Jennifer Ryan: The Spies of Shilling Lane

Delightful is the only word for the audiobook version of Jennifer Ryan’s The Spies of Shilling Lane. If you’re looking for an antidote to these sad, scary days, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Set in London during the Blitz, the novel tells the story of Mrs. Braithewaite, a bossy, imperious woman who’s ousted from her role as leader of her village’s women’s auxiliary group. She heads to London to reveal a long-held secret to her daughter, only to get caught up in some dangerous business involving the MI5 (English Military Intelligence), Nazi-loving traitors, and dangerous thugs.

9781984886798_400She also meets the timid Mr. Norris who, against his will, is swept up in her escapades. The gradual affection between these complete opposites, who don’t learn each other’s first names until the final chapters of the book, is one of its many joys.

In addition to a suspenseful, twisting and turning plot, Ryan’s book has some wisdom about maternal love, friendship, and discovering what’s truly important. Sometimes it borders on schmaltzy but it’s the kind of schmaltz I adore.

The audiobook is read by the perfectly named Jane Entwistle whose plummy tones are spot on. Give yourself a treat and listen to this delicious book. It’s great fun and god knows we can use some more of that.

Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay

I love being knocked out by a writer I’ve never heard of. Such is the case with LA writer Stephanie Cha, whose Your House Will Pay is set in LA during the summer of 2019, when a police shooting involving a black teenager inflames racial unrest and protests erupt throughout the city.

9780062868855The book is based on a true story that takes place almost 30 years before it begins, when a Korean grocery store owner shot a Black teenager in the back of the head after accusing her of stealing. The crime was caught on video, and although the shooter was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, she never went to jail.

Cha tells the story of two families—one Black, the other Korean-American—whose lives collide as both are drawn into the cauldron of racial tension and violence. She describes each family with cultural sensitivity and skillfully builds suspense as she leads to the point where their stories intersect.

The author of a crime trilogy also set in LA, Cha clearly knows her territory. She says she began writing Your House Will Pay in 2014 right after Michael Brown’s murder, but it could have been written last week. It’s that prescient. It’s also filled with insight about the ripple effects of violence and social injustice.

Here’s a taste of Cha:

Los Angeles—this was supposed to be at the end of the frontier, land of sunshine, promised land, last stop for the immigrant, the refugee, the fugitive, the pioneer. It was Shawn’s home, where his mother and sister had lived and died. But he had left, and so had most of the people he knew, chased out, priced out, native children living in exile. And he saw the fear and rancor here in the ones who’d stayed. The city of good feeling, of tolerance and progress and loving thy neighbor was also a city that shunned and starved and killed its own. No wonder was it that it huffed and heaved, ready to blow, because the city was human, and humans could only take so much.

This is an important book, one that takes us behind the headlines and portrays real people, all of whom live as “others” in this country, dealing with racial injustice and profound loss. Cha’s timing is uncanny.

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Julia Alvarez & Brit Bennet

It’s been a bit of a challenge to get absorbed in a novel these days. The news is too loud and devastating. It takes a great storytellerand a compelling tale to get my interest and keep it.  The two novels below held my interest and gave me a necessary break from the tragic news cycle.

I absolutely adored Julia Alavarez’s new book Afterlife. In her first book for adults in 15 years, Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies) tells the story of the recently widowed Antonia Vega, a Dominican-American like Alvarez herself. 

Retired from her career as a college professor and novelist, Vega is ready to settle happily into retirement with her husband when he’s killed by a sudden aneurysm. She is forced to enter into the “disorienting transition of old age” on her own. Here she is on the grief of widowhood: “The landscape of grief is not very inviting. Visitors don’t want to linger.” 

She also becomes involved, somewhat against her will, with an undocumented Mexican man who’s doing farm work for her Vermont neighbor, Mario, when he enlists her to help bring his fiancé to Vermont. As an immigrant herself Antonia has always been something of a “reluctant activist” and her personal involvement with Mario tests her and challenges some of her assumptions.

If you have sisters, you’ll love this novel as Alvarez spends lots of time on Vega’s relationship with her three sisters, all strong individuals with distinct points of view who don’t hesitate to mix it up and call each other out, often with hilarious irreverence, at every opportunity.  The deep love at the root of their relationship is evident as is their ability to push each other’s buttons like crazy.

This is not a simple novel.  Alvarez wrestles with complex moral decisions and the obligations and responsibilities of privilege. Just because Antonia is Latina, Alvarez tells us. “she’s not necessarily Mother Teresa.”

I was also taken with Brit Bennet’s new novel The Vanishing Half.  The twin sisters at the heart of the novel are extremely light-skinned blacks who live in a Louisiana town defined by its light-skinned population. 

