Category Archives: Fiction

THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan

The Children Act is Ian McEwan’s latest novel. It takes place in London (where I read it!) and it’s about Fiona Maye, a family court judge who is facing simultaneous professional and personal crises. On the home front, her husband of 30+ years has told her that he wants to have an affair. He loves her, but he feels like the window of his own desirability is closing, and he wants to experience the thrill of new passion once more. Needless to say, Fiona is devastated and angry, and when her husband leaves their apartment that night, she has the locks changed and tries to focus on her work, despite her pain.

On the professional side, Fiona hears a consistent stream of cases involving divorces, custody battles, restraining orders and the like, some of which are difficult and some of which deal with greedy ex-spouses fighting over money. But one case  – which comes before her the day after her husband leaves – is much more agonizing. Fiona has to decide whether a 17 year-old with leukemia who has refused a blood transfusion due to his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ beliefs should be forced to have the life-saving treatment. She decides to go visit the boy – Adam – in the hospital, to see for herself whether Adam is acting on his own accord. Their meeting has a profound impact on both of them, and influences her decision in his case but also forces her to think about her role as a judge, especially at a time of deep insecurity in the rest of her life.

This is my fourth McEwan novel (after Atonement, On Chesil Beach, and Saturday). I LOVED Atonement (top 5 of all time), liked On Chesil Beach but found it odd, and wasn’t as impressed with Saturday. To be sure, McEwan is a beautiful writer. Just beautiful. In many ways, The Children Act read like a novella: it covered a pretty short period of Fiona’s life, but packed an emotional punch thanks to sharp detail and McEwan’s depth of writing. When I was in law school, I found the family law cases to be the most wrenching, often because both sides were equally compelling. McEwan did a nice job here of laying out the case and letting the reader appreciate its complexities. Fiona’s decision is made early enough in the novel that the case doesn’t take over the book; it is its aftermath that really propels the story.

I marked several passages as I was going through the book because of the sheer beauty of McEwan’s writing. I don’t think they will be as powerful out of context, so I won’t copy them here. But even on re-reading, I am still in awe.

Strong second read of 2015.

TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME by Carol Rifka Blunt

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Blunt is another book that I didn’t like as much as most people did. I bought it because I had heard great things about it, and I enjoyed parts of it, but overall I didn’t love it.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home is set in the 80s (which the author never lets you forget, throwing in references to things like Dennis Miller on SNL and New Wave songs and Yoo-Hoo whenever she could) in Westchester. When it opens, 14 year-old June is about to lose her beloved uncle Finn to AIDS, which at the time was a scary and mysterious disease that caused paranoia and blame in the general population. June doesn’t really fit in with her friends at school – she’s sort of a Renaissance Faire type of girl – and is left totally adrift when her uncle dies. Finn was her closest friend, and had become a replacement for her older sister Greta, with whom she had once been very close.

The title of the book refers to a portrait Finn had painted of June and Greta, which he finished right before he died. Finn was a famous but reclusive artist who had disappeared from the art scene a decade earlier despite critical acclaim and financial success.

After Finn’s funeral, June learns that he left behind a boyfriend, Toby. Her parents scare her into thinking Toby is a murderer for giving AIDS to Finn. But Toby starts sending June letters and secretly trying to see her and share special things that had belonged to Finn. The two slowly develop a relationship based at first on their mutual grief over Finn’s death, but eventually find their own ways to connect.

Meanwhile, Greta keeps acting colder and meaner to June, and their parents are absent (it’s tax season and they are accountants). June steals away to the city to see Toby more and more frequently, and strange things keep appearing on the portrait Finn painted (which has been estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Here’s what I liked about the book: Finn and June’s relationship; the backdrop of the 80s (I am a sucker for anything set in that decade); the depiction of high school isolation and insecurity; and Toby. Here’s what I didn’t like: it was unrealistic (how could June sneak off to the city like that, day after day); the bad choices June made over and over again; and the fact that the loooong middle of the book had the same pattern happening over and over (June pushed Toby away and then returned to him; Greta got drunk and admitted she missed June; June ignored Greta’s attempts to reconcile and went back to Toby; June needed more reassurance that Finn loved her). After a while, it got boring and predictable. No one really changed; they just danced around each other and lobbed bits of honesty at each other before retreating.

I respect what the author was doing here – exploring AIDS in the 80s through the prism of a coming-of-age novel – but the book was too flawed to fully succeed.

I listened to Tell The Wolves I’m Home mostly on audio, and I thought the narration by Amy Rubinate was quite good. I enjoyed the audio more than the print version, perhaps because she gave June some credibility and pathos that was missing from the book. She expressed the petulance and confusion of a 14 year-old, and handled other voices quite well.

I’ve been a bit of a cranky reader lately, and Tell The Wolves I’m Home is yet another on the list of books other people loved that I didn’t. I am hoping to right the ship in 2015. Not sure how yet, but I’m determined to lose myself in books I love.

