Tag Archives: fiction

Shmutz by Felicia Berliner

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Shmutz by Felicia Berliner

Felicia Berliner. Shmutz. Atria, 2022. ISBN 978-1982177621 272 pp. $27

****

A young ultra-Orthodox woman details her discovery of porn in this fascinating novel about religion, sexuality, and rebellion. Eighteen year old Raizl has always had a head for numbers and gets a dispensation to work as an accounting assistant in a jewelry company, and a scholarship to attend college and take accounting courses. The scholarship comes with a shiny laptop (it’s not clear how she connects to the internet) which is presumably for assignments, and access to therapy.

The Internet is full of people having sex, discovers Raizl. She learns the English words for names of body parts she only knows in Yiddish, and from watching illicit videos it’s a slippery slope to eating bacon and egg sandwiches, cheeseburgers and fries, changing into tight jeans in the restroom at school, and fooling around with boys at the beach. In the midst of this, she has increasing responsibility in the accounting job, increasing belligerence towards her therapist. She shares a Maccabeats video with her little sister, and goes on several dates arranged by the shidduch, eventually accepting a suit from an auburn-haired young man who informs her no computers will be allowed in their home.

Bonus points for clever placement of hamantaschen on the cover. The writing is immediate and both authentic teenager and authentic ultra-Orthodox. Scenes detailed the porn Raizl watches and later, her fantasies, are untitalling for this reader, reduced to observation of the mechanics. The story ends were any good YA novel leaves off: at a launch point for a new beginning of sorts.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #Shmutz via #NetGalley

The Beach Trap by Ali Brady

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The Beach Trap by Ali Brady

Brady, Ali. The Beach Trap. Berkley, 2022. ISBN 978-0593440155 352 pp. $17

***

Told in alternating voices, The Beach Trap follows the story of Kat, an Instagram influencer who grew up Jewish, wealthy and popular, and Blake, a nanny struggling to make ends meet, who grew up with a single mom and a dad only occasionally around. The two meet at the summer camp their dads attended, and when fate throws them together, become best friends… until they discover they are actually half-sisters and have the same dad. Fast forward fifteen years; their father has died and left the family beach house that Kat visited every year and that Blake has never seen to the two of women.

The Kat and Blake agree to fix up the decrepit property and sell; Kat is all about the interiors, and crossing over from her “Life is a Fashion Show” themed stream to expand into home decorating. She’s also working on an essay for a competition that leads to a lot of introspection. Blake, meanwhile, is not afraid to get her hands dirty and takes on much of the demo and reno herself, and begins wondering if she can turn this hobby into a career and get off the nanny carousel.

Each woman meets a guy that at first seems her opposite, so The Beach Trap is also a dual romance. And as in traditional romance novels, Kat and Blake have an enemies to lovers sort of arc, friends who split up, get a do-over, are mean, become friendly, have a misunderstanding, and then must make it right.

The writing is solidly plotted, characters believable in their meanness, selfishness and epiphanies, the romance is well-done, and the narrative compelling. The cover is attractive and as balanced as the storytelling, and the epilogue very satisfying.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #TheBeachTrap via #NetGalley

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon

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See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Solomon, Rachel Lynn. See You Yesterday. Simon & Schuster, 2022. ISBN 978-1665901925 432 pp. $19.99

*****

Barrett (named for the poet) Bloom is looking at her freshman year of college as the opportunity of a do-over. High school was hell: her expose in the school paper on a corrupted grading system for star tennis players led to her being a social pariah, but also bullying, the loss of a good friend, and a deceptive, mean prom date who took her virginity just so he could brag about deflowering her as revenge for her getting his brother kicked off the tennis team. On her first day of classes, Wednesday, September 21, Barrett discovers her no-show roommate is Lucie, the former friend (whose boyfriend was the one who got kicked off the team!) and the day gets worse from there. She botches her interview with the school paper, is unprepared for physics 101, and accidentally sets fire to a frat house. She runs away, gets lost, finds her way to campus, passes out in the common room, and…. wakes up again on Wednesday, September 21.

Stuck in a Groundhog-Day like time loop, the only bright and shining part of her day is getting to know Miles Kasher-Okamoto, the son of her physics teacher, who seems to be stuck in a time loop of his own. Their bristly temperaments towards each other slowly become sparks as they try to figure out why they are stuck, and agree to approach getting unstuck together from Mile’s more scientific leanings and Barrett’s magical ones. They enjoy going on adventures with no consequences, traveling, exploring, getting tattoos, buying a lot of rescue dogs, and narrowly escape death.