The girls run away to New Orleans to escape the conventions of their small, stifling town, and their lives take very different paths.  One suffers marriage to an abusive man and returns home with her very dark-skinned child in tow.  The other disappears from her family entirely to pass as a white woman.

This is a compulsively readable book.  You can’t wait to find out what happens. Bennett, who also wrote The Mothers, has superb control of her material and keeps things humming along,

But there’s also real depth here.  Through her main characters and their off-spring, Bennett explores issues of race, gender, and identity.  How are we shaped by our past?  To what extent can we put it behind us?  And how far can we bend the definition of family? 

Despite the respite I found in both books, we can’t really keep the world at bay. Alvarez’s treatment of the lives of undocumented people in this country and Bennett’s exploration of skin color bring in the world outside. More and more we can’t, nor should we want to, shut it out.

Patrick Radden Keefe & Emma Straub

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was so much cultural (drugs, music, etc.) and political (Vietnam) noise in my life, in addition to all the interpersonal relationships that make up one’s coming of age, I was only dimly aware of what was going on in the rest of the world. So while I certainly knew of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I was more than a bit hazy on the specifics. And, in fact, the struggle between the mostly Catholic republicans of Northern Ireland who sought reunification with the Republic of Ireland and the mix of Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British army forces is confusing, often defying simple categorization.

Keefe-SayNothingPatrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing takes us deep inside the bitter and deadly conflict, largely through the personalities of those involved in the struggle, chief among them IRA terrorists Dolours Price and Gerry Adams. They’re both larger-than-life characters and, as we learn late in the book, involved in the scene with which the book opens, the terrifying abduction of 38-year-old Jean McConville, the mother of ten, from her Belfast home.

We follow Price, a tragic, glamorous figure and notorious hunger striker who married British actor Stephen Rea, and Adams, who became an MP, president of Sinn Fein and, famously denied any involvement with the IRA, and numerous other IRA members through the early years of the movement, in and out of prison, and to their often tragic ends. Excepting Adams re: the tragic end … in case you don’t know already know, it involves rubber ducks.

I came out of this book with a lot more information about the Troubles and mostly about what a lying bastard Gerry Adams is. Also, when I think the whole Brexit mess, I’m much better informed about the deep divisions still within Ireland.

Keefe’s book is a masterful blend of research, suspense and mystery, yet another book that jolted me out of my cosseted world of fiction in the past year.


Straub-AllAdultsOn the other hand, when fiction is really good, it contains insight into the human condition and there’s no need to argue the value f that. Emma Straub’s new novel All Adults Here is a welcome reminder of the value of well-crafted, perceptive storytelling.

The novel centers on a widowed woman and her three adult children. While she’s done her best to parent them, she’s made her share of mistakes. Throughout the course of the book both she and her children come to terms with her imperfect love and move through their feelings of rejection and disappointment to become a healthier, more loving family.

This is stuff that could be sappy or trite in the hands of a less skillful writer. Straub creates interesting, complicated characters and makes us care about them. She also compassionately describes the world of teenage outsiders and we root for them to succeed.

There’s a heartening optimism in this book that tells us no matter how badly we screw up, there’s a chance at redemption. I really like that.

Kevin Wilson: Nothing to See Here

When I heard that the new novel, Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang) was about 10-year-old twins who spontaneously combust when agitated, I immediately thought “Nope, not for me.” Then I read the New York Times review by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a writer I admire for her humor and originality, and thought I’d give it a whirl … still without high expectations.

NothingToSeeHereI’m so glad I did, if only for the book’s protagonist, Lorraine, a down-on-her-luck Southern 20-something who’s been majorly screwed by life. It starts with her mother, a chain smoking, gambling, sleeping around with white trash (can I still say that?) horror, who sells her daughter out on more than one occasion. Then there’s her former prep school roommate, Madison, an ambitious, calculating daughter of privilege raised to marry a senator, which indeed she does. She throws Lillian under the bus (with Lillian’s mother’s complicity) in the early chapters, a situation that so enraged me I carried my indignation throughout the book.

The bulk of the novel involves Lillian coming to the mansion where Madison and the Senator live to take care of the combustible twins, the spawn of the Senator and his former wife, to hide them from public view and keep them from burning down the house while he’s going through confirmation hearings for Secretary of State. Sounds wild, no?

Indeed, it’s a helluva plot but, against all odds, Wilson makes it work. And Lillian is a helluva character. She’s depressed and not giving a shit about living in her mother’s attic and working a dead-end job when the novel begins. By its close she’s evolved into a totally different, more responsible and resourceful person with a strong moral compass.

This book has a deceptive complexity … because the plot is so, well, turbulent, it seems, on the surface, that’s the whole deal. But it’s about way more than the story line, touching on friendship, deception, hypocrisy, abandonment, and describing some very flawed people. It’s also about opening yourself up to love both others and yourself. Wilson not only pulls it off, he makes us think hard about what makes a family. And he makes us laugh. Pretty remarkable stuff.

