Category Archives: Fiction

ASTONISH ME by Maggie Shipstead


Last summer, I read an entertaining satire called Seating Arrangements about WASPs misbehaving – badly – at a summer wedding in New England. I just finished a second book by Shipstead called Astonish Me, and I can’t believe they are by the same author. I liked both books, but Astonish Me has such a different tone and purpose to it that I finished it blown away by Shipstead’s range and talent.

Astonish Me is a book about ballet. It spans three decades and two coasts, but it’s really about seven people, six of which are professional ballerinas. Joan, a New York City ballet company dancer in the late 70s, has a brief but life-changing interaction with famous Russian dancer Arlsan Rusakof after a performance in Paris. Arslan corresponds with Joan after he returns to Russia and she moves to New York, and she ultimately helps him defect by driving the getaway car to the U.S. after he performs months later in Canada. This kicks off a brief, imbalanced relationship between the two that dies out when Arslan’s former girlfriend, another prima ballerina, also defects and joins the ballet.

Joan later gets pregnant and leaves ballet to marry her high school best friend, a safe, nice guy named Jacob. They move to Southern California and raise their son Harry, 3,000 miles away from Arslan and the dance world Joan has left behind. As Harry grows up and ultimately develops his own interest in dance, Joan finds herself pulled back into the professional dance world and the complicated relationships she had left in her past.

I am a ballet mom – I have two nine year-old girls who have danced in four Nutcrackers and two other full-length ballets with the Washington Ballet. I’ve also seen a lot of ballet (like Shipstead, my mother started taking me to the ballet when I was “a little squirt”).  I spend a lot of the time I’m watching the performance thinking about the dancers – their relationships with each other, how they feel about the principals, what it’s like to be in the company, what they do in their free time. So on that level, I found Astonish Me to be very interesting. Shipstead is a precise, efficient writer, astute in her observations about relationships and expert in shifting decades, settings, and perspectives. The plot of Astonish Me unfolded slowly, teasingly, making me want to keep reading. I wasn’t crazy about the plot device that brought all the characters together at the end; I felt that it only highlighted the implausibility of some of the relationships in the book. But it didn’t detract from the power of the rest of the book and the insight it provided into ballet and those who devote their lives to it. While Seating Arrangements is light and funny, Astonish Me is serious and intense. Seating Arrangements is satire, while Astonish Me contains great empathy for its characters.

I listened to the first two-thirds of Astonish Me on audio and read the rest. The narrator – Rebecca Lowman – was perfect for the book: precise, intense, but somewhat unemotional, like some of the characters in the book. I really enjoyed the audio version and only switched to print because I was on vacation with the family and wanted to finish the book. I highly recommend the audio performance.

All right, Maggie Shipstead, what’s next? I will be eagerly waiting.

Related: 51 Things Only Ballet Dancers Understand

Battle of the (Middle Grade) Books

Tomorrow is the Battle of the Books competition in my daughters’ fourth grade class. Battle of the Books is a 10-week reading and comprehension competition in which teams of fourth graders read the same five books and then have to answer questions from those books to see how much they understood and retained. I am the “team manager”, which means I have been in charge of making sure the team is prepared and has studied the right things. We’ve had several team meetings and I think the Fictionistas (our team is five girls, including two sets of twins) are ready for battle.

Being the type-A team manager that I am, I read all five of the books and prepared questions for them to answer. Since I read five books in the last week, and since it kept me from reading the usual fare I like to review here on EDIWTB, I figured I could at least write a blog post reviewing the books. I ended up liking them quite a bit. I think the teachers did a great job picking five books that would appeal to a range of interests and reading abilities, while still providing a challenge for the competition.

