It's that time of year again. . .
How did this happen? It is so crazy to me that another year has blown by, though this one was no walk through the park.
But we made it and I know one of the things that kept me sane were books. Books are like an escape—somewhere we can pretend that the rest of the crappy stuff in the world isn't going on, or see a different version of reality that is even scarier than the one we live in, or just laugh for a while, or go on an adventure, or a thousand different things. Books are truly magic that way. I read 145 books in 2017, which is probably an all-time high for me, but I think I really needed books this year, as a safe place to go when it seemed like the rest of the world might just fall apart.
In other areas of my life, I feel like I went a bit inert. I didn't write as much as I wanted to—I certainly wasn't as active on this blog as I could have been! But I am planning for next year, planning that goes beyond just flimsy resolutions. I want to get things done.
Beyond all that, I read some great books, some that really stuck with me. I hope you might take a look at my top ten and be inspired to give these books a try sometime in 2018. I'd love to hear your favorite books too, so I can add them to my list.
THE RESURRECTION OF JOAN ASHBY by Cherise Wolas
Though I usually have trouble choosing one solid favorite book of the year, that slot goes to this debut novel with no contest. At 544 pages, it will take a bit of commitment, but every page is truly a gift.
Exploring both Joan's sprawling life and her own writing is such a dynamic and emotional experience and makes this book unique, but I stayed for the beautiful story of exploration of self and discovery of identity—something we can all connect with.
My thanks to Flatiron, and especially Nancy, for providing my finished copy of this book.
HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado
This short story collection is a must—for women, for readers, for people who just lived through all the crap of 2017.
The stories here pulse with originality, crossing all the genre lines from sci-fi and fantasy to experimental to crime drama and beyond. She doesn't stop for a breath and barely lets the reader breathe either, pushing them into her characters—their space, their experiences, their bodies—in every story. Where she is most successful, she leaves the reader obscured in the fog; you have to let the stories sit with you and entangle with them emotionally, sometimes more than intellectually. Her writing reminded me of Angela Carter at times.
My thanks to Graywolf Press for providing my finished copy of this book.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders
This one is probably not much of a surprise to see here, but I think Saunders is one of the finest writers of the modern age and it was great to see his first novel—a genre- and form-bending (if not breaking) masterpiece—get a lot of attention all year. I both read and then listened to the audio (in that order), which if you like the book I definitely recommend. The audio version has a full cast, sort of like a play, where each character has a different voice actor.
Besides just breaking novelistic conventions, the plot and characters of BARDO are brilliantly conceived and developed. It is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, and truly weird story in the way that only Saunders can invent.
My thanks to Random House for providing my finished copy of this book.
TORNADO WEATHER by Deborah E. Kennedy
This is the story of a young girl who goes missing, which doesn't seem like such an innovative storyline, but it really tells the story of all the people who live in her small town, following a group of them after her disappearance as the continue to go about their daily lives. Each of them have some sort of connection to her, whether it be strong or just tangential, but in the end the story is more about the people left behind—an innovative viewpoint for a mystery story. I can't recommend this one enough.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my finished copy of this book.
THE FACT OF A BODY: A MURDER AND A MEMOIR by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
I am a true crime buff (murderinos unite) so this one was definitely on my radar early in the year. What I didn't expect was its beautiful and haunting mix of memoir and reporting elements. The writing is simply stunning, the type of writing that really stops you in your tracks and makes you remember why you love reading so much in the first place. And the story, though not some famous serial killer or the like, goes much deeper and really dug into my heart as I read it.
If you read The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson and loved that, this one is for you too.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my ARC of this book.
HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay
I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but I'm glad that two books can be represented on my list this year. I just read this one a few days ago, but there was no question that it would join the ranks of my top list. Gay has such a powerful voice and telling her story is obviously not something that she takes lightly. This book carries the weight of the actions enacted against her, how she has tried to deal with it, and also realizes that her story is not the only story out there. That is a lot.
MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent
This is not an easy book to read. It has difficult moments that have been very divisive, but there is a such a beauty, strength, and reality in the main character of Turtle, one that felt very true to me. I loved the way the natural world and her movement through it was described so fully, but her interiority was kept close to the vest; it takes a long time for her to come into her own.
This book is probably not for everyone but I loved the writing and can't wait to see what Tallent comes up with next.
SHADOWBAHN by Steve Erickson
This book is doing something so different and interesting, it is difficult to ignore. With fiction becoming something that feels sadly mass-produced—one book does well and then six months later I see a bunch of books come out that all seem exactly the same as that one—it is a true pleasure to read something original, not only in narrative, but it structure and style as well.
The story here can't get any weirder, which in itself I love, but the writing is stunning and Erickson's innovative thinking puts him in my top list.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. How have I not read her debut yet? This layered book deals so acutely with the finer points of character, really showing how there is no black and white, no right or wrong, only shades of gray. Maybe this is a lesson that our whole country needs to learn right now. I loved all the characters, likable or not, and the way the stories come together is both heartbreaking and emotionally cleansing. She is a talent.
THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
Another huge one at 582 pages, I might consider this one required reading for the state of our nation today. It is not quiet about bigotry and hatred for all classes of people who have been othered, and Boyne has a real knack for showing both the absurdity and the terror of such situations and how it has a lasting impact. A beautiful and important novel.
My thanks to Crown/Hogarth for providing my ARC of this book.
There are definitely others I could recommend and there are others that I didn't get to that I have a suspicion would fight for a spot on this list. Well, there's always next year!
I am hoping to get plenty of reading done in 2018 of course, but I'm making a resolution to focus more on my current collection of books and reading some classics and other books rather than just frontlist titles. We will see how it goes—there's a whole world of books of course, and I'd like to get started right away!
I had a slow reading month in October, but November is already off to a whirlwind start with a thrillerthon weekend.
I missed out on Lapena's wildly popular The Couple Next Door, so when sent copies of both of these just in time for Halloween, I figured I'd dive in and here is your double-hitter review.
The Couple Next Door begins with a bad parenting decision that only gets worse: when Anne and Marco's babysitter cancels last minute, they decide to attend their next door neighbor's dinner party anyway, bringing along a baby monitor and checking in every half hour, but leaving baby at home. Not good.
Of course, when they finally arrive home for the night, they find they front door unlocked and the baby missing. What follows is a tangled web of lies, deceits, and unsteady foundations that come crumbling down around the family and everyone they are connected to.
While the pacing might be quick enough to keep a reader turning pages, the writing is so simplistic and (sorry to say) boring that it was hard to imagine someone actually tearing through the pages of a book like this actually caring about the characters.
Have thrillers really come to this? That all that matters is finding the twist, the whodunnit, that crucial unmasking-the-murderer, I-would-have-gotten-away-with-it-if-it-weren't-for-you-meddling-kids scene?
When books can't deliver on style, I find myself just scanning the pages and drifting off. I'll probably solve the mystery, but who cares? If you aren't invested in the people, in their story, what's the point of figuring out who took the baby?
This book was so easy to read. 308 pages and it probably took me less than two hours to read. There just wasn't any substance, no sentences you wanted to stop and read again, no interesting turns of phrase, no indication at all that the author was in fact interested in writing. It's all just plot device spewed out on the page.
And if you want to talk about that ending, feel free to send me a note. Because I have some thoughts.
All that said, there was a germ of an interesting idea here, so I didn't want to give up.
A Stranger in the House follows Karen, who, while driving erratically in a bad part of town, causes a car accident that gives her amnesia. When it turns out that her car is connected to a grisly murder scene nearby, all the lies connected with her past and present start to come uncovered. And perhaps she's not the only one with a few secrets.
I fell into the story of this one a lot more naturally, though the writing definitely had not improved. There are a lot of similar elements: a husband and wife at odds over a criminal situation they are involved in, neighbors who know more than they let on, and a familiar homicide detective makes an appearance.
