Category Archives: Fiction

RED THREAD SISTERS by Carol Antoinette Peacock

51V1x2hEuoL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Our May mother-daughter book club read was Red Thread Sisters by Carol Antoinette Peacock. I’ve always been interested in Chinese adoption, so I was excited to add this title to our reading list.

Red Thread Sisters is about two Chinese girls who are best friends growing up in an orphanage. Wen was abandoned at age 6 by her family at the orphanage after her father lost his job and they couldn’t afford to keep two children, while Shu Lin was left at the orphanage as a baby because of a deformed foot. While the two often dream of being adopted, in the end, it is only Wen who is picked by an American family. When the book opens, Wen is meeting her adoptive family for the first time and having to say goodbye to Shu Lin.

Wen moves to the Boston area and tries to get used to life with her new parents and at her American school. She has a lot of trouble trusting that her parents will keep her and that she won’t be sent back to China if something goes wrong. Wen tries to reciprocate her younger sister’s affection, but she doesn’t know how to be a member of a family, or how to express love for someone other than Shu Lin. Meanwhile, she misses her best friend terribly, and feels guilty that she is in America living a comfortable, privileged life while Shu Lin is still at the orphanage.

Before she left, Wen promised Shu Lin that she would find her a family in the United States. She soon realizes that that is a hard promise to fulfill. At first, she tries to talk her new parents into adopting Shu-Ling too, without understanding how big of a commitment an adoption is. She then starts to learn more about the adoption process and how she can help Shu Lin’s chances of being adopted.

Red Thread Sisters prompted a good discussion among the group about girls in China, international adoption and the challenges of being integrated into a new family. We also talked about friendship and responsibility, and whether Wen should have made her promise to Shu Lin. The girls liked the book – it held their interest and they felt compassion for the characters. We all agreed that there wasn’t enough detail in the book: Wen seemed to have little problem understanding what was happening at school, and the months just seemed to fly by with no sense of her daily life in America. She was also pretty inconsiderate of her adoptive parents’ feelings, but that was in part due to her inability to connect emotionally.

Overall, Red Thread Sisters was a good perspective-broadening book, even if it wasn’t the best-written book we read this year. It led to a robust discussion between the girls and mothers, and that’s usually the sign of a good book club book.

THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE by Lynda Cohen Loigman

91-3B6rcodLWhen you blog about books, every now and again a friend will ask you if it would be OK if their friend, who has just written a book, sends you a copy of their book to take a look at. At first, you might resist, thinking about the piles of books you haven’t gotten to yet, and wondering if it will be worth the time and effort. Well, in my experience, it is usually worth it. I’ve read and reviewed several books that were recommended to me by friends of the author – such as When Love Was Clean Underwear by Susan Barr-Toman and The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nicole Bernier – which I have really enjoyed.

The most recent addition to this list is The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, which my friend Tracy told me about. The Two Family House tracks two families – connected by two brothers – who live above and below each other in a two-family house in Brooklyn in the 40s. Mort and Abe own a box company, and Mort, his wife Rose and his three daughters live below Abe, his wife Helen and their four sons. It’s all very cozy until Rose and Helen get pregnant at the same time. After their babies are born, for complicated reasons, the two women drift apart, causing reverberations through both families that have implications for years to come.

Loigman’s story is engrossing, realistic and suspenseful. She writes in simple, engaging prose that conveys her characters’ emotions and personalities with skill and subtlety. (Did I mention this is a debut novel?) I grew to care about the characters and how they fared as the years passed. I also enjoyed the shifting narration, which Loigman used to her advantage to share different perspectives on the same events. There are some plot twists that are somewhat implausible, but they certainly make for a good story. There are moments of sadness and poignancy in The Two-Family House which will stay with me a long time.

I listened to The Two-Family House on audio, and I didn’t love that version. The narrator, Barrie Kreinik, used some pretty strong Brooklyn Jewish accents that I found ultimately distracting. She did a good job of consistently differentiating the various characters, but I still found the accents a little off-putting. I think I would have preferred reading the print version straight through.