So here are my quick reviews of the books we read:


The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney. The World According to Humphrey is about a hamster who lives in a fourth (fifth?) grade classroom. He is used to being taken home at night by young, freewheeling substitute teacher Ms. Mac, but when permanent teacher Mrs. Brisbane returns to her job, she is horrified by the “rodent” in her classroom and leaves Humphrey alone overnight. Humphrey learns to fend for himself, but along the way he befriends the school janitor and wheedles his way into Mrs. Brisbane’s good graces. She decides to let him go home on weekends with students, and on these visits, Humphrey works his gentle magic. He helps parents parent better, he inspires kids to be more cooperative, and he lifts the spirits of hopeless, depressed adults. If I am making the book sound corny, it isn’t – it’s sweet and entertaining. Great book for fourth graders.


A Year Down Yonder by Richard S. Peck. A Year Down Yonder takes place in 1937 during the Great Recession, which occurred after the Depression. 15 year-old Mary Alice Dowdel has been sent by her parents to live with her grandmother in rural Illinois, because they have been forced to move into a Chicago boardinghouse that doesn’t have room for her. At first, she is very unhappy at the prospect of leaving Chicago and moving in with her abrasive, emotionally distant grandmother in her hick town. But Grandma turns out to be conniving and outrageous, as well as loyal and generous with a strong sense of justice. She puts people in their place and never apologizes for it. I really liked A Year Down Yonder. I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book (usually at Grandma), and was touched by her relationship with Mary Alice and the people in her small town. Another good read for fourth graders, though there is some outdated language that they didn’t always grasp and some mature themes that thankfully sailed over their heads (a teenage pregnancy, a woman caught nude in a young man’s boarding room). This is a Newbery medal winner (2001) and, it turns out, a sequel – I think I may look into its predecessor as a possible Mother-Daughter Book Club book.


The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. More historical fiction from Speare, who also wrote The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Sign of the Beaver is about thirteen year-old Matt, who has moved with his father to what is now Maine to build a house and settle land there in the late 1700s. When his father has to return to Massachusetts to retrieve Matt’s mother and younger sister, he leaves Matt in charge and promises to return in 7 weeks. While his father is gone, Matt has to learn to fend for himself. He ends up coming in contact with an Indian boy and his grandfather, and after a rocky start, Matt builds a relationship with them that becomes very deep and enduring. The boy, Attean, teaches Matt how to trap, fish, build a bow and arrow, and mark a trail. He also teaches Matt about his tribe’s culture, bringing Matt back to his village for some ceremonies and celebrations and integrating him into his family. In the end, Matt has to decide whether to wait for his family, who has not returned after five months away, or join the tribe as it moves further north. There are also good questions raised about the white man’s ways vs those of the Indians, and how those cultures clashed as settlers moved into lands long held by Indians. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Sign of the Beaver (a Newbery honor winner in 1984) and strongly recommend it for fourth graders.


The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John Erickson. The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog is the first in a popular series about Hank, a cowdog in Texas who isn’t quite up to the job of protecting the chicken coop. In this first book, Hank and his even more inept sidekick Drover fail to prevent the murder of some hens on a neighboring farm, and Hank gets unjustly accused of doing the killing himself. He takes great offense at the accusation and runs away, eventually finding his way to a nearby community of coyotes. He manages not to get himself killed, but forms an uneasy peace with Scraunch, the meanest and nastiest of the coyotes, while slowly becoming part of the coyote community. Hank’s loyalty is tested when Scraunch plans a raid on Hank’s owner’s farm, and Hank has to decide whether he’s a bad guy or a good guy. Hank the Cowdog was my least favorite of the five books, but it wasn’t bad. There were some funny moments when Erickson poked fun at Hank’s ineptitude, and the portrait of the coyotes, while unsavory, was illuminating. My daughters liked this book least of the five too. Maybe’s it’s a boy book.


Who Was Milton Hershey? by James Buckley, Jr. Who Was Milton Hershey? is part of a series of books for kids about famous people. This one focuses on the enterprising chocolatier, who lived in Pennsylvania from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. I learned a lot about Hershey in this book, but what stood out to me was what a decent guy he was. He provided services and amenities for his factory workers at a time when such benefits were rare, such as bank accounts where they could save their money, bonuses, running water and electricity. He built a whole town for his factory, and included things like parks, bowling alleys and theaters to improve his workers’ quality of life. Hershey was quite generous as well, founding a school for orphan boys and eventually donating all of his stock in the Hershey company to that school (which is now worth an astounding 9 billion dollars). Hershey didn’t raise the price on his Hershey bar for over 65 years, and he even installed electricity in the homes of his sugarcane factory workers in Cuba. Who Was Milton Hershey? was an easy and informative read for my fourth graders, and I think they will remember a fair amount about this creative, interesting, and socially progressive businessman.

