Category Archives: Fiction

LUCKY US by Amy Bloom

While I was reading Amy Bloom’s new novel, Lucky Us, I had a few questions: How did a book like Lucky Us get published, as is? Did someone read it – really read it – before it got published? If you’re Amy Bloom, with a few great successes under your belt, does that mean that you get to bypass the editing process?

I really didn’t like Lucky Us much at all. It is supposed to be a jazzy novel set in the 40s about how an unconventional family finds each other and survives the ups and downs of a turbulent America. Eva and Iris, half-sisters with deeply flawed parents, leave their home in Ohio and head to Hollywood, only to head back East when Iris has an affair with a young actress and is then shunned by all of show business. They return to New York and make their living as a governess and a tarot card reader, and their irresponsible but charming father re-enters their lives, and some other people come in and out of it, and honestly I don’t even have the heart to summarize the rest of it.

The relationships in this book were implausible and the plot was meandering and improbable. Characters came and went with no introduction or future relevance. Terrible things happened – a main character died in a fire, a boy was separated from his brother in an orphanage, a German-American is extradited during WWII – but there was barely any emotion expressed about any of it. Iris and Eva become estranged about halfway through – but why? Eva’s anger at Iris makes no sense. Nor does her pining away for a man she believes to be dead.

Lucky Us was a chore to get through. I didn’t care about the characters at all and I was relieved when it was over. There were a few poignant moments throughout the book which were touching and showed Bloom’s potential, but they were so few and far between that I can’t recommend it. I listened to Lucky Us on audio, which I do not think made much of an impact on my enjoyment of the novel. The narration was a bit too perky and cutesy for me, especially during the more serious parts of the book.

Judging by Goodreads, a lot of readers agree with me that there was not much to like about Lucky Us. But some people loved it, so if you’re a diehard Amy Bloom fan, give it a read and then come back and tell me if you liked it. Maybe I am just cranky these days.

AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Choldenko

The October Mother -Daughter book club was Al Capone Does My Shirts, the first in a series of three by Gennifer Choldenko.


Al Capone Does My Shirts is set on Alcatraz in the 30s. Moose is a 12 year-old boy who has moved to Alcatraz so that his father can work as a prison guard and his older sister Natalie, who has autism (which wasn’t yet recognized as a disorder) can attend a special school in San Francisco. Moose has left behind good friends and a regular baseball game in Santa Monica, and he’s missing them both dearly. On Alcatraz, his friends are limited to the five children of other prison employees, and he has to take the ferry to San Francisco to attend school. Worse, his sister’s admission to the special school is revoked after two days because her condition is more severe than the school had expected. So Moose is forced to take care of his sister in the afternoons, instead of making friends and playing baseball.

My daughter read all three of the Choldenko books last year and loved them, so I included Al Capone Does My Shirts on the Mother-Daughter Book Club list for this year. I had assumed that the book would be focused on the inner workings of the prison and its famous convicts, told from a kid’s perspective. Instead, the book explored Moose’s relationship with his parents and sister, and how Natalie’s autism impacted the family. Moose was forced to take responsibility for his sister at an early age, and his mother, who was so focused on her daughter and trying to “cure” her, barely noticed the sacrifices she asked her son to make.  His father was sympathetic to Moose’s situation, but was helpless to change it because of the double shifts he took on to help the family make ends meet.

I liked Al Capone Does My Shirts. I thought it presented a realistic depiction of autism and how families are forced to adapt to accommodate children with special needs. It was depressing at times, for sure, but realistic. I also liked Moose’s friendships with other kids, particularly the warden’s daughter Piper, a great schemer and manipulator whose heart was ultimately in the right place.

The girls (age 10) and moms had a mixed reaction to the book. Most liked it a lot, while others thought it lagged in the middle and some found it too depressing. But it inspired a good dialogue about Moose and whether it was fair that he had to take so much responsibility for his sister. The girls were also intrigued by Al Capone and how he could exert so much influence even beyond the prison’s walls. There were also questions about whether it is fair to bend the rules to achieve a good end, or if obedience to rules should transcend everything else.