But I just don't think a somewhat interesting plot can make up for tedious and uninspired writing. Aren't we here for the writing? Or does that not matter anymore? I guess I'm honestly interested to know what people consider "good."
For example, in these books, even as it switches between the different character's perspectives, there is no differentiation in the writing. It feels as though the only reason for the change is because that specific character knew something we needed to know, so they got the floor. It is so stilted.
And as far as the plot of A Stranger in the House goes, I have three words: gunshot residue test. That's all I'm saying.
I can't exactly recommend these books. But there are plenty of people who loved them. If you are looking for a fast, brainless, twisty, whodunnit sort of read, one where you don't have to do a lot of thinking or puzzling, this will totally be your jam. If you have higher aspirations for crime books, we'll have to keep looking.
My thanks to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for my copies of these books.
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Cute pumpkin carving templates sent by Viking. What a cool idea!
I mentioned reading two epic novels back-to-back in my post about The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. Well, here comes the other one.
John Boyne returns with The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a novel spanning the lifetime of a Dublin-born lad named Cyril Avery (but he’s not a real Avery, you know, as he was adopted, and as his adoptive mother and father like to remind him all the time). Cyril knows pretty early that he is gay, but any sort of homosexual lifestyle is not condoned in the slightest in Ireland while he is growing up there, so he spends much of his life hiding who he is and, for various reasons, not really understanding what it means to be loved.
Navigating love, tragic loss, confusion, success, family, and the curious cosmic turnings of the universe across several countries and multiple decades, Cyril tries to fit in, to find his place in the world, and to be at peace with who he is.
Boyne has an innate skill for dialogue, cutting surgically straight through situations with such clear, concise language you can see the heart of the matter literally beating right there, on the surface of the page. It makes you want to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, while at the same time cry because it is so obvious that some people just won’t ever be able to unclench their hearts and relinquish their hate.
This book could almost be required reading in our nation today with the state of things the way they are. The book lays out the types of bigotry, hatred, violence, and even nonchalant dismissal of people who are deemed other and therefore wrong, shining a fierce light on the behavior of people toward other people. In the end, we are all people who deserve the same amount of respect and chance to life their life no matter what you’ve been conditioned to believe.
This book discusses gay men, unmarried women who are pregnant, people with AIDS, and other minority groups who have been and sadly sometimes continue to be marginalized, ostracized, and even brutalized and murdered for their supposed otherness. The book takes on these topics in a way that is direct and real, through the history of place and how thoughts and opinions changed (or didn’t) as the years passed, just as Cyril experienced them.
While an inherently tragic figure who makes more than a few mistakes and finds himself in tumultuous situations more than a couple of times, Cyril is a very likable character who is the reader’s constant eyes and ears in this world. I found myself getting indignant on his behalf more than once, coming up with some choice remarks for his abusers, but Cyril tended to hold back and was even-keeled, just a constant observer.
I found him endearing and flawed, and by the end of the novel, I was missing him already, sorely wishing I could have seen more of the intervening years of his life that the novel skipped.
In frank, everyday conversations that Cyril has with the wide cast of characters, conversations that are full of easy hate, lack of understanding, and sometimes friendly voices of reason as well, the reader develops a sense of the world he lived in, the fear of persecution he experienced, and the trauma that not being able to be yourself can inflict on a person. A world that many people like Cyril did live in, and a world that many people are currently living in, right here in the freedom of the United States in 2017.
On a smaller scale, it is also the story of Cyril’s personal discovery, a coming of age piece told over the years of his life, as he figures out who he is. He and Joan Ashby are not so different after all—everyone is looking for a way to be happy, to find some semblance of what that might mean, and then catch it and try to hold onto it with all their might—with all their heart.
Thank you to Hogarth Press for sending me an ARC of this title.
