My Sunshine Away is a debut novel by M.O. Walsh about the summer when the narrator – 15 years old and living in an upscale neighborhood in Baton Rouge – experienced the rape of a neighbor named Lindy Simpson. Lindy, also 15 years old, was the subject of a somewhat obsessive crush on the narrator’s part. Most of the book centers around his relationship with Lindy in the years leading up to and following the rape.

In My Sunshine Away, the narrator, looking back two decades later, explores his adolescence and how formative Lindy’s rape was in his life. He himself went through a lot of upheaval in his life around the same time – his father left his mother, and his older sister was killed in a car accident. But as a self-absorbed teenager, he didn’t experience the sense of loss around those events as acutely as he would later in life. Similarly with Lindy’s rape, he experienced it solely through the prism of an adolescent boy with a crush on the victim, with little capacity to understand how it affected her. In retelling the events of those years, he finally learns to appreciate what those around him were going through while he was lost in his own world.

For the most part, I really enjoyed Walsh’s writing. It was crisp and descriptive, intimate and honest. I got sucked into this story quickly and felt deeply connected to the narrator, in large part because I spent so much time in his head. Some reviewers have criticized the book for a few tangents it takes in places, such as describing in great length the impact of Hurricane Katrina’s displaced New Orleanians on the city of Baton Rouge. Those tangents didn’t bother me; I found them pretty interesting and, even if unrelated to Lindy’s rape, good for atmosphere. Baton Rouge itself is an interesting setting, sensual and rich in its food, heat and terrain.

My quibbles, because I always have a few: first, Walsh included too much explicit foreshadowing, which I hate. For example, the narrator would say things like, “Those things would come back to haunt me” or “our home was never the same” or “this is when things got interesting”. I much prefer when the story unspools naturally, without those narrative cues, which I think reflect the author’s lack of confidence in the reader.

MILD SPOILER: I also found the end, in which the mystery of who raped Lindy Simpson, underwhelming. The suspect likely would have been identified earlier, given the circumstantial evidence. I think Walsh expected his resolution to be dramatic and unexpected, but it wasn’t.

Overall, though, My Sunshine Away captured adolescence, with all of its inconsistencies, humiliations, passion and mystery, beautifully, and for that I really enjoyed it.

I listened to My Sunshine Away on audio. The narrator, Kirby Heyborne performed the book with a gravely, passionate voice that was perfect for the adult version of the narrator. I thought he did a great job and I highly recommend the audio.


MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine

Whoa. Two weeks since my last post! Not good. My kids are back in school and I’ve been up late at night doing other stuff, I guess. I am halfway through two books – My Sunshine Away and Did You Ever Have A Family, so expect some reviews soon.

Meanwhile, I interrupted my adult reading to read our first Mother-Daughter Book Club book of the year: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. This book ended up on our club reading list because it was one of the summer reading recommendations from my daughters’ school. Mockingbird is about an 11 year-old girl, Caitlyn, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Her beloved older brother Devon was killed in a school shooting, and her father, a widower, is deep in his own grief. Caitlyn is trying to process what happened to her brother and make it through the 5th grade with her limited emotional vocabulary, without a whole lot of support.

Mockingbird is a good middle-grade introduction to Asperger’s and spectrum disorders. Caitlyn’s syndrome manifests in a number of ways: she is extremely literal, she has trouble reading other people’s emotions through body language, she’s not empathetic, she hates loud noises and finds colors “messy”, and she likes memorization and definitions. Caitlyn’s school counselor spends a lot of time trying to get Caitlyn to make friends and understand how others are feeling. Over the course of the book, Caitlyn makes some progress on these fronts, and she and her father begin to connect and share in their grief.

Our book club conversation ended up changing my feelings about the book. One of the moms/daughters in our club has a family member with autism, and they explained that the book oversimplified several components of spectrum disorder and didn’t give an accurate picture of what someone with autism is really like. They took issue with some of the therapies Caitlyn’s counselor used to help her understand other people’s emotions, finding them patronizing and insulting. To be fair, Caitlyn has Asperger’s, which is high-functioning autism, and the author has a daughter with Asperger’s so she was clearly basing the character on her real-life experience. But my friend’s and her daughter’s reactions did color my view of the book. Also, I was bothered by the way that Caitlyn’s guidance counselor kept trying to “fix”or change her, rather than accepting Caitlyn for who she was and helping her navigate the world as Caitlyn.

