“The House in the Orchard” by Elizