Posts Tagged contemporary fiction

book review: Before Everything

32970440Before Everything by Victoria Redel. Viking| June 2017| 288 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9780735222571

RATING: ***/5*

In hospice for cancer, Anna’s old childhood friends gather at her house. Before Everything moves from present to past to provide the reader with details about each woman’s connection to Anna. Comfort, support and nostalgia connect this group of friends. Each woman has a specific relationship with Anna and with each other and then as a group. There’s the group think and then the individual’s thoughts. Whenever the novel veered into the precious and perfect I lost interest. Lovely crisp writing kept me reading. Author Victoria Redel powerfully chronicles Anna’s battle with cancer and hospice care and dying. This aspect of the novel interested me most. On fear of dying: “That was what Helen had never asked, what over all these years of treatment and periods of health Helen and The Old Friends have trained themselves not to ask. It was a tacit agreement. The answer was too obvious; it loomed in each moment’s specific worry.”

Despite caring so much there’s still a level of competition between the friends: “But Helen knows the answer. She’s known it since she arrived two weeks ago and began her adamant petition to pull Anna from hospice. She knew it back at the pond when she agreed to help Anna if Anna asked. Helen’s job all these years was to keep Anna away from fear and close to the yes. But Anna is not afraid. Again, Anna is doing something before Helen. It has always been this way. Boys. Drugs. Marriage. Children. Even the pregnancy that Anna ended. Over and over. Anna went first. Now this.”

I appreciated the realistic description of outsider views of these old friends: “He was glad for her yelp. Any dose of dark humor was better than all the treacly concern he heard from her visitors.” A newer friend thought: “The Old Friends. Whatever they called themselves, there was always a pecking order. Pretty pathetic considering the circumstance.” When my friend’s mom fought cancer, some of her friends kind of pushed my mom away when my mom wanted to help. I can’t imagine still being so connected to childhood friends. At every phase of my life I’ve lost friends and made new friends. I maintained friendships with high school friends into college and some college friends post-college and sure I am still connected to some high school and college friends via Facebook but if I really needed someone would these friends be there for me? The novel started strong and petered out toward the end. It seemed too much, these women and their near perfect lives and near perfect friendships. At the last high school reunion I attended a friend said that it was impossible to know what other classmates had endured despite outward appearances to the contrary. I get it. Unfortunately, I lost a connection to the various characters.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Viking.

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book review: On Turpentine Lane

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On Turpentine Lane  by Elinor Lipman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| February 2017| 305 pages | $24.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-80824-9

RATING: ****/5*

Faith Frankel, a thirty-two-year-old single woman, moved back to her hometown and works in stewardship at her alma mater, a private school. She recently purchased a house with a questionable history. Faith’s fiancé quit his job to trek across the country living off of Faith’s credit cards. He’s not walking for a cause but to find himself and Faith’s rather bothered by the photos with various women  he keeps posting to social media. Faith’s father has become a painter, specifically making Chagall knock-offs and personalizing them. He becomes involved with a younger woman setting off some issues with her parents and the rest of the family (mainly Faith and her brother). While juggling her fiancés antics with her father’s new career and her mom’s meddling, her brother hustles with his snowplow business in the small western Massachusetts town.

Why someone so smart and independent would remain engaged to this unaware guy? What’s appealing about Faith is that she’s not obsessed with getting married even though she did get engaged to her boyfriend before he embarked on his cross-country walk. She enjoys her work but isn’t obsessed with it. While her friends can’t understand why Faith moved back home from Manhattan, she’s thrilled to make a cozy home on Turpentine Lane. She’s content with her straightforward comfortable career and her new house.

Author Elinor Lipman describes Faith’s position as writing thank-you notes (by hand!) to donors. I have worked in stewardship and never wrote notes by hand. But I let it go as it’s a small town and a private school and a novel. In the Q & A that arrived with the press materials for the novel there’s this question: “Faith works at a private school as Director of Stewardship. Is that a real job?” Do people, particularly in publishing and writing, not know about it? At another point in the novel there’s mention of a landline. I don’t know anyone under 50 who still uses a landline.

