Small Town Tumult in "Beartown", by Fredrik Backman - Book Review

If you pick up Beartown with the hopes of getting all the feels and goosebumps you got from A Man Called Ove, let me dispel you of that thought right now. What you will get is a beautifully written book that tackles a spate of complex issues.

While the thrust of the story centers around a sexual assault, author Fredrik Backman also addresses bullying, immigration, sexual orientation, the meaning of true friendship and what being honorable actually means. Seemingly about small-town living, Beartown, at its core, is about people and human survival, regardless of their locale.

Beartown: A Novel
By Fredrik Backman

Since Beartown was published, the Weinstein case and the #MeToo movement exploded into the forefront of the news and, with them, countless accusations of assaults against high powered males all across the country. Suddenly, women have felt safe coming forward and speaking about their stories of abuse. Hopefully, this global exposure will change the face of sexual harassment and abuse as we know it. 

But not in Beartown. A small, dying Swedish town where hockey is the biggest commodity, rapes simply do not occur. Especially by a star hockey player who is the only hope of leading the high school team to victory in its first-time appearance in the national championship game. Once the accusations are made by a teenage girl who was drunk at a party, the lines are drawn and drawn hard. Those who believe him, those who believe her. And those who are inclined to give the accused a pass for the 'better of the whole' because they see the outcome of the hockey game as the town’s only chance of survival.

It is infuriating yet all too similar to what is happening in our daily news. Backman writes with a deft touch about how a sexual assault can rock a community on micro and macro levels. He shows the fierce loyalty of parents who close ranks around their children and support them unwaveringly even though one of them has to be lying. He exposes how the importance of an event – in this case, a hockey championship – can be deemed vastly more important by people who should do better than a criminal investigation.

Even though the book is a couple of years old now, it is hard to imagine one more relevant in our current turbulent times. Not necessarily a feel-good read, but perhaps one that should be required.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars


War, Crime, New York, and Great Writing in "Manhattan Beach", by Jennifer Egan - Book Review

I stayed awake nights to read this.  I couldn’t wait to reach the end, then hated when it was over. It’s that good.  I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad several years ago and liked it well enough.  Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, far exceeds its predecessor. 

Egan's first work of historical fiction was diligently researched over several years, and takes place in New York as World War II breaks out. It crosses time and oceans chronicling a famous gangster longing to do good; a father entwined in a gangster’s life he cannot sustain; and our imperfect heroine, whose strengths and smarts lead her from childhood to adulthood. The war itself is a character as well, propelling the lives of those left at home to support the “innocents” sent to fight, manifesting patriotism in even the most cynical, and fastening together the diversity of New York that would otherwise remain apart.

Manhattan Beach: A Novel
By Jennifer Egan

Anna is a child when the story begins, her father, Eddie, making ends meet as a bagman for a small time gangster. A loving relationship, Eddie takes Anna along for many of his drops. This ends suddenly however, when Anna turns 14, and Eddie begins employment for one of the most prominent gangsters in New York, Dexter Styles.  A dangerous path, clearly, but it allows Eddie to financially provide for his family, including Anna’s younger, disabled sister Lydia.

One day, Eddie doesn’t return home. Years pass, and after Pearl Harbor, the war effort is in full swing. Anna fills a role in the Brooklyn Naval Yard measuring ship parts; a job much too mundane, but she enjoys being part of the war effort.  Through mighty will and perseverance, she becomes the first female naval diver, making ship repairs underneath the water’s surface.  As Anna is discovering herself as a strong woman in very much a man’s world, she navigates the extreme chauvinism of the 1940’s, acceptance of her father’s disappearance, and meeting the gangster with whom her father was involved. Along with a supporting cast gleaned from interviews of people who lived and worked in Brooklyn supporting the Naval Yard, Egan weaves their real stories into a captivating plot.

Egan’s characters are beset with intersecting conflict and humanity; her writing and pace excels. She has uncanny ability to surface and convey emotions in the subtlest of ways; possibly the best feature of her writing.  Manhattan Beach is without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

Lyrical Writing in "Sing, Unburied, Sing", by Jesmyn Ward - Book Review

Sing, Unburied, Sing is heartbreaking and intense. It is the contemporary, rural South where location and characters are inextricably intertwined. This is Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, and she is certain to become one of South’s most notable writers.

The story is of a black family in coastal Mississippi, laden with the pain of memories, disease, drugs, and obsessions.  But it’s also a story of love, survival, and deep devotion. The chapters are told from the perspective of Jojo, a sensitive, prescient thirteen-year-old and his mother, Leonie. Jojo and his three-year-old sister, Kayla are raised by Pop, their grandfather who cares for them as well as his cancer-ridden wife, Mam, and their small home and livestock.  Leonie waitresses in a bar, gets high on meth, and is consumed with her white imprisoned boyfriend, Michael, also the father of her two children.