So those are the books! I will report back on how the Fictionistas fared in tomorrow’s competition.

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

This month’s mother-daughter book club pick was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, one of those books that’s billed as YA but which I saw all over the place when it came out in 2009, suggesting that its appeal goes well beyond kids’ fiction. (It won the Newbery in 2010.)


When You Reach Me takes place on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, and is about Miranda, the daughter of a single mother, who has become estranged from her best friend Sal, a boy who lives upstairs from her. The two were walking home from school one day when out of the blue, he was punched by another kid. From that day on, their friendship was over, despite Miranda’s attempts to engage Sal and recover what they had. In the meantime, a cast of odd characters is filled out, including Marcus, the boy who punched Sal; a homeless man who lives on the corner and sleeps with his head under a mailbox; and Annemarie, a girl Miranda befriends who partially fills the void left by Sal. And some mysterious notes start appearing in Miranda’s apartment, each one making reference to events that hadn’t happened yet. Who could know these personal things about Miranda, and how did he or she know things that even Miranda didn’t know yet?

Books about time travel always make my head hurt – in a good way – and this one was no exception. References to A Wrinkle in Time abound (Miranda is reading it when When You Reach Me takes place), and there is a suggestion of the possibility of time travel throughout the book, as Miranda discusses it with her friends.

But it wasn’t the time travel that drew me into this book. It was the depiction of a lonely, 1970s latchkey childhood – a far cry from the overprotective, overscheduled lives middle-graders live now. Miranda spent a lot of time alone, with few people to talk to about her disappointments, sadness, and anxiety. I liked that the characters were not one-dimensional; even the rich girl/bully turns out to be smart and redeeming in the end. And the explanation at the end of where the notes came from and who wrote them was satisfying, if a bit headache-inducing. Miranda’s relationship with Sal is explained, if not rehabilitated, and she finds other flawed but rewarding friends to spend time with.

Here’s a great interview with Rebecca Stead on Amazon.

I think this is a great book for kids. It is a story about relationships and friendship wrapped up in science fiction and mystery. Miranda is a formidable heroine – she is self-sufficient and independent, but not infallible.

Our book club meets this Sunday – I expect that this one will be well-received by the group.

PACK UP THE MOON by Rachael Herron (plus giveaway)


Rachael Herron’s Pack Up The Moon is about parenthood, secrets and grief, and the many permutations that each can take in a lifetime.

Kate and Nolan were high school sweethearts whose rosy future abruptly ended with Nolan’s family moved away senior year. Unbeknownst to Nolan, Kate was pregnant when he moved. She never told him, and instead put her infant daughter up for adoption. The baby was adopted by a lesbian couple, who named her Pree.

Twenty two years later, Pree tracks down Kate. In the intervening years, Kate and Nolan reunited and eventually married. They had a son, Robin, who developed cancer at the age of 8. Despite intensive treatments, Robin’s cancer proved fatal, and while he was in the end stages of the disease, Nolan hastened his death by running the car in the garage while they were both in it. Nolan survived, Robin died.

When the book opens, Pree has just found Kate, and Nolan and Kate, now divorced, haven’t been in contact for years other than the occasional email sharing memories of Robin. Nolan has served time in jail for euthanizing his son. Pack Up The Moon explores Kate and Nolan’s guilt – toward each other, toward their children – as well as the secrets they kept from each other over the years, including Kate’s not telling Nolan about Pree, and Nolan remaining silent about what happened the day that Robin died. Pree, meanwhile, has secrets of her own that have propelled her to find Kate and establish a relationship with her.

