Category Archives: fiction

Review: Goodnight June

goodnight june

Goodnight June
by Sarah Jio
Published by Plume
320 pages
Genre: fiction; women’s fiction
4 / 5

Summary:

The New York Times bestselling author of Blackberry Winter imagines the inspiration for Goodnight Moon

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Songs) is an adored childhood classic, but its real origins are lost to history. In Goodnight June, Sarah Jio offers a suspenseful and heartfelt take on how the “great green room” might have come to be.

June Andersen is professionally successful, but her personal life is marred by unhappiness. Unexpectedly, she is called to settle her great-aunt Ruby’s estate and determine the fate of Bluebird Books, the children’s bookstore Ruby founded in the 1940s. Amidst the store’s papers, June stumbles upon letters between her great-aunt and the late Margaret Wise Brown—and steps into the pages of American literature.

My Review:

Sarah Jio has a formula, and she sticks to it: a woman in the present must discover herself by uncovering and understanding secrets from the past.

Goodnight June does not deviate from the script.

Returning to Seattle is NOT on June’s “To-D0” list, yet she is compelled to go because dear Aunt Ruby has passed away and left June the bookstore, a place where June feels she truly grew up. She leaves behind a job that she likes but certainly does not fulfill her. She helps close down struggling businesses, and it’s as if she’s closed herself down, too. June is struggling, as much as any small business. Rather than open herself up to possible success, though, she’s put a “foreclosure” sign on her heart. This doesn’t just extend to men – she shuts out her mother and sister as well.

When she meets Gavin, the good looking and kindhearted owner of the Italian restaurant next door, she is reluctant to trust him, but she slowly does. This coincides with her discovery of a scavenger hunt of sorts, left her by Aunt Ruby. It consists of letters exchanged between Aunt Ruby and Margaret Wise Brown, the woman who wrote Goodnight Moon, amongst other childhood favorites.

June is entranced and determined to put together the puzzle that increasingly is becoming Aunt Ruby. One of the “sub plots” of the letters is sisterhood. Both Margaret and Ruby have difficult, challenging relationships with their sisters, just as June does with hers. The more she reads about the women’s attempts at reconciliation, though, the less inclined June is for her own rapprochement. She is convinced that she was the wronged party and as such her sister is persona non grata.

In fact, her refusal to even listen to her sister’s side of the story is one of June’s less flattering attributes. Without it, though, she would be almost unlikable because she’s almost too perfect. She needs the flaws in order to get us on her side.

This is an enjoyable book, and June is an enjoyable character. You can see the plot twists coming, which perhaps is because Jio’s stories do tend to stick to that formula. If you’ve read Violets in March, Morning Glory, or Blackberry Winter, you know to expect certain zigs and zags. Still, though, Jio can write a compelling story with characters who seem just like us yet who allow us to escape being us, even if just for a little while.

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Review: The Paris Lawyer

paris lawyer
The Paris Lawyer
by Sylvie Granotier
Published by Le French Book
280 pages
Genre: fiction; mystery 
4.5 / 5

 

Catherine is a newly minted lawyer looking to advance her career, both because she is ambitious and because she wants to catch the eye of her boss (she is attracted to older men … we’ll discuss her Daddy Issues in a bit). She receives the case of an African immigré who came to France to escape a horrific life in Africa (and to land a husband). Catherine is excited. Nervous, but excited.

The case sends her back to her hometown, which she left years earlier after being the sole witness to her mother’s murder. Catherine was a toddler at the time and remembers only flashes and senses, but then again, she was in a stroller with her back to her mother at the time of the murder. Her new case forces her to remember those dark days.

It also spurs her on toward an investigation of sorts into not just her mother’s death, but to her mother’s life. Catherine grew up a fairly happy girl, despite her earlier trauma. Her father is devoted to her, even if he never discusses or refers to her mother.

She also develops a relationship with Cedric, a man she defended in an assault case. They become romantic, although their relationship seems based more in sex than any true exchange of feelings.

It doesn’t take long for Catherine’s legal case, her investigation, and her relationship to converge.

What Sylvie Granotier does exceptionally well with this novel is develop her characters. We know Catherine. We understand her youth, her inexperience, her nervousness, her naïveté, her optimism, and her fears. She is desperate to impress her boss and her client, desperate to prove herself professionally. She is also desperate to understand her mother, a woman around whom her father has created an entire mythology. The question Catherine must confront is whether she needs the truth or the myth. Which one will cause her more pain?

