see it (as several other unfortunate authors can attest.) Daniel is bright, insightful, and rebellious, and everything he says and everything he does builds a credible character. By the halfway mark, my notes are written to the protagonist rather than to myself, the publisher or the author; I’m watching this kid and telling Cole to listen to him. Daniel is almost a prophet, and he’s almost a one person Greek chorus, but he is still always, always a kid, impulsive, full of passion, and unafraid to say what he sees, what he thinks, and what he knows. If I were to make a short list of my favorite fictional teenagers, Daniel would be on it.

That being said, this story calls for at least a high school literacy level, even if you skip the architectural and woodworking terms. Because of the many memories that flood in when Cole returns home, I suspect that those of us that came of age in the 1970s (give or take) may enjoy it most;  however, for younger readers it may have a bit of a noir flavor.

Highly recommended.

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.