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I don’t think anyone dives into a 500+ page book lightly; it’s somewhat of an undertaking. But I have to admit, I do tend to be drawn to bigger books, and although they take a bit of commitment, I have had many good experiences with long books. In fact, I've just finished two back to back, two that were both deeply emotional, propulsive, extended saga-like books—for the characters and the reader—I need nothing more than to lay on the floor and decompress. They were long and brilliant, and I went on quite a journey with the characters. What more could you ask for?
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is without a doubt in my best-of-2017 list for the year. It is the type of book that as I came closer to the end, I found myself reading smaller chunks at a time, savoring the book and trying to keep it from ending. It is a phenomenal achievement and it is so impressive that it is Cherise Wolas’s debut novel.
The book centers around Joan Ashby, who, in the beginning, is a wildly successful literary author in her mid-twenties. After having sworn off men, love, marriage, and especially children, she gets married and finds herself expecting a child. Knowing full well that it will change her life and the trajectory that she has in mind for herself, she decides to have the baby anyway, to start a family and make her husband happy, though it isn't what she wants. One becomes two, and her writing, though she tries to keep it alive, gets pushed to the background in the intervening years as motherhood consumes her.
The novel is an exploration of self and identity, what it means to find yourself and how your experiences and choices collect and culminate to make you who you are. It is devastating, opening, and ultimately a redemptive story—one that I felt very at home in, despite not having much in common with Joan’s personal struggles.
The character of Joan is so richly rendered that she feels very real, so real, that I expected to be able to walk into a bookstore and find one of her own titles sitting there on the shelf. I loved that bits of her novels were worked into this book; they were an unique passageway not only into her own mind but even more so, into how others chose to view her.
Not only is the story compelling, but the writing is just exquisite. This is the type of literary novel that you want to get completely lost in. Rich descriptions of place and vivid depictions of people (not just characters, but seemingly three-dimensional people) just permeate each page.
During the passages taken from Joan’s books, I often found myself so sucked into the new and gripping narrative of her work that I would completely forget about the main thrust of the plot, or why I was getting to read pieces of her pages anyway. Now that is good writing.
Joan is not a perfect character by any means. She is just figuring out what it means to be happy, to make those she cares about happy, and to live a life that means something—to leave something worthwhile behind. As so many of us do, she struggles with her path in life, and whether or not the reader identifies with her directly, that narrative thread is one that we are all familiar with. The “who am I” part of life where we are just grope about in the dark, searching for some semblance of an answer.
It is hard to explain why I identified with this book so much, but sometimes things find you at the right moment, just when you are looking for something, even if you don't know exactly what it is is. book was soul-searching and redemptive for me, reminding me why I love books so much in the first place. Why I read, why I want to write. Why books are important.
I can’t recommend this book more highly. Not only will it top my list this year, but I will be recommending it for a long time to come.
Thank you so much to Flatiron Books for sending me a finished copy of this book.
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Having (somehow) not picked up Fiona Barton's debut The Widow last year despite the fervent admiration that went around for it, I jumped at the chance to read her second book early. When I finished after two intense sittings, I scrambled to the book store and quickly devoured her first as well!
I do enjoy reading thrillers, but generally I feel let down by them by the time I finish. The plots tend to be too predictably easy to solve—my personal rule is that if I've figured out the "twist" within 50 pages, it isn't a very strong narrative. (The downfall of the rule being that I have to read the whole book to find out if I'm right or not!) But Barton's books felt very different from that model of storytelling.
The characters are just as crucial as the plot, or perhaps even more so, and while this may seem like a small detail or even an obvious statement, I feel that it is something that is lacking from a lot of thrillers on the market. There is a lot of care put into these characters—you get to know them and through them you feel the story more than just read it.
For me, that is what makes a story. It isn't just the straight telling of a narrative, it is how the characters lead you to their story, through their eyes, and through them you fall into the story and find yourself truly caring about what happens.
The Child centers around the skeleton of an unidentified infant that is uncovered at a construction site in London. There are four alternating perspectives that swap between each chapter:
Kate, an intrepid reporter, takes an interest in the case and starts writing about it and asking questions.
