Fiction

Best Short Stories of the Year

ISBN: 
9780345807311

I love anthologies, particularly of short stories. But I must confess I never follow the editor’s carefully thought-out arrangement.

Certainly, I hit pay dirt with this year’s O. Henry prize collection.  The very first story I dove into “Good faith” by Colleen Morrissey wowed me on first reading and ended up being my favorite.

What made it so good? Snake handlers, religion, a summer road-trip, girls coming of age, family conflict, romance, and camping out under the stars. It tells the story of a religious family travelling the south who meet two rich young men on the road.

That night the leading character Rachel does snake handling, not for entertainment, as she tells the more serious young man, Mr. Pattinson, but as part of her faith and religious practice. Read more »

The Invention of Wings

ISBN: 
9780670024780

Two young women characters guide the reader back to 19th century South Carolina where the institution of slavery affected everyone’s life and relationships. Hetty (nicknamed Handful) is a skinny wisp of a girl with amber eyes and wild braids in her hair. 

At the age of ten, the Missus gives her to her middle child, Sarah, who has just moved up from the nursery.  In this society it’s normal to have your own slave, and one who can mend and sew is highly valued.

At an elegant birthday party attended by the privileged young of Charleston society, Sarah refuses this lady’s maid/slave.  Sarah does not believe in the institution although her family’s life centers around its abuse and brutality.  The Missus walks everywhere with a cane, but the slaves know its real use—to hit them on the head should they bring this lady displeasure. Read more »

Lucky Us

ISBN: 
9781400067244

This intriguing 1940s novel opens with a mother announcing that someone has died and they better hustle over to the house and "see what might be in it for us."  The house belongs to Eva's dad and his recently deceased wife.

A week later Eva's Mom deposits her on the doorstep with a suitcase then disappears from her life. Upstairs is Eva's half-sister, Iris. Until this day, neither sister knew the other existed. 

Iris, four years older and in high school, enters and wins many talent contests (elocution, dramatic readings, poetry, patriotic essays, and dance) in their small Ohio town and bergs like it within fifty miles. However, she must hide her earnings from her father, Edgar, a college professor of elocution, who has no qualms about stealing from his children.

Before long, Iris graduates from school and heads out to Hollywood. Because their dad basically abandons Eva to her own care, she soon drops out of school to join her older sister in Hollywood. They move into a rooming house and Iris shares her adventures with Eva as she holes up in their room until school is out each day.

Iris scores a few speaking roles in movies, but soon becomes involved in a gay sex scandal and gets blacklisted in Hollywood. The older more famous actress marries immediately and her career zooms on.

Soon Edgar reappears and along with a helpful make-up artist, Francisco, they decide to drive across country to find possible jobs in New York. Edgar thinks he can pass as a butler and with some training, Iris, can be a governess. As they drive through the west, Iris memories facts from The Little Blue Books, and the party grills her on Shakespeare. Luckily, father and daughter land jobs with an Italian nouveau riche family, the Torellis.

Eva grows up to become a fortune teller. As Iris advised Eva, "It's the great thing about the war.... Anyone can be anyone." Iris adopts a son (somewhat illegally--they actually steal him from the orphanage) and falls in love with the Torellis' cook, Reenie, whom she convinces to leave her husband and move in with them.

To this crazy disfunctional family, Bloom brings her insight as a former psychotherapist. The 40s time period is captured well and a series of letters from a dear family friend, who was thrown out of the country for being Jewish describe some of the hardships of Europe including the Dresden bombings.

In no sense is this a light, hopeful book, yet it is very well-written and captures the complex relationships and dynamics of a modern American family in the midst of a rapidly changing world.

For a book about another family surviving WW II on the other side of the pond, try Amanda Hodginkson's 22 Britannia Road.

Let Me Be Frank With You

ISBN: 
9780062344311

I’m not from Jersey, but Philly, which is a short bridge- or boat-ride away, but boy has Ford captured the Jersey patois, sense of alienation, and its ironic humor. Plus that reverence Jerseyites feel for what they call The Shore, a kind of mythical Fun Paradise with nature in the otherwise cemented-over Northeast.

Realtor and ex-sportswriter, Frank Bascombe returns in these four intertwined tales.  Ford has stuck with the sensitive, observing hero from three of his novels The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, two of which won major awards.

Something bad, really bad, has happened to The Shore. Houses and lives have been ripped apart and most everyone is in a bad mood. Hurricane Sandy recently ripped through and most people have lost not only their homes, their finances, but also confidence in the future. Read more »

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

ISBN: 
9781627792103

If you loved Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, this collection of stories will convince you that she can capture modern people at least as well as medieval ones showing all their foibles and unachieved dreams. 

Mantel’s prose is startling clear, her metaphors striking but en pointe, and her feel for characters both rich and sure.  She has a ready feel for plot and for infusing her stories with a deep feel for the mysterious.

