Category Archives: Fiction

STANDARD DEVIATION by Katherine Heiny

I had high hopes for Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny after reading her collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow. I loved those stories for their snarky humor and incisive honesty about relationships. Standard Deviation is a novel, and I was excited to read it based on its synopsis: Graham, a man in his 50s, is torn between lingering feelings about his restrained ex-wife, Elspeth, and his larger-than-life current wife, Audra.

Sadly, I was disappointed by Standard Deviation. Heiny is as snarky and observant in this book as she was in her novels, but the underlying tension here just didn’t work for me. First, Audra is basically a caricature and incredibly annoying. I had a hard time seeing how Graham could be so besotted. The whole subplot of Audra’s infidelity was never really resolved, which also seemed unrealistic to me. Graham didn’t want to lose her, but he also didn’t seem the type to just sweep it under the rug. His relationship with Elspeth was odd, to say the least, and she too didn’t seem the type to hang out with her ex-husband and his current wife as much as she did, notwithstanding her coldness and snark.

And not too much happens in the book either. There is a lot of day-to-day commentary about Audra and Graham’s lives in New York City, as well as the challenges of parenting a son with Asperger’s. Much of that commentary is funny – some of it even brilliant – but without the propulsion of a compelling plot to get me through, reading Standard Deviation was a bit of a slog. I was happy to be done.

If you want to try Katherine Heiny, check out Single, Carefree, Mellow first. This one didn’t do it for me.

ONE OF THE BOYS by Daniel Magariel

One Of The Boys by Daniel Magariel is a bleak, dark book. It’s about two boys who move with their father from Kansas to New Mexico to “escape” their mother, whom their father has left. The father paints the mother to be their enemy and insists that the three of them are now a pack, and that they must each be loyal: “one of the boys”. He says they will have a fresh start in New Mexico, where their father rents an apartment and works as a financial advisor from home on “the big account”.

The boys – one in high school and one in middle school – try to be positive and hopeful about their futures. But slowly they start to notice things about their father – how secretive he is, his erratic behavior, the people who come and go at strange hours. It quickly becomes apparent that the father is an addict. He becomes less reliable and engaged with their lives, leaving them to parent themselves and him at the same time. He abuses both boys – psychologically, emotionally and physically – and pits them against each other to weaken their bond. Meanwhile, they try to navigate their father’s moods and stay on his good side, while taking care of themselves and going to school.

One Of The Boys will break your heart. These poor defenseless kids, left with an addict of a father, try desperately to find a way out, only to be boxed in both physically and emotionally. It’s a harrowing, stressful read, without much of a resolution. Magariel is a very good writer – realistic and moving, while accurately capturing the perspective of a middle school narrator. One Of The Boys is a quick but powerful read. I know it sounds really bleak, but I am so glad I read it.

 

EVERY DAY by David Levithan

Our last mother-daughter book club pick of this year was Every Day by David Levithan. This isn’t the type of book I usually read, because it’s sort of sci-fi/fantasy, but I am definitely glad I did because I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The narrator of Every Day is A, a 16 year-old boy and/or girl who wakes up every day in someone else’s body. (In this review, I am going to use “he”, but he is sometimes a girl and sometimes a boy). He has never lived more than one day in the same person’s body; at midnight every night, he finds himself someplace else. When the 24-hour period is up, the person whose body he has inhabited “wakes up” and remembers some of what occurred during that day, but not what s/he was thinking or why s/he acted how s/he did.

When Every Day opens, A has inhabited the body of Justin, a 16-year old boy in Maryland who’s pretty much a jerk. He mistreats his girlfriend, Rhiannon, and is generally unpleasant, selfish and insensitive. A, however, falls in love with Rhiannon. A (as Justin) and Rhiannon go on a date, where he is tuned in, affectionate and emotionally open with Rhiannon, and they connect in a way that Justin and Rhiannon rarely do anymore. At midnight, of course, A takes up residence in someone else’s body, while Justin goes back to his boorish ways.

The rest of Every Day is about A’s relentless attempts to get back to Rhiannon. He commandeers his hosts (all of whom live in Maryland as well) and spends every day finding ways to get to her town and interact with her. Eventually, he confides in her about who he is, letting her into a world that he has shared with no one since he was born. His is a very lonely existence, and his connection with Rhiannon is the closest thing to a relationship that he has ever experienced. Of course, for Rhiannon, it’s immensely frustrating; she’s in love with a person (a boy? a girl?) whose presence is entirely unreliable and ever-changing.