A few of the girls had read the other books in the trilogy (Al Capone Shines My Shoes and Al Capone Does My Homework), and the verdict is that they are even better than Al Capone Does My Shirts.

2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS by Marie-Helene Bertino

I am still here! Yes, it has been almost 2 weeks since I posted on EDIWTB.  That’s because I haven’t been reading. I blame baseball, which has taken over all my reading time. My team is holding on by a thread, but I am watching all their games, and then all the other games, and I just haven’t had much time left over to blog or read.

But I did finish 2 AM at the Cat’s Pajamas, so finally, a new post!


2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, by Marie-Helene Bertino, is a quirky book about one night – Christmas Eve Eve – in Philadelphia. I thought it was going to be set in the 50s or 60s, based on the cover (which I love, btw) and the jazz club setting, but it’s not – it is set in the present, with references to Facebook and cell phones and dating profiles. There are basically three subplots that are threaded together in the story: 1) Madeleine, a 10 year-old whose mother died of cancer and who has a rebellious streak and a penchant for cursing, gets expelled from school and wants to sing onstage at a jazz club; 2) Sarina, a recently-divorced woman in her late 20s is invited to a party at the home of one of her old high school friends, where she encounters a man for whom she has harbored feelings for many years; and 3) Lorca, the owner of famed Philadelphia jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, risks losing the club due to several municipal violations, including musicians living in a back room at the club. Then there are a host of tertiary characters who pop up in intermittent chapters throughout the book.

2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas is told in an unusual style. Each chapter takes place at a different time of day, and the narration rotates among the storylines. Bertino’s writing is more poetry than prose at times, and there are some jarring non-sequiturs and bizarre stretches of dialogue and actions that kept me from really getting into the book. I enjoyed some moments of real power and insight – especially in the Sarina chapters – but there were long passages that were confusing and boring too.  I didn’t feel any connection to Lorca or to Mrs. Santiago, the woman who cares for Madeleine, and they appeared too often for my liking. There were also random characters who popped in and out, only adding to the choppy nature of the book.

I wanted to like 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, but it was kind of a chore to get through. I listened to it on audio, which didn’t help. The narrator was loud, almost shouting, and her Lorca and Madeleine accents were grating. I don’t really recommend the audio – maybe the book would have gone faster and been more enjoyable in print. I found my mind wandering a lot during some of the more random sections, which doesn’t happen often with audiobooks.

Some people love this book, so give it a chance if it sounds like your type of read.

THE STORY HOUR by Thrity Umrigar


I am participating today in the TLC blog tour for Thrity Umrigar’s The Story Hour. I haven’t read any of Umrigar’s other books (If Today Be Sweet, The Space Between Us), but I have heard good things about them, so I jumped on the opportunity to take part in this tour.

The Story Hour is about two women – Lakshmi, an Indian woman living in a loveless marriage in America with her Indian husband, and Maggie, an African-American therapist, also married to an Indian man, who ends up treating Lakshmi after she tries to kill herself. The two women develop an unusually close relationship from the start, and become more like friends than therapist-patient. Maggie crosses a number of lines in her treatment of Lakshmi, despite internal warnings, including getting Lakshmi to cater and clean for her friends and teaching her how to drive.

As the two get more involved in each other’s lives, Lakshmi reveals more about her past, and Maggie realizes that what she thought she understood about Lakshmi situation wasn’t really accurate. At the same time, she struggles with her own feelings about her husband and a visiting professor to whom she is very attracted.

Why are Lakshmi and Maggie so drawn to each other? There’s the Indian husband thing, yes, but they are two women from fundamentally different backgrounds. Umrigar sets up some parallels between the two: both women have secrets, both lost their mothers early in life, both women have been dishonest to their husbands, both women have acted recklessly at times. But I had a hard time falling for the central construct of the book, which is the magnetic but ultimately destructive nature of the women’s relationship. Maggie’s intense interest in Lakshmi beyond the professional never rang true for me.