If you like engrossing family dramas with shifting perspectives, particularly those set in the past, then I think you’ll like The Two-Family House. Give it a try. Congrats to Lynda Cohen Loigman on a great debut!

DAYS OF AWE by Lauren Fox

9780307268129Days of Awe by Lauren Fox is one of the best books I have read so far in 2016.

Isabel Moore is a fortysomething teacher in Wisconsin facing loss on a number of levels. Her best friend Josie died a year ago in a car accident. Her marriage has fallen apart and her husband Chris has moved out. Her daughter Hannah has hit adolescence and is pulling away. And she’s still grieving a series of miscarriages that denied her the second child she always wanted. Sounds like a real downer, huh? Parts of it are very, very sad. Izzy’s grief is so real, and its debilitating effect on her life is pervasive and relentless.

But I loved Days of Awe. First, Fox is a beautiful writer. The plot meanders from present to past frequently and fluidly, layering in Izzy’s memories of her funny, complicated best friend and her happy marriage with the much bleaker reality she is currently living. This is not a book to skim or race through, but rather one to savor so as not to miss a single of Fox’s words. She has a very keen eye for little details that make her scenes so perfect that you feel like you are living them.

Second, Izzy is so sarcastic and funny that even though she has flaws and makes mistakes, I just loved her. I want to hang out with her. (I figure Lauren Fox must be equally as funny and sarcastic as her heroine – how can a writer not be as funny as her funny characters? She came up with their jokes.)

Ultimately Days of Awe about the unexpected ways in which our lives can change – suddenly, gradually, with or without our involvement – and how to come to terms with those changes. It’s sad but so poignant. I just loved this book!

Go read it.

PS. I should have known I would like this book when I saw that it was blurbed by Christina Baker Kline, Jennifer Close and J. Courtney Sullivan!!

NOOKIETOWN by V.C. Chickering

download (26)I have been putting off writing this review of Nookietown by V.C. Chickering for several days, mostly because I am not sure where I stand on the book. While some parts of it were entertaining, some parts were enraging, and I felt like I had to collect my thoughts on it before I wrote them down.

Here’s the premise: in a suburban New Jersey town, a bunch of married women friends sat at dinner one night complaining about having to keep up with their husbands’ sex drives. They were tired, they said, and just weren’t up to having to satisfy their husband’s needs. Meanwhile, the one divorced woman at the table, Lucy, complained about the opposite problem: not having a man in her life to sleep with. Then came the inevitable peanut butter-and-chocolate epiphany – why not have Lucy sleep with one of the husbands so that the wife doesn’t have to? Then everyone would be satisfied.

Lucy, incredulous at first, warms to the idea and makes an “appointment” with her friend Nancy’s husband Ted. The appointment goes so well that Nancy and Lucy decide to go into business, matching up sexually frustrated husbands with needy divorcees. There are a lot of rules – no money can change hands (but the divorcees enjoy all sorts of perks like free yardwork, homemade meals, and good deals on cars); no one can get emotionally involved; no one can get pregnant. The business takes off, and by the middle of the book, all of the people enrolled in The Program are walking around happy and harmonious.

What could go wrong? Well, a million things, and of course they do, and the second half of the book is about Lucy trying to put the pieces of her life together after it implodes.

So here’s what’s good about Nookietown. It can be pretty funny, and there are lots of wry observations about suburban married life, dating after divorce, and, of course, sex. It’s thought-provoking, for sure. And it’s a pretty breezy read. It certainly made my commute go by faster.

Yet Nookietown also me angry. Chickering tries really, really hard to establish that what Lucy and the other divorcees is doing is not prostitution, and that they are in control and in fact benefiting just as much as the wives and husbands. But Lucy – who vacillates between wounded ex-wife, devoted mother, oversexed woman-on-the-prowl, and single woman with low self esteem – ultimately turned into a pretty anti-feminist woman. She was passive, letting things happen to her without much affirmation or choice, or even the realization that she could say no. On the other, she jumped into The Program with desperation to be with someone (anyone!), which bothered me. She didn’t have much respect for herself, and she didn’t have much respect for the men she was with either. She was insecure around the few available (single) men, dismissive of the married men in the program, and oh, I forgot to mention the married man she was involved with while all of this was going on… AND her desire to have another baby!

