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

"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 

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 

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena", by Anthony Marra - Book Review

I'll get this out of the way at the start. I was teary-eyed at the end. I always love a book where the pace seems to pick up as the end nears; you don't want to finish, but cannot stop until you've reached the conclusion, no matter how much you don't want to. There is a sense of urgency that compels you forward, until the choice is no longer yours. And you're left to contemplate the memory of the events and the emotions they've stirred in you. 

Such is the wonderful writing of Anthony Marra in his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The story covers citizens victimized by the two wars of the last 25 years in former Soviet republic, Chechnya. Every step of the way, Marra elicits profound empathy for each of his characters, all of whom are broken and deeply scarred. We have multiple protagonists, and Marra slowly unfurls the psyche of each of them - of how the wars have wounded them both physically and psychologically. He brings together Russian and Muslim Chechens whose lives intersect, conflict, and weave together in unexpected ways. 

The book begins with Havaa, an eight-year-old girl who is hiding in the woods after her father, Dokka is murdered. Long time neighbor, Akhmed finds her and takes her to safety, at risk to his own life. They find safety in a battered hospital with only one doctor, Sonja, who reluctantly takes the girl in. Over a five day period, we get to know Sonja, Akhmed, and Havaa, among others; and through them, journey through their memories of pain and love; of war and exile; and of traitors and deceit. 

Marra's telling of events seems so tangible and realistic. He spent time in in Chechnya and did extensive research to write this book, giving the reader a rare and authentic connection to a region we otherwise may hear little about. He deftly brings to us the anguish and brutality of war, along with the effects of mental and physical torture, whether self-inflicted, at the hands of Russian captors, or by human smugglers. Marra carefully brings each character alive with all their shortcomings and fears, poignantly delivering the desperation and longing in each of them. He infuses moments of lightness; whimsy as it naturally occurs, whether a defense mechanism or as irony in daily life lived in turmoil.

Some of the most beautiful moments are perhaps when narrating a letter written to Havaa about her father or other passages expressed in first person. Marra uses a poetic voice, so skillfully articulating the emotion of a father's subtly expressed, yet deep devotion to his daughter. Living under the dark cloud of war, occupation, and brutality heightens the senses, dulls sensitivities, and acutely alters human behaviors. We feel them - or as close to it as we can - through A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Published: 2013
Publisher: Hogarth

Vickie's rating: 4.5 stars

“Remember Me Like This”, by Bret Anthony Johnston - Book Review

Like a house of mirrors, only slowing revealing the truth, Remember Me Like This unhurriedly divulges the facts, shattering the assumptions we’ve made along the way.  Taking place in a small Texas town outside Corpus Christi, author Bret Anthony Johnston roots us into the Campbell family four years into the search for missing eldest son, Justin. 

Parents Eric and Laura, and youngest son Griff, are coping with Justin’s disappearance in very different ways, of course. This family is not particularly unique - they are middle America, unnoticed except for the those in the town of Southport around them, recognized only for their grieving faces as they plea for any information that lead to their son’s return. They post flyers, organize search parties, and retreat into themselves. The desperation includes Eric’s father, Cecil, and important part of the narrative. Cecil is steady on the surface, and remains a stabilizing guide for Eric. Cecil grieves too - both for Justin and his late wife.  He’s an important part of the family’s lives and an interesting character - strong, vulnerable, angry, and tender. 

Remember Me Like This: A Novel
By Bret Anthony Johnston

Justin’s disappearance is only part of the story. He’s found. And similar to the troubled emotions of his loss, equally unsettling is dealing with the aftermath - of responsibility of parents and brother alike, and even more disconcerting, his kidnapper. Again, each family member has a unique reasoning and way of coping. So deep does Johnston dive into each person’s psyche, we feel the ache of loss, pain, and the brief allowances of joy.

What truly makes this book special however is Johnston’s writing itself. He brings an authenticity and rawness to each character, especially Eric and Laura, that their weaknesses lay spread out before us, disconcerting in how obviously real they are; too real. More than we would ever really want to know about those in pain perhaps, but here it is. And the prose is seamless - from describing emotions to the crime itself, and about the supporting characters around them. The complex story is precisely woven together and presented to us in a way that both surprises and makes us yearn for more.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars 

Ain’t No Haints in the “The Turner House”, by Angela Flournoy - Book Review

“Ain’t no haints in Detroit” is a Turner family mantra that originated on the night Cha-Cha, the oldest of thirteen Turner children, wrestled a ghost in his room on Yarrow Street. While many of the other Turners were convinced of Cha-Cha’s vision, his father, Francis, was not, and coined the phrase. By the time the last Turner child, Lelah, was old enough for it’s usage, the saying was used to end a discussion. If another Turner didn’t buy whatever it was you were trying to sell, they’d stop you in your tracks with a flippant, “c’mon man, ain’t no haints in Detroit.”