I was ultimately somewhat disappointed by The Story Hour. I found it all to be pretty shallow – the characters, the plot, the themes. Umrigar’s treatment of longstanding marriages felt artificially simplified, and I had a hard time accepting Maggie as a therapist. She sounded like a girlfriend taking Lakshmi out to lunch, rather than a mental health professional dealing with a suicidal client. Also, Lakshmi and Maggie were both pretty immature. Given what I have heard of Umrigar’s other books, I expected a deeper, more nuanced story than the one I read. Lakshmi’s sections are also told in broken English, which was a little distracting.

That said, I enjoyed Umrigar’s depiction of the loneliness of the immigrant, and the stories of Lakshmi’s life in India before her marriage. Umrigar has a keen eye for detail – both physical and emotional – and I did feel as though I got textured and complete picture of the characters (despite their immaturity).

A lot of people really enjoyed The Story Hour, so don’t take my word for it. And I will still give Umrigar’s other books a try.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate and to Harper for the review copy.

ONE PLUS ONE by Jojo Moyes

That Jojo Moyes knows how to tell a story.

read Moyes’ runaway hit, Me Before You, last year and really enjoyed it. It had surprising heft to it, yet was readable and entertaining. I’ve gotten a few of her subsequent books, and decided to give her latest, One Plus One, a try this month. I was concerned from the description that it was going to be like “Little Miss Sunshine”, which I didn’t love, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that it wasn’t at all.


In One Plus One, Moyes creates another down-on-her luck heroine, Jess, who is trying to support herself and her two offbeat kids with low paying jobs that never let her make ends meet. Her son (who is not even really her son) dresses Goth and doesn’t fit in, and has just gotten beaten up by the bullies at school. Her 9 year-old daughter Tanzie is a math genius who also doesn’t fit in. Tanzie has been offered a generous scholarship to a fancy private school, but Jess can’t afford the fees. When the school encourages her to take Tanzie to a Math Olympiad taking place in Scotland (many hours away), she’s desperate enough to try to get there in the hopes of Tanzie winning the contest and putting her winnings toward tuition.

Enter the love interest. Ed, a wealthy software entrepreneur facing an insider trading charge, owns a beach home that Jess cleans. Ed and Jess cross paths a few times, and each time he makes a terrible impression on her. Then he comes across Jess and her kids broken down on the road en route to Scotland. He impulsively agrees to drive them himself… and the subsequent road trip that forms the heart of One Plus One kicks off.

I loved the characters in One Plus One. Each chapter alternates with a different narrator so the reader gets to know each of them. Like Me Before You, the pacing is perfect. There are some unexpected twists (though there are also some Hollywood screenplay predictable moments). The relationships evolve at a natural pace and never feel forced or rushed. No one is perfect, but you can’t help rooting for them to get their happy ending.

One Plus One is an entertaining, satisfying read. I experienced it on audio, which was perfect. Narrators were spot on, accents were delightfully British, and I loved the shifting perspectives. I recommend the audio.

A REPLACEMENT LIFE by Boris Fishman


Boris Fishman’s debut novel, A Replacement Life, is about a young Russian emigre named Slava who is stuck between two worlds. Slava’s grandparents live in Brooklyn, where they still speak Russian and hang out with people from the Old Country. His parents have moved to New Jersey. Slava, meanwhile, lives in Manhattan and slaves away as an overworked researcher at an august magazine that sounds a lot like The New Yorker. He refuses to return to Brooklyn, and doesn’t call or visit his family often, in an attempt to escape his Soviet roots and become an American. But when Slava’s grandmother dies unexpectedly, he is forced to cross the river and mourn with his family.

After Slava’s grandmother’s funeral, his grandfather takes him aside and asks him to take part in a scheme: He’d like Slava to submit a claim on his behalf to the German government for newly-apportioned reparations for Holocaust survivors. But Grandfather doesn’t qualify for reparations, because he was in Uzbekistan during the war, far from the concentration camps and shtetls. It is Slava’s late Grandmother who is the rightful beneficiary of the funds. So Slava must decide: should he reconstruct his late grandmother’s Holocaust experience – one that she refused to talk to him about – and craft it into an application for Grandfather?

Slava gets sucked back into his Soviet family – and his grandparents’ immigrant community – and is finally allowed to be the writer that he is aspiring to be. For after Grandfather reads the application Slava has created for him, he sells his grandson’s writing services to everyone he knows. Before long, Slava is spending his nights in the outer boroughs meeting with Grandfather’s friends, hearing their stories, and then creating applications for reparations to which they are not technically entitled.

Ultimately, this is a story about loyalty, truth, and belonging. To whom does Slava owe loyalty – his scheming but loving grandfather, or the ethics of journalism? The Russian immigrants suffered terribly on their paths to America; was it wrong for them to seek reparations from the country who had indirectly caused their suffering?  With whom does Slava belong –  his American colleague-girlfriend from the Upper West Side – or the heavily made up Vera, granddaughter of his grandfather’s longtime rival?

Fishman has created a memorable cast of characters in Slava, his family, and the Jewish immigrants he tries to help. A Replacement Life is wry and funny, and Fishman’s writing is crisp. I listened to Fishman read from his book earlier this summer, and I could hear him narrating it in my mind as I read. His book is infused with humor and empathy, but it is also dark and sad at the same time. Bittersweet, perhaps.

There were a few times in the book when I had trouble following the action or identifying who was being referred to, which I chalk up to Fishman’s preference for understated, spare narration. Fishman expects his readers to keep up with him, which is sometimes hard to do. But in the end, A Replacement Life is an exhilarating ride, and one I won’t soon forget.

 

TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR by Joshua Ferris

I’ve given Joshua Ferris three chances. The first was Then We Came To The End, the book about the effect of the dotcom bust on a downsizing ad agency and its Greek chorus of employees, which I didn’t really like despite its rave reviews. The second was The Unnamed, about a lawyer afflicted with an illness that forces him to keep walking for months at a time, which I liked better than TWCTTE but still found to be inconsistent. And finally, I just finished To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, another Ferris novel that wasn’t what I expected and ultimately disappointed.


To Rise Again At A Decent Hour is about Paul O’Rourke, a neurotic, misanthropic atheist dentist living in Brooklyn who is obsessed with the Red Sox. (Yes, that’s all relevant.) When the book opens, Paul, who is very private and controlled in what he shares with the world, finds websites and social media accounts popping up in his name. Even more troubling,the content of the accounts is vaguely anti-Semitic (Paul is not Jewish, but he’s kind of obsessed with being Jewish) and go on and on about ancient peoples who allegedly faced persecution and prejudice worse than the Jews ever did.

Much of To Rise Again At A Decent Hour focuses on religious musings about the existence of God, using a somewhat confusing storyline of a man who has traced his roots back to one of these persecuted groups and is trying to recruit others who share the bloodline. Paul is one of those recruits, along with a multibillionaire hedge fund manager whom Paul befriends when they are both drawn in to this strange netherworld, which (sort of) explains the impersonations of Paul appearing on the Internet.

Sounds weird, right?

I had expected this book to be about modern technology and its negative impact on our lives and relationships, and there is some of that in here. But not much. The book meanders around through Biblical stories, anecdotes about Paul’s patients, explanations about why his prior relationships failed, and Paul’s inner dialogues about God. To be honest, most of this book was incredibly boring. There were flashes of brilliance here and there – and those flashes were bright. Like, laugh out loud, nod-in-the-car type of brilliance. But they were so few and far between that I had to ask myself over and over whether they were worth it for the narrative tedium that extended between them. The answer is no.

By the end of To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, I was quite angry at the book. I found it pretty unpleasant to read. I liked the passages about Paul’s superstition about the Red Sox, and his skewering of random people walking along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade on summer night was hilarious. But the rest – my god, I want those hours back.

I listened to To Rise Again At A Decent Hour on audio. It was narrated by one of my favorite narrators of all time – the sublime Campbell Scott – and I bet that if he hadn’t been narrating, I would have given up on the book. He’s got this gorgeous, deep, perfect voice which I adore, and I’ve loved some of his other audiobooks. But even he couldn’t save this book for me. I kept wondering what HE thought of the book as he was narrating. Was his mind wandering too?

Sorry – can’t recommend this one.