Angela reads the articles and is certain the skeleton is her first born child, who was stolen right out of her hospital room decades earlier.
Emma sees the articles too and she is completely shaken, fearing some deep-buried secret from her past may be coming back to haunt her.
And Jude, Emma's mother, who only recently came back into her daughter's life after throwing her out when she was sixteen.
Kate's digging will uncover the connections between these women, the past, and the secrets they've hidden from each other and themselves.
There are a few recurring characters in Barton's books, but it isn't really a series; the story isn't about the reporter, Kate, and her dogged search for the truth, though both books include her and she is integral in both. Each book instead felt very much like its own entity.
Similarly, both books alternate perspectives of characters, but while temporal fluctuation between the past and the present was a crucial factor in The Widow, The Child often marks the how the same time passes for each character—a different but very effective technique that kept me turning the pages!
By no means are these characters perfect—they are flawed, sometimes even despicable—but they are human and their mistakes make them real and relatable.
By the time I got to the conclusion of The Child, I realized I'd been holding my breath a lot, waiting to see what would happen—I was really emotionally invested in these characters! That's what good writing will do and it's worth running out to get Barton's books to see what I mean.
This post is part of The Child's release blog tour! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this, Berkley Publishing!
You can visit Fiona Barton online at fionabartonauthor.com and on Twitter @figbarton. Join the conversation using #TheChild.
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It begins with a girl.
No, it begins with a mother, and how that girl thinks of her, wants to please her, wants to be her, hates her.
How to fill the void left by a mother who can’t seem to get it right? Do you find a new mother?
Be your own mother? Create a mother with art, with work, with the barriers you put up against the world?
This is a book about mothers, but it is also a book about identity and how much of that identity, especially for girls, is based upon mothers. It is about individuality, about growing up (or not) and finding your place in the world, and then filling that space with something.
Esther, who goes by S, wants to be a subversive, or at least some kind, of artist and she’s recently broken up with her boyfriend. Now she feels the need to prove herself, to do something big—something with meaning that will get her noticed. But she also needs a job, so she becomes a live-in nanny for Lady, an aspiring writer recently separated from her (very-rich) husband, and the mother of two boys, a young toddler, Devin, and a teenager, Seth.
What follows is an entangled narrative, each character wrapped up in so much more than just the simple timeline of the book. The past beats heavily in them, even if they don’t know why.
While the book is focused on the actions of the characters in the present, it is swirling with the tensions of the past. Both Lady and S have strong connections to their mothers that they can’t ignore, and they are constantly trying to come to terms with their damaging upbringings, even as their current situations spiral out of control.
Lady is estranged from her mother and her issues and insecurities run deep. Her mom seems to be the main reason why she’s writing a memoir, though she can't quite admit that to herself, and though she’s living the high life in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills now, that is not at all where she came from.
S’s parents are divorced and it seems like S takes on more of the parenting role when she’s around her mom—cleaning up her apartment, getting rid of the alcohol, confiscating a bunny that is sure to get her mom evicted. But still, S clings to her mother, wanting to know who she is, or perhaps why she turned out the way she did, even taking on her identity as part of her new art project. S dresses sloppily like her mom, acts carefree, speaks like her, and drinks wildly. The “S” that Lady knows is not Esther.
And then there’s Seth. He’s never said a single word despite being completely normal otherwise, and he vibrates with a strange energy, like a bomb ready to go off at any point. His mom has protected him his whole life, kept him to herself, but it has become smothering and he wants to experience, he wants to know.
There are surprises here. There are rich characters living dense, real lives, dealing with modern and strange situations. While I didn’t fully connect with California, Lepucki’s first novel, this one feels much more resonant and true to me.
There is a shocking disregard for what identity means in our tech-crazed world, where you can hide behind your social media feed, where you can be some form of anonymous whenever you touch the screen. And who are you really? Are you who you are in the real world? Or are you the screen you? Are you who you used to be? Are you your parents? Some sort of amalgam?