In the opener, “Sorry to Disturb,” she portrays a sick British ex-pat living in Saudi Arabia, who is almost a prisoner in her own apartment (because of women’s very restricted social and cultural standing there.) An Asian foreign man starts to visit her in the afternoons and though he is married, she immediately suspects his lack of good intentions. When he tells her that she reminds him of his first American girlfriend who was risque, she knows her perceptions are right. Read more »

Booksplus Discussion, Sunday Nov. 2 at 2: Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society

ISBN: 
9781451675238

What happens when an energetic, middle-aged Bostonian moves to a sleepy town in Florida in 1962? First, she starts a radio show under the persona of Miss Dreamsville and secondly forms a book club. Ex-Bostonian Jackie Hart starts a ruckus when she invites people of other races and sexual persuasions to the club in a decidedly racist, homophobic town where a divorcee is considered socially-risque and improper.

Narrated by a lovable octagenerian, Dora, who does not fit into Naples herself, this novel discusses important issues such as racism, feminism, and homophobia while presenting an interesting mix of characters. With a backdrop of serious and important issues, it provides a humorous and entertaining read.

In her debut novel Amy Hearth manages to take on both the Ku Klux Klan, North versus South, the nature of community, and newcomer angst to Naples, Florida. Read more »

The Storied Life of A.K. Fikry

ISBN: 
9781616203214

Like bookstores? Like islands off the coast of New England? Favor novels that feature an orphan and a single dad? Drawn to love stories especially ones where the couple start off at each other's throats? Have a thing for rare manuscripts especially those of Edgar Allen Poe? If so this charming book-celebratory novel is just your thing.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry begins with publisher’s rep, Amelia Loman (“a tall dandelion of a woman") disembarking from a ferry to visit a small bookstore on Alice Island to go over the winter accounts for her publisher, Knightley Press. The owner, the very curmudgeonly A.J. Fikry, is decidedly unfriendly and shocked by the fact that the old book rep has not come. Loman tells him that he has died and then proceeds to push her favorite book, a memoir by a widower dealing with his bereavement. 

For Fikry this hits too close to home but he does not tell Alice why. He has recently lost Nic, his intelligent and beautiful wife while she was pregnant with their first child. Fikry begins a delightful rant about all the books he does not like: postmodern, post apocalyptic, magical realism, ones with multiple fonts, children’s books, poetry, YA, etc. Read more »

Man Booker Prize Awarded to Australian Novelist

ISBN: 
9780385352857

The Man Booker Prize winner for 2014 was announced on Tuesday. Richard Flanagan, a popular and highly-regarded Australian novelist, won it for his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a historical novel set during WWII.

It’s about the construction of the Thai-Burma railroad, known as the Death Railway. For an odd bit of symmetry, Flanagan’s father, who worked on this railway during World War II, died on the very day that Flanagan finished his book.

If you follow book news, you already know that this is the first year that American authors have been allowed to compete for the Booker, and two Americans made the short list: Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) and Joshua Ferris (To Rise Again at a Decent Hour). Read more »

Problems with People

ISBN: 
9780385351485

This is Guterson’s first story collection in nearly twenty years. Ignore the bland title for these stories set in his native Northwest and in foreign countries including Germany, South Africa, and Nepal are muscular, well-written, and anchored with a deep sense of place.  An air of melancholy and of possible tragedy hangs over a few of them, especially two of my favorites, “Pilanesberg” and “Krassavitseh.”

In “Pilanesberg” a brother visits his sister in Africa to go wildlife viewing, but you soon discover that the sister has cancer and her favorite thing to do is “sleep.” They share a wonderful experience viewing big mammals: elephants, tigers, etc. but the trip is marred by the fact that they animals are fenced in, and the couple find themselves at dusk locked in as well.  Next follows a humorous and ludicrous conversation with the gatekeeper who says he cannot let them out. Read more »

The Book of Unknown Americans

ISBN: 
9780385350846

With immigration a hot button issue both politically and in the news, it was interesting to read Cristina Henriquez’s second novel The Book of Unknown Americans. It tells the stories of various immigrants (from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries) who have all landed in Delaware.

The book opens with a family’s arrival at night from the border. A paid driver has brought Arturo, Alma, and their daughter Maribel to this immigrant enclave outside of Dover.  They are legal immigrants given papers to work on a mushroom farm.  Or at least Arturo will work there. They have come primarily to get special schooling for 15 year old Maribel who fell off a ladder at her father’s construction site in Mexico and has brain damage.

The story of this family is the heartwood of the novel. But woven in are life stories of other immigrants including a boxer, who came to the states to win matches but became instead a landlord, and an actress who worked hard to make it in New York City, but came to Delaware and formed her own theatre. 

This beautiful books gives you a feel of how hard it is to start life over in a new place, not understanding the language or culture.  It also explores issues of guilt and secrecy, and how they affect even the strongest of marriages. Read more »

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