Sigh.

I think you probably know by now whether this book appeals to you or not. It can be a funny, interesting read at times, but it can also be irritating at the same time. There is also a lot of sex in this book so if you’re not comfortable with that, then don’t read it.

I listened to Nookietown on audio. The narrator, Julia Duvall, was very good. I kept wondering what she must have been thinking as she recorded the audio.  I guess if you’re an audiobook narrator who performs a lot of romance novels (which she appears to do), you get used to it.

Mixed bag, Nookietown was. Still glad I read it.

 

INNOCENTS AND OTHERS by Dana Spiotta

9781501122729 (1)Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is a hot book these days, so I thought I’d give it a try and grabbed it from the library. It’s the story of three women: Meadow and Carrie – both filmmakers, who were best friends growing up in LA – and Jelly, a woman living in upstate New York who contacted powerful men in Hollywood as a hobby and engaged in longterm phone relationships with them under an assumed name. (Jelly is based on a real-life woman named Miranda Grosvenor (not her real name) who engaged in similar catfishing of famous men.) Innocents and Others tracks Meadow and Carrie’s careers and friendship, and weaves in Jelly’s story so that it intersects with Meadow’s as well.

Here’s what Innocents and Others has:

-A close female friendship where both women work in the same field, with the expected ups and downs, jealousies and betrayals, but abiding love and respect

-A fascinating look at a woman who is so afraid of real connection that she spends her days hiding behind a fake identity and living through the movies

-An exploration of the responsibility of a filmmaker to pass judgment on her subject (or at least acknowledge wrongdoing). Is it wrong, for example, for a documentarian to focus on the perpetrators of massive crimes against humanity (Argentine executioners who adopted the children of their victims) rather than on the victims, to try to understand who they were?

-A variety of narrative devices, such as transcripts, lists of movies, interviews, essays

-A lot about movies and the study of filmmaking

I mostly enjoyed reading Innocents and Others, but it’s also one of those books that made me feel like I wasn’t smart enough to really get it. Maybe it was the passages about the history of cinema or the mechanics of filmmaking – those are not areas I know a lot about and I ended up skimming a fair amount of them. But I did enjoy the rest of it. I like Spiotta’s writing – a little detached but wonderfully detailed about the things that matter. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the parts about friendship and connection more than those about filmmaking.

I went to a reading by Spiotta last week at Politics & Prose here in DC in the hopes that hearing her speak would enhance my understanding of the book, and it did. Here’s what she had to say:

-What does she like about writing? Having questions and trying to figure them out through writing. Just like reading, writing brings joy when you feel the self go away and you can imagine other experiences and have connections, even if you’re making them yourself.

Innocents and Others is full of connections and discovery through the imaginary and the observational.

-Jelly, Meadow and Claire are all strange women. Reading fiction can make our own experiences more clear (?).

-Spiotta is interested in outdated technologies, like landlines. How funny that you would pick up the phone and there would be a stranger there! We hate the phone now – there is something intimate and intrusive about being called on the phone rather than being texted. Using landlines in the book established a “slight location to the recent past” so that we could see it more clearly and precisely.

Innocents and Others also follows the theme of listening vs looking (phone vs film). Spiotta wanted to explore “the tyranny of the visual”, where what you’re saying doesn’t matter, but what you’re seeing that wins out. The power of the image overrides other senses.

-About the three plots in the book: Spiotta knew the stories would intersect, she just wasn’t sure when. She doesn’t like to write in a big line; she jumps from thing to thing as she’s going through. The rhythm of the novel comes from switching the stories around.

In the end, I liked Innocents and Others a lot and am glad I read it. (Just feel free to skim the filmmaking stuff if you’re not getting it.)

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

(I had some tech issues with my blog this week, but I’m back in business now. Phew.)

41bOj-am1RL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Our April mother-daughter book club read was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. (Perhaps you’ve heard of it?) Yes, I managed to make it until 2016 without reading this juggernaut of a book, which is the first of a best-selling trilogy and a blockbuster movie that pretty much everyone other than me has seen. I decided to include it in the mother-daughter book club list this year because my daughters had been asking about reading it, and I figured that I would read it with them.