If you read and loved Tell the Wolves I’m Home, tell me why.

THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach

I may have been the last person on the planet to read The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, but I finally did. The 500+ page book slowed me down quite a bit this month. Unlike most people who have read it, I liked it, but didn’t love it.

The Art of Fielding revolves around a baseball team at a fictional Wisconsin liberal arts college. The main characters are Henry Skrimshander, a baseball phenomenon from South Dakota who is headed to the majors (or is he?); Mike Schwartz, the team’s captain; Owen Dunne, Henry’s room- and teammate; Guert Affenlight, the college’s president; and Pella Affenlight, the president’s daughter. There is a fair amount of baseball in the book – which I liked – but not enough to turn off non-baseball fans.

Ultimately, The Art of Fielding is about relationships and how loyalty can be tested and proven over the course of challenges and setbacks. It is also about coming to terms with who you are, especially when you turn out to be someone different from who you thought. People bill it as a coming-of-age novel, but I didn’t really see it that way. College was more of a backdrop for the story than a meaningful setting that guided the plot, and one of the main characters is in his 60s. It’s really about a pivotal year in the lives of five people and how they were challenged and tried to figure out where and how they fit in.

People have been raving about The Art of Fielding ever since it came out. I don’t quite understand why. The writing is quite good, and Harbach is very clever with his turns of phrase. But overall I found the book pretty slow. I had no problem putting it down. I found some of the dialogue and details to be implausible, and I kept asking, “Don’t these characters interact with ANYONE other than the other four?”  I was moved by some of the characters’ predicaments, but I was also frustrated by how they chose to deal with their situations. It was an interesting story, but I think it fell flat. In the end, this book just didn’t do it for me the way it did it for others.

The reviews are so overwhelmingly positive for The Art of Fielding that I urge you not to rely on my opinion on this one. Give it a try, if you’re one of the few who hasn’t already.

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper

I am no stranger to depressing books. I read quite a few of them. I actually quite enjoy them. But I think I met my match in Out of My Mind, our December Mother-Daughter book club pick.

Out of My Mind is about Melody, a fifth-grader with cerebral palsy who is in a wheelchair. She can’t speak or move, and has spent most of her life unable to communicate with those around her. But she has a vibrant mind, and she has lived in the prison of her body, misunderstood by almost everyone else, who thinks that she is mentally challenged just as she is physically.

In sixth grade, Melody starts attending “inclusion classes’, where she joins normal fifth graders. She is given an aide and eventually obtains a computer device which speaks for her after she types words into it. Suddenly, people realize that Melody is smart – so smart that she makes it onto her school’s academic quiz team, handily beating everyone else. But she yearns for the acceptance and companionship of her peers, which sadly remains out of her reach.

Out of My Mind is such a sad book. It’s sad for many reasons – Melody’s inability to communicate with her well-meaning but overwhelmed parents; the callousness of her fellow fifth graders and even her teachers; the fact that Melody’s situation isn’t going to change at all in the future. In an afterward, Draper said that she didn’t want her readers to feel sorry for Melody. It’s hard not to feel sad for her, though, given her situation, and for her parents, who love her desperately but can’t change her reality.

One scene in particular really got to me: Melody’s mother comes home from work after Melody has set up the device that can speak for her. Melody has the device tell her mother that she loves her, for the first time. Age eleven. It was such an emotional moment – I was very moved.

My daughters (age 10) liked Out of My Mind but found it to be pretty painful too. (So much so that they didn’t even want to skim through it to review for book club, because they had read it last year.) As a group, we had a good discussion about it, with most of us pretty outraged at how mean some of the kids were to her. We of course had access to Melody’s thoughts, which no one else did, and we got a much better sense of who she was as a result. That made her isolation even worse.

I would recommend this book to middle grade readers, but suggest that a parent read along to help the reader process some of the particularly sad parts.

Q&A with Jane Smiley, SOME LUCK

I attended a Q&A with Jane Smiley at Politics & Prose earlier this fall, and since I just reviewed her new book Some Luck, I thought I’d post the Q&A now.

Smiley calls Some Luck an “old person’s way of writing a novel” – with the years progressing evenly, as “happy and tragic events came and went”.

Q: A lot has happened since you started writing. Has it affected your writing or could you have written the same book 20 years ago?

A: I think so. I came up with this idea 5 years ago, decided on a setting, settled on Walter and Rosanna, gave the kids personalities, and set them on their way. The book is mostly made up of history and gossip.

Q: A lot of your books have an agricultural motif. Have you lived on a farm?

A: No, but I lived in Ames – what’s the difference? I moved to Iowa City at age 22. I was interested in farming, the ecology of farming in our lifetime. If I had gone to UVA, I would have gone down another path.

Q: You used to teach. When you taught, did it affect your writing, and did your writing affect your teaching?

A: Yes. Once I was writing a story, and teaching undergrads, and I was giving tips for storywriting and in the process came up with how to move on in the story.

Q: Do you write thinking about how the book will sound out loud? Do you ever wish you’d changed a word?

