Category Archives: Fiction

STARTUP by Doree Shafrir

If you’ve ever worked for a startup or tech company, or know someone who has, or are interested in the world of app developers and Silicon Alley and raising venture money, then Startup by Doree Shafrir is for you. It’s a pretty light read, so don’t expect anything heavy or revolutionary. But it’s entertaining.

Mack McAllister is the CEO of a mindfulness app called TakeOff, based in New York City. He’s living a good life – lots of women, a successful app, hundreds of likes on his Instagram posts within minutes of putting them up. But he’s at a bit of an inflection point. He’s become increasingly emotionally attached to his head of marketing, Isabel, and he needs to raise another big round of venture capital to move TakeOff to the next level. Meanwhile, Katya Pasternak, a reporter at a tech website, is in search of a scoop. She’s getting pressure to land a big story that will bring in more than just clicks, but also glory for both herself and her employer. She’s smelling something amiss at TakeOff, and when an errant NSFW text message from Mack shows up on Isabel’s phone when Katya and Isabel are at the same party, she can’t resist pursuing the story.

I found a lot of Startup to be pretty familiar – the social media apps, the techspeak, the startup culture, the exhausted working parents – which I loved. A lot of fun for me to read. I would have liked a little more focus on the development of the app, the business model, the fundraising – the substance of the startup – but the gossip-y side stuff was fun too. In the wake of Travis Kalanick’s resignation from Uber yesterday, Startup‘s focus on CEO misbehavior was certainly timely. Mack is no Travis, and TakeOff is no Uber, but still.

Shafrir’s writing is sharp, observant and funny, and Startup was a quick and enjoyable read for me. If you’ve gotten to the end of this review and think that you’d like it, I’d go pick it up.

 

2017 Summer Reading List

One day before the last day of spring… and here is the annual EDIWTB Crowdsourced Summer Reading List! I asked my Facebook community to recommend their favorite books from the past year, and once again, they didn’t disappoint. Here’s the what they came up with.

I’ve put ** next to those that were recommended by more than one person. When it’s a book I’ve read too, I’ve included a link to my EDIWTB review.

The Library At Mt. Char by Scott Hawkins

The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor

**The Girls by Emma Cline (reviewed here)

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

**Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (reviewed here)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

**The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

**Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (reviewed here)

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Fallen Land by Taylor Brown

**News Of The World by Paulette Jiles

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

**The Nix by Nathan Hill

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

**Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (reviewed here)

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The End Of Eddy by Edouard Louis

The Girls In The Garden by Lisa Jewell

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

**A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Untangled by Lisa Damour

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Harari

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

**My Name Is Lucy Barton (reviewed here) and **Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

**The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal (reviewed here)

A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable

**When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

**A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry and Beartown by Fredrik Backman

The Red Bandanna by Tom Rinaldi

Golden Son/Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown

**Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (reviewed here)

For The Love by Jen Hatmaker

Crazy Rich Asians and Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Elena Ferranta Neopolitan Series

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Circling The Sun by Paula McLain

**Before The Fall by Noah Hawley (reviewed here)

The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee (reviewed here)

The Improbability Of Love by Hannah Rothschild

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (reviewed here)

**City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

What The Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Secret History Of  Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel

The Imagination Gap by Brian Reich

Heat And Light by Jennifer Haigh

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

**Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff (reviewed here)

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close (reviewed here)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

4-3-2-1 by Paul Auster

Kill Process by William Hertling

**A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

Love, Africa by Jeffrey Gettleman

The Shape Of Mercy and Secrets Of A Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

The Marriage Of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (reviewed here)

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (reviewed here)

**Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here)

City Of Thieves by David Benioff (reviewed here)

**Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard (reviewed here)

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan (reviewed here)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (reviewed here)

Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson (reviewed here)

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Book Of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea by Barbara Demick

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

All The Ugly And Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics And The Sterilization Of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen

Sons And Daughters Of Ease And Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Beautician’s Notebook by Anne Barnhill

Louise’s War by Sarah Shaber

The Darcy Monologues by Joana Starnes & others

Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani

Will Your Way Back by James Osborne

 

Happy Summer Reading! Report back and let me know what you picked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE STARS ARE FIRE by Anita Shreve

About 3/4 of the way through Anita Shreve’s latest novel, The Stars Are Fire, I lost my mind. I was listening the book on audio, without the print to go back and forth to, and I was at a point of such tension and suspense that I simply could not stop listening. The only problem is that I didn’t have the audio on my phone – only on CD – and I had no opportunity to listen to the CDs over the weekend. PANIC! How was I going to get my fix?