The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future. What was once North America is now a country called Panem, which is made up of a Capitol surrounded by twelve districts. The Capitol keeps the districts in line through controlled deprivation and an annual event called The Hunger Games. In the Games, each district sends a boy and a girl to compete in a televised fight-to-the-death in which only competitor can survive. In District 12, a sixteen year-old named Katniss volunteers to compete when her younger sister’s name is drawn in the lottery – the ultimate sacrifice.

The Hunger Games is a stressful book. As a reader, you feel the ever-present brutality of the Games on every page. Some of the deaths are pretty gruesome. But the violence, while considerable, is manageable, at least in book form. Katniss is a formidable heroine – smart, physically strong and stoic. One of the main themes of the book is her relationship with the other competitor from District 12 – Peeta. She and Peeta ultimately decide to work together to help each other stay alive, and concoct a plan to ensure that they don’t have to try to kill each other at the end. The question, of course, is whether Peeta and Katniss can garner enough viewer and sponsor support to make it through the Games, and whether The Capitol will be persuaded by their story to allow them each to live.

I am impressed with Suzanne Collins’ ability to conjure this bleak society yet make it feel like a place that we can relate to today. The reality TV/mass entertainment aspect of the Games really hit home for me and made me embarrassed for the hours of reality TV I’ve watched over the years. While people may hate the Games and what they represent, they tune in and watch. Their allegiances and reactions impact the outcome, which is partially in the hands of the Gamemakers. How much has reality TV anesthetized us to violence and danger in the name of entertainment?

I found The Hunger Games more stressful than my daughters did. They really liked it, and picked up the sequels immediately upon finishing it. I have a hard time with any book in which kids’ lives are in danger, so this one ranked high up there in the stressful/disturbing camp for me. My daughters didn’t have as hard a time with the violence. Maybe it seemed too unrealistic to them?

We had a good discussion of the book at our meeting – we covered a lot of questions, including several about loyalty, strategy and what the girls would do if they were in the same situation at Katniss. We also discussed Peeta and Katniss’ relationship (was it for real?) and The Capitol’s motivation in holding the Games every year.

I’m glad I read The Hunger Games and will likely take a look at the sequels and the movies too. I can understand why it has done so well.

 

PERFECTLY BROKEN by Robert Burke Warren

Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren is a debut novel about Beth and Grant, a couple who leaves New York City after 9/11 when Beth loses her job at a magazine. Grant, whose days as a rock star are behind him, has been staying home with their 4 year-old son Evan, growing increasingly numb, medicated and depressed. With no income to pay the rent on their East Village apartment, they reluctantly move upstate, where they move into a farmhouse owned by their best friends, Christa and Trip.

Perfectly Broken is raw and gritty, full of flawed characters grappling with midlife and its attendant stresses – professional failures, parenting struggles and anxiety. They are on drugs, but their drugs are the prescription type – antidepressants and sleeping pills. There is simmering tension between most of these unhappy characters, tension that surfaces in the climax of the novel during a dramatic storm. Grant and Beth are forced to confront some secrets in their marriage, while Christa and Trip’s relationship implodes, ignited by Christa’s drunken tirade.

I know this all sounds really depressing, and some of it is, but Warren is a funny, observant writer who has added a nice entry to the oeuvre of contemporary dad fiction. (See also Fathermucker by Greg Olear, Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman and pretty much anything by Jonathan Tropper). I loved the rock elements of the book, from Grant’s jealousy about others’ hits to the role that music plays in his life and relationships. I also loved the little details and observations in Warren’s writing – he has a very sharp eye. I felt like I was in the room right next to these characters as the action unfolded.

There is a lot of pain in Perfectly Broken, but also hope, as these characters try to confront their issues and figure out how to leave their pasts behind and move on. One character quotes Lily Tomlin: “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” I think that’s a good theme for this book. Accepting our imperfect pasts, as hard as it is, is the best way to move on to a better future.

I don’t usually participate in blog tours, but TLC Book Tours reached out to me about Perfectly Broken, thinking I would like it, and they were right. I’m glad I read it.