Another approach to find their way back to their reality is to right past wrongs, and this becomes an opportunity for Barrett to try to repair her relationship with Lucie, for Miles to allow his addict brother Max to make amends, and for Barrett to face the shitty things that happened to her on prom date–including confronting Cole Walker– and clue both Miles and her Max in, so she can begin to heal. The pair even tries to track down a former professor from UW who taught a very popular class on Time Travel for Beginners, and while her advice is ultimately helpful, nothing helps, until a missing sock provides an epiphany.

I was thinking of this book as Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl meets Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop: while only two are about the college experience and two are about time loops, all three novels have deeply fleshed out, real new adult characters alongside interesting and non-stereotyped supporting characters strong setting, a compelling story, a sweet, strong first time romance, great pacing, and honestly? just perfect voice and writing.

I loved See You Yesterday for the theme of acceptance and the author’s normalizing what might still be considered marginalized people. Barrett’s mother has dated both men and women, and her current love interest is on the verge of proposing; another character isn’t so sure she likes men all that much and is looking forward to exploring; Barrett is curvy and (mostly) unashamed and gets comfortable being adored as she is; Miles is Asian American, and both are Jewish, but Miles says he is not half anything when he’s telling Barrett about some of the comments he’s heard (presumably from other Jews) about not being a matrilineal Jew. As a Jew by choice, I love seeing myself reflected back in what I’m reading, and their improvised Shabbat on a Wednesday was just so lovely. Barrett’s observation that “Much of Judaism is about making do with what you have, and I’ve always loved that there are so many ways to observe” resonated with me. It should be noted the setting of the book takes place close to the High Holidays, and while they are not mentioned, it is a time of reflection, apologies, atonement, and new beginnings.

I also really loved the pop culture woven throughout–the age of the protagonist means she has a mom that grew up in the 2000s and her introduction to the Gilmore Girls and love of all things from the turn of the 21st century is a nicely woven thread throughout the narrative.

The title is great and I don’t love the pink cover, which features a sketch of the characters at three points in time and coordinates with the author’s last YA book, Today, Tonight, Tomorrow.

I flipped to Good Reads to note I’d finished the book, and realized Rachel Lynn Solomon wrote my favorite book (thus far) of 2022: Weather Girl! As in Weather Girl, the Seattle setting features strongly into the narrative.

One of my favorite things to tell kids embarking on their higher education journey is that college is what YOU make of it. Watching Barrett come to this realization that it’s not college that will change her, but that she will change, is so satisfying.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #SeeYouYesterday via #Netgalley

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont

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The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont

de Gramont, Nina. The Christie Affair. St. Martin’s Press, 2022. ISBN 978-1250274618 320 pp. $27.99

*****

I readily admit to being a bit of a lazy reader: I read to escape, I want to be entertained, and I read nonfiction, not mystery, to exercise my brain. I was attracted by the jazz-age cover (those pearls!) and scintillating title, and it took midway through chapter two to realize the narrator was speaking about THAT Agatha Christie, of mystery novel fame. I almost put the book down several times, and am SO glad I stuck with it.

Nan O’Dea is in love with Archie Christie, who has promised to leave his wife for her. When he breaks the news to his wife Agatha, she goes missing for almost two weeks, amid scandal and intrigue (which is amazing for book sales!), and upon her return, does divorce, and both former spouses remarry. This inventive historical novel imagines why Nan, why now, and what happened during those pivotal eleven days. While the narrative gives insight into multiple characters, including the police inspector, it’s all as imagined by Nan (who may not even be a reliable narrator!) The story moves back and forth in time from Nan’s unsavory experience as an unmarried pregnant girl in a corrupted convent and a seductive mistress. The timeline is usually easy to follow (though there are one or two muddled times that took a little re-reading). In the midst of Christie’s disappearance, there is a murder mystery involving two guests near where the author is holed up.