Along the way, there are poignant chapters where A ends up in the body of an immigrant housecleaner, a suicidal girl, a home-schooled boy who takes care of his siblings, and on and on. The only constants are A’s email account, where he takes notes about where he has been, and his feelings for Rhiannon.

Every Day is a clever and compelling book. I usually avoid plotlines that are not realistic, but this one captivated me. I really felt for A and the bizarre predicament he was in, and I thought Levithan’s exploration of the permutations and ramifications of A’s body-snatching – both for him and for his hosts – was really well done.

This is YA fiction, but I liked it a lot. It’s no surprise that A is 16 years old, given the audience for the book. (I’d love to see a forty-something version!) The love shared by A and Rhiannon is a little shallow and a little quick, but again, it’s YA fiction. I liked the broader messages about acceptance of differences and the importance of seeing life through other people’s eyes. Unfortunately, not too many people read the book before our meeting so we didn’t have our usual robust mom/daughter discussion this time, but the few girls who read it liked it a lot. There is also a sequel, Another Day, which tells the same story from Rhiannon’s perspective.

Every Day was one of my favorite mother-daughter book club reads of the year, and I highly recommend it. Maybe a good summer reading choice for a teenager (or grownup!) with some time on his or her hands?

 

STARTUP by Doree Shafrir

If you’ve ever worked for a startup or tech company, or know someone who has, or are interested in the world of app developers and Silicon Alley and raising venture money, then Startup by Doree Shafrir is for you. It’s a pretty light read, so don’t expect anything heavy or revolutionary. But it’s entertaining.

Mack McAllister is the CEO of a mindfulness app called TakeOff, based in New York City. He’s living a good life – lots of women, a successful app, hundreds of likes on his Instagram posts within minutes of putting them up. But he’s at a bit of an inflection point. He’s become increasingly emotionally attached to his head of marketing, Isabel, and he needs to raise another big round of venture capital to move TakeOff to the next level. Meanwhile, Katya Pasternak, a reporter at a tech website, is in search of a scoop. She’s getting pressure to land a big story that will bring in more than just clicks, but also glory for both herself and her employer. She’s smelling something amiss at TakeOff, and when an errant NSFW text message from Mack shows up on Isabel’s phone when Katya and Isabel are at the same party, she can’t resist pursuing the story.

I found a lot of Startup to be pretty familiar – the social media apps, the techspeak, the startup culture, the exhausted working parents – which I loved. A lot of fun for me to read. I would have liked a little more focus on the development of the app, the business model, the fundraising – the substance of the startup – but the gossip-y side stuff was fun too. In the wake of Travis Kalanick’s resignation from Uber yesterday, Startup‘s focus on CEO misbehavior was certainly timely. Mack is no Travis, and TakeOff is no Uber, but still.

Shafrir’s writing is sharp, observant and funny, and Startup was a quick and enjoyable read for me. If you’ve gotten to the end of this review and think that you’d like it, I’d go pick it up.

 

2017 Summer Reading List

One day before the last day of spring… and here is the annual EDIWTB Crowdsourced Summer Reading List! I asked my Facebook community to recommend their favorite books from the past year, and once again, they didn’t disappoint. Here’s the what they came up with.

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.

The Library At Mt. Char by Scott Hawkins

The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor

**The Girls by Emma Cline (reviewed here)

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

**Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (reviewed here)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

**The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

**Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (reviewed here)

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Fallen Land by Taylor Brown

**News Of The World by Paulette Jiles

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

**The Nix by Nathan Hill

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

**Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (reviewed here)

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The End Of Eddy by Edouard Louis

The Girls In The Garden by Lisa Jewell

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

**A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Untangled by Lisa Damour

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Harari

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

**My Name Is Lucy Barton (reviewed here) and **Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

**The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal (reviewed here)

A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable

**When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

**A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry and Beartown by Fredrik Backman

The Red Bandanna by Tom Rinaldi

Golden Son/Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown

**Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (reviewed here)

For The Love by Jen Hatmaker

Crazy Rich Asians and Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Elena Ferranta Neopolitan Series

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Circling The Sun by Paula McLain

**Before The Fall by Noah Hawley (reviewed here)

The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee (reviewed here)

The Improbability Of Love by Hannah Rothschild

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (reviewed here)

**City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

What The Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Secret History Of  Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel

The Imagination Gap by Brian Reich

Heat And Light by Jennifer Haigh

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

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

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close (reviewed here)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