The local police keep searching Faith’s basement for murder evidence based on an anonymous tip. After finding a creepy photo album in her attic, Faith invites her handsome coworker, who recently split with his live-in girlfriend, to become her housemate. It’s not long before the longtime friends become romantically involved. Her brother and her mother end up helping Faith investigate the strange photo album and its connection to the past owner. This all sounds rather madcap and it could go terribly awry. In Lipman’s hands it’s a clever and delightful read.

A native of Massachusetts, Lipman graduated from Simmons College. I am also an alumna. I’ve read every one of Lipman’s novels. My favorite is The Inn at Lake Devine. I also really like Isabel’s Bed and Then She Found Me (which was adapted into a film starring Helen Hunt). Her novels tend to be witty, engaging and feature multifaceted, appealing and flawed female characters. Is there any more intriguing kind of woman? If you’re looking for a sharp and entertaining read, On Turpentine Lane will definitely satisfy.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Elinor Lipman will read at Porter Square Books, Cambridge, Mass. on Thursday, March 2, 2017.

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STEELE PICKS: Best Books of 2016

quite delayed on posting my year-end list.

here are the best books of 2016 [not ranked]:

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An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]
–gorgeous writing, sad story. resilience. My parents got divorced when I was around the same age and I only have a few isolated or vague memories.

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Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]
David Kushner’s older brother Jon disappeared one day on a bike ride to get candy and two men savagely murdered him, sodomized him postmortem and mutilated his body. It’s a horrific event to happen in one’s family. Only four at the time, Kushner didn’t quite understand the full impact. He missed his brother but didn’t know the complete details. Now a journalist, he decided to revisit the case and provide a voice for and memory of his brother. Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. full review

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Future Sex by Emily Witt [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
Future Sex reads as a fascinating sociological study on sexuality that delves into orgasmic mediation, internet porn, webcams, Burning Man and polyamory. Witt combines personal experience with research and reporting in a darkly amusing, honest and real manner. Witt investigates sites I’d barely heard of: Chaturbate; Porn Hub; Kink.com; Fetlife. She attends an orgasmic mediation workshop [looked up on YouTube and there are tutorials] and travels to Burning Man. She interviews tons of people such as polyamorous Google employees, the founder of OKCupid, a 19-year-old webcammer as well as a woman who creates female-centered porn. Witt doesn’t make a spectacle of what may be absurd. Instead she writes analytically, astutely with brevity and a sharp edge. full review.

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Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson [Harper]
A former ballet dancer, Wilson provides intimate details about New York’s ballet scene. While this isn’t solely a novel about the ballet world, girls straddling the line between youth and adulthood provides fascinating reading. The novel flawlessly describes the razor sharp focus on becoming the best, earning a particular status and securing one’s place in this strange world overflowing with beauty and sacrifice. And what happens to all those girls who aren’t’ quite the best? Those girls who do not make the right school or earn a place in a prestigious ballet company? This absorbing, riveting novel does what a wonderful novel can do: it completely transports readers to a specific time and place in such an effective and specific manner that one thinks about the subject and characters well past finishing the last page. full review.

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Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]
Returning to Bakerton, Pennsylvania—the setting for the 2005 best-selling novel Baker Towers—author Jennifer Haigh again focuses on an energy source and its effects on a small community. full review.

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Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
–phenomenal writing. for some reason I waited to read this (maybe because it’s quite long and dense). immediately engulfed in the story of a family coming apart. numerous other elements including being Jewish and Middle East politics. amazing.

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Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical fiction novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. full review.

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Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon [Viking]
An engrossing and gorgeous work of historical fiction, this novel effectively weaves together issues of class, feminism, wealth, power, mental illness and motherhood. The setting: Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a working class fishing community as well as a lovely coastal summer getaway for Boston’s wealthy. In 1917, the unwed teenage daughter of a wealthy family abandons her newborn daughter under a pear tree outside her uncle’s estate on Cape Ann. A decade later, Beatrice finds herself unexpectedly reunited with the Irish woman raising the determined and spunky Lucy Pear. full review.

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Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown [NAL]
–The novel focuses on a strong mother-daughter relationship. Brown incorporates historical details which strengthen the plot, setting and characters. For instance in a meeting Rose attends, she urges her comrades to write letters to their Senators to repeal 1924’s Johnson-Reed Act which instituted quotas on the number of Jews that could enter America. While Rose and Dottie don’t share every detail with each other they’ve developed a solid bond and care deeply about each others well-being. Mother and daughter respect and support each other. Despite the decade, the restrictions against women and standard domestic expectations, these women remain strong feminist characters. A sequel set 10 or 15 years on would be greatly welcomed. These characters must be followed up on. Clear your schedule and brew a pot of tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. full review.

the other woman

The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]
This novel bursts with intellectual prowess. It’s witty, provocative and thoughtful about money, class, what it is to have less and desire more, to be educated and smart but not particularly suited to anything. Swedish author Therese Bohman examines societal expectations of what makes a complete life: a good job; a happy coupling; a nice place. All the things by which we define ourselves but realize the innate superficiality of it all. If we focus on the having and not the feeling and the experiencing then we lack integrity, depth and strength of character. full review.

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Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
Pull Me Under is an exquisitely dark psychological thriller which examines identity and place through its compelling protagonist and story. read my complete review.

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Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]
–lovely historical fiction set in Boston. Author Kathleen Tessaro adeptly describes both the immigrant North End and wealthy mansions with vivid detail. Superb writing and research merge to tell this wonderful story. a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.

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The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]
–There’s that saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover. Book covers visually connect a potential reader to the book. The cover image makes you wonder what the book will be about. A beautiful, cool book cover sets expectations. On the cover of The Sun in Your Eyes is a photo of two women with a definite 70s rocker chic. What’s going on between these two women? It’s a 1974 photograph by William Eggleston and drew me right in. I’d also just seen the photo in the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me which features this photo. The blonde was Alex Chilton’s girlfriend. full review.

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The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]
–I’ve been a vegan for about eight years and am not too thin. Due to psychiatric meds I need to lose weight. I stopped eating red meat at 12!/everything but fish at 18 then went vegetarian to vegan. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad. Otherwise, the writing is great. It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing.

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge [Algonquin]
–a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. In 1990, a family relocates from Dorchester, Massachusetts to the Berkshires to teach sign language to a chimpanzee at the Toneybee Institute for Great Ape Research. full review.

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book review: Love May Fail

love may fail

Love May Fail By Matthew Quick.
Harper| June 2015|401 pages |$25.99| ISBN: 978-0-06228-5560

Rating: ***/5*

This is my first novel by Matthew Quick. Having liked the film Silver Linings Playbook, I expected to enjoy this much more than I did. It’s a quick read with resonating themes of redemption and second chances. Portia Kane finds herself at a crossroads. She’s in her 40s living in Florida with her adult film director husband. Of her husband Ken, Portia admits: “He wants to be my emotional pimp—the owner of my heart.” Finally his dalliances with younger women drive Portia to head home to her hoarder mom in New Jersey. Fond memories of her high school teacher Nate Vernon instilled hopes in Portia that she might one day become a writer. He gave all his students ‘member of the human race’ cards at year’s end with inspirational messages which Portia always carries with her still. Life intervened and Portia finds herself miserable and unfulfilled. Is it too late for Portia to pursue her goals?

Portia Kane: “How did I end up so seduced by money, living in a tropical palace of marble floors, twenty-foot ceilings, cathedral archways, palm trees, crystal chandeliers, lap pool, hand-carved furniture, and high-end stainless steel appliances—all of which make my childhood dwelling look like a mud hut that barnyard animals would refuse to enter?”