A: Yes, in fact I did tonight during my reading.

Q: A Thousand Acres had King Lear as its background. Did anything inspire Some Luck?

A: No, I just wanted to fill this title: A Hundred Years. This was much more free form. I knew where I was headed. I knew Frank would go to war and the farm would change and someone would stay on the farm. It had boundaries, but not structure like King Lear.

Q: Some Luck is the first of a trilogy. Are the other two books finished?

A: Yes. I need to fiddle with the last 5 years.

Q: Which books influenced you as a girl? Little House on the Prairie?

A: That series was read to me as a kid. The books that had the most influence on me were the ones I read as a 13-14 year old: Giants in the Earth, David Copperfield, The Web of Life.

Here is a video of the reading.

SOME LUCK by Jane Smiley


This fall, Jane Smiley released Some Luck, the first in a trilogy about a midwestern family, the Langdons. Smiley will ultimately publish three books about the family covering the years 1920-2020, with each chapter dedicated to one year. This first installment – Some Luck – covers the years 1920-1953.

The Langdons are made up of a couple – Walter and Rosanna – and their five children Frank, Joey, Lilian, Henry and Claire. They live on a farm in a rural town in Iowa called Denby. When the book opens, Walter and Rosanna are young parents, and Walter is trying to make a living as a farmer. Some Luck follows the family through the births of the five children, the Depression, World War II, and the 50s, as the kids grow up and start to have their own lives. Frank spends four years in the Army in Europe, where he escapes death many times and sees the horror of the war up close. Joey stays close to home, learning how to farm and introducing his own ideas about seeds, harvests, and machinery. Lillian marries and moves away to Washington DC, opening up the scope of the book beyond Iowa and the war.

In Some Luck, Smiley creates a memorable, diverse family, exploring each member’s inward feelings, disappointments, and hopes.    Just like in life, some years are more momentous (births, deaths, marriages) than others (Fourth of July parties, snowstorms). But each contributes important details and texture about the Langdons and their extended family. Some of the quieter and more domestic passages proved to be the ones I remembered best. I also enjoyed the historical details that gave a glimpse into daily life on a farm 100 years ago.

As it should, with 2/3 still to go, Some Luck feels unfinished. The first book covers the life arc of the family patriarch, so the closure of his story at the end is natural, but there are still many characters with many life stages ahead. The book had a slow start for me (lots of farming) but I gradually found myself getting more and more engrossed. I am looking forward to the release of books 2 and 3 so that I can pick up where I left off with the Langdons. I miss them already.

I listened to Some Luck on audio for the most part, and the performance was just OK for me. The narrator had a very particular way of talking, and it was sort of simplistic, the way you’d talk to a child. That narration was OK for the early chapters about little kids, but it felt out of sync with the more serious parts of the book. I also didn’t like some of the different tones she took on for different characters – I’d rather she had just read all the voices the same. I think I enjoyed the parts of the book that I read more than those I listened to.

Overall – strong start to what promises to be a rewarding trilogy. Tomorrow, I will post my notes from a Q&A I attended with Jane Smiley this fall.

THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare

Our November Mother-Daughter Book Club pick was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I had never read it when I was my girls’ age, so this one was new to me.


The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens when Kit Tyler, a 16 year-old who has grown up in Barbados, arrives in Connecticut after taking a five-week boat trip from her home. Her grandfather, with whom she lived, has passed away, and her only remaining family is an aunt living in the American colonies.

From the moment she arrives in Connecticut, Kit is aware of how different she is from her Puritan family. Her rich, colorful dresses are a stark contrast to the grey, simple muslins worn by her cousins. Kit grew up swimming and reading secular books, both of which are unheard of in her uncle’s strict household, and her lack of interest in the church sermons and readings to which she is subjected provide a constant source of tension with those around her.

After her arrival, Kit is terribly homesick until she discovers the Meadows on the outskirts of town, and an old woman named Hannah who lives in a modest house there. Hannah is wise, patient and kind, but she has been run out of town because she is a Quaker and people believe she is a witch. Kit comes to care deeply for Hannah, but she has to keep their friendship a secret because she has been prohibited by her uncle from visiting the Meadows and seeing her. When their friendship is exposed, Kit must decide how much she will risk to protect Hannah, and she has to face the consequences of her actions when the town turns on her too.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about leadership, fundamentalism, standing up for one’s beliefs, adherence to social norms, and religious freedom. (There are also some love stories threaded through the book). It kept my daughters’ attention and provided lots of fodder for discussion. The girls found several characters to admire (and a few to hate), and everyone agreed that Kit was more brave than they would have been in her shoes. I liked that most of the characters were multi-dimensional, even if they seemed closed-minded and rigid at first. There is also a lot of detail about life in Colonial America and some exploration of how the colonists broke free of England and the Royalists.

I highly recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond for middle grade readers. It is a palatable dose of history and ethics that goes down very smoothly and provides a great springboard for conversation.