The girls found Mockingbird to be very sad. They felt sorry for Caitlyn and her father, and were touched by the friendship Caitlyn developed with a younger boy who had also lost a family member in the same shooting. The book was appropriate for 5th-6th grade and held their attention. I found it very sad and compelling as I was reading it, but took issue with the end goal, which was to “fix” Caitlyn rather than work within her limitations.


Bennington Girls Are Easy by Charlotte Silver has a good premise: chronicle the friendship of two Bennington grads from their early twenties to their mid-thirties as they experience moving to New York City, meeting men, finding their professional footing, and navigating friendship as young adults instead of college students.

Sadly, Bennington Girls Are Easy did not live up to my expectations.

Let’s start with the positive. Silver is a good writer with a sharp sense of humor. I enjoyed her commentary about New York and its boroughs, particularly Brooklyn. She skewered trends, neighborhoods, even whole colleges in a pretty entertaining way. Silver also has a good handle on aging, in particular the erosion of the feeling of invincibility and dazzling youth as women approach 30. She also comes up with really funny names for her characters, like Bitsy Citron and Vicky Lalage:


And now the negative. The characters! They were vapid, self-absorbed, materialistic and uninteresting. All of them. It was impossible to care about any of these women. The two main characters had a falling out halfway through the book, and they were each just so awful to each other that I couldn’t bother to take a side. These women went to Bennington, and not a single one of them had a job, not to mention a career. One was at least entrepreneurial in her late 20s, launching a lemonade stand (!) in Brooklyn that she turned into a company that made seasonal locally-sourced jam, but even that business tanked after a few years.

I think the hardest thing for me to take was that these women showed so little evolution of their worldview over a decade. One character appeared to mature a little bit, showing some sense of self-awareness of her privileged place in the world, but her awareness quickly turned into bitterness and cynicism, her self-absorption intact.

I do want to give credit to Rachel Fulginiti, who did a masterful job with the audio version of Bennington Girls Are Easy. If it weren’t for her entertaining, breathy delivery, I would have given up on the book a long time ago. She made it much funnier and kept me going.

Bennington Girls Are Easy was not without its touching moments, but they were few and very far between. I was mostly annoyed as I read it, which is never a good sign. There’s probably a band of rich New Yorkers who would appreciate this book, seeing themselves in the WASPy characters who have very few cares in the world, but I think it is less palatable for a wider audience.

BEST BOY by Eli Gottlieb

Eli Gottlieb’s new novel Best Boy is told from the perspective of a 50-something autistic man named Todd. The elder statesman of his residential facility, Todd was institutionalized from a young age due to his developmental challenges. He’s highly functioning, but has many of the hallmarks of autism: he can’t process certain sensory inputs, he finds great comfort in routine, he’s not empathetic or good at interpreting others’ social cues and his emotional understanding of the world is very limited. But Gottlieb’s door into Todd’s mind reveals a heartbreaking sadness that helps develop an emotional connection between him and the reader.

Best Boy opens with Todd’s routine at the Payton Living Center. That routine is almost immediately disrupted by the arrival of Mike, a new hire at the facility whom Todd immediately dislikes. Mike is menacing, reminding Todd of the abusive father who beat and berated him as a child. Yet Mike won’t leave Todd alone, choosing Todd to help cover for him while he goes off and has liaisons with patients. While Mike terrorizes Todd’s thoughts, a new arrival, the one-eyed Martine, intrigues him. Todd hopes that Martine might be the girlfriend he has always wanted, and is willing to follow her advice and stop taking his meds. Off the Risperdal, Todd gains some clarity, but as the edges of his anxiety become sharper, he grows more restless and unhappy.