Pack Up The Moon sounds like a very depressing book (surprise!), and the passages about Robin and his death are certainly very, very sad. But this wasn’t a depressing read. I liked the characters, who were quirky and different. Nolan was pretty interesting to me – a former lawyer now working on a street cleanup crew, the only job he could find after serving jail time for mercy killing his son. Pree is a video game designer and into street art stickers, a subculture that I knew nothing about. Kate was a pretty complicated character too – she seemed rather straightforward at the beginning of the book, but the end reveals many complexities and surprises within.

Some of the book felt unrealistic to me, in particular a scene at the end that took place on a boat, when Kate and Nolan have gathered to spread Robin’s ashes into the San Francisco Bay and Kate has (inexplicably) invited Pree to join. I found the passages describing the interplay between the characters the most convincing and interesting. These flawed but human characters were thrust into rather extraordinary circumstances, and I thought Herron did a good job of trying to predict how they might react. She was also generous in her depiction of the various ways we experience grief. Nolan, for example, found solace at his son’s grave (despite his role in Robin’s death), while Kate couldn’t bring herself to visit it. Kate’s grief about her mother’s death was very different from that about her son’s, while her own mother reacted in different ways to Kate’s giving away a baby at 16 and her losing a son in her 30s.

Pack Up The Moon wasn’t perfect, but it was an interesting read with some characters that have stayed with me in the days since I closed the book.

Depressing-o-Meter: 6.5 (which is surprising given the subject matter)

NAL has offered me a copy of Pack Up The Moon to give away to an EDIWTB reader. If you’d like to win a copy of the book, leave me a comment here and I will pick a winner next Wednesday, March 26. Good luck!

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford

It’s never a good sign when you find yourself yelling in frustration in the car as you listen to an audiobook, right?

That happened to me often while listening to Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. I found this book incredibly annoying, for a whole host of reasons.


I have had Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in the house for years – I must have acquired a review copy in 2008, because it still had the publisher’s promo material tucked in when I opened it. I saw the audiobook at the library last month and picked it up, because the premise of this book has always intrigued me. It’s about Henry, a Chinese-American boy growing up in Seattle during World War II, who befriends Keiko, a Japanese-American girl in the private school they both attend. They become fast friends, much to the disapproval of Henry’s father, who, as an immigrant himself, views the Japanese as enemies of both America and China.

Keiko and her family are ultimately moved to internment camps, first in Washington state and then further away in Idaho. Henry, who has fallen in love with Keiko, pines for her, manages to visit her on several occasions, and then spends the rest of his life missing her and wondering what happened to her. He ultimately marries a Chinese girl, has a son, and outlives his wife, who dies of cancer in the mid-80s. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet flips back and forth between 1942 and 1986, as the reader gets caught up in wondering whether Henry will ever find Keiko and enjoy a happy ending.

Here are the main reasons why I disliked this book so much:

1. Oh my god, did it need an editor. Ford repeated himself over… and over… and over… and over again. Like this: “Henry’s father wanted him to go to China. To a place where he didn’t know anyone except some relatives. Relatives he’d never met. Relatives who didn’t speak English. Relatives he couldn’t communicate with.” And then a few pages later, he’d say THE SAME THING AGAIN.

2. It reminded me of a book my 9-year olds might read, in that every last emotion was explained, explicitly. Every comparison, every theme, was stated, as if Ford didn’t trust the reader to grasp anything on his or her own. There was no subtlety AT ALL. The title itself should have been a warning of what was to come.

3. I had a really hard time believing that Henry and Keiko, who were 12 when they met, were in true, lasting love. They were just too young. And while Ford told me over and over that Henry loved Keiko, they didn’t really seem to say much to each other when they were together. Even when they finally “parted” at age 15, I had a hard time accepting that she was the love of his life.

4. There were so many cliches in the book that I thought I was reading a movie script. The generous, wise, older African-American friend. The white bully who got his comeuppance. The deathbed confession by the stubborn father. The ending, in which two people who hadn’t seen each other in 40 years fell back in sync (and in love) just by hearing their old song. Not only did these elements make the book incredibly predictable, but they were annoying and shallow.

I’ll stop there.