The way Esther puts on her mother’s skin with such ease is almost scary—it is like taking over someone’s identity simply because she was tired of her own, or possibly lacked her own altogether. The way these characters struggle to come to terms with what it means to be themselves is fascinating and wrenching. They deal with a two-sided coin: the real-world identity struggle of shedding the sins of your parents, and the meta-world struggle of forming a persona through social media or creative means: This is what our society is.
Thoughtful, well-written, highly evocative of a specific place and a specific moment, this book is well worth a read if you’re looking for more depth than a quick summer read.
Get your copy of Woman No. 17 here
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Stunning and compelling. This book digs to the heart of human experience, the worst of human experience, and comes out singing with strength.
You will be drawn in by the story of a missing boy, his tragic and unnecessary fate, and the entangled story of the man behind it, but you will stay for Alexandria.
This book is what I would call a true crime memoir. It is about a murder—the details, the people involved, even some parts of transcripts from the trial—but it is also about a woman investigating that murder and how that affected her own life, brought up things in her life she hadn’t even realized she needed to deal with.
It is a beautiful pairing of the past and the present, how those two things can seem disparate, completely unrelated, how people separated by years, geography, and crimes, can come to seem not so different after all.
Anyone who is interested in true crime will find the story of six-year-old Jeremy Guillory compelling. He goes down the street to play with his friends and is never seen alive again. A search ensues, a murderer is found, lives are changed, trials are held.
But it is the why that we are always searching for.
It is the why coursing through Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich that makes her grip this case, sensing echoes of herself in it, wanting to know why Ricky Langley did it that day, why he was the way he was, why Jeremy Guillory’s mother stood up and fought to get him off death row years later.
This examination of self and others in the face of something so inhumane, so needlessly barbaric, comes about as close to revealing the face of true humanity, of true self-realization, as I have ever felt a book to come.
This is a book about personal history, about what we choose to do with our lives and the hands we are dealt in life. No matter the circumstances of where you come from, you always have a choice for things to go one way or the other, or at least that’s what I choose to believe.
That’s what this book reinforces in me too. Bad things will happen, yes, but there is a choice that people can make beyond those bad things, in spite of them, even if everything was heading straight for those bad decisions, aligning with the stars—there is still a chance.
A chance for someone to see what happened and make a different choice. Despite the why, despite the pain, they will make a different choice.
I finished this book in the morning on a delayed train into Manhattan surrounded by people trying to get to their jobs, to meetings, to a thousand different places. Everyone thinking about what they had to do, about how late they were, how upset or mad they were about the trains, minds going a thousand miles a minute.
I was just visiting and didn’t have anywhere pressing to be, but it hit me for a minute. To be that surrounded by humanity, you have to give yourself up to it. Trust it a little, even as you are ignoring it behind your Beats or your cell phone screen. You never really know what is going on in the minds or lives of the strangers around you.
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“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
--Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene II
There is something a little mysterious, a little intoxicating about Shakespeare. Of course, for many of us, it is a lot mysterious—in fact, nothing but mysterious—and conjures up memories of long afternoons in dusty high school lit classrooms trying to puzzle through the meaning behind every line, sometimes every word, of Romeo and Juliet.
But to see it performed, that is truly something else, that is the way it was meant to be consumed. It filters down to a part of your soul that feels right, feels true, and even if you can’t quite grasp the meaning of every phrase, you feel something special burning at the core. Or maybe just a tingle.
For the seven students in their last year of theatre study at the elite art school in the novel If We Were Villains, Shakespeare is like this, but also, he is more. They live in the bard’s texts, studying him with such constant devotion that it filters into their real lives.
They talk in texts, frequently, having Shakespearian conversations that all seem peppered with double meanings, hidden layers, and sometimes it is unclear whether you are speaking with an actor or their character.
Each of the seven has their type: strong, leading man Richard; his opposite, the sultry Meredith; the beautiful hero James; the wispy maiden Wren; the fool Alexander; and then there’s Filippa and (our story’s hero) Oliver, who seem to get the leftover roles, slipping into whoever is secondary, but never playing the lead.