Amid this discomfort, Todd’s younger brother – who also abused him as a child – arrives for a long overdue visit. Nate’s visit, combined with Todd’s anxiety about Mike and his newly-gained unmedicated clarity, set in motion the second half of Best Boy, where Todd earns a long-desired visit home and a reconnection with his beloved late mother, Momma.

I really enjoyed Best Boy. Despite the confines of Todd’s limited emotional articulation, Gottlieb expertly conveys Todd’s innocence and sadness. He also gives a moving glimpse into how autistic minds work, revealing a logic that is often dismissed or misunderstood. And while some characters, like Todd’s awful father, evil Mike and saintly facility aide Raykene tend toward the one-dimensional, others are given more nuance and complexity. Todd’s brother Nate hasn’t always treated him well (and was in fact abusive as a kid), but through Todd’s narration, Gottlieb make him more sympathetic as Best Boy goes on. And we hear from Todd’s beloved late mother Momma at the end, which I found to be the most poignant part of the book. She treasured and adored him, which sustains Todd throughout his whole life.

I highly recommend Best Boy. It’s a beautifully told story, and also a valuable and, I predict, memorable look at autism and what it’s like to live in the confines of that world.

Edited to add links to 2 articles: one is in the NYT by Eli Gottlieb about adult autism and his experience with an older brother with autism, and one is an interview in BookPage about the writing of Best Boy.

THE LAST SEPTEMBER by Nina de Gramont

The Last September by Nina de Gramont was one of my favorite reads of the summer. It’s hard to describe – it’s about the demise of a passionate marriage, but it’s also a suspenseful murder mystery. Brett and Charlie meet through Charlie’s younger brother Eli when Eli and Brett are in college together. Brett falls deeply in love with Charlie, despite Eli’s warnings that he is a womanizer who can’t commit to a relationship. After one night together, Brett doesn’t hear from Charlie again. She tries to move on, getting engaged to another man, but runs across Charlie a few years later (ironically through her fiance) and is simply powerless to resist him.

Meanwhile, Eli is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Brett and Charlie marry and have a baby, but their marriage is always under the cloud of Eli’s disease – the ups and downs, the dangerous episodes and hospitalizations. And Brett remains deeply insecure about Charlie’s love, an insecurity that is proven justified when she discovers that he has had an affair.

The Last September opens with Charlie’s murder, and the rest of the book traces Brett and Charlie’s relationship and marriage. It also eventually deals with the question of who killed Charlie. The obvious choice is Eli, off his meds and out of control, but Brett isn’t so sure.

I really, really enjoyed The Last September. de Gramont’s writing is understated but beautifully detailed. Her characters are flawed people trying to make the best of a really awful situation, finely drawn and utterly realistic. I had a hard time putting this one down. Brett is a tough character to like, in a lot of ways – she’s impulsive and self-absorbed, willing to sacrifice anything to be with Charlie. But if you’ve ever been crazy in love and desperate to be with someone, then you can start to understand why Brett does what she does. I thought the first 4/5 of the book was absolutely perfect, and then took issue with some of Brett’s actions that seemed out of character. But in the end, I still really enjoyed it. There were enough plausible suspects for Charlie’s murder that I was left guessing until the very end.

The Last September also provides a heartbreaking glimpse into the sad effects of mental illness on the afflicted and their families.

Highly recommended for fans of domestic fiction and/or mysteries. The Last September is a beautifully written combination of both.


AFTER BIRTH by Elisa Albert

After Birth by Elisa Albert is a biting, raw book about motherhood, childbirth and friendship. Ari is a new mom with a year-old son who has recently relocated from Brooklyn to upstate NY with her academic husband. After Birth is really two books – one that focuses on Ari’s son’s birth and one that traces the relationships in her life from her childhood to the present. (She’s pretty angry about all of it.)

On motherhood, Ari is ambivalent, to say the least. She loves her son Walker, but she is physically and emotionally scarred from his birth, which was an unexpected C-section. She blames her doctor for rushing her into a C-section and cannot seem to get over it. She feels that both she and her baby were damaged by the birth and talks about it in incredibly angry, visceral terms. She also describes the days and months of new motherhood (during which she was clearly suffering from post-partum depression) and the isolation and loneliness that often accompany that period.