The Turner House, by author Angela Flournoy, is about a large African American family and their goings on in Detroit. While most of the book is set in 2008, there are flashbacks to the Turner family beginnings in 1944 when Francis and Viola were newly married. With Cha-Cha on the way, Francis left Viola in Arkansas and went to Detroit to find work. These flashbacks let us know just how close the last twelve Turner children were to never being born.  

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A Rather Familiar Family in "The Vacationers", by Emma Straub - Book Review

Author Emma Straub writes of the quintessential New York family.  In The Vacationers, the Post family travel to the island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain for two weeks to celebrate Jim and Franny’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Fourteen days of family togetherness….what could possibly go wrong??

Daughter, Sylvia, fresh out of high school, would much rather be with friends in the City or on her iPad. Bobby, the prodigal son returned, brings along his cougar girlfriend (whom no one likes) and a bucket full of problems. Charles, Franny’s dearest friend, tags along, at Franny’s urging, with his husband, Lawrence, much to Jim’s chagrin. Oh, and the couple of the hour? There is most definitely trouble in paradise.

Everything and nothing happens during the two weeks. Relationships deepen and dissipate, alliances shift, and bonds emerge in unexpected places. Straub masters the microcosm of the Post family’s dysfunction while allowing the reader to bask in the beauty of the Spanish isle.

At the end of the day, the Posts aren’t so different than any other family; their lives are full of laughs, heartbreaks, resentments, and tenderness. But also, a whole lot of love that ultimately carries them through the rough spots.

The Vacationers is the perfect vacation read.

Published:  2014
Publisher:   Riverhead Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

A Memoir of Heartache and Torment in “Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story”, by David Payne - Book Review

This book is not for everyone. For me though, it was beautiful. Beautiful in its gutted heart and soul, its raw emotion, its incredibly precise writing, and its palpable heart ache. And its truth, according to David Payne in his recent memoir, Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story. It’s Payne’s story and his brother’s of growing up with an angry, alcoholic father, of playing favorites, and not being able to speak the truth.  It’s of Payne’s brother, George A., with mental illness, his tragic death, and Payne’s own manic struggle to leave behind, then reconcile his family ties.

The book is dark. This is Payne’s therapeutic release from the guilt he has around his brother - not just his death, but in his life, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and having had several psychotic breakdowns. George A., as Payne describes wins by losing. That is, he gains the affection and attention of his divorced parents; attention Payne feels cheated of. Yet George A. earns this by breaking down. We see the brothers converge at family events and holidays, yet fade from each other’s lives in their separation, becoming two very different individuals - financial broker versus writer; conservative versus liberal; encircled by family versus trying to escape the family he was born into.

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Deceit, Love, and Decades of Mystery at "The Rocks", by Peter Nichols - Book Review

Author Peter Nichols has written a wonderful novel that takes us to the coast of Spain with vivid, intertwined characters, romance, secrets, and deception.  Nichols weaves a unique story in The Rocks that is captivating and hard to put down. He methodically leads us back through time as the deftly structured story is slowly revealed.

The Rocks: A Novel
By Peter Nichols

We begin with Lulu and Gerald who once had a relationship, but have not spoken in over fifty years despite living in the same Spanish town. They hold a secret to their disdain that remains a mystery until the end. While unfolding the lives of Lulu, Gerald, their children and those around them, Nichols’ setting is a beautiful seaside resort called "The Rocks", which Lulu has run since the 1950’s. The Rocks attracts a colorful cast of English expats - a reformed criminal, failed writer, and other regulars all loyal to Lulu and her welcoming hospitality. The retreat is a sexually charged place where friends and family come for comfort and escape, with the resort’s bar at its vortex for meals, chess, conversation, and lots of misbehavior. 

Also central to the narrative are the children of Lulu and Gerald - Luc and Aegina respectively. Their separate dramas and shared thorny past provide another layer of tension and provides its own mystery, divulged over decades. Their parents and their own unusual relationship contributes to the dark, decades long family saga.

The characters in The Rocks are loved and scorned, but Nichols makes it so alluring I could sense the ocean breezes, walks through the lemon groves, and feel of a boat at sea. Nichols doesn’t deliver his story on a silver platter - he makes us think about the facts presented and leaves it to us to put the pieces together with great anticipation as he reveals the past to us. The Rocks is an intelligent, romantic, disturbing page turner - very high on my summer favorites list.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars