Category Archives: Fiction

THE NEST by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

This book cover image released by Ecco shows "The Nest," a book by Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, about four adult siblings whose inheritance is in jeopardy. (Ecco via AP)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you’ve heard of or possibly read The Nest. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney got a massive advance for this debut novel, which she wrote in her spare time, about four siblings in New York fighting over their lost inheritance. Leo Plumb, the bad boy, got into an accident driving drunk with a waitress in his car, and had to use the whole inheritance to settle with her. Meanwhile, Jack, his brother, needs his portion of the money to pay back a hastily obtained home equity loan, while their sister Melody needs to pay for her twins’ college education. Bea, the fourth Plumb, doesn’t need the money as much as she needs some inspiration to buoy her flagging career as a novelist.

The Nest is a relatively light, entertaining read. While it’s tempting to dismiss the Plumbs as self-absorbed one percenters, as the novel went on I found myself caring about them and their predicaments. They they start out as just another dysfunctional family, but they eventually grow to care more about each other and even try to find ways to help each other out of their bad situations. (Leo remains pretty despicable.) They are both easy to mock, and easy to like.

Layered into the family drama are Sweeney’s insightful observations about New York, publishing, parenting and relationships. The plot moves along quickly, as she weaves from character to character and shows their different perspectives.

I listened to The Nest on audio and really enjoyed it. Mia Barron was the perfect narrator for this book – precise, urbane and wry, but sympathetic when she needed to be. I highly recommend the audio for The Nest, though I did read a few chapters in print and enjoyed them just as much.

If you want a fun summer read with some substance and heft, give The Nest a try and help Ecco justify that huge advance.

THE NEXT by Stephanie Gangi

So most book bloggers have a methodical system for deciding when they read books. They plan out their reading schedule based on when books are coming out. They post reviews close to publication dates so that the reviews are most valuable to readers and to publishers. They have organized calendars so they know what they are reading in advance and don’t impulsively pick books from piles when they are ready for a new one.

Sadly, I am not that kind of book blogger. I don’t have a calendar. I don’t even have a list of all of the TBR books in my house. (There are too many and it’s too overwhelming.) I don’t pay attention to when books are coming out (or came out), so my list of books read doesn’t make a lot of sense. (I am probably a publicist’s nightmare.)

9781250110565I then end up in situations like this one, where the book I just finished – The Next by Stephanie Gangi – isn’t due out until October. All I know is that I had to get my hands on it when I was at BEA, and I stalked it until I had it, and it was one of the few books I didn’t trust to put in the big box I mailed home. I carried this one home on the plane.

I’m not sure why – it’s totally not my kind of book. The Next is about Joanna, a woman in her mid-40s who is dying of breast cancer. Her days are numbered, her prognosis very grim. Yet instead of spending her last precious hours with her desperate daughters, she is instead stalking her ex-boyfriend Ned on social media. He abandoned her during her illness – professing his love and devotion one day and then disappearing the next. And her anger and sadness at his betrayal is so profound that she cannot get past it. Even after her death.

The Next is a difficult book to characterize. It’s literary fiction, but also a ghost story. Joanna returns after her death to haunt Ned and exact her revenge on him – so that part of the book isn’t exactly realistic. But the rest of it is, from the social media accounts Joanna stalks to the relationship between her beautifully flawed daughters and her incredibly sad, poignant death. I am not the supernatural type – I usually say that I read “realistic fiction” – but I still liked this book a lot. A few scenes where Joanna was haunting Ned were a little over the top for me – descriptions of the physical manifestation of her spirit in the room – but I got past them. Grangi is a good writer and her prose flowed fluidly with just the right amount of description. The plot moved forward swiftly, rotating among Ned, Joanna and her daughters, so you see things from Joanna’s rage-filled perspective as well as those of her grieving daughters and her rattled ex.

It’s very easy to understand Joanna’s rage, which makes this book make sense. It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy.

Like I said, The Next is a hard book to summarize. I suspect it’s going to get some attention when it comes out in the fall, and I will be sure to write about it then and link to this review. Until then, sorry for my disorganization and impulsive reading. I’ll try to stick to books that are actually available for the rest of the summer!