This theme plays out across her life. Does she really want to know whether her client is innocent or not? Does she really want to know and understand Cedric? Does she really want to know and understand her mother? Or are the myths – the one her father created, the ones she creates – warmer comfort?

Some of the twists and turns are obvious and well broadcast. Others may surprise you. But even when you know what’s coming, Granotier keeps you riveted to her story. Catherine is a character who gets under your skin, and you will want to know what happens to her. Can she live with what she discovers?

Read it. You will enjoy The Paris Lawyer quite a bit.

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Blog Tour & Review: One Hundred Names

One Hundred Names

One Hundred Names
by Cecelia Ahern
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
496 pages
Genre: fiction 
4 / 5

Kitty Logan’s life is in the dumper.

For one thing, her journalism career is going up in flames, thanks to an ill-begotten story that Kitty not only aired on television, but pursued doggedly for half a year. Her boyfriend moved out, something Kitty herself isn’t even the first to notice, and her beloved mentor Constance has died, leaving Kitty a list of 100 names that apparently are not connected in the least.

Granted, Constance was a bit eccentric and capricious, chasing after story angles that other journalists would view nonsensical. This is a woman, after all, who hid her passports in the toaster and her wine in the potting shed. What is Kitty supposed to do with these 100 names?

Her editor, Peter, thinks it’s all rubbish, but he wants to honor Constance, so he agrees to let Kitty pursue the story – even if no one knows what the story is. Kitty, however, is damaged goods; advertisers threaten to pull their business if the magazine publishes Kitty’s work. That’s almost the least of her concerns, though: her apartment routinely is vandalized, including feces smeared on the door.

Ah, yes. The least of HER problems.

Therein lines the lesson Kitty must learn: it is not, contrary to what she thinks, all about her.

Kitty ruined a man’s life with her reporting. Rather than acknowledge the pain she inflicted, she instead focuses on her own suffering, much to the dismay of her best friend Sam. He’s there for her when she needs him, but he too often feels disgusted with her.

Kitty responds by seeking solace in all the wrong places. She is a difficult character to like because she is so selfish and self-focused, but Cecelia Ahern doesn’t want you to like her heroine. As with Sam and the rest of the cast, we must be patient with Kitty. We have to decide if she’s worth our loyalty and faith (spoiler: she is).

The 100 names narrows down to six (the first six, perhaps) that Kitty pursues. Each has his or her own story, and Kitty cannot find the common thread. She insinuates herself into these people’s lives, determined to figure out why Constance wrote down their names. What is it about them that Kitty is to discover?

Kitty’s voyage of self-discovery, then, transpires in conjunction with her discovery of Constance’s motivations for the list of names. The question, though, is if Kitty is able to set aside her self-interests and focus on the needs of others. It is a question that Kitty herself struggles with answering.

While this is certainly a sweet book with a sweet message, its sweetness often comes across as tart and bitter, thanks to Kitty’s flinty personality. Every time she cries, we know it’s largely for herself, not for the people she has hurt. Yet – and this speaks to Ahern’s talent – we like her. We want her to succeed, not just professionally, but personally.

There are a few twists that we see coming, but they are somewhat beside the point. What we should focus on is our role within humanity. How connected are we to one another? How connected do we want to be? And what do we do with those connections? What do we owe them?

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Ahern’s message could be treacly or heavy handed in another writer’s grasp, but she unfolds it with respect and gentleness. Kitty Logan is one of us: flawed, self-involved, yet not unwilling to change. Cecilia Ahern

Get to know Cecelia Ahern here: website and Facebook page.

And purchase your copy of One Hundred Names here: Goodreads, Amazon, IndieBound, and Barnes and Noble.

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Blog Tour: Outside In

OI-Cover-192x300

Outside In
by Doug Cooper
Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press
253 pages
Genre: literature 
4.5 / 5

 

They (whoever “they” are) say that teaching is a calling. I’m sure “they” would also say that learning is a calling.

I mean, let’s face it. No one really enjoys learning life’s tough lessons, do they?

In the case of Brad Shepherd, those lessons come especially brutally, even if most of that brutality is self-inflicted.