Who are they really? Is there a separation between the stage and reality? What happens when that line seems to bend, and then snap?
And snap it does. Oh, yes.
Aren’t you all waiting for the turn?
The book is set up in five acts, much like a play, and while the main action of each follows the seven during their fourth and final year at school, each one begins with a prologue, set ten years in the future.
Oliver has just been released from prison, sentenced for something that happened at school, something that he may or may not have done, and now he’s going to tell the real story. To the man who put him away.
And the curtain rises . . .
Rio holds onto the tension of seven characters very well, stringing them along in an even way, making sure they are all developed characters, and I thought she had a great voice for natural dialogue. I can’t claim to know that much about Shakespeare, but I do dabble a bit and I actually quite enjoyed the Shakespearian language spilled across the pages; it developed the characters in unexpected ways when I stopped to really examine what was going on with the bard’s text. I think it even helped me figure out the twist . . .
The seven kids flit in and out of reality, fighting and giving in to obsession, mimicking the violence and drama of the plays (or is it that the plays begin to mimic their lives?) and they begin to come apart at the seams, each breaking down in their own way.
A very promising debut and interesting character study type of novel from a bold and inspiring voice. The only thing I’d ask for in a follow-up book is to cut down on the adverbs—let your descriptions do the work! Ah, well. Room to grow.
One final thought: The ending will rattle your soul.
Whether you like Shakespeare, don’t remember a bit of it from high school, swoon over the lilting words, or shrink away from them in pure fear, this book has a bit of mystery for everyone and it might even bring you a bit closer to learning the mysterious staying power of the bard.
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Find out more about the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan)
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This is a book about straight up life. At times, we are all hot messes. At times, everyone can be a bit unlikable. At times, it definitely can be difficult to get up off your ass and actually do something about your life, something that you should do, can do, and actually want to do.
Andrea is just like us. She is pretty average, coasting along through life, not really doing anything extraordinary and ignoring the things that get hard and the things that hurt.
She is an art school dropout who now only sketches the view of the Empire State Building out her window every day, until they build a new skyscraper that blocks that view.
She is stuck at a job she doesn't really care about, dodging promotions and commitments.
Her best friend is settling down and getting married and doing the whole kid thing and doesn’t really have time for her anymore.
Her brother is dealing with his child, who has a terminal illness and her mom has moved out of the city to live with them, leaving Andrea feeling abandoned.
She has meaningless one night stands or horrible dates or some strange relationships that are fruitless and she’s not really sure if her being single is by choice or because she is undateable or some other reason. But she isn’t really looking for a guy to solve her problems.
Basically, Andrea’s problems are not the problems that so-called society thinks she should have, not at her age. She should be having the married-babies-working or stay at home mom problems.
And somehow, all it seems she can get from society is everyone looking down on her, thinking less of her, or directly telling her to pull her shit together, that she’s doing it wrong.
I read some reviews that so hated this book because they didn’t find Andrea to be a likable person. Is she a bit singleminded and self-absorbed? Yes. But so are we all. How often do you actually think about other people during the day versus yourself? Yeah.
Attenberg even writes the entire first chapter in second person, which to me, calls attention to the reader that, hey, this story is about you. Maybe not the specific details, but the story. So pay attention.
Maybe we don’t ever really “grow up” in the sense that we are always just trying to figure everything out, find the best way to be ourselves, to have a place in the world, and make all those dumb adult things work.
I felt it was very refreshing to read a book with a leading female that really digs right to the heart of actual living, cutting through all the crap and focusing on what is really there. This is Andrea’s life. It isn’t a story about her needing to fill her voids (literally and metaphorically) with men and chasing after everything that society tells her she should want. She is just trying to figure life out and she may not be the best at it.
The book is interesting because if you can really look at Andrea’s flaws, if you can see past your frustration with her to the root of the issue—what is causing her to avoid her family, to waste her time with her niece?—then perhaps you might see places in your own life where you are doing the same thing.