4-3-2-1 by Paul Auster

Kill Process by William Hertling

**A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

Love, Africa by Jeffrey Gettleman

The Shape Of Mercy and Secrets Of A Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

The Marriage Of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (reviewed here)

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (reviewed here)

**Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here)

City Of Thieves by David Benioff (reviewed here)

**Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard (reviewed here)

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan (reviewed here)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (reviewed here)

Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson (reviewed here)

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Book Of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

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

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

All The Ugly And Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics And The Sterilization Of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen

Sons And Daughters Of Ease And Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Beautician’s Notebook by Anne Barnhill

Louise’s War by Sarah Shaber

The Darcy Monologues by Joana Starnes & others

Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani

Will Your Way Back by James Osborne

 

Happy Summer Reading! Report back and let me know what you picked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE STARS ARE FIRE by Anita Shreve

About 3/4 of the way through Anita Shreve’s latest novel, The Stars Are Fire, I lost my mind. I was listening the book on audio, without the print to go back and forth to, and I was at a point of such tension and suspense that I simply could not stop listening. The only problem is that I didn’t have the audio on my phone – only on CD – and I had no opportunity to listen to the CDs over the weekend. PANIC! How was I going to get my fix?

So here’s why I was so invested. The Stars Are Fire is about Grace, a woman in her early 20s, who is married to a gruff, unaffectionate man. The setting is Maine in 1947, and with two children and no means to support herself, Grace is trapped in her marriage. She knows that she is unhappy, but has little recourse. Then one fall, a massive fire spreads through the drought-stricken coast, and Grace’s house burns to the ground. She manages to escape and saves her children’s lives by escaping to the beach and shielding them in a boat. Gene, meanwhile, who was working further inland to prevent the fire’s spread, disappears after their town is destroyed.

With her husband gone and her house destroyed, Grace must figure out how to provide shelter and an income for her family. The Stars Are Fire is about Grace’s emerging independence and confidence, at a time when women had few freedoms. There is also the ever-present uncertainty surrounding Gene’s whereabouts and the possibility of his reappearance. Other characters come and go, some affecting Grace more than others, which bring additional dimensions to the story.

I’ve long been a fan of Shreve’s. She’s an expert storyteller with a gift for building suspense and keeping her reader interested. I HAD to know what happened to Grace, and was distracted and frustrated until I could find out.

The Stars Are Fire is not a perfect book. The end is a bit tidy, given all the buildup, and some key twists were unrealistic or too convenient. But who cares? This was a thoroughly immersive, engrossing book and I will not soon forget it.

As I mentioned, I listened to The Stars Are Fire on audio. I thought the narration by Suzanne Elise Freeman was just OK. Her delivery was a little robotic, and she made Grace harsher and more aggressive than I suspect Shreve intended. But again, I didn’t care! I just wanted to finish it. I just recommend also having the print version or ebook if you’re going to listen to this book on audio, because you will want it!

So, yes, recommended.

THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST by Ann Hood

Oh, this is a mess of a book.

Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most is about Ava, a middle-aged woman living in Providence who has a lot going on. Her husband has left her for another woman. Her troubled daughter is studying abroad in Italy, but she’s not answering Ava’s emails. She’s still dealing with residual sadness over the deaths of her younger sister and mother when she was young. And she has joined a new book club with some eligible, single men in it, two of whom seem to be interested in her.

I wish Hood’s editor had told her to pick just two plots and focus on those. Because there were simply too many stories to tell at once.

The chapters about Ava’s daughter Maggie – who it turns out is a drug addict – are harrowing. (Plus she’s a pretty hateful person.)

The chapters about the deaths of her mother and sister are sad, but that plot ends up with a twist that really makes no sense and is very unrealistic.

The chapters about the book club, whose participants each pick the book that has mattered most to them in life, had the most promise, but I hated that they all picked such predictable books (The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina) and I found the book club discussions kind of hard to follow. (Also, it appeared that no one other than the person who had picked these books had ever read them before. ??)

The chapters about the men in Ava’s life were pretty ridiculous. I’ve basically read them before in other books and they didn’t really fit in here, and when her ex-husband drifted back into her life with regret about how it all ended, I was fed up. (Where did *that* come from?) Unsatisfying.

And there are a bunch of random coincidences that tried my patience.

In the end, The Book That Matters Most didn’t hang together well and was unsatisfying. Threads were dropped and relationships were left unresolved.

Need I go on?

The best thing I found in this book was the following quote, which I loved, and will try to remember every day.

“To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first of last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”