Brad has been forced to take a “leave of absence” from his job as a middle school math teacher (oh, the horror … faithful readers, indulge me with this aside: surely one of Dante’s rings of hell is teaching middle school math), and in an act of delayed adolescence / screw you, Mom and Dad / you want a leave of absence, I will give you a leave of absence, Brad hits the road to Put-in-Bay, Ohio, an island in the middle of Lake Erie.

Brad’s parents think he’s running away from his problems, and perhaps he is. But really, it’s more that Brad is running to himself, whomever that may be.

Once on the island, he meets a motley crew of drug dealers, hot women, bisexuals, drunk bartenders, and philosophical guitar players. Brad avails himself of each and every one, frequently winding up in a drug haze that disguises the pain he feels. In the book’s Q&A, Doug Cooper draws a parallel between Outside In and Catcher in the Rye, and the comparisons are strong indeed when it comes to Brad’s drug and alcohol usage. At one point, a character points out to him that his mistress is cocaine, a fact Brad refutes.

But it’s true. Brad just isn’t ready to face it at that point.

(When he is, Cooper astutely creates the struggle Brad undergoes to regain his sobriety as one that is challenging, full of fits and starts.)

Through the drugs, booze, and sex, Brad remains a man in search of his identity. Who is he if he can’t teach? Can he still teach? Does he even want to?

Just as his students must do, Brad must learn his lessons, often the hardest way possible. He needs to learn to trust his heart, both romantically and intellectually, and he has to make peace with his parents. He also needs to learn to be his own man and not the mistress of pharmaceuticals and alcohol, as the case may be.

Not to make this novel sound bleak. It is not at all. There are some richly comic moments, and Cooper knows when we need them. Just when Brad begins to feel overwhelmed, something funny occurs to give us a break from Brad’s overwhelming sadness. Yes, he appears happy, but he, like Holden Caulfield, is lost. Whereas Holden tries to find himself in New York City, though, Brad searches in Put-in-Bay.

It is not accidental, I am sure, that Brad’s last name is Shepherd. He is the guide and comfort to others, just as he needs guidance and comfort. He’s a teacher at heart, and there are times he teaches his new friends. Like his middle schoolers, his friends occasionally don’t listen to him; they sometimes take precarious, threatening risks.

And then the teacher becomes the student, and in those moments, we wish the best for Brad Shepherd.

You will not want to say goodbye to him, but Cooper knows how to end Brad’s story. The best writers don’t give readers what they want, they give readers what they need.

Links:Cooper.Douglas.A

Amazon.com:  http://www.amazon.com/Outside-In-Doug-Cooper/dp/1626340048

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17355767-outside-in

Pinterest:  http://www.pinterest.com/trubelo/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/ByCooper

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/ByCoop

Author’s page: http://bycooper.com/


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Casebook

casebookCasebook
by Mona Simpson
Published by Knopf
336 pages
Genre: fiction 
5 / 5

 

I have been a fan of Mona Simpson since I read Anywhere but Here lo those many years ago. She understood the perspective of an unsettled teenage girl, as well as that of the girl’s mother. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Casebook only solidifies the love.

When we meet Miles Adler-Rich, he is a grade schooler who discovers while eavesdropping that his parents’ marriage is fracturing. He overhears his father say that he has an interest in another woman. Miles’ curiosity is piqued, to say the least, and thus begins his journey into domestic spying.

As Miles grows up, his fascination with his mother only increases. I don’t mean in an Oedipal kind of way, although I’m sure Freud would disagree; Miles seems to truly want to understand her more than anything. What kind of woman gets left by her husband, forced to raise a son and two daughters (twins whom Miles refers to as Boop One and Boop Two), and doesn’t give up? That’s the thing about Miles’ mother: she never stops believing that better is just around the corner. She refuses to allow the divorce to defeat her.

Mirroring this somewhat is Miles’ friend Hector’s parents, also divorced, but perhaps not as amicably as Miles’. Hector joins Miles in the spy game, which becomes increasingly vital and fascinating to the boys as Miles’ mother begins to date. Mims’ Man Friend is a nerdy guy who lives on the opposite coast of Miles and his California home. But Mims likes this guy, and Miles considers it his job of sorts to suss out Eli.