I listened to this book on audio, except for the last 20 pages, when I wanted to just finish and be done with it. Surprisingly, the print version didn’t annoy me quite as much as the audio did. I didn’t notice the repetition as much in the print (but the cliches certainly remained!). I thought the narrator was OK while I was listening to it – his accents were a bit exaggerated, but I blamed the book itself for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet‘s shortcomings. Maybe the blame should be shared more equitably.

If you’re tempted by the story and setting, I’d recommend reading Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic or When The Emperor Was Divine, which are both about the Japanese internment camps. Save yourself the frustration of reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – it’s not worth it.

Depressing-o-meter: It should be higher than this, but the book was so annoying that it detracted from the emotional power of the story: 5.

Online Book Club: THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES by Steve Yarbrough

The February online book club pick was The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough. The discussion of that book will take place today here on EDIWTB, with the participants commenting below.


The Realm of Last Chances is about Kristin and Cal Stevens, a married couple who moves from the Central Valley of California to Boston after Kristin is laid off from her college administration job in California. She finds another job at a third-tier college outside Boston, and the two start their lives over again on the East Coast. However, it turns out only to be a fresh start geographically. The couple, who had been growing apart in California, find themselves even more distant from each other in their new home. Cal, who was a handyman  in California, spends his days playing stringed instruments and fixing up their new house. Kristin finds herself embroiled in new but familiar challenges facing college administrators, such as professor plagiarism and tenure negotiations. As the book progresses, we also learn about the skeletons in Kristin and Cal’s closets – failed marriages, broken homes, violence – and how they shaped the main characters.

Matt Drinnan, the Stevens’ neighbor and a man with his own troubled past, meets the couple shortly after their arrival in Massachusetts. Ultimately his relationship with Kristin drives her and Cal further apart, as he seeks his own reinvention and redemption for his own transgressions.

The good: I liked the glimpse The Realm of Last Chances gave into these unusual characters’ lives. I feel like I read so many books about urban thirtysomething parents, and it was refreshing to explore the lives of these struggling middle-aged suburbanites. Yarbrough’s writing is crisp and descriptive. There are themes throughout the book – infidelity, forgiveness, and how well we really know our partners – that I thought Yarbrough skillfully weaved among multiple characters and contexts.

However, I don’t think I really got this book. I found a lot of it implausible – how could Kristin and Cal have been so incurious about each other’s pasts? do people really ask relative strangers to hold them? can one really read lips looking through a window between homes? – and much of the rest of it was either too convenient or just kind of boring. I got to the end of the book, which felt slapped on and too tidy, and wondered what the point was. I didn’t feel very optimistic about these characters’ futures – they just kind of limped off into the sunset.

I enjoyed the beginning of The Realm of Last Chances more than the end. Kristin and Cal’s disorientation upon arriving across the country, her introduction to her new job – those were compelling. As the story progressed, however, it sort of lost me. The plagiarism storyline didn’t make much sense to me – how was Kristin to blame for how the story came to light? – and the grand reveal about Cal’s violent past seemed inopportune.

Depressing-o-meter: 6. It’s gloomy and defeatist at times, but ends on a positive.

Goodreads abounds with very positive reviews of The Realm of Last Chances, so there are clearly many fans of this book out there. I am eager to hear what the other book club participants felt about the book. Did it grab you? Did you find the plot to be plausible? Do tell.

Thanks to Knopf for facilitating the book club!

 

Book Haul From The Strand

You know what I DON’T need? More books!

But I recently found myself with the opportunity to go to The Strand, which I couldn’t pass up. Thanks to my Goodreads to-read list, I ended up with these books:

photo 1 (1)Here is the list:

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (I have wanted this since it came out; have heard that it is better than The Red Thread)

How to Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

How to Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman (see a theme here?)

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard (coming of age in the 70s)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (highly recommended by Ann Patchett)

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (short stories)

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (have wanted this since it came out too)

Sparta by Roxana Robinson (read the Q&A with Robinson about Sparta here)

If you’ve read any of these, please weigh in! What am I in store for?