Focusing on the struggles of each character, Ward brings racial conflict front and center - from a story of slaves kidnapped from their homes in Africa and the harrowing ship ride to America, to Pop’s time in prison as a young man trying to look after a black child who was also jailed and brutalized. And we get a glimpse into Michael’s family - enough to witness extreme prejudice, violence, and hate’s repercussions.

Tight knit, Jojo and Pop care for Kayla and Mam, and Pop tries to prepare Jojo for manhood; while Leonie works and gets high, planning for the day Michael is freed from prison. Jojo listens to Pop’s stories of growing up and of his time prison; of the boy he tried to save; and of the blood on his hands. He is haunted, and they are all plagued with ghosts in some respect. 

Ward is able to weave together the mystical - through memories and specters from the past who can’t find their way home - and a jarring reality of racism and drug addiction. This is not an easy book to read, but it is certainly worthy of the effort.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 4 Stars

The Lengths Parents Will Go for Their Children in "Harmony", by Carolyn Parkhurst - Book Review

I recommend this book to any parent. Is it a parenting book? No. Is it a how-to or a self-help? No. It isn’t even non-fiction, it is a novel about a family. A mom and a dad with one daughter who is “neurotypical” (Read: normal) and one daughter who is ultimately diagnosed with “pervasive development disorder, not otherwise specified” (Read: somewhere on the autism spectrum with possibly some ADHD, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, we’re not really sure what else or how to treat her). 

Harmony alternates being told by the precocious, younger daughter, Iris, and the adoring but barely keeping it together mom, Alexandra. The family’s journey through diagnosis and figuring out how best to care for Tilly and her issues leads them to a rural locale outside of D.C. There, they are going to help a gregarious, somewhat mysterious leader, Scott Bean, set up Camp Harmony where they will live semi-off the grid and help other families with problem children. Sound like a cult? Yeah, it did to me too.

Harmony: A Novel
By Carolyn Parkhurst

And that is the major plot line. But, at its center, this book is about the lengths parents will and must go in order to care for those ‘not’ normal children. And about how raising such children is both incredibly painful and simultaneously joyous. Because while such a child “can’t do” and “doesn’t have”, that child might also possess exceptional skills and talents that are a true wonder to experience. About how, yes, the child may be wounded on many levels but also gifted on countless others.

But, for these parents, how do they walk that precarious tight rope of praising their child’s Mensa-level brain and cringing in mortification as that same child is compelled to lick every surface in each public place they go? Parkhurst’s addressing of these issues and writing of her characters made me certain she had specifically dealt with similar circumstances. After reading up on her, I learned that she, in fact, has a son with Asperger’s and a second ‘normal’ child.

I think Harmony is a love letter to both of her children. But she writes that letter around a tense story line that keeps you turning the pages. There is some ominous foreshadowing along the way about a time ‘after’ Camp Harmony and even some brief interludes written by Tilly herself about ‘what happened.’ As you read, you’re never quite sure if Scott Bean is a Billy Graham or a Jim Jones and if the story will end in the singing of Kumbaya around the camp fire or a Jamestown – which makes it impossible to put down.

Parkhurst weaves a captivating story around a desperate family’s need to find salvation. The result is an explosive novel with a deep well of emotions that is definitely worth your time.

Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books

Elizabeth's rating 5 stars

Family Drama Well-Serialized in "The Antiques", by Kris D’Agostino - Book Review

“Nobody ever said, ‘Here’s your family. What do you think?’ You just got them. Or you didn’t get them.

Have truer words ever been spoken?

Author Kris D’Agostino spins a lovely tale in The Antiques about a modern-day family finding their way through the death, and its aftermath, of the family patriarch. Ana and George were married for a thousand years and the resentments between them were big and typical, but she finds herself lost with his passing.

The Antiques: A Novel
By Kris D'Agostino

Ana’s adult children converge on the family home in Hudson, New York, some more willingly than others. Armie just comes up from the basement, as that’s where he’s been living for the last six years. Josef, the financial prodigy AND prodigal son, drags himself away from his self-absorbed life in the city. And, Charlie, the only daughter, comes in from L.A. after throwing a tantrum of her own on her tantrum-driven movie star client. All the old family wounds are reopened and no one acts as they should, but this is real family life, albeit more drastic and eminently more humorous.

D’Agostino’s story telling seems like a literary trick. He somehow lays out his prose in a way that makes you feel as though you are the director of a film shooting each scene, watching each take, from behind the camera. He sets up vignettes that run for pages at a stretch in which each character’s role is made crucial not just through dialogue, but through location and timing as well. At the start, you can almost hear a call for ‘action,’ and at the end, one for ‘cut.’ It is a beautiful way to witness a story unfolding.

Are all the hurts erased at the end? Does everyone finally get their acts together? Probably not. But D’Agostino has that author’s knack of wrapping things up with a denouement of family camaraderie that leaves you feeling hopeful and appreciative of your own dysfunctional one.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

Dark and Moody: "The Blind Assassin", by Margaret Atwood - Book Review

It’s dark and moody. It’s a puzzle with a few missing pieces, and that last piece stays missing until you’re just about ready to throw in the towel. But then that moment of realization finally happens, and you think, really, it was there all along. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin ferries us along multiple streams - stories within a story - and brings them all together somehow.

The Blind Assassin: A Novel
By Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin is the sub-story to a greater narrative. There are two sisters, Iris and Laura, growing up wealthy, but sheltered and naive. Their mother dies early, their father struggles in business and relationships, and the girls are raised by the hired help. The sisters struggle through a series of tutors, small-town events, and their father’s dying button factory with a war and depression as the backdrop. While not worldly, older sister, Iris is practical. Laura, on the other hand is idealistic, very literal, and resists social norms for the sake of decorum.

At a young age, Iris is married off by her struggling father to an older, ’new money’ industrialist to seal a business deal. Young Laura struggles to find her place in her new environment with Iris and her husband, and both sisters have ideas of their places in the world and agendas of their own.

Within this emotional travail, another thread runs through the book, where we track two lovers meeting in secret, weaving their own story of The Blind Assassin, a science fiction adventure. Who are these paramours? And from whom are they hiding? What is the significance of this alien planet and warring creatures they’ve created?

Relaying the tale is Iris in her later years. We learn a lot from Iris about her life, her sister’s, and the events that led to her sister’s death. “It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning…” There is no one in the book who does not carry some burden of guilt of some sort. Which I suppose is real enough. Yes, it’s all rather depressing.

Atwood’s ability to undulate between the stories is expert and creative. But the book is also long and tedious at times. My feelings are mixed about it overall, but I’m curious enough to give Atwood another try since she has a long list of awards and recognition. Perhaps my expectations were too high on this one.

Published: 2000
Publisher: Anchor Books

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars

"The Done Thing", by Tracy Manaster - Book Review

A decades’ old murder. The killer on death row. The family he destroyed and left behind picks up the fractured pieces of their lives and moves forward.

The Done Thing
By Tracy Manaster

Now, his daughter Pam is grown and the family fault lines have shifted some. Aunt Lida may have raised Pam as her own but she wasn’t. And Pam may have loved Aunt Lida and Uncle Frank like her parents, but they weren’t. The frailty of these family relationships plays out blatantly in this story. When Pam and Lida’s secrets are revealed to one another, the harshness of the cause and effect on both of them threatens to tear apart their already tenuous relationship.

And while Clarence, the death row inmate, should be the only bad guy in the story, he isn’t always. The shock waves the murder sent through these people’s lives results in some unseemly behavior by characters who were initially victims.

But none of us is all bad and none all good, right? This includes the guy locked up and waiting for the needle. As much as you want the murder story to change, it doesn’t. But through the unfolding of the story, you see the weaknesses in all of the characters, not just the killer. And somehow it’s comforting. While this family’s messiness is greater than most, the familial struggles are all relatable. Love, jealousy, fear, pain. Manaster hits on all of them and tells a good yarn along the way.

No one would ever wish a similar horror on a family, but how far away are any of us, really, from taking things one step too far? A step from which there is no coming back?  

Published: 2016
Publisher: Tyrus Books

Elizabeth's rating: 3½ stars 

"The Mortifications", by Derek Palacio - Book Review

It’s 1980, and if you’re familiar at all with Florida, you remember well the Mariel boatlift, or at least the aftermath.  In case you’re not acquainted, it was an outpouring of over 100,000 Cuban refugees to Florida via harrowing seafaring voyages - dangerous and horrifying for those braving the conditions. But perhaps it was less so than remaining under the Castro regime in Cuba.

The Mortifications begins with a mother, a son, and a daughter making this trip, leaving behind their rebel father; seeking a better life in America - in Connecticut. Soledad becomes an accomplished stenographer at the county courthouse, rising through the ranks. Twins Ulises and Isabel attend catholic school; Ulises an awkward, bookish type, and Isabel poised and godly.  Soledad begins a long romance with Dutch tobacco farmer, Henri, for whom Ulises eventually works, managing his fields and laborers.