Without giving away too much plot, I will say the voice and story are compelling, the plot brilliantly woven, and the tone reminiscent of Christie herself. Period details seem to be well-researched and the ending is extremely satisfying. I fully expect this to be an Edgar Award contender if not winner this year.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #TheChristieAffair from #NetGalley

The Girl in White Gloves: A Novel of Grace Kelly by Kerri Maher

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The Girl in White Gloves: A Novel of Grace Kelly by Kerri Maher

Maher, Kerri. The Girl in White Gloves: A Novel of Grace Kelly. Berkley, 2020. ISBN 978-0451492074 384 pp. $26

****

BioFic about the life and loves of Grace Kelly, b. 1929, American actress who married the Prince of Monaco in 1956–who promptly made her quit her film career. Lots of history, travel, drama and romance in this historical fictionalized biography.

Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman

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Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman

Feldman, Joshua Max. Start Without Me. William Morrow, 2017. ISBN 978-0062668721 288 pp. $

I apparently read this a few years ago, and read half of it and have no recollection of it. Black sheep and recovering alcoholic runs away from family holiday and connects with another lost soul: a married flight attendant pregnant with her high school boyfriend’s child. Drama, redemption and lots of coffee ensue.

A Beginner’s Guide to Free Fall by Andy Abramowitz

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A Beginner’s Guide to Free Fall by Andy Abramowitz

Abramowitz, Andy. A Beginner’s Guide to Free Fall. Lake Union Publishing, 2020. ISBN 978-1542014656 396 pp. $24.95

*****

35-year-old roller coaster engineer Davis’s world comes to a screeching halt when, on the same day, he is put on administrative leave due to a malfunction on a log flume he designed, and his wife discovers his one-time infidelity with a woman on the team that helped install the flume. At the same time, his less self-assured sister Molly is having relationship and job woes of her own (she works at a fledgling newspaper and is dating a 23 year old). Told in not-quite-one-for-one alternating chapters, Molly and Davis struggle through their current conditions, overlaid with the absence of their mother who left when they were 8 and 10 (I think?).

The story makes the universal job/relationship struggle unique to it’s quirky characters. Molly hits a home run with a recurring column about motherless daughters; Davis enlists the help of his 6-year-old to design a magnetic flying carpet themed ride; Davis ends up as a lifeguard at his apartment complex’s pool and becomes an physics tutor for a young woman who flunked her last high school semester after getting expelled for pushing someone down the stairs, and, desperate to get into college, needs to take her finals and pass to get her diploma.

The pacing is excellent and I felt pulled through this roller coaster of a book, waiting to see how it would all play out. The writing is excellent; Davis is real on the page through his bantering dialogue. The game he and his sister play, trying to outdo one another with terrible business ideas, is highly entertaining. Supporting characters are strongly drawn. Great read to end my year!

I received a free advance pub ebook copy through Amazon Prime First Reads, which did not influence my assessment of this novel.

A Winter’s Love by Madeleine L’Engle

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A Winter’s Love by Madeleine L’Engle

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Winter’s Love. Shaw, 2000. ISBN 978-0877888895 336 pp. $

***

On holiday in Switzerland, Emily struggles with her marriage and gets caught up in a relationship with someone else. Atmospheric, dated, and peopled with unlikeable characters and unfulfilled romance, this depressing is still wonderfully written!

Behave by Andromeda Romano-Lax

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Behave by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Romano-Lax, Andromeda. Behave. Soho Press, 2016. ISBN 978-1616956530 400 pp. $26.95

*****

This novel about Vassar grad and behavioral scientist Rosemarie Rayner and her work and love affair with John Watson provides cringe-worthy descriptions of experiments on infants amid details of life in the roaring 20s. Fascinating read peppered with unlikeable characters.

The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

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The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Hannah, James. The A to Z of You and Me. Sourcebooks, 2016. ISBN 978-1492633167 336 pp. $15.99

*****

The marketing representative for promised us at Book Buzz Boston that this book would make us ugly-cry, and author James Hannah delivered.

Ivo, in hospice with kidney failure, should be in the prime of his (mid)life; instead, he is contemplating the choices he’s made that brought him to this point by playing a game devised by his favorite caregiver: find a memory for each body part, in alphabetical order. From Adam’s apple on, the narrative weaves between past and present as the aloof Ivo comes to terms with his life and it’s inevitable end.

The writing is lovely and the theme hard to deal with, but there are light-filled moments. Much of the story is taken up with Ivo’s ex, Mia; their relationship is mysterious and disclosed a small detail at a time.

As Ivo’s illness progresses, the narrative becomes a little more surreal due to the effects of morphine. Truly masterful. Guaranteed to make you weep.