So here’s why I was so invested. The Stars Are Fire is about Grace, a woman in her early 20s, who is married to a gruff, unaffectionate man. The setting is Maine in 1947, and with two children and no means to support herself, Grace is trapped in her marriage. She knows that she is unhappy, but has little recourse. Then one fall, a massive fire spreads through the drought-stricken coast, and Grace’s house burns to the ground. She manages to escape and saves her children’s lives by escaping to the beach and shielding them in a boat. Gene, meanwhile, who was working further inland to prevent the fire’s spread, disappears after their town is destroyed.

With her husband gone and her house destroyed, Grace must figure out how to provide shelter and an income for her family. The Stars Are Fire is about Grace’s emerging independence and confidence, at a time when women had few freedoms. There is also the ever-present uncertainty surrounding Gene’s whereabouts and the possibility of his reappearance. Other characters come and go, some affecting Grace more than others, which bring additional dimensions to the story.

I’ve long been a fan of Shreve’s. She’s an expert storyteller with a gift for building suspense and keeping her reader interested. I HAD to know what happened to Grace, and was distracted and frustrated until I could find out.

The Stars Are Fire is not a perfect book. The end is a bit tidy, given all the buildup, and some key twists were unrealistic or too convenient. But who cares? This was a thoroughly immersive, engrossing book and I will not soon forget it.

As I mentioned, I listened to The Stars Are Fire on audio. I thought the narration by Suzanne Elise Freeman was just OK. Her delivery was a little robotic, and she made Grace harsher and more aggressive than I suspect Shreve intended. But again, I didn’t care! I just wanted to finish it. I just recommend also having the print version or ebook if you’re going to listen to this book on audio, because you will want it!

So, yes, recommended.

THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST by Ann Hood

Oh, this is a mess of a book.

Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most is about Ava, a middle-aged woman living in Providence who has a lot going on. Her husband has left her for another woman. Her troubled daughter is studying abroad in Italy, but she’s not answering Ava’s emails. She’s still dealing with residual sadness over the deaths of her younger sister and mother when she was young. And she has joined a new book club with some eligible, single men in it, two of whom seem to be interested in her.

I wish Hood’s editor had told her to pick just two plots and focus on those. Because there were simply too many stories to tell at once.

The chapters about Ava’s daughter Maggie – who it turns out is a drug addict – are harrowing. (Plus she’s a pretty hateful person.)

The chapters about the deaths of her mother and sister are sad, but that plot ends up with a twist that really makes no sense and is very unrealistic.

The chapters about the book club, whose participants each pick the book that has mattered most to them in life, had the most promise, but I hated that they all picked such predictable books (The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina) and I found the book club discussions kind of hard to follow. (Also, it appeared that no one other than the person who had picked these books had ever read them before. ??)

The chapters about the men in Ava’s life were pretty ridiculous. I’ve basically read them before in other books and they didn’t really fit in here, and when her ex-husband drifted back into her life with regret about how it all ended, I was fed up. (Where did *that* come from?) Unsatisfying.

And there are a bunch of random coincidences that tried my patience.

In the end, The Book That Matters Most didn’t hang together well and was unsatisfying. Threads were dropped and relationships were left unresolved.

Need I go on?

The best thing I found in this book was the following quote, which I loved, and will try to remember every day.

“To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first of last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”

 

 

CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is not unlike her earlier books: full of sad, lonely characters who have suffered cruel twists of fate trying to find happiness in challenging circumstances. In this most recent novel, 16 year-old Lucy has run off with her 30 year-old teacher William, a hippie who has been fired for not adhering to the traditional curriculum. It’s the 60s, and William’s talk of running away to be free and in love persuades the immature teenager to leave her sister Charlotte and her much older adoptive mother, Iris. Unsurprisingly, life in the small rural town William takes Lucy to is isolating and boring, while he goes off to work every day but forbids her from talking to anyone or contacting her family because she is underage.

Cruel Beautiful World is a bit of a thriller – what will happen to Lucy? can she escape from angry, controlling William? When it doesn’t all go as planned, who will find out, and will justice be served? Interspersed with Lucy’s story are the offshoot stories of Iris, Charlotte, and Patrick, a widower whom Lucy secretly befriends during her long, lonely days. I enjoyed the explorations of these characters, and I think that is where Leavitt is at her strongest. She takes her time explaining how her characters became the people they are, and she imbues them each with dignity, empathy and just enough hope to keep the reader invested.

