Category Archives: Fiction

THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Our January mother-daughter book club read was The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. It’s an old-fashioned type of book about England during WWII that was published in 2015 and written by an American author who lives in Tennessee and .

The War That Saved My Life is about Ada, a girl born with a clubfoot to a monster of a mother in London. Because she cannot walk due to her deformed foot, her mother has kept her inside a small flat for her whole life, never providing her with crutches or even a pair of shoes. Ada spends her life watching kids out her window and waiting for her little brother Jamie to arrive home from school. Her mother is unspeakably cruel, depriving her of affection, food and stimulation, and occasionally locking her in a roach-infested cabinet under the sink for small transgressions.

When Jamie is given the opportunity to go to Kent in the English countryside to wait out the war, his mother decides to send him but keep Ada behind. Ada instead accompanies Jamie to the train and goes with him to Kent. They are passed over by all of the families who have agreed to take in evacuees, and end up at the home of Susan Smith, a single woman who keeps to herself. Under Susan’s care, Ada learns to live.

After cleaning up the kids and feeding them proper amounts of food, Susan slowly starts building up Ada’s confidence and teaching her about how to interact with the world. As the book progresses, their relationship deepens. Susan has her own demons – she has been ostracized by the town and disowned by her father, presumably because of her sexual preference – but she sees Ada for who she is: a bright girl who has been severely deprived through her life and who deserves respect and opportunity.

The tension ratchets up as the German bombs get closer to Kent and evacuated children begin returning to London. Will Ada and Jamie stay in Kent with Susan, or will their mom show up and lay claim to them?

I liked The War That Saved My Life a lot, as did the girls and moms in our book club. There was a lot to discuss about Ada and Jamie and how they responded to life with Susan. Were they likable? Sympathetic? Was there anything redeeming abut the mother? Would we have taken in evacuated children? How would we have responded to such a dramatic change in our lives?

I listened to half of The War That Saved My Life on audio and read the other half. I liked the narrator, who had a plucky British accent that made Ada seem perhaps a little happier than she really was. But it was a good production and I enjoyed the audio a lot. I needed to finish the book quickly so I chose to read the second half rather than listen to it.

Overall The War That Saved My Life was a good pick for book club and seemed to have been enjoyed by everyone. It’s a good piece of historical fiction for the middle grade set.

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal

If you think you share my taste in books, based on reading this blog or knowing me in real life, then I highly recommend you check out J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens Of The Great Midwest. I suspect that it will be one of the top two or three books I read in 2017. It’s that good.

Kitchens Of the Great Midwest follows the life and career of Eva Thorvald, a girl born in Minnesota to a chef with a very refined taste for ingredients and the preparation of food. The story is told through chapters that jump forward in time, and Eva is often just a bit player in those chapters. Stradal changes the focal character each chapter, though characters recur throughout the whole book. Each chapter also features a different ingredient – sweet pepper jelly or venison, for example – which is central to the plot of that chapter. And those ingredients also become a part of Eva’s life and her history. Eva evolves into becoming a world-renowned chef with a sought-after pop-up dinner party that ultimately costs $5,000 per person, and the book culminates in a dinner that incorporates each of the ingredients from the preceding chapters.

I didn’t expect to like Kitchens Of The Great Midwest as much as I did. I don’t generally like books with “quirky” characters or books that focus on food. I’m not much of a foodie. But I absolutely loved this book. Stradal is a beautiful writer with excellent pacing and an unexpected edginess that I adored. (“Since then, he seldom came to mind; she’d thought of him only when she’d made certain mistakes with men in her unmarried years, and the Napa Cabs and Central Coast Pinots he introduced her to had their sentimental associations smudged away after years of repeated exposure.”) Each character was beautifully fleshed out, even the ones who only showed up for one chapter. And if you’re from the Midwest, I think you’ll love this even more than I did.

The structure of the book may be unusual, but it worked beautifully here. I couldn’t wait to see who would show up next.

I listened to the first half of Kitchens of the Great Midwest on audio, and then I couldn’t resist and had to finish the rest in print (though I read it slowly and in limited bursts so as to draw it out). The audio was fantastic, with some chapters narrated by Michael Struhlbarg and some by Amy Ryan (you may remember her as Michael Scott’s girlfriend on “The Office”). I especially liked the narration in “Venison” – authentic accents and a lot of sympathy for the characters. I loved the audiobook and I loved the print.

What a treasure this book is.

WATCHING EDIE by Camilla Way

The first book I finished this year was Camilla Way’s Watching Edie, a suspense novel about two friends who reconnect twenty years after a tumultuous summer that destroyed their friendship and forever changed their lives.

