Category Archives: Fiction

DO NOT BECOME ALARMED by Maile Meloy

If you’re looking for a pure adrenaline read, Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy will definitely fit the bill. This summer novel book falls squarely into the Parent’s Worst Nightmare category of books, so be aware of what you’re getting yourself into if you pick it up.

Liv and Nora, two cousins living in LA, decide to go on a holiday cruise in Central America with their kids and families. They are very close, and their kids, who are roughly the same ages, are comfortable with and used to being together. While on the cruise, they befriend another couple from Argentina who have a teenage son and daughter.

After a few days of uneventful cruising, the three families decide to go onshore. The dads go off to play golf, while the moms and kids join a local guide who is to take them to a ropes course. It is at that point when things go off the tracks. The van going to the ropes course gets a flat tire, stranding them on a secluded road next to a beach. What happens next leads to all 6 kids being separated from their parents, whose nightmare has just started.

Needless to say, it’s a stressful read. It isn’t a mystery – the reader knows where the kids are the whole time – but the question of whether all the kids will safely find their way back to their parents looms over the whole book. The fact that one is diabetic and needs constant monitoring and insulin shots ratchets up the stress that much more.

Along the way, Meloy also explores the relationship between the two couples (and specifically the two moms), and the way they handle the situation vs the Argentine couple. There are a lot of parents trying to protect their kids throughout the book, but the American families have a lot more power than the non-American ones and enjoy a lot more leeway and support than the others.

Do Not Become Alarmed has gotten a lot of attention this summer, and I can see why. It’s well-written and totally engrossing. As for whether it’s enjoyable too, that’s another issue. Like most readers, I assume, I put myself in these parents’ shoes during the whole book and felt sick about the situation. So while I tore through the book, I was pretty anxious the whole time. There are also a few places where the plot verges on the unrealistic, which detracted from the overall novel.

If this sounds like your kind of read, go pick it up. You won’t be disappointed. If it sounds really unpleasant, then skip it.

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

I did not have Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman on my summer reading list, but I’ve heard good things about it all summer, and I saw it at the bookstore over vacation and bought it on impulse. It was supposed to be funny and quirky and I thought it would make a good summer read.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is about Eleanor, a woman in her 30s in England with a difficult past. She leads a completely solitary life, spending from Friday to Monday in an alcohol-induced numbness to pass the days until she gets back to her unsatisfying job as an accountant. When the book opens, two things happen that shake Eleanor out of her strict routine. First, she goes to a show to hear a band (only because it was a work obligation), and falls in love with the lead singer, a man who is wildly inappropriate for her. And she meets the IT guy at her office when her computer stops working, and they end up becoming friends.

These two developments bring about two competing changes in Eleanor’s life. The friendship with the IT guy – her first real friendship, ever – gives Eleanor a glimpse of what a normal life is like, one in which she has worth and receives kindness, something she never got from her mother. But the crush on the singer, destined to fail from the start, sends her into a tailspin that threatens to undermine the parallel positive developments in her life.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is not a light, quirky book, as I suspected. It is a much darker, more serious read about the impact of deep, emotional abuse. Eleanor is difficult and thorny and unable to relate to people, but it’s not her fault. As Honeyman unpeels the layers of Eleanor’s mind, you start to appreciate just how traumatized she is. There is progress and positivity, but it’s a difficult road to get there. Thankfully, there is also a lot of humor in the book to help ease the way.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is one of those books that I find myself flashing back to often, which to me is always the sign of a good book. I am glad I gave in to the impulse at the bookstore.

I came across this interview with Gail Honeyman today, which I enjoyed. Great quote: “What I wanted to highlight in the book was simply the importance of kindness, to show that we often have no idea of the burdens the people around us are shouldering, and that the smallest acts — tiny, everyday kindnesses — can be completely transformative for the right person at the right time.”

1984 by George Orwell

This summer, Nicole Bonia – my cohost of the Readerly Report Podcast – and I decided to undertake a challenge: we’d each read a classic book that we never read before, but that we wish we had. I chose 1984 by George Orwell. It seemed like a good time to read it, given the political climate and how often I’ve heard it mentioned and referred to of late.

