review · U.S.

The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman

chalk artistAllegra Goodman is on my auto-buy list. I really, really liked The Cookbook Collector about a pair of sisters in California, a bit of a taking down of dot com business culture, a bit of a love story with smart characters. I like her for the same reasons as I like Meg Wolitzer: sweeping drama, smart people, over a lengthy period of time. The Chalk Artist, unfortunately, didn’t quite work for me.

The Chalk Artist deals with a group of teenagers and a group of adults all somehow connected to Arkadia Systems, a videogame company. Goodman is so sympathetic towards her characters, and in that way it reminds me of My So-Called Life or other Herkowitz show. But I didn’t love the story because I’m not really into fantasy or video games, and while I was impressed by a couple of the scenes describing the immersive gaming-in-the-round universe of UnderWorld, I ultimately didn’t love it.

Another thing that sort of annoyed me is that the young-teacher storyline turned a bit into a teacher-as-savior story, which I loved when I was say, under 25 years old, but I don’t now.

My criticisms are because I loved other parts of the book. An intelligent take on young love was great- it’s what was missing from say, Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. The art stuff was very cool and very vivid. The technology part was sort of cool but I felt distanced because gaming is not my thing.

The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman

Dial Press, June 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

memoir · nonfiction · review

A $500 House in Detroit by Drew Philp

500houseI lived and worked in metro Detroit for a number of years, so the memoir of a young guy moving to the city and fixing up a house was interesting just because I know the landscape. I was also drawn to the book because I’ve had some long conversations with people who are or have renovated historical homes in Detroit. It’s a tough thing to do, and it’s very different than HGTV makes home renovation appear.

Besides the subject matter making me a little leery, I was leery about trying a memoir: memoirs depend so much on the voice of the author and if I feel like he/she is leaving out lots of stuff. And I was also leery about a book that sounded like a good book or blog pitch (young guy rehabs a house he bought for $500 without foundation money). And I have to say, for the first quarter of the book, the self-righteousness was a bit much. But Drew grows up during the course of the book. And the story kept moving along because it followed his house renovation. The ending was the livable house, you know.

I liked this book, and I liked the people Philp met and befriended over the multiple years he’s been in Detroit. It’s a book that brings up lots of issues to discuss, and I don’t think that’s the case for memoirs that I would call more gimmicky than this one.

A $500 House in Detroit by Drew Philp

Scribner, April 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

 

review · U.S.

Startup by Doree Shafrir

startupI had high hopes when I started Startup by Doree Shafrir. It starts at a ridiculous MorningRave, a “clean living dance party” populated by all sorts of denizens of New York City’s startup scene, notably Mack, the founder of an app of questionable value, and Katja, a journalist covering the tech scene. I was expecting more satire, and instead the story was more heavy with ideas and a lot of characters who were kind of despicable at times and noble at other times.

Ultimately the characters never felt quite real to me and more representative of ideas: here’s the older journalist going off about how journalism has changed in the last ten years, here’s a young woman being sexually harassed in the supposedly-enlightened company she works for: the characters seemed more like ideas than people, if that makes sense. I’ve seen reviews talking about how readable and accurate the story was, and while I read it quickly, I just felt dissatisfied by the story. It’s a book filled with sad, disconnected people who work an awful lot, and it wasn’t my thing.

Startup by Doree Shafrir

Little Brown, April 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

review

The Thing About Love by Julie James

thing-about-loveAll right, Julie James is one of my favorite discoveries of 2016. I read all but her first novel in the second half of 2016, and they are appealing for their witty banter and their matter-of-factly competent female leads, most of whom are lawyers or FBI agents. The Thing About Love is about two FBI agents who meet years after a contentious training at the FBI Academy, and it’s an entertaining and dramatic story about an undercover job in the public corruption unit and their road to romance.

The main characters’ friends and colleagues are mostly background, but given how much the main characters work, their friendships would have to come second.

Julie James knows emotional beats, and that along with the dialogue makes this a really entertaining read.

The Thing About Love by Julie James

Berkley, April 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher

 

review · U.S.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

youwillknowmeYou Will Know Me fits into the last few Megan Abbott books centered on the heightened world of teenage girls (see Dare Me, The Fever, and The End of Everything). You Will Know Me is the story of Devon, a gymnast on the cusp of qualifying for elite status and trying out for the Olympics, her parents Eric and Katie, and the death of a guy connected to her gymnastics gym. At first I thought it would be a story more about gymnastics and the level of obsessiveness required to compete at an extremely high level, but it turns into a mystery about the death of Ryan, the boyfriend of a gymnastics coach at Devon’s gym. The book starts as a book obsessed with young gymnast’s bodies and ends up being a story about the secret inner lives of not only of Devon but of her entire family. And just a note about the title: by the end I realized while I knew more about Devon and her family, there was still a great deal I did not.

The mystery didn’t really grab me because my suspicions about what happened were pretty accurate. What was most gripping for me was the sadness of Katie and Eric’s lives. They were pretty desperate for Devon to succeed, and as the story went on the details of their lives supporting Devon’s training seemed overwhelming to me. And their ignoring their younger son felt extra sad by the end as well. All in all, this is a pretty moody book that didn’t really take off as a mystery for me though it was an enjoyable read.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Little Brown, July 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

memoir · review

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

This is the best memoir I’ve read this year, and it may be one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. A couple years ago I read the absolutely harrowing and heartbreaking Levy piece in the New Yorker called Thanksgiving in Mongolia, which is about her having a late miscarriage in Mongolia. This book contains that piece in part and captures her adult life as journalist and relationship leading to parenthood, and it’s unsparing and direct and doesn’t feel like it’s leaving out tons of stuff, which is my usual complaint about memoirs. The other thing this book has going for it is that she’s writing about her fairly recent past instead of her childhood, like some memoirists do.

Levy has written lots of interesting pieces, and her interview on the Longform podcast was fascinating as well. I mean, of course I’m drawn to this story because her story is absolutely terrifying but it happens every day, without people talking about it. I think it’s important in that respect because the subject is so not talked about. And it’s not couched in self-help or therapeutic journeys, though it is a part of the story. Her narrative voice is so unflinching that it’s compelling.

rules-do-not-apply

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

Random House, March 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

review · Sweden · Translated

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

quicksandQuicksand is a courtroom drama centered on the trial of an eighteen year old girl charged with murder during a school shooting. The story opens in the classroom, which is a classic gambit to hook the reader because it’s unclear who all did the shooting and who all died (it’s a brief opening interlude). A good chunk of the beginning is a courtroom procedural, and I think it was the strongest part of the book. The book slowed down for me as Maja, the narrator, went into the long background story about her relationship with Sebastian, the boyfriend she allegedly incited to murder.

I thought this book would take a more unreliable narrator turn than it did: it really is a story about a senseless crime spree instead, and in that way it reminded me of Laura Lippman. Ultimately, it’s a book about a hugely unsympathetic group of characters, teenagers and adults, and Maja still remained a mystery to me, which I think is the point. The book is also smart about race and class, which was a welcome part of the story.

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Other Press, March 2017

Originally published as Störst av allt

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

England · review

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

i-see-you

 

It’s been a while since I’ve read a good thriller so I was especially taken with I See You by Clare McIntosh. I was a little concerned at the outset because the focus on a middle aged woman commuting in London felt too reminiscent of  The Girl on the Train, but I liked the cast of characters in this book much more than I liked the characters in The Girl on a Train (in the first 50 pages or so, which is all I read).

I See You is the story of Zoe, a single mother of nearly-adult children, and the drudgery of her daily commute. She uncovers a crime ring that targets women on the Tube, and the investigation is both done with the police and on her own.I felt unsettled throughout the book, and though I knew what kind of a reading ride I was in for, there were still surprises along the way. If you’re in the mood for a paranoid cat-and-mouse kind of plot that moves briskly, this is your kind of book.

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Berkley, February 2017

Disclosure:  I received a review copy from the publisher.

review · U.S.

Desert Vengeance by Betty Webb

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a PI book with a tough female main character, and I’m glad I read Desert Vengeance, book 9 in the Lena Jones series. Fair warning: the subject matter is incredibly tough. The book centers on the murder of Brian Wycoff, the foster parent who abused Lena when she was a child and who is released from prison as the book opens. While Lena did follow him after his release from jail, she did not murder him. Lena works alone during most of the book as she follows Wycoff to a small community hours outside of Phoenix, the Black Canyon City that I believe is in the cover photo, and the lone PI part of the story was not my favorite part of the story. I was more interested in Lena’s backstory, especially the bits of revelation of what happened to her family, which still isn’t entirely clear. Lena Jones clearly compartmentalizes to be able to go about her life, and in some ways that’s what frustrated me as a reader. I think I expected to know more about her since I jumped in so late in the series.

desert-vengeanceDesert Vengeance by Betty Webb

Poisoned Pen Press, February 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

review · Uncategorized

On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins

I heard about Kristan Higgins from Pop Culture Happy Hour, and since reading one of her recent books I was interested in reviewing what she did next. Marketing wise, the book  seems to be part romance/ part women’s fiction, and I liked it a great deal.

The book description makes it seem like the story relies more on the concept than the characters, but Higgins excels at making her characters real, psychologically at least. On Second Thought is the story of two sisters, or actually half-sisters, one on the brink of becoming engaged and one who becomes a widow at her sister’s presumed engagement party. Kate, the older sister, hadn’t been married long, is mired in grief and conflicted because she didn’t know her husband as well as some of his friends and his family members knew him. Ainsley, the younger sister, on the other hand, is at the end of an 11 year relationship that she believed was headed to marriage, and she’s a bit adrift professionally and personally as the story begins.

This is the second Higgins book I’ve read and the second to take place on an upstate town on the Hudson, it’s also the second book to feature two sisters. It seems like a bit of an aspirational lifestyle kind of setting, but with characters with believable characters. It doesn’t feel as rushed as some books feel, especially with this dramatic a storyline. And what I loved most is that Higgins for the most part makes her characters real.

on-second-thought

On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins

Harlequin, January 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.