Category Archives: Fiction

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.

THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau

This year, my 10 year-olds and I are kicking off year 5 of our Mother-Daughter book club.

I spent a few weeks this summer compiling our 2014-2015 reading list. Here’s what our group will be reading this year:

Sept: The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau
Oct: Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
Nov: The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate
Dec: Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Jan: Red Scarf Girl, Ji-li Jiang
Feb: Because of Mr. Terupt, Rob Buyea
March: Holes, Louis Sachar
April: Running Out of Time, Margaret Peterson Haddix
May: Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan
June: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare

Book #1 is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, which we will be discussing in September.


I confess that I wouldn’t have picked this book if it weren’t on the girls’ recommended summer reading list for school, from which they had to read 5 books this summer. I am not into dystopian fiction for adults, so I figured I wouldn’t like it for kids either. But I was pleasantly surprised by The City of Ember.

Ember is a small city which is powered by a huge generator and lit by massive streetlights that go on at 6AM and are turned off at 9PM. Food and household items are sold at stores stocked by massive storerooms run by the city. The library contains books only about topics that are known to its residents, as well as fiction books about things in their imagination. When the book opens, Ember residents have only known years of abundance, with their needs being met by the seemingly endless supplies of goods in the storeroom.

But the city is showing signs of decay and trouble. Supplies are finally starting to run out, and some foods, like canned peaches and creamed corn, are so scarce that they are basically a memory. Basic items like paper, pencils, tools and yarn are almost impossible to come by. Ember residents have learned to recycle and reuse almost everything they have, and their homes are overrun with broken furniture, old clothes, and random broken lamps. Most troubling: the lights are starting to go out with frequency, plunging the town into total darkness and bringing its daily activities to a halt.

In Ember, 12 year-olds are assigned a job when they finish their last year of school. The main character, Lina Mayfleet, is initially assigned a dreaded job in the city’s underground Pipeworks, but a boy in her class named Doon unexpectedly offers to switch with her. He has been assigned the job of messenger, which entails running messages all over the town (the only way townspeople have to get in touch with each other). They each set off for their new roles, where they make disturbing discoveries about the state of the town’s infrastructure (bad) and the morals of its leadership (worse).

Can Lina and Doon find a way to save Ember from its inevitable demise, or will they be stopped by the evil Mayor and his henchmen? Where *is* Ember, and how did it come to be? What is the significance of the strange messages Lina finds in a locked box in her apartment, and do they hold the key to saving the town?

The City of Ember was a relatively quick, suspenseful read. Like I said, I don’t read much dystopian fiction, and I suspect that devotees of this category might find the book pretty predictable. But I found it fresh and surprising, and I think that middle grade readers will also enjoy learning about this very different world and its inhabitants. Lina is a compelling heroine – creative and brave and loyal. The answers to the questions of Ember’s existence are thought-provoking and should prompt a good discussion among the girls about authority and societies for our first meeting back after the summer.

 

THE VACATIONERS by Emma Straub


Vacation read #1 was, appropriately, The Vacationers by Emma Straub. This book has been getting all sorts of buzz and attention this summer, and when I spotted it in the library without a waiting list, I grabbed it while I could.

The Vacationers is about the Post family of Manhattan – mom Franny, a food critic; dad Jim, a magazine editor; son Bobby, a failing realtor in Miami; and daughter Sylvia, a recent high school graduate en route to Brown in the fall. The family is in crisis – Jim has been let go from his job because of an affair with a young editorial assistant, and Franny, needless to say, is furious with him. She views their upcoming two-week vacation in Mallorca as the time to decide whether to let him stay or kick him out. Sylvia is desperate to get to college, where she can get away from her small class of private school friends and reinvent herself. And Bobby, who is in a dead-end relationship with Carmen, a personal trainer who is 10 years older than he is, must tell his parents that he is in serious debt and needs their help.

Along for the ride are Franny’s best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence, who are awaiting news from an adoption agency about a baby they want to adopt.

Straub puts these seven characters in a beautiful home in Mallorca and lets them stew in their own Mediterranean juices. Simmering tensions between Jim/Franny and Bobby/Carmen eventually reach their apex and conclusions, while the others deal with their own internal issues – guilt, shame, lust, jealousy. Straub knows her characters really well, and she expertly shifts from perspective to perspective, giving extremely realistic glimpses into what they are thinking and feeling. There are lots of little details along the way that paint a vivid picture of this vacation home, making the reader feel like an invisible eighth character in the room. Straub also really understands relationships, both romantic and filial, and nails the little interactions that happen over and over between two people.

The ending is pat, too tidy for the messiness of the chapters that preceded it. But it only takes away a little from an otherwise affecting, well-told story of a family testing its points of vulnerability and emerging on the other side.