The book doesn’t try to explain who Andrea is or why she is living her life the way she is. Instead, it is almost more of a set of interlocking short stories, each one detailing a different interaction that made Andrea who she is.
This seems to echo New York City itself, how everything can become very compartmentalized and each moment exists separate from others. Even people seem to drift in separate spheres, while at the same time, they are literally right next to each other, passing each other on the street, in cars, brushing up against each other in the subway.
It also echoes the way we live our lives, treating each segment as separate: home life, internet life, Instagram life, Twitter life, work life. We put a piece of ourselves into each segment—who really knows who they are anymore.
All Grown Up is a compulsive book, the short chapters making it easy to just keep reading, to try to put together the puzzle that is Andrea, about who she is in this moment and who she has the potential to become.
It’s something we all have inside us, this potential. How long are you going to make yours wait?
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Find out more about the author, Jami Attenberg
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Find out more about the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Who can recognize the ending as it’s happening? What we live, it seems to me, is pretty much always a surprise.
Marlena is a book about so much more than a girl, or even both the girls who inhabit it—insightful, self-effacing narrator Cat and her ethereal, almost mythological Marlena—it is about the boundaries which they crave to expand beyond and end up ultimately caging themselves into.
These boundaries begin with place and circumstance: the two young girls are poor, in the middle of nowhere, and coming to the point in their mid-to-late teen years where they need guidance.
Marlena has a father who is deeply ensconced in the drug trade and a younger brother she has to look after. She has a habit and a creepy older dealer she can’t kick.
Cat’s mom is newly single and juggling jobs and keeping food on the table and Cat finds it easy to slip out of her 3.8 GPA and into a freer lifestyle, following Marlena and her friends around, getting drunk and high, and skipping school.
To her, it seems like she is experiencing life for the first time and there are almost no consequences. Even as she tells the story from a point in her 30s, far away in New York City, where she still hasn’t really accepted her alcoholism, Cat doesn’t seem resigned to or embarrassed by the events as they happened in the past.
The current-day Cat seems worn down—like she is envious of the potential the girl she used to be had, how now she doesn’t see it in herself. But she never did see it in herself—what is so different now? What are we all wasting time on, right?
It’s almost as though she wishes she could freeze that moment in time, and live there—she would almost do it. Especially those months before.
Even though they weren't perfect and she wasn't exactly happy, I got the sense that she really felt she lived more in those months than at any other time in her life.
When it seemed like nothing could go wrong and everything teetered on the brink but they only had one way to go and they would get out of that town and start over.
Doesn’t everyone have a moment like that? But would it really change anything?
I was prettier in reflection. The fragmentary me that lived in shop windows, puddles, the hood of a car passing by, the dark spot in Marlena’s eye—that girl was sheer potential.
Buntin's prose has moments of great insight, especially for teenage girls. It felt very real and caught in the moment. High school was all about changing something fundamental or physical about yourself in order to find out who you really were, to uncover the real you.
I think we can all look back on our high school years and sense a kinship in feeling to this book in some way. Maybe you were in with the drama kids or the band geek, but everyone had their thing that they identified with that also put them on the outside.
And the root of the story is this unknowable, untouchable, godlike Marlena. But, of course, she is none of that.
She wasn’t the most popular or even very well-liked at school. She wasn’t the smartest. She was a drug addict, she lived in a dirty house, hung out with dangerous people, made poor choices for herself and led others to those choices too.
She was just a kid, trying to survive and hoping to get out someday.
This book magnificently portrays all the sides of Marlena, putting her on a pedestal as Cat saw her and also putting her in her place as just another human making some bad decisions.
She is intricate and real, nuanced and confusing, but in the end, she is still a character we don’t get to hear from. This is Cat’s story and I wonder if, had she been given the chance, Marlena would tell it any differently.
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Find out more about the author, Julie Buntin
Find out more about the publisher, Henry Holt & Co (Macmillan)
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.