There are comic moments in Miles’ espionage, as well as within his family and friends. But there is a sort of bittersweet sheen to this story, a sense that Miles will uncover some things that could lead to heartbreak and loss of innocence. We watch Miles grow up into manhood, and Simpson expertly delivers those changes of voice that must occur as a character matures. With each nugget he finds, Miles grows a little, and Simpson reveals this with delicacy and affection. She even completes the intricate feat of allowing adult Miles to comment on child Miles’ thoughts and experiences.

Of course, Miles does uncover some somewhat unsavory details about some of his spy subjects. He finds them disturbing enough that he calls in an investigative expert, Ben Orion, who fills in the gaps left in Miles’ life by his divorced parents. Ben Orion is more than just a supporting character, though. He helps not just Miles, but Miles’ family. I found myself wishing I had a Ben Orion in my life.

Miles also sees his hero worship of his father take a dent, although not an awful one. As Miles himself observes, he’s okay with his father’s lady friends because he doesn’t feel threatened by them. One of the few “good” things Miles’ father does is maintain a strong relationship with his children, and even with his ex-wife, and that makes a powerful impact on the boy.

There is a little mystery here – what’s up with Eli? – but the heart of this story is Miles, a boy growing into a man and all of those attendant issues. Remember when you discovered that your parents weren’t the mythical, mystical masters of the universe you thought they were? It’s something you observed and experienced over time, right? Perhaps Miles’ realization is less organic, but its lessons are as real as any you’ve experienced.

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The Other Half

the other halfThe Other Half
by Sarah Rayner
Published by St. Martin’s Press
302 pages
Genre: women’s fiction 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5

 

Where do you fall on the infidelity scale? Do you always blame the cheating spouse? Or are you one of those who thinks that the the one the spouse cheats with is at fault? Do you lay any responsibility at the feet of the one cheated on?

Sarah Rayner confronts that issue to some degree in her story, introducing you to Maggie (the wife) and Chloe (the mistress).

Maggie and Jamie’s marriage is staid and comfortable. Parents to a seven-year-old son, they live in the English countryside, from which Jamie commutes to his London job as a magazine publisher. Perhaps the spark is missing, but it isn’t as if Maggie doesn’t try. She purchases lacy lingerie and whips up foods full of aphrodisiacs. A freelance journalist and writer, she wants to be exciting to her husband; she also wants another child, and she can be a bit flinty and unyielding.

Ten years younger than Maggie, Chloe is nearing thirty and still single. She questions women whom she believes “conveniently” get pregnant when they are in their early thirties, effectively trapping the man into marriage and fatherhood. She’s curvaceous and luscious, “all woman” as Jamie observes. She enjoys sex and is an adventurous lover. Sure, she’s a little lonely and would like a relationship and kids (someday), but she’s also ripe with sexual promise. Jamie recognizes this immediately and is drawn to her.

What begins as the quenching of sexual need becomes more, for both Chloe and Jamie. They talk. They get to know each other. It’s a real courtship, shared by two people actively looking for a connection in and out of bed. Jamie wants to be understood and desired, but not in the way Maggie understands and desires him. He wants more. He wants passion and sexual intimacy, if not quite the emotional variety. Chloe is viscerally drawn to him; her body’s response to him is almost feral.

But what of Maggie? She wants another child; Jamie does not. What does that mean for her? For him? For the two of them? And what does it mean that her husband prefers another woman?

One thing Rayner does quite effectively is refuse to take sides. Maggie is not terribly likable. She is demanding, almost shrewish, and likes to control her husband. She occasionally resorts to silly gamesmanship when it comes to disarming him with the appearance of a former lover of hers. She wants another child, but she refuses to listen to his reasons for not having one. She’s also nearing forty and all of that number’s attendant insecurities. She seeks value in her husband’s desire for her, motherhood, and her professional success.

Chloe, on the other hand, is immature, flighty, and hedonistic. For all of her success in magazine publishing, she is an utter disaster personally. She knows that Jamie is married, yet she offers only tame objection to a relationship with him. To her credit, she does think about Maggie and Jamie’s son. She wonders how she would feel. But Jamie is like a drug to her. She can’t get enough. And despite knowing that she shouldn’t – that she really should not – she imagines a future with him. She allows herself to love him.

