THE BURNING GIRL by Claire Messud (Norton, August 2017)
For me, The Burning Girl hits the sweet spot — a story of relationships, inner struggles, and the effort to make a difference despite how powerless we may be. At a time when so much contemporary fiction is loud, apocalyptic, and crowded with dramatic events, it was such a pleasure to find a quiet, emotionally rich book with complex and very human characters. The novel’s narrator is Julia, a teenager from a good home, who tells the story of her friendship with Cassie. Fun, courageous, and imaginative, Cassie is also, in some ways, doomed, thanks to a troubled home life and mother.I think we all have a Cassie in our lives when we’re growing up — someone we wanted to help but couldn’t, for a variety of reasons. Messed made me remember my Cassie, and recall just how painful and helpless a teenager’s life can be. Wonderful.
BEFORE WE WERE YOURS by Lisa Wingate (Ballantine Books, June 2017)
What makes this book particularly stunning and memorable is that it’s based on truth. Wingate’s research into the horrific history of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, which essentially stole children from their impoverished parents and sold them to wealthy families, is important. The story of this organization needs to be told, and Wingate tells it skillfully, through the perspective of two fictional characters whose lives intertwine: the young girl Rill, growing up in Memphis in 1939, and the young woman Avery, living in present-day South Carolina. Avery’s story is the less interesting of the two — it’s predictable in places and not overly compelling. But Rill is a wonderful heroine — strong and smart, with an unbeatable spirit. She pops up right out of the book and straight into your heart.
THE STORY OF ARTHUR TRULUV by Elizabeth Berg (Random House, 2017)
I’m a big Elizabeth Berg fan. I love her characters, and I think her stories are compelling, meaningful, at times funny, and always moving. So I’m sorry to say I was a tiny bit disappointed in this, her newest novel to date. Maybe it’s because I’ve recently read Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, which has already done the pregnant teen/lonely old man (or,in Haruf’s case, lonely old men) thing — and better, I’m afraid. And Haruf’s Our Souls at Night also does the wise-but-lonely-old man/crusty-but-loving-old-woman thing better — well, at least I think so. I guess maybe I set myself up for a letdown by reading the brilliant Haruf first. That said, Truluv is a charming book with a slew of sympathetic characters, and some very tender scenes (especially those cemetery scenes — lovely). It’s a sweet, quiet read, with some nice things to say about old age, resilience, and love.
ALMOST MISSED YOU by Jessica Strawser (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)
So you’re on vacation at the beach, your husband offers to take your toddler so you can get a few extra minutes of relaxation, you finally pull yourself back to the hotel room…and your husband and son are gone. No note, no phone message. All their things are gone, too. So begins Strawser’s novel — and for her protagonist, Violet, the nightmare gets worse and worse. She and her husband, Finn, had crossed paths long ago, lost touch, and then eventually reunited and married. But as Violet learns, an awful lot happened between their first meeting and their second. I liked the drama of this story, and I found the unraveling of secrets very compelling. But what I liked best was Strawser’s pitch-perfect depiction of new motherhood. Her rendering of the closeness between Mom and Baby was profound — and made the disappearance of little “Bear” desperately heartbreaking.
SMOKE by Catherine McKenzie (Lake Union, 2015)
I really enjoyed this book — a story about two women, their families, and their damaged friendship set against the backdrop of a devastating fire that threatens to destroy their town. The question of who is responsible for setting the blaze is the suspenseful question that drives the action; but it’s also the relationships surrounding Elizabeth — an arson investigator with a tottering marriage — and Mindy — a wife and mother with concerns about her son — that keep your eyes glued to the pages. An exciting story and a great read.