1984 is about Winston Smith, a thirtysomething man living in a totalitarian regime in present-day London, called Oceania in the book. The country is ruled by Big Brother, an omnipresent leader whose political party wields power over the country and its inhabitants. The Party has installed telescreens everywhere – in homes, in public spaces – so everyone is under constant surveillance. Their actions, words and even their thoughts are monitored by the Party to ferret out even the smallest derivations from its rules and the hint of free thought.

There are several aspects of 1984 that are disturbingly familiar with what’s happening in America today, particularly around abuse of civil liberties, electronic surveillance and feeding and withholding of information to “the people”. Winston works for the “Ministry of Truth,” where his job is to go back through news reports and change them so that they are always accurate even when the Party’s pronouncements don’t come true. That is just one small example of the grip that the Party has on every aspect of the world Winston lives in.

I thought 1984 was interesting and thought provoking, as well as deeply disturbing. I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it, though. It was repetitive at times, and everything was spelled out very clearly. Not a lot left to the imagination in this book. (Did Orwell not trust his readers to grasp what he was getting at?) Also, the entire last quarter of the book is about Winston’s arrest for treasonous thoughts and his subsequent torture as the Party tries to break him of all independent thought. The torture scenes were long and painful and difficult to get through. I have to say that I was glad when the book came to an end. It felt like medicine. Hard to get down, but good for me in the end.

I listened to 1984 on audio. It was narrated by Simon Prebble, who did an excellent job. He beautifully conveyed Winston’s fear, desperation and loneliness, and his voice and enunciation were perfect. He handled a lot of voices really well – Winston’s, his tormentor O’Brien, various Party members – making them varied and always convincing. The audio heightened my interest in the story thanks to Prebble’s compelling narration.

Classics challenge: Done.

(If you want to explore 1984 and other dystopian novels, check out this link.)

 

THE AWKWARD AGE by Francesca Segal

If you enjoy seeing families in distress under a microscope and watching them squirm, then you will enjoy The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal.

The cast of characters: 46 year-old Julia, widowed and newly in love with James, a 50-something American OB/GYN; Julia’s sullen 16 year-old daughter Gwen, who is still grieving the loss of her father; and James’ 18 year-old son Nathan, who is about to graduate high school and go to a prestigious college to study medicine. Julia and James move in together in London, merging their families, while Gwen and Nathan hate each other… until they don’t.

Gwen and Nathan’s relationship turns romantic, which is terribly awkward for Julia and James, at also puts them at odds for the first time in their relationship. And then, Gwen gets pregnant, which sends the whole difficult situation into overdrive. How will they, as a family, handle this mess? How can be it resolved in a way that doesn’t cause terrible pain? Are James and Julia ready to be grandparents – to the same baby?

Francesca Segal relates her story with detail, compassion and that beautiful eloquence that so many British writers have.  The Awkward Age is told mostly from Julia and Gwen’s perspectives, but there are additional characters with a stake in this family, and Segal lets us into their heads too. We see the action unfold from several perspectives, with much attention paid to their inner turmoil these characters are in.

What I liked: the writing, the very plausible dialogue, the theme of the awkwardness of love at any age.

What I didn’t like as much: how spoiled Nathan and Gwen were (it detracted from the plausibility of the story), the claustrophobia triggered by pages of dialogue (internal and spoken) among the same small family. Sometimes I just needed a break!

Overall, I liked The Awkward Age and would recommend it to people who enjoy domestic drama. I listened to it on audio, and particularly liked Jayne Entwhistle’s precise, British pronunciation. Her American accents were a little off, but I got used to them quickly. She conveyed empathy for each character, even babyish Gwen – it never felt as if she was judging them or their circumstances – which I think was Segal’s point. Life can get awkward, and we just need to deal with it.

UNRAVELING OLIVER by Liz Nugent

I know I said I was swearing off psychological thrillers.

But  I went to the Editors’ Buzz Fiction session at BEA, and the Simon and Schuster editor promoting Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent was so passionate about it, and the story sounded interesting, and then I almost got trampled trying to get my paws on a copy of it, so I decided to read it.

It is a psychological thriller, a genre I have compared to popcorn for its irresistibility, quick intake and vaguely sickening aftereffect. But Unraveling Oliver is a notch above most of the other thrillers I’ve read. It’s about a children’s book author, Oliver, who has just beaten his wife so badly that she is in a coma. What would move this man to do such a thing? Nugent unravels Oliver’s life from the present back to his childhood to get at what caused him to attack his gentle, loving wife so monstrously.

The story is told from multiple perspectives, providing a range of interpretations of and opinions about the title character. There are a few twists and turns, including one that made me gasp so loudly that my husband asked me what was wrong. Just when you think you understand Oliver, Nugent peels back another layer that reveals even more egregious behavior.

I don’t want to say too much more. If you’re looking for a book that you will have trouble putting down (but that won’t scare you half to death) then this is a good one. You won’t be thinking about it for days on end, but you’ll enjoy the ride while it lasts.

MRS. FLETCHER by Tom Perrotta

I like Tom Perrotta. I’ve read a bunch of his books and I like his take on suburbia and middle age. I even read his dystopia novel – as I told him once at BEA, if anyone could drag me into dystopia, it’s him. So I was psyched to read Mrs. Fletcher, his latest novel (out this August). It was top of my target list for BEA and happened to be the very first book I came across when I crossed the threshold of the show in May.

So I read Mrs. Fletcher this week on vacation, and it was… fine. Not great. It’s about Eve Fletcher, a 46-year old single divorced mom in an unnamed suburb whose life is empty when her son Brendan leaves for college. She discovers online porn, kisses a female coworker and takes a gender studies class from a transgendered woman. She becomes the subject of a few people’s lascivious texts and IRL advances, and in general wakes up from her single mom sexual stupor.

Brendan, meanwhile, arrives at college and discovers that his frat bro asshole ways aren’t going to cut it anymore. He’s selfish, unmotivated and immature and ultimately finds himself single and friendless.

That’s basically what happens. I feel like Tom Perrotta saw the attention that Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner were getting and thought “I should get on that trend”. There is a message in this book: that attraction of all kinds is OK (trans woman-straight man; older woman-younger man; woman-woman; frat boy-girl in wheelchair; the myriad permutations in porn; etc.) but it felt a bit simplistic and dated. Do we really need a novel in 2017 from one of our more insightful authors to tell us this?

Mrs. Fletcher is a fun and easy read but there isn’t much to it beyond that. Given that it came from the author who gave us The Leftovers and Election, I was a little disappointed.

 

PERENNIALS by Mandy Berman

Vacation read #1 was Perennials by Mandy Berman. This book has been on my radar for a few months. It’s about two friends – Rachel and Fiona – who meet at summer camp as campers and have returned to the same camp as counselors several years later when they are both in college. Rachel, the daughter of a single mother in Manhattan, is cool and confident, while Fiona, from a wealthy family in the NY suburbs, is not as comfortable in her own skin as Rachel, and is subsequently envious of yet drawn to her friend.

Perennials is billed as a story about Rachel and Fiona’s friendship and how it is affected by how they grow apart and the secrets they keep from each other, but that’s not really accurate. It’s more of a collection of short stories that covers a wider circle of characters than these two women: Sheera, a black camper who is new to the camp; Helen, Fiona’s little sister; two British counselors spending the summer at the camp; and on and on. Characters rotate under Berman’s microscope, as she explores their own discomforts and longings while they are at camp. This novel in stories is atmospheric and intriguing, but it’s not the friendship novel it’s being marketed as. I enjoyed the shifting perspectives but felt at times as if I was missing out on deeper character development and a more satisfying story arc.

Much of Perennials will feel familiar to people who spent time at summer camp – not just the sensations but the dramas and intensity – but like camp itself, reading it was sort of a fleeting experience. I finished it a few days ago and it basically evaporated as soon as I was done. Reviews are pretty good so maybe it was just me expecting something a little different when I went into it.