This tale encompasses the mysticism of the Encarnación family: Soledad’s insatiable sex drive during illness; Ulises’ dedication to Latin and farming; and Isabel’s unwavering loyalty to God, which she twists to conform to each unique situation in which she finds herself; and Uxbal, the father still in Cuba. It has all the makings of an epic family drama, including the weighty return to their homeland, with Henri, in search of each other and their father. All of which is where, author Derek Palacio tries to take us.

However, with all the theater and well-written prose, the story seemed lifeless, flat.  There was a third dimension - perhaps emotion - that was missing. I could neither connect with nor suspend my disbelief for each character’s unique supremacy. There were some poignant moments in the book, nonetheless - thoughtful musings at the right moments occasionally surfaced. In the end, I was left disappointed, yearning for the incontrovertible mysticism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or perhaps I’ll try something else altogether. 

Published: 2016
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books / Crown Publishing

Vickie’s rating: 2.5 stars 

Continuing the Legacy in "Everybody's Fool", by Richard Russo - Book Review

DISCLAIMER: Because of my complete Richard Russo adoration, this review could suffer from some bias.

Everybody’s Fool is the sequel to Russo’s 1993 novel, Nobody’s Fool. Since the latter goes down as my top book of all time, I approached this one with some trepidation. It was all for naught. In my mind, the new book is virtually flawless.

Set in the imaginary town of North Bath in upstate New York, Everybody’s Fool tracks most of the same characters from the first novel. This one, however, shifts the focus from Sully, who was front and center in Nobody’s Fool, and places it on Doug Raymer, the dense town cop who was routinely the butt of Sully’s shenanigans in book one. The transfer of power is appropriate, though, as Sully has mellowed in his twilight years and Raymer matures into the man he is supposed to be in book two.

Everybody's Fool: A novel
By Richard Russo

Russo’s story telling remains beyond reproach. And while everything in the book is threaded together, some chapters are so well written and self-contained they could stand alone as novellas or short stories. Take, for instance, the chapter about Rolfe Waggenengneckt (AKA Boogie Woogie) and the snakes. Without giving spoilers, know this is a rollicking side story that will have you simultaneously laughing and wondering how Russo comes up with his ideas.

The book is about everything and nothing. It follows regular people living out their lives in a small northeastern town. It touches on racism, but with gentle strokes rather than the brash in your face-ness seen so often recently. It has all the trappings of a classic tale. There is love, heartache, a villain, revenge, forgiveness, and redemption.

Didn’t read Nobody’s Fool? Doesn’t matter; although, you would do yourself a favor to do so. Russo lays enough groundwork in Everybody’s to make reading Nobody’s optional. In fact, after more than twenty years, I find it difficult to remember much of the original one. I just remember that I loved it. I loved this one too, and did a happy-sad cry at the end during that moment of bliss when a book ends just as it should.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Knopf

Elizabeth's rating: 5 stars

A Lack of Depth in "First Comes Love", by Emily Giffin - Book Review

Having been a dedicated Emily Giffin reader since her first book, Something Borrowed, I anxiously awaited the arrival of her new one, First Comes Love. Despite reading it in only a few days, I was sorely disappointed in this one.

First Comes Love follows the Garland family after the loss of their eldest son, Daniel. This is not a giveaway since you learn about his death in the first chapter. The book primarily focuses on his two younger sisters, Josie and Meredith, and how they sort through their lives after he’s gone. While the book starts with a flashback to his death, the story is set fifteen years afterwards.

The problems with this book are numerous. First, neither Josie nor Meredith is particularly likable. Josie is a former theater actor turned high maintenance lawyer who hates her job and her life, for the most part, even though it is one to be envied. And this is not a case of deep seated clinical depression gone untreated. She’s just dissatisfied and ventures out to determine why.

Josie is a self-centered elementary school teacher wallowing over failed relationships and the fact that she is fast approaching forty with no baby of her own. So, taking matters into her own hands, she begins investigating insemination despite sorely lacking maturity to be a mother.

While Giffin usually excels at character development and ferreting out the good in her otherwise flawed characters, in this book, the development feels hurried and shallow. Even as she tries to have Josie and Meredith become more self-aware and less rigid respectively, she does so with such quick strokes it isn’t believable.

Also, though many of Giffin’s books have some things left unresolved at the end, in this one, it feels as though she just got tired of writing. She tries to wrap up major life issues for the characters with a few short chapters and it simply doesn’t ring true. If her intent was to leave it open for a sequel, she failed to present an Act I worthy of warranting an Act II.

To me, the book felt as though Giffin was under the gun to get something out. She may have accomplished her goal but she gave us a book that falls well short of the standard we have come to expect. 

Published: 2016
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Elizabeth's rating: 2 stars