I found Ari’s anger a little much. I had 2 C-sections and I am not angry about them in the least. Yes, motherhood is challenging, especially in the early months. Yes, breastfeeding is really painful. No, people aren’t always sympathetic about how hard it can be to be a new mom. Yes, motherhood takes a toll on one’s professional ambition. I get all of that. I just had a hard time with the intensity of her anger. No one told her any of this before she had her baby?

On the relationships in her life, Ari got much more interesting. Her (really awful) mother, who died when she was in middle school, her judgmental Bridezilla cousin, the girls with whom she shared intense friendships and flameouts – Ari’s analysis of these women was pretty entertaining. I understood her anger here better than in the motherhood part. There’s a current friendship in the book – probably the closest After Birth gets to a plot – with Mina, a feminist former musician-now-poet who is temporarily living in town and who just had a baby.  Ari and Mina become fast friends when Ari helps Mina cope with her own hellish introduction into motherhood (in part by nursing Mina’s baby when Mina’s baby isn’t latching well). But Mina moves away before the book ends, so there’s no promise of a really lasting, redemptive relationship here.

After Birth is short on plot, long on anger and a bit of a slog to get through. A lot of reviewers have hailed it as a feminist manifesto on motherhood that addresses issues that too many women don’t speak out about. Ok, fine – I get it – but I didn’t really enjoy reading this book very much and had a hard time relating to quite a bit of it.

SUMMERLONG by Dean Bakopoulus

I’ve seen Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos on many 2015 summer book lists – usually enjoying glowing reviews – and it was positively reviewed by a few sources I trust (Book Chatter and Ron Charles), so I decided to give it a go.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me.

Summerlong is about an odd love square (is that a thing?) that forms one hot summer in Grinnell, Iowa. Claire and Don are married, in their late 30s, and at a precipice in their marriage. Don, a realtor, has hidden their dire financial situation from his wife, and the two now face foreclosure on their house and an inevitable bankruptcy filing. Meanwhile, Charlie, an underemployed actor in his late 20s, is back in town to go through his father’s papers and prepare his house for sale after his father is moved to a nursing home with dementia. And ABC, a recent Grinnell graduate, has returned to her college town after the death of her best friend/lover, mired in grief.

One night, these characters interact in an unexpected way: Don comes across ABC lying in the grass, smoking pot, and joins her for an intimate but chaste evening of sleeping next to each other and getting stoned. Claire goes for a midnight run and meets Charlie in the parking lot of a convenience store, where they share an instant attraction. Over the course of the next 3 months, the characters couple off in a variety of combinations, sometimes consummating their attractions and sometimes not. Don and Claire’s marriage deteriorates until they decide to separate, while ABC floats along in her grief and depression and Charlie tries, unsuccessfully, to find his father’s missing manuscript and redeem his academic reputation.

I really didn’t like Summerlong.  I did appreciate some of the insights into marital harmony and middle age that Bakopoulos infused into Claire and Don’s relationship. But I found the other relationships unrealistic and strange, and I had a really hard time with most of the dialogue in the book. I don’t think people talk to each other in real life like they do in Summerlong. Claire and Don were blunt and sharp to the point of meanness – do most married people act like that to each other?

Lots of drugs, lots of sex. I don’t have a problem with that, but they became a crutch for the author. These characters didn’t have much to say to each other or a genuine attraction, so he just had them get stoned and hook up. Problem solved! There are also too many unlikely coincidences.

There’s a feisty old grandmother type who says it like it is and eventually saves some of these doomed characters. Meh.

Didn’t these characters have ANYONE else to hang out with other than the other three?

Don and Claire’s kids – didn’t THEY find the whole setup kind of weird?

Why is Claire so angry all the time? And why hasn’t she worked for the last 10 years? For a feminist New Yorker, she sure depends on her man to make everything better.

These questions plagued me as I read Summerlong. I just didn’t get it. I know I am in the minority on this one – people seem to love this book. It just made me angry.