Bernadine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other

I had never heard of Bernadine Evaristo until I learned she shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood.  Boy am I glad I took notice.

41081373._SY475_Evaristo’s new novel Girl, Woman, Other is a multi-voiced work, featuring twelve loosely and tightly connected Black British women—from Amma, a lesbian playwright whose story opens the book and who serves as the nucleus to the other voices, to a 93-year-old woman living on a farm in Northern England. There’s also a jaded public school teacher, an investment banker, a house cleaner, and a non-binary social influencer.

All of the characters have authentic voices, all of their stories have wider societal and cultural resonance. It’s a searing portrait of contemporary Britain as well as the legacy of Britain’s colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean.

Most of you know me as liking fairly traditional, linear narrative. But the structure of this book, moving quickly from one character to another in a style that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, totally worked for me. I was able to move seamlessly between the stories and follow the natural cadence of the novel.

At times I got a bit lost as to the connections between the women, but I generally picked up the thread again. And in a way it didn’t matter. What did matter is all these women ARE connected by virtue of being something of “the other” in British society—certainly in race but also in sexuality, education, and class.

I’m finding myself drawn to these stories lately, to immigrants and people who are marginalized by race, poverty, physical differences, lack of education, etc. I guess it’s the times. Stories of privileged people feel slight and frivolous.

So do read Bernadine Evaristo’s new book. It’ll take you somewhere else, to a place I feel it’s really important for all of us to go.

Ann Patchett: The Dutch House

It seems there isn’t much we can count on these days. I write this as PG&E has turned off the power in my neighborhood but not just down the street. Don’t even get me started.

DutchHouse-165x249One thing we can rely on is that Ann Patchett is a consistently great writer. Her latest novel, The Dutch House, is a rich multi-layered family story complete with a wicked stepmother who turns out not to be a stereotype. Imagine that.

The novel centers on a lavish mansion in suburban Philadelphia, the Dutch House of the title. It’s purchased by Cyril Connolly at the end of WWII, enabling him to build a real estate empire and bring his family from poverty to extreme wealth.

For reasons that become clear as the novel unfolds, Cyril’s wife Elna is uncomfortable enough with everything the house signifies that she abandons her husband and two children.

The Dutch House centers on the children, Danny and Maeve, and their life in the decades after their mother’s departure and father’s remarriage. Patchett makes the house a symbol of home and everything that implies for Danny and Maeve. And just like the stepmother, she treats that theme in a way that feels fresh and revelatory.

She also creates a marvelous maternal, independent character in Maeve, and chooses to tell the story from Danny’s point of view so we get the benefit of seeing her from a distance. The strength of the sibling bond is beautifully rendered here.

In a conversation with Mary Laura Philpott, who writes a column for Parnassus Books—Patchett’s bookstore in Nashville, and, yes, she started a vital independent bookstore as if being a celebrated novelist wasn’t enough—Patchett says the inspiration for The Dutch House came from Zadie Smith, who told her the character of the mother in Swing Time was autobiographical because the mother in the book was the mother she didn’t want to be. Andrea, the horrific stepmother in The Dutch House, says Patchett, is the stepmother she doesn’t want to be.

So there you have it. A great story, a wonderful read, perceptively-drawn characters acting in a manner that tells us something about the human condition. Ann Patchett makes it look easy.

Pascal Mercier: Night Train to Lisbon

The decision about what books to take on a trip just as important to me as what goes in the suitcase. Actually, it’s more important. To find myself stranded in a train station or airport with nothing good to read would be far worse than having the wrong pair of shoes (and honestly, I always have the wrong pair of shoes anyway).

I did a lot of thinking about what books to take on my recent trip to Portugal. I looked at the best-known Portuguese writers, poet Fernando Pessoa and novelist Jose Saramago, and just couldn’t go that route; Pessoa felt too intellectual/esoteric, Saramago just too damn depressing. I know there’s lots more to these writers than that short dismissal but I’m just telling you how I felt.

NightTrainSo I packed a copy of Night Train to Lisbon in my carry-on. The author, Pascal Mercier, is Swiss rather than Portuguese, but it takes place largely in Lisbon, and the Portuguese language and character are a big part of the story, so it seemed fitting.

And I carried the real book, not the Kindle version. I stopped reading on Kindle years ago, preferring paper in my hands for all kinds of reasons. To my mind it’s totally worth the extra luggage weight.

It was a wonderful choice. The novel’s main character, Raimund Gregorious, is stuck in a buttoned-down joyless rut teaching classics at the same Swiss lycée he attended as a student. A chance encounter with a Portuguese woman and a mysterious book of philosophical observations cause him to abruptly flee his well-established life and, quite impulsively, head to Portugal.

