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, U.S.

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock

alice oliverToday’s posts are about the latest batch of heavy-themed books I’ve read. First up is Alice & Oliver, a brutal and engrossing read about a young mother and fashion designer diagnosed with leukemia when her daughter was about 6 months old.  I have to psych myself up to read a book like this, or, say, watch a movie like Dead Man Walking, and ultimately I’m glad I read this but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I’m not sure I could take it, you know.

Anyway, Alice & Oliver is a cancer story that goes in depth into the treatment process/ protocol about 20 years ago. The sections of the book are divided into treatment steps as well as into Alice’s meditative steps as she copes with treatment and the prospect of dying. It’s also a story about Alice and Oliver’s relationship, their history in New York City, and the status of their relationship during many months of cancer treatment. Looking back at their pasts and Oliver’s tech start-up company are the only respites from the hard stuff in their story (there’s not a lot of black comedy), but somehow it was a fast read. I was drawn to the story because I don’t know the ins and outs of aggressive cancer treatments and because the main characters were so sympathetic. And sometimes I want to read something that will make me weep, and I was definitely a mess by the end of the book.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

review, U.S.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

little lifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Doubleday, March 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I read and was impressed by A Little Life, a very brutal and long story that’s been getting lots of coverage in blogs and mainstream media outlets. I tend to miss the big books, both because of size and because I’m a little leery about overly-hyped books, but I’m glad I read this one. You have to be prepared for lots of violence and repetition over the significant length of the book, though.

A Little Life begins as a story about four friends, all male, who meet in college, and who all have great ambitions in their artistic or legal careers. After an extensive opening section with the four characters finishing college and beginning their lives in New York City, the character of Jude, with a mysterious past that damaged him physically and psychically (he has a pronounced limp and is intensely reticent of his past before he began college at age 16), becomes the focus.

I’m not the first to mention that the book is a bit of a fairy tale: lots of horrible things happen to the main characters, and lots of fantastically good things happen to the characters. There isn’t much middle ground. It’s a bit odd to read a book that feels unrealistic in this way.

My biggest criticism of the book is that  it’s maddening to read such a long book that could be reduced to the subtitle: Complex PTSD, the Novel. Jude is so damaged and so unwilling to grapple with his abusive past, that his adulthood is almost more painful than what actually happened to him. I read somewhere else that Yanagihara wanted to make a point about the limits of male friendship: Jude and his friends don’t get him to grapple with his past, and it seriously stymies their lives and their friendships. That’s well and good, but using the vehicle of this lengthy novel to make that point feels a bit like overkill. I may be missing something about the art of melodrama or critics calling it the great American gay novel because of its reliance on melodrama, but I think a book half of the size could have been just as effective and make the same points about Jude and his friends.

Finally, I want to dig into my disappointment with this book a bit further. Of course part of the draw of this book is trying to understand a character like Jude who in some ways overcomes a truly horrendous childhood filled with abuse and exploitation, and I feel like a get part of the story. In the last few months I watched a documentary called Family Affair by Chico Colvard that also addressed coping with childhood abuse and trauma, and that felt more rounded an approach to the issue. I also remember being disappointed by Middlesex when Eugenides left out lots of the story about the hermaphrodite Callie as she grew up. I think both Eugenides and Yanagihara are skipping out on research or something. 

Additional pieces about this book that I found interesting include this piece in Vulture about Yanagihara’s inspirations for the novel, Garth Greenwell’s piece in The Atlantic about this novel as the great American gay novel, and finally, an ambivalent piece about the book by Lydia Kiesling in The Millions.



review, U.S.

Ending by Hilma Wolitzer

endingEnding by Hilma Wolitzer

Open Road Integrated Media, 2013 (originally published in 1974)

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

I picked up Ending by Hilma Wolitzer because An Available Man was one of my favorite reads of 2012.  Ending is Wolitzer’s first novel, originally published in 1974.  The edition I read is an ebook reissue, one of all of her novels reissued by Open Road Integrated Media.

Ending is the story of Sandy, a young wife and mother whose husband has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  It’s a story about the tunnel of grief she’s in in the final weeks of his life, and it covers not only her journey after his diagnosis but all of her memories of her short marriage.  It’s not a light novel by any stretch of the imagination, and there is not a lot of humor like I found in An Available Man.  It’s a story more about ideas and the process of grief than it is about character, and for that reason I felt a little removed from Sandy.  It’s a tough read, but, thankfully, it’s a short novel.  It was interesting to compare it to Wolitzer’s latest novel, which, while dealing with death, had much more developed characters and dashes of humor.  Ending is more of a psychological portrait of grief.

I previously reviewed An Available Man.

2013 Global Reading Challenge, review, U.S.

A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry

cold and lonely place

A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry
Crown, Feb. 5, 2013
Troy Chance book 2
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

A Cold and Lonely Place is the second book set in upstate New York that I’ve read in the last month, and I really liked it. Troy Chance is a freelance writer, formerly a sports reporter, living in Lake Placid, New York, a winter sports and tourist mecca. This particular investigation is into the freezing death of Tobin Winslow, an out-of-towner who dated one of Troy’s housemates. He is found frozen beneath a lake as a group is assembling the ice palace for the town’s annual Winter Carnival. It’s a harrowing scene, and it begins a harrowing investigation into a not-too-savory character. Troy writes a series of articles about Tobin, which is very different than reading about police officers investigating his death.

The strength of the story is how Troy humanizes the deceased Tobin. In lots of crime novels, it seems the criminals are the center of the story instead of the victims. As much of a loner as Troy is (she’s not from Lake Placid, she lives far from her family and people she cares about), she does grow closer to people during the course of the investigation as well as to Tobin, a person she didn’t know well while she was alive.

One minor quibble I have with the book is the large number of friends and relatives Troy has whom she uses as sounding boards during the course of the investigation. Those characters– her brother the police officer, a friend in the area, a police officer in Ottawa– are not very developed, but they may have been more developed in the first book of the series. In this book, she mostly contacts them by email or with brief visits, which is not enough time for me to really get to know them.

A Cold and Lonely Place is not a fast-paced or overly creepy thriller, and that’s exactly the kind of book I’m in the mood for. The characters at the center of the story, including the deceased Tobin, are interesting people in an interesting setting. I’ll definitely be checking out the first book in the series, Learning to Swim.

review, U.S.

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman

cover of snow

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman
Ballantine, January 15, 2013
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Cover of Snow is the story of Nora Hamilton, a young woman who discovers her husband, a police officer, has killed himself at the beginning of the book. After a quite slow first half of the book, the action picks up in the second half of the book as Nora discovers more and more about her husband’s suicide.

The setting is a small town in upstate New York in the Adirondacks, and the setting and mood are the best parts of the book. Nora is an outsider, having only lived in Wedeskyull for the eight years she was married to her husband, whose family has lived in the town for generations. The actual mystery of why her husband killed himself is not the best part of the story for me, and I think that’s because the villains were not very well developed in the story.  The book has an interesting premise and setting, but I left the book wanting more: more action and more developed characters.

The setting and mood of the story is even colder than the northern midwestern winter here at home, and I think I’ll try books in warmer climates this time of year for a change of pace.

Criminal Plots II 2012, review, U.S.

After All These Years by Susan Isaacs

  • After All These Years by Susan Isaacs
  • HarperPaperbacks, May 1994
  • I bought this copy.

In my quest to read something a little less somber, clear my bookshelves, and fulfill another requirement in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge (book published over 10 years ago), I read After All These Years.  I’ve read a handful of Susan Isaacs novels, and one was a family saga (Almost Paradise) and another was a sort of amateur-investigator book (Compromising Positions).  The focus in After All These Years is definitely on character over plot, and I’m thankful for the comedy throughout.  Additionally, I’m very glad for the low body count.

The book begins with soon-to-be-divorced Rosie Meyers finding her husband Richie dead in her kitchen in her mansion on Long Island.  She is the prime suspect, and she escapes after her husband’s funeral in order to investigate his life in New York City in order to find out who actually killed him.  The plot is not fast-paced:  most of the story involves Rosie meeting with her husband’s work colleagues, clients, and romantic interests.  There is also a heavy dose of Rosie and Rick’s backstory as a couple.

While the book was entertaining, it felt a bit long to me.  There’s a lot of uncovering of her husband’s infidelities and the unhappiness among her well-off friends.  Also, Rosie falls into the category of extremely lucky amateur investigators.  This is not a police procedural obsessed with accuracy.  I’m ready to get back to a somewhat grittier read.