REDEPLOYMENT by Phil Klay

So, a week ago I had my 8-year blogiversary. It’s hard to believe that it has been eight years since I launched EDIWTB on a whim, inspired by blogging as a medium and a desire to marry it with my love of reading. In the blogging world, eight years is pretty long. When I launched the blog, there weren’t that many book bloggers out there. Now, there are thousands of us. But there aren’t a lot of us who have been around for 8 years and have kept at it, and I am proud to say that I am still here. I don’t read nearly as much as a lot of other bloggers, and my post frequency waxes and wanes, but I am still here, reading when I can.

A few stats: in eight years I have posted 872 times, read 317 books, gone to BEA 5  or 6 times, and enjoyed countless conversations with other book lovers in person and online, in comments and on Twitter and Facebook, and loved every second of it. And then, of course, there’s the bookstore in my house, stocked with review copies that publishers have been kind enough to send me.

Here’s to eight more years!


And now to today’s review: Redeployment, by Phil Klay. Redeployment is a collection of stories about life as soldier in Iraq. They are told from a range of perspectives: chaplain, infantry, corpse corps (the people who collect the bodies after attacks), civilian. Some of them take place in Iraq or right after vets have returned home and are trying to re-enter civilian life, while some take place years after the war.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know a whole lot about the military, and a lot of the acronyms and various roles within the whole Iraq operation were unfamiliar to me. I am drawn to fiction about the Iraq war – such a departure from the usual domestic fiction that I read – in part because it is such unfamiliar territory, and because I feel a duty to understand that world and get in the heads of these men who are so far removed from my daily life. Klay did a really incredible job of conveying what they were thinking and what got them through the days in Iraq. His characters are realistic, not noble and singular of mission, but flawed and complex. Klay’s writing is both immensely readable and also breathtakingly powerful. He seamlessly moves from quite disturbing wartime scenes to internal, emotional exploration within a couple of paragraphs, conveying the many layers of complication in our conflict in that troubled area.

A few stories  in Redeployment stood out to me: “Prayer in the Furnace”, about a chaplain stationed in Iraq trying to understand his role in helping Marines process the horrors they’d witnessed (and sometimes brought about); “War Stories”, about a vet hearing his badly disfigured best friend talk about being burned after an IED explosion, and “Money as a Weapons System”, in which a foreign service officer working in reconstruction encounters absurd challenges.

I really liked Redeployment and highly recommend it. I have a few other Iraq fiction books on the TBR list, such as The Yellow Birds and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and am eager to get to them.

THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller


I have read a lot of Sue Miller books. (Here are a few.) I’ve liked quite a few of them, too, so I was excited to pick up her latest book, The Arsonist, at BEA, and was also lucky to land a review copy of the audiobook version.

The Arsonist takes place in New Hampshire post-9/11. It’s summer, and the town of Pomeroy is soon to play host to the “flatlanders” who spend three months of the year at their summer homes, during which they coexist mostly peacefully with the full-time New Hampshire residents of the town. But just as the summer residents start descending, those summer homes start going up in flames, putting everyone on edge and jumpstarting a police investigation. The Arsonist is also about Frankie Rawley, an expat who has returned to the U.S. after many years living in Africa doing hunger aid work. She is staying with her parents, Sylvie and Alfie Rawley, who have retired to Pomeroy after years in academia. Frankie’s return to the U.S. and to her parents’ home coincides with the first fire.

Miller weaves these two plots – first, the tension in Pomeroy caused by the arsons and the cleave between summer and full-time residents, and second, Frankie’s disorientation upon returning to the U.S. and her romance with a local newspaperman named Bud,  a transplant to New Hampshire from Washington, DC – skillfully throughout the novel. The fires heat up  literally, while Frankie and Bud’s romance heats up figuratively. Frankie, though, after years of “temporizing” in Africa with a shifting cast of colleagues, is incapable to committing emotionally, to a person or to a place. She’s sort of floating through her life, insulated from emotion, with no real roots anywhere, which makes her romance with Bud a fragile one.

I found The Arsonist, like Frankie, to be a little cold. I had trouble feeling invested in either Frankie or Pomeroy. I was curious to know who set the fires, and whether Frankie and Bud would develop into anything, but I didn’t care that much. A subplot involving Alfie’s retreat into Alzheimer’s was sad but ultimately too clinical for me. These sturdy, unemotional New Englanders were too restrained, too controlled for me to feel emotionally connected to The Arsonist.

I was a bit disappointed by the book given how much I’ve enjoyed Miller’s other works.

I listened to The Arsonist on audio. It was narrated by Miller herself, and I thought she did a pretty good job with it. I always appreciate an author narration, because you know you’re hearing the characters as they were intended. But I felt like Miller was overly enamored of Frankie – she performed Frankie in this earnest, sympathetic voice that made me even more irritated with the character. I wonder if I would have felt that way if I had read the book instead of listening to it.

A decent read, but not my favorite by this author.