 

 

Q&A with Yaa Gyesi, author of HOMEGOING

I was fortunate to hear Yaa Gyesi answer questions about her new novel Homegoing at Politics & Prose a few weeks ago. (Here is my review of her book.)

Here is what she had to say about Homegoing and her writing process.

Q: What was the inspiration for writing the novel?

A: I went to visit Cape Coast Castle in Ghana in 2009 on a grant from Stanford. The inspiration for the book was instantaneous once I got there. I knew that’s what the book would center around. British soldiers would marry local woman and live upstairs, and slaves were kept in the dungeons below. The castle is majestic and beautiful, contrasted with what was going on downstairs.

Q: Did you feel the weight of a spiritual presence there?

A. Yes. The place is haunted. How many people died there? They had no light, air or food.

Q: Your book focuses on the experience of women.

A: It is very hard to erase the pain of these people’s lives. Very little has been done to make amends for what they went through. When you go there, you feel grief and rage. How could this have happened for so many hundreds of years?

Gyasi YaaQ: Homegoing is not a bitter novel. Were you conscious of the emotional demands you were making on your readers?

A: I did not want to ascribe blame. I wanted to show the complexity of the situation. There are no villains or heroes here; it’s a nuanced representation of how people came to evil circumstances.

Q: Do we all bear responsibility?

A: Yes, you’d have to wonder what would have happened if ethnic groups in Africa had banded together and fought back? We all had responsibility for stopping it before we did.

Q: What research did you do for Homegoing? How did you pick the Ashanti tribe? How did you establish the chronology for the book?

A: I picked the Ashanti tribe because they were central, inland and incredibly powerful. They were feared by both English and Africans. They won a lot of wars against the British. The Fanti are coastal, and would also sell people to the British. The two tribes would invade each other’s villages and sell the captives. I wrote chronologically, and would research what was going on in the background so that I could put it in the book. I didn’t want the book to feel stuffed with research.

Q: The book has one storyline in Africa and one in America, with 14 characters across separate sections.

A: I knew I wantd the book to end in the present tense, talking about the African-American experience. I made as many pitstops in between as possible. I needed it to cohere.

Q: Did you think of the different chapters as short stories?

A: No. The book always felt novelistic in scope. It felt complete and holistic. The chapters can be read separately but the point is what they all look like together.

Q: Did you ever second guess this structure and feel like you needed to write it in a more traditional way?

A: I started it in a more traditional way, but it wasn’t working. This structure suited me better.

Q You have a lot of different cultures in this book.

A: I grew up between cultures. I didn’t feel Ghanaian or African-American enough. This is the physical manifestation of straddling two worlds. I wouldn’t have written the book if I hadn’t been born in Ghana and grown up in Alabama.

Q: Who are your literary inspirations/heroes?

A: Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon totally got me started. Edward Jones. Jhumpa Lahiri.

Q: This is a story of disruption, where so much is lost. But there is hope too.

A: Diaspora is hugely important to me. My sense of self, racially, was confused. I was cut off from African culture and left for college asking a lot about diaspora. My trip to Ghana was a chance to connect with my own roots. The slave trade fractured families so completely. What did that mean for the future and our legacy?

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

One of the books with a lot of buzz going in to BEA this year was Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. It is definitely one of the hot books of June, and for once, I actually read a book right when it came out! Shocking.

9781101947135Homegoing is a sweeping book about the legacy of slavery in Ghana that covers 300 years tracing the ancestors of two half-sisters. One, Effia, married a British colonist and moved to a life of relative luxury, while her half sister, Esi, is sent to America ship via the slave trade, where her children and grandchildren are raised as slaves. The book follows the two threads of the family tree as the generations are born and the decades pass. The chapters alternate between Ghana and America, with each chapter devoted to one person from each generation.

Homegoing is an admirable novel, and I enjoyed it and am very glad that I read it. Gyasi powerfully depicts the shameful legacy of slavery and racism in so many contexts, providing a rich and, at times, almost unbearably painful picture of how deeply they have affected society over the last few hundred years. The African chapters trace European colonization, the slave trade, tribal warfare and poverty, while the American chapters loko at slavery, Jim Crow, racism, the Great Migration and the civil rights movement. The two threads come together in the end, when the present day descendants of Effia and Esi meet and decide to return to Ghana and, unwittingly, the place where their ancestors were originally entwined.

This is not a light read.

I commend Gyasi for her meticulous construction of these parallel paths, and how the dual plots unfold in lockstep despite the thousands of miles and cultural abysses that separate them. Her chapters are almost like short stories, since each one introduces a new character (and a new type of injustice), but the stories are linked both in theme and in genealogy. I think that the wide cast of characters may have made the book less enjoyable for me, as every time I had to re-establish where I was in the family tree (luckily included at the front of the book) and the historical context for the latest installment. This construct made the book a little harder to get into.

At the same time, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before, such as that freed slaves in the South were routinely convicted of petty crimes and forced to work in coal mines for years to pay off their fines, effectively reestablishing slavery despite its illegality. There is a lot of unforgettable horror in here, but there is also love and hope. Homegoing is not a simple book: Gyasi offers a textured portrayal of black Africans who traded their own people to Europeans and light-skinned black Americans who forsook their roots and abandoned their children to avoid the impact of racism.

I listened to Homegoing on audio. The narrator, Dominic Hoffman, ably handled both continents, adopting one accent for the African chapter and another for the American ones. I thought he did an excellent job. HIs voices for men, women, children, white, black – all seemed accurate and authentic.

Overall, I really recommend Homegoing. It’s not a beach read, so save it for when you’re looking for something you can really think about and digest.

(I went to a Q&A with Yaa Gyasi a few weeks ago, which I will write up here in a few days.)

 

 

Return of the Online Book Club!

I am excited to announce that the EDIWTB Online Book Club is back!

Here’s how the online book club works. I choose a book, and EDIWTB readers who are interested in participating sign up by sending me their name, email address and home address. Participants receive a copy of the book in the mail, courtesy of the publisher. About a month later, on a pre-selected date, I post a review of the book here, and then the book club discussion takes in the comments section of the blog.

It’s a lot of fun, and all you have to do is be one of the first 15 to sign up.

The book is Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst, and we’ll be discussing it on August 2, 2016. I picked Harmony because I really enjoyed two of Parkhurst’s prior novels – Lost and Found and The Nobodies Album. Her books are so different – from each other and from most novels that I read. Here’s what Harmony is about:

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dogs of Babel, a taut, emotionally wrenching story of how a seemingly “normal” family could become desperate enough to leave everything behind and move to a “family camp” in New Hampshire–a life-changing experience that alters them forever.

How far will a mother go to save her family? The Hammond family is living in DC, where everything seems to be going just fine, until it becomes clear that the oldest daughter, Tilly, is developing abnormally–a mix of off-the-charts genius and social incompetence. Once Tilly–whose condition is deemed undiagnosable–is kicked out of the last school in the area, her mother Alexandra is out of ideas. The family turns to Camp Harmony and the wisdom of child behavior guru Scott Bean for a solution. But what they discover in the woods of New Hampshire will push them to the very limit. Told from the alternating perspectives of both Alexandra and her younger daughter Iris (the book’s Nick Carraway), this is a unputdownable story about the strength of love, the bonds of family, and how you survive the unthinkable.

If you’d like to participate in the book club, send me an email at gayle@everydayiwritethebookblog.com with the following:

name

email address

home address

I will let you know if you’re one of the first 15 to sign up. Thank you to Penguin Random House for providing the books!

2016 Summer Reading List

Thanks to the many Facebook friends who provided suggestions for the 2016 crowdsourced Summer Reading List! I asked for recommendations of books you’ve recently loved –  and you didn’t disappoint.

Here is the list. 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. Happy reading!