Meanwhile a scandal drove Nate Vernon to retreat to the Vermont mountains. After meeting and later corresponding with a nun on her flight home, Portia decides that to re-align the universe, she must convince Mr. Vernon to return to teaching. In New Jersey Portia encounters her former friend’s younger brother, Chuck Bass, a sweet guy who ran into drug issues in the past and now also finds himself buoyed by thoughts of their high school English teacher. The ex-heroin addict currently pursues a teaching career complicated by his shaky past. Portia and Chuck bond with memories for 80s metal and this elusive teacher–“What do you do when the person you admire most literally turns his back on you?”

Love May Fail dragged at times. There’s a high school teacher in crisis and a nun –so religion in plenty which rarely interests me. I’m fine with unlikeable characters as everyone in the world isn’t likeable to everyone but I need these unlikeable characters to be well-written and compelling. I appreciated the characters of Portia Kane and Chuck Bass and would have preferred the entire novel told from their points-of-view. I found myself skimming the high school teacher and nun chapters. This isn’t the type of novel where the author writes short chapters from varying viewpoints. Instead we don’t get to Mr. Vernon until part two 100 pages in and carry on with him for about 100 pages. When Mr. Vernon thinks that his dog is Albert Camus reincarnated and begins talking to him, it’s a tongue-in-cheek existentialism moment for the novel and it just went too far. More moments could’ve been explored instead—Portia’s hoarder mom for instance.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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book review: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

life and death of sophie stark

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark By Anna North.
Blue Rider Press| May 19, 2015|288 pages |$26.95| ISBN: 978-0399173394

Rating: *****/5*

Want an engrossing read for the weekend? This book grabbed my attention from its title, cover and first pages. I was captivated and couldn’t stop reading. It’s a fascinating novel about creativity, artists, fitting in and being satisfied with success, fame and how we perceive ourselves and how we want others to understand us. Sophie Stark, who changed her name to suit her persona, is a renowned and elusive filmmaker. She makes enigmatic and often strikingly sad, honest films that strip bare the characters and dig into their psyches.

Author Anna North creatively writes through various viewpoints of those close to Sophie at some point or another– Sophie’s girlfriend Allison; her songwriter boyfriend Jacob (later husband); an older film producer George; former college crush Daniel and her brother Peter. Daniel describes Sophie: “She was that kind of alternative girl with a camera. She’s a director now.” Sophie has a strange magnetic control over all these individuals by simultaneously annoying them [“Her voice wasn’t rude, just flat, without feeling.”]; scaring them [“Sophie was worse than I’d thought, further away from normal. The coldness I’d seen in her movies wasn’t something she just called up every now and then to help her with a scene; it was the way she was.”] and interesting them [“I think she knew that I still loved her and that‘d be flattered that she needed me.”]. Sophie wasn’t well-liked in college or high school. She never fit in. She’s offbeat and stand-offish even when trying to market her films. She just doesn’t seem to care. But yet she does. She wants to be liked. She wants people to understand her through her films. Her brother says: “I realized then that Sophie did care what other people thought—at least, she liked to be praised.”

Sophie manages to get those close to her to reveal dark, personal moments and memories and then exploits them through her film-making. Jacob admits: “At the same time, I wanted to hold Sophie’s interest. I felt like I was performing for her—I didn’t know whether it was a good performance or a bad one, but I didn’t want to stop. And I didn’t like the way Sophie was looking at me, like she’s given me a challenge I was failing to rise to.” Allison starred in Marianne based on her experience being raped in her hometown in West Virginia. She thinks: “I’d gone to so much trouble to tell a good story about my life, a story that was exciting and didn’t make me look bad, and now the cast and crew and anyone who saw the movie would see the other story anyway. They would see me letting Peter do something I didn’t want; they would see me fearful and helpless and struggling.” This is Anna North’s second novel. The first, America Pacifica, came out in 2011. She’s a currently a staff editor at The New York Times and has been a writer and editor at Jezebel, BuzzFeed, and Salon.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Net Galley.

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