We do not get in Jamie’s head; all we know of him is what his wife and lover tell us about him. Because he is in both of their stories, he emerges as a bit unsavory and a lot selfish. Even so, when he tells us about his relationship with Maggie, we understand him better. He isn’t a bad guy so much as a weak one.

I spent the better part of the book wondering who Jamie would choose, even as I knew that there could be no happy ending. Someone was going to get terribly hurt, whether Maggie or Chloe; far more likely, both would. Rayner writes in a way that keeps you turning the pages, even when you don’t particularly like her characters.

Infidelity is an evil element, a bomb that leaves devastation for all concerned. But sometimes it also opens doors that you never knew existed.

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You Should Have Known

you should have knownYou Should Have Known
by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Published by Grand Central Publishing
448 pages
Genre: literature; women’s literature 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4.5 / 5

 

I have a particular affinity for certain words.

Masticate. It sounds so lascivious, doesn’t it? Yet it means “to chew.”

Schadenfreude. Leave it to the Germans to have a word for “joy in other people’s misery.”

And hubris. Ah, hubris. The cause of the hoisting of one’s petard. The reason behind Trump Tower and the Dallas Cowboys.

Hubris. Excessive pride or ambition.

As I read this book, “hubris” kept popping up in my mind. So many characters seem to suffer from it, and given that Korelitz’s writing is realistic and relatable, I wonder, then: do we all suffer from hubris? Is it part of the human condition?

In the case of Grace Reinhart, perhaps pride is not so excessive. Certainly not enough to cause what happens to her.

Grace is a therapist whose patients come to her, as most do to therapists, searching for answers. Grace believes that they knew the answers all along, that if they had only paid attention, not been so quick to ignore the evidence in front of them – if they had only seen reality as opposed to what they wanted to see – then they would realize that they knew. Because, really, they should have known.

In fact, she wrote a book about it. You Should Have Known. She is in the final stages of pre-publication, working with her editor and publisher, granting early interviews. Grace’s theory is simple, but true: the clues were there all along. You just chose to overlook them or make excuses for them or wish them away.

You should have known.

Of course, when you write a book about something like that, your own house better be spotless. And Grace’s appears to be. Her son Henry is twelve, suitably precocious, and ensconced at the same New York City private school she attended. Her husband Jonathan is an acclaimed pediatric oncologist – he treats children with cancer, for goodness’ sake. She’s an only child, her mother having passed away when Grace was in college and her father remarried. She is successful, but not too successful.

Life is good for Grace Reinhart.

But then there is a grisly death.

And Jonathan goes missing.

And every certainty Grace had becomes uncertain, questioned.

She should  have known, right?

Jean Hanff Korelitz weaves her tale with the precision of a master chef, slicing, dicing, and sauteeing her characters into various confections of deliciousness for us readers.

Grace is a fantastic character: fully complex and fully realized. Her hubris is in her somewhat smug, somewhat frustrated response to her patients’ problems. If Grace can see within three minutes that your husband prefers the company of men, why haven’t you? As they weep in her office, Grace responds with professional empathy, albeit with some personal tsk-ing. When she recalls her history with Jonathan, we begin to see what Grace did (would) not. We also harbor, before she does, certain suspicions of Jonathan, as well as of another character. Because we care about her, we also hope that our suspicions are wrong. Not that she’s perfect, mind you. Grace is a bit too caught up in her world to pay attention to those details that she would condemn her patients for ignoring. She judges. She suffers jealousies and insecurities. She gets frustrated and snippy.

But she’s a good mother, devoted to Henry, and she adores Jonathan, admiring him to the point of awe.

As developed as Grace is, Jonathan is a mystery, and that is entirely by design. I was frustrated by how little I knew him, which only made me more concerned for Grace. The question here – how well do we know our spouse – is not the point, though. Korelitz believes, and hopes you understand as well, that we only know what our spouse wants us to know. We only know, Korelitz posits, what we want to know.

Occasionally the pacing is off (we spend a bit too much time with Grace’s patients), and there are a couple of threads that are a bit too neatly tied up. So is the book perfect? No, but it is deeply, richly entertaining and engrossing.

The ending is something I would dearly love to discuss with you faithful readers, so please hit up the comments and let me know your thoughts. I’d also love to know your reaction to this book.

Read it. READ IT.

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