**A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (several votes). This has been on my TBR list for a long time.

**China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (reviewed here)

Three Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

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

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne

The After Party by Anton Disclafani (reviewed here)

The Man I Love by Suanne Laqueur

THE+NEST+by+Cynthia+D'Aprix+SweeneyThe Weekenders by Mary Kay Andrews

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

**The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

**Tuesday Nights In 1980 by Molly Prentiss

The Secrets Of Flight by Maggie Leffler

Undercover by Cat Gardiner

This Is the Story of You by Beth Kephart

**Some Luck, Early Warning and Golden Age by Jane Smiley (reviewed here, here and here)

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen

The Sudden Appearance Of Hope by Claire North

Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

Heat And Light by Jennifer Haigh

Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard (reviewed here)

**All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr  (I really can’t believe I haven’t read this yet)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (reviewed here)

**When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The Sympathizerows_13923264503861 by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Secrets Of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

Thursday 1:17PM by Mike Landweber

**Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here)

City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Good Luck Of Right Now by Matthew Quick

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

**Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

**Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

American Housewife by Helen Ellis (reviewed here)

Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing The Way America Works by Jay Newton-Small

Dear Mr. You by Mary Louise-Parker

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

First Wives by Kate 9780525953005_custom-1a7b1faa66fe002fff8a3604f6c0f3534d546b1c-s200-c85Anderson Brower

The Lavender Garden by Lucinda Riley

At The Edge Of The Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

Ice Cream Queen Of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

**Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (reviewed here)

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life Of Love And War by Lynsey Addario

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons

Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Homegoing by Yaa Gaasi (I am reading this now)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

City of Thieves by David Benioff (reviewed here)cityofthieves.final.indd

Kingkiller series by Patrick Rothfuss

Out Of Time series by Beth Flynn

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

A Fine Balance by Mistry Rohinton

Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

Dreamland: The True Tale Of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

In The Kingdom Of Ice: The Grand And Terrible Polar Voyage Of The USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, And The Battle For Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

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

Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox by Joanne Bamberger

S by Doug Dorst

Us by David Nicholls

Finding The Dragon Lady – The Mystery Of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Thanks again for all the recommendations!

THE HOPEFULS by Jennifer Close

28007954If you were a fan of Jennifer Close’s The Smart One or Girls In White Dresses – as I was – then you will want to give her new novel The Hopefuls a read. While Close’s first two novels dealt with the confusing, rootless post-college mid-20s, The Hopefuls is about a young married couple in their late 20s who moves to Washington, DC in the early years of the Obama presidency.

Beth and Matt Kelly start out living in New York, but they head south so that Matt can work in the administration after Beth loses her job in magazine publishing. Beth is a bit bewildered by the ways of Washington; she tires quickly of cocktail party conversation about who does what in the White House (and therefore who has more exposure to POTUS), and she hates pretty much everything else about the city – the weather, the dowdy clothes, the transience of its inhabitants, and the proximity to Matt’s large family. Soon, however, Beth and Matt develop a close friendship with another couple, Ash and Jimmy, which turns things around for Beth.

Jimmy and Matt are both ambitious, but while Matt makes lateral moves through the administration, Jimmy gets promoted, leaves to work at Facebook, and ultimately gets recruited to run for state office in his home state of Texas. Beth and Matt decide to move to Texas so that Matt can manage Jimmy’s campaign, a move that tests both marriages and each of the friendships.

I just reread my reviews of The Smart One and Girls In White Dresses, and The Hopefuls has a lot in common with Close’s earlier books. They are each light on plot and heavy on analysis and description. Close is a keen observer of relationships and the subtle ways they change over time. Developments play out over the breakfast table, over text, in the backseat of a car. There are chapters in which you expect something dramatic to happen, based on how Close sets up scenes, but they pass by relatively uneventfully, without the confrontations we think might be coming. (This isn’t a criticism. I don’t mind this type of storytelling; I find it realistic and relatable.)

Close’s narrators tend toward the passive, and Beth is no exception. She spends her whole year in Texas with very little to do, just reacting to Matt’s moods and helping Jimmy when she can. She doesn’t assert herself when she is wronged – she just lets things happen to her, shrugging them off when they hurt her feelings. But I still enjoyed the way The Hopefuls unfolded, and wanted to see how things turned out for her. I also liked all the detail about DC – the restaurants, the acronyms, the annoying people trying to get ahead. It’s my hometown, and I love it, warts and all.

I found The Hopefuls to be a satisfying read. Just be warned: if you decide to pick it up, don’t expect a lot of action, and be prepared to want to shake Beth from time to time.

The Hopefuls comes out in July.