CROOKED LITTLE LIES by Barbara Taylor Sissel (Lake Union, 2015)
A gripping story from a veteran novelist, Crooked Little Lies is a page turner from the word go. The novel opens as Lauren Wilder, a mother of two and business partner with her husband, comes close to striking Bo Laughlin with her car. Known as an unusual young man who’s a bit of a drifter, Bo goes missing shortly after this incident, and Lauren quickly becomes embroiled in his disappearance. Adding to the mystery is Lauren’s background: The victim of a damaging head injury, she has trouble with her memory, which calls much of what she says into question. Sissell is a skilled storyteller, and the novel unfolds with intriguing twists and turns. It’s a a gripping read for all, and a special delight for lovers of suspense.
AMONG THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS by Julia Pierpont (Random House, 2015)
A quiet but devastating book, Among the Ten Thousand Things explores a marriage in free fall. As it opens, 11-year-old Kay receives a package from her building doorman intended for her mother. It’s not sealed, so she opens it and finds that it contains pages of texts between her father and his former mistress that detail their wants and fantasies in lewd and graphic detail. Kay shows the box to her brother, who then brings in their mother to examine it, and the shock and aftershocks of the discovery, play out before our eyes. Deb, the wronged wife, has known about the affair for some time, but it’s the shocking nature of the texts that causes both her and her husband, Jack, to reexamine where their futures lie. Julia Pierpont explores serious themes of love, commitment, and family in this painful and affecting novel.
THE DREAM LOVER by Elizabeth Berg (Random House, 2015)
I’m not typically an historical fiction fan — I tend to wonder about what is real and what is fiction, which can ruin the experience of getting lost in a book; however, I am a big Elizabeth Berg fan, so I thought I’d give this book a try. And I have to say, this novel about the writer George Sand is a highly enjoyable and intriguing read. Berg’s juxtaposes Sand’s complex childhood with her adult life in Paris in the nineteenth century — a creative and effective approach to storytelling. Paris comes alive in this book, as does the passionate female writer who rebelled against society to pursue her dreams.
AT THE WATER’S EDGE by Sara Gruen (Random House, 2015)
Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of Sara Gruen’s earlier novel, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, so I had mixed feelings about reading her newest novel. However, I’m actually quite glad I did! I thought her choice of a heroine — a spoiled, frivolous young woman who spends the opening of the book drunk and foolish — was very bold;and I found that heroine’s belated coming-of-age journey — set against the backdrop of an inn in the Scottish Highlands during the last days of World War II — believable and moving. Her growing understanding about her husband and his best friend, and her increasing awareness of her own escalating physical danger, is revealed in a well-paced and suspenseful story. Definitely worth a read!
THE LIFE INTENDED by Kristin Harmel (Gallery Books, 2014)
I have to admit that I groaned a bit when I realized this was one of those “dueling reality” romances. But ultimately I found this story — of a young widow who alternates between her actual life with her new fiancé and an alternative world in which her first husband is alive — quite compelling. The protagonist is sympathetic, relatable, and interesting. At times the plot seemed predictable and some of the connections between the real and alternative worlds strained believability Still, I was definitely rooting for this complicated woman and found the ending poignant and satisfying.
THE SAME SKY by Amanda Eyre Ward (Ballantine, 2015)
Two parallel stories intersect in a surprising and satisfying way in this dramatic and moving novel. One involves Alice, a wife struggling with infertility and contemplating with despair the painful possibility of a life without children; and the other involves Carla, a young girl living with her brother in Honduras and desperate to make it to through Mexico and to their mother in Texas. Carla is by far the more gripping character, and her journey — with its connection to recent news headlines –at times is harrowing. But both narratives are impossible to resist, and the book’s ultimate resolution feels real and right.
Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting (Gallery Books, 2015)
Sorry to say, the story doesn’t live up to its bombshell prologue, which promises a rocky and raucous ride. Worse yet, two of the three characters involved in the initial brouhaha leave the main action of the book almost for good — and when they return, the confrontation we’ve been waiting for is way too tame. Still, there’s something wonderfully engaging about the main character, Tallulah (who is younger than traditional hen-lit protagonists), as we watch her test and then navigate the waters of adulthood both before and after the inciting incident. Though far from blameless, she has a good heart, and ultimately ends up in a place that we can all applaud.