9780735207363Edie, a thirty-three year-old woman living in London, is facing a pregnancy as a single mother with few friends or connections. When she’s at a vulnerable spot before the baby arrives, Heather, a friend from high school, appears at her door. Edie is shaken and upset: what is Heather doing there? Why, after all these years, has she reappeared in Edie’s life after the demise of their friendship? After Edie’s baby daughter is born, when she is at her most vulnerable and alone, Heather appears again, taking care of Edie and the baby as Edie slips into a deep post-partum depression. Edie eventually emerges from the depression and is shocked by the control Heather now has on her life. She ejects her from her apartment and manages to pull herself together.

Meanwhile, Way threads the women’s history through the narrative, flashing back to their high school years and teasing out what happened to cause their estrangement.

I find that reading thrillers like Watching Edie is like inhaling a bag of movie popcorn. It’s addictive and tastes good as you’re doing it, but in the end you feel empty and a little ill. I think Way is a good writer, and I got drawn into this story quickly and was quite sympathetic toward Edie. (Way’s depiction of PPD alone is chilling.) The last chapter, however, when you find out what happened between the two women, was disappointing. The big reveal, while quite upsetting, wasn’t the shock I was expecting. Everything ended very suddenly with the novel taking a sharp turn away from what came before.

There were also some details early in the book that didn’t make sense in retrospect, but I won’t address them here because I don’t want to spoil the story.

I listened to Watching Edie mostly on audio, and I thought the two narrators, Fiona Hardingham and Heather Wilds, did an excellent job. Their accents and voices were easy to distinguish and they really established the two women’s personalities well. I was so engrossed in the audiobook that I eventually picked up the print version and just finished it off so that I could get to the ending more quickly. (Popcorn.)

Not a bad start to the year of reading, but I think I am swearing off thrillers for a while.

 

 

ALLY HUGHES HAS SEX SOMETIMES by Jules Moulin

24501369My final read of 2016 was the (unfortunately named) Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes by Jules Moulin. It’s a light read about Ally Hughes, a professor and single mother in her early 40s with a twenty-year old daughter named Lizzie. When Lizzie was ten, she went to stay at her grandmother’s house so that Ally, then an economics/women studies professor at Brown, could grade papers all weekend. While Lizzie was gone, Ally ended up hooking up with Jake, one of her former students who had come over to do some household repairs for her. Over the course of the weekend together, Ally fell for him, despite their age difference and the fact that he had been her student. Ally decides not to pursue him, though, because she doesn’t want to lose her job and she’s focused on being a mother.

Ten years later, Jake is now Noah, an A-list actor with a new name and an impressive list of credits. Ally, who doesn’t pay attention to pop culture or technology, has no idea who Noah is when he shows up at her house for dinner one night, accompanying Lizzie. She is shocked to find her former crush, Jake, in her kitchen. But is Jake surprised? Or has he orchestrated the evening just to get back in touch with Ally?

Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes was easy to finish, which is what I needed in these waning hours of the year. But it’s a somewhat silly story. Jake is just too good to be true, and Moulin tried too hard to make Ally seem “complicated”. Lizzie was self-absorbed and annoying, despite a twist at the end that shows that she’s actually pretty smart. The dialogue was unrealistic and confusing at times, and there were characters and references who floated in and and out and/or made no sense. It’s basically a romance novel with a little bit of edge.

Again, this was a light read that served its purpose. Not the most fulfilling, but quick and fun and sorta cute.

THE RISEN by Ron Rash

risen-hc-cHow have I not read anything by Ron Rash before?

The Risen is my first foray into Rash’s Appalachia, and hopefully won’t be my last. It is about the summer of 1969, when a young woman comes to a small town in North Carolina and upends the lives of two brothers, Bill and Eugene. She disappears shortly after the summer ends, and when her dead body is discovered 45 years later, Bill and Eugene finally confront what happened that summer between them and the woman, and also the role they played in her ultimate demise.

The Risen is told very simply. It is narrated by Eugene, and jumps back and forth between the present and that fateful summer. Details are teased out slowly throughout the book, about Eugene’s troubled, alcoholic life and ruined relationship with his daughter; about Bill and Eugene’s strict, domineering grandfather; about how the brothers’ roles as kids persists throughout their lives.

Despite its short length, the story is a rich and complicated one, with a few twists along the way. It’s about loyalty and responsibility, resentment and disappointment, and how lives can be irrevocably changed in one summer and set on immutable courses for years to come. I finished it a few days ago, but I keep thinking about it, discovering new dimensions and connecting new threads.

I highly recommend The Risen and plan to check out more of Rash’s books.

I listened to the first 2/3 of The Risen on audio, and it was excellent. The narration by Richard Ferrone was *perfect*. I can’t say enough about how well-cast this production was. Ferrone captured Eugene’s passion and shame just perfectly, with a deep, passionate voice that had just the hint of a tremble in it. He’s best known as a thriller and mystery narrator, which makes sense, though he added the perfect dose of romanticism to troubled, dreamy Eugene. Huge props to the audio version of The Risen – I was sorry not to have had the opportunity to listen to the last third.

 

 

BOOKED by Kwame Anderson

41zviprzzyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Our December Mother-Daughter book club read was Booked by Kwame Anderson. It’s the story of Nick, a seventh grader dealing with the demise of his parents’ marriage, a crush on a classmate, a budding soccer career and bullying.

What makes Booked interesting is that the story is told in verse. This style highlights Nick’s emotions and inner dialogue, which makes it all more poignant and genuine. What could have been a somewhat unremarkable litany of middle school woes becomes transformed into something lovelier. Nick’s father is obsessed with words – he even wrote a dictionary – and while Nick feels burdened by his father’s requirement that he read the dictionary, he too is a gifted linguist and finds power in expressing himself. He ends up joining a book club (because the girl he likes is in it) and finding some escape through reading as well.

Booked was a quick and interesting read, and our group of 7th graders found enough to talk about – what role did the quirky librarian play? Were the adults in Nick’s life paying enough attention to what he was going through? How did the use of poetry change their feelings about the book? What was in the mysterious dragonfly box? In the end it probably won’t be our most memorable book of the year, but for the verse alone it was a good choice.

We have identified a theme running through many of our book club books this year: kids being left to themselves to deal with some weighty problems, and adults generally being unaware and unhelpful. While this theme is a bit frustrating – we adults aren’t that bad! – it makes sense. How else to present adolescent protagonists who grapple and grow throughout the book? I am curious to see if this theme will continue into 2017.

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben Winters

winters_undergroundairlines_hcUnderground Airlines by Ben Winters imagines an America where the Civil War never took place. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while fighting to abolish slavery, and modern day America is now made up of 46 states where slavery is illegal and 4 Southern states where it is not.

The narrator, Victor, was a slave in a meat processing plant in one of the Hard Four, and he managed to escape several years before the book opens. He was eventually caught in Chicago, but instead of going back to the factory, he made a deal with the U.S. Marshals: he’ll become a slavecatcher – someone who tracks down runaways – and has a chip inserted into his neck so that the government can always find him. He’s free, but not free. He’s a slave, but not a slave.

When Underground Airlines opens, Victor has been assigned to find a runaway in Indianapolis. As the case evolves, he discovers details missing that suggest that the man he is looking for – Jackdaw – is not the typical runaway slave. From there, Victor is drawn into an increasingly complex web of underground abolitionists, double agents, unethical government agencies and people willing to give up their lives to the cause of undermining the slave economy. He finds himself ultimately returning to the South and going back “behind the fence” to try to solve the case, although who he is working for – and whose directions he is following – shifts throughout the book, keeping the reader guessing.

I commend Winters on the creativity behind Underground Airlines. His depiction of institutionalized slavery is chilling and deeply offensive, but also sadly realistic. He included the fictional legislation ensuring slavery will continue legally into perpetuity, and also traced the global economic forces brought on by U.S. slavery and their ramifications throughout the 46 free states. I am always impressed with writers of dystopian fiction who are able to conjure up whole worlds different from our own and convey many layers and levels of those societies.

Victor was a complex and interesting character, and I also liked being in his head.

I am not a big fan of thrillers, so I wasn’t as crazy about the parts of the book involving escapes and gunfights and beatings and violence. Not my thing. It wasn’t gratuitous in Underground Airlines– slavery is violent – but again, not my favorite thing to read. That said, the violence was relatively contained so I was able to get through the book. I also had trouble tracking a few of the plot twists, but ultimately, I think I understood it. There’s a pretty big reveal at the end that explains why the stakes were so high in this particular recon mission, and I am proud to say that I followed it! Yay me.

I listened to Underground Airlines on audio, and the narration by William DeMerritt was SO good. His ability to transform realistically into so many different characters – white or black, young or old – was pretty amazing (though I didn’t love his narration of a female character named Martha). He did an excellent job with this book, conveying Victor’s anger, helplessness and intelligence as needed throughout the story, and like Victor, he never lost his cool or his consistency. I highly recommend the audiobook of Underground Airlines.

This was a pretty good read, overall. I am not sure I would have picked it up had I known it was as much a thriller as dystopian/moderately realistic fiction, but I am still glad I read it. Thought-provoking, especially at a time when so many of our institutions seem to be at risk.