The story of Lucy and William was much more problematic for me. William is a child predator: emotionally abusive and unconscionably selfish. I know that Leavitt intends for the reader to understand that about him – in interviews, she said she based him on a real-life controlling partner – but shockingly, she sort of lets him off the hook in the end. It’s as if she wants the reader to wonder if he were really that bad. (!)  (Yes, he was.) Also, I found it unrealistic that Lucy would have kept silent for so long. She had opportunities for escape and didn’t take them. I wasn’t convinced enough of her love for (or fear of ) William that she would have stayed with him that long. She was immature and selfish herself, and I think in the end she would have just done what she wanted.

So Cruel Beautiful World was a mixed bag for me. I loved the classic Leavitt touches but found the underlying plot problematic.

I listened to Cruel Beautiful World on audio. Xe Sands did a masterful, restrained performance, especially during the Iris chapters. Her smooth, understated delivery was perfect for the book. I did wonder whether she was as frustrated with the main characters as I was!

 

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie

Our mother-daughter book club read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for our most recent meeting. It’s about Junior, a dorky teenager living on an Indian reservation who makes the unprecedented move of transferring from his reservation high school to an all-white school 22 miles away. Like most of the people who live on the reservation, Junior is very poor. He has attended 42 funerals in his short life, most due to alcohol-related accidents and diseases. His parents are loving, but his father is an alcoholic and neither parent is capable of providing Junior with much support, emotional or financial.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about Junior’s attempt to fit in at his new school, among the rich white kids who have iPods and cars and three pairs of jeans, while maintaining his relationships back on the reservation, where he is deeply resented for his “desertion” of the tribe and pursuit of success. It’s funny, wry and very easy to read, but it’s not a light book. Alexie tackles racism, poverty, alcoholism, bullying, serious health issues and depression in the book, and it can be depressing. But Junior has hope that he can improve his life, and that he can rise above his childhood and succeed. He finds the good among the rich kids at the new school, and he forgives his old friends who turn on him when he returns to his old high school for a basketball game. He recognizes his parents’ limitations, but he loves them anyway.

I really liked The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, just more depressing. Junior is a cartoonist, and the cartoons featured throughout the book are poignant and funny at the same time. The girls in book club were moved by the condition of the reservation and the lack of hope so many of its residents felt. They were struck by how few options Native Americans have to improve their lives.

I recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for a range of ages. Definitely worth a read.

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein has an almost unbearably sad premise: Karen Neulander, a 40-something political consultant and single mother to a 6 year-old boy named Jake, is dying. She has had a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and is two years into a four-year prognosis. She decides to write a book – a memoir – for Jake, so that he can read it when he is older and understand who his mother was.

Unbearable, right?

Well, I read Our Short History, and I made it through to the other side. I didn’t even cry until the last few pages (and no, Karen doesn’t die at the end of the book). It is sad, to be sure, but it’s also well-written and funny at times and not needlessly maudlin. Karen is flawed, but realistically human. She is in a terrible situation and she’s trying to make the best of it. She is a dedicated, diligent mother with large – but not infinite – reserves of patience for her son, and she’s smart and determined. She also happens to have Stage IV cancer, which has thrown her a big curveball.

The book opens with Jake asking Karen, once again, to find his father and introduce them to each other. Karen has resisted this request of Jake’s for many years, but he has worn her down, and given her (and his) circumstances, she finally relents. She sends a Facebook message to the man she had dated seven years earlier, whom she had loved but who told her he didn’t want children. Karen doesn’t really think through all of the ramifications of this outreach (which is kind of unlike her) – if Dave wants to see Jake, how often will she let that happen? Will visitation become a regular thing? What rights might he have to custody? Will he try to get custody after Karen dies?

Karen may be frustrating at time, even irrational, but I don’t know who wouldn’t be in the same situation. Grodstein has created an utterly realistic depiction of the choices a mother would reasonably make facing her premature death and the care of her beloved son. Karen loves Jake with a ferocity than even she can’t control sometimes, which pushes her to behave in ways she might regret, but which are oh so understandable.

So yes, Our Short History is a sad book, and at times Karen’s plight took my breath away. But I appreciate Grodstein’s writing and her storytelling, which made this much more than a tearjerker. I am a fan of her earlier works, and was not disappointed at all by this one.

I listened to Our Short History on audio. It was performed by accomplished narrator and EDIWTB friend Karen White, who did a great job with this one. She conveyed (fictional) Karen’s desperation and anger as persuasively as she did Karen’s pride and pettiness. I wonder how hard it was to keep her composure when she got to some of the more difficult scenes in the novel. Overall, excellent audiobook.