The book that so intrigues him is by Amadeus Prado, an enigmatic, brilliant doctor and philosopher who left a huge imprint on everyone who knew him and who, ultimately, came into conflict with the brutal Salazar regime. Gregorious spends much of the novel tracking down those who knew Prado—his sister, a priest, a childhood friend, a lover—attempting to get at the heart of his philosophy and solve the mystery of his life.

Great portions of Night Train are devoted to quoting the book of Prado’s that falls into Gregorious’s hands, and I admit I cheated a little bit, skimming some of those passages. While they’re erudite and thought-provoking, I was more interested in Gregorious’s own journey. The idea of a man who has followed the same routine for years suddenly opening his life and opening to the possibility of change is fascinating.

Among its many themes, Night Train considers the safety of routine, the fear of intimacy, the nature of risk, the hypocrisy of religion, and the art of self-delusion—it questions our very understanding of identity.

I could definitely go back and re-read this book, as I’m certain I missed big important chunks essential to Prado’s thought process and conclusions about life. But when I closed the last page, I was very satisfied. And since I finished on the train from Porto to Lisbon (sadly, during the broad daylight or it would have been too perfect), I Ieft it on the train for another traveler to discover. Seemed like the right thing to do.

Javier Marías: Berta Isla

You have to give time and attention to Javier Marías’s novels. His books are complex and the characters talk and reflect a great deal. They’re an acquired taste.

To my mind, they’re worth the occasional heavy lifting. If you want to understand the legacy of Franco and how he shaped Spain, Marías is your man. Also he knows better than almost anyone how to parse the complexity of marriage (a subject, admittedly, I’ve never mastered).

My first of many visits to Spain was in 1968, when Franco was still in power. I lived for a summer in San Sebastian where the Basque separatists were very much underground … even open expression of their language was forbidden.

Today, in retrospect, I understand the iron grip Franco had on the country and the unspeakable crimes that were committed in his name. I’ve also come to understand the horrible legacy of the 1976 pacto de olvidio (pact of forgetting), wherein the Fascists agreed to cede power on the condition that no one be held accountable for crimes committed during the Civil War and dictatorship.

I first encountered Marías when my book club read A Heart So White, a novel that centers on a translator and the mystery of his father’s marriage. Then I read Thus Bad Begins, a novel about a young man who works as an assistant to a film director, his employer’s dysfunctional marriage and his possibly criminal friend and associate.

BertaIsla-550x745His new novel, Berta Isla, tells the story of Tomas Nevinson, a brilliant young man with an uncanny facility for flawlessly speaking multiple languages who, against his will, is conscripted into the British Secret Service. He and his wife, the title character, meet in the 60s, both convinced they are destined for each other. This conviction is sorely tested during the course of the novel as Nevinson’s work requires him to live multiple other lives, fraught with constant danger. Berta is kept in the dark about the nature of her husband’s work and must suffer his long absences.

The novel’s background is the major social and political upheavals from the 60s to the near present: the Falklands War (about which I’d almost entirely forgotten), the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Berta Isla is herself highly intelligent, literary (there are allusions to Elliot, Melville, Shakespeare, Dumas), and reflective. And that’s a good thing because the novel spends a lot of time on her inner world. The chapter where her child’s life is threatened by an IRA operative is one of the most chilling I’ve read in a long time.

Berta Isla is an unusual suspense novel, sort of a slow thriller. It’s a book about secrecy, suspicion, deception, loyalty, trust, and, ultimately, about marriage and the limits on ever completely knowing another person. It’s also about national character, Spain’s and Britain’s, and what shaped each.

Yes, it’s a bit rambling and discursive but somehow it works. You just have to have an appetite for that sort of thing.

Barbara Demick on North Korea

As you probably know, non-fiction is not my best subject. It works for me only when I can find the story in it. That’s why I’m raving about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

DemickNorth Korea? Heavy lifting, right? Well, yes with a big “but.” In an extraordinary piece of reporting (right up there with Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity) Demick takes us inside the lives of six ordinary North Koreans before and after defection.

We’ve all read the news stories about the repressive totalitarian regime, the starvation, the disillusionment and hopelessness. Demick brings it alive and we care desperately about these people. We root for them. It’s not an exaggeration to say it reads like a suspense story.

When I told people I was reading a book about North Korea, let’s just say the response was tepid at best. Trust me, there’s a reason. This book tells you more about the twisted psychology of a brutal dictatorship and the tenacity of the human spirit than any I can remember.

I’ll spare you any analogy with the worst tendencies of our current administration in regard to manipulation of the media, outright lies, the cult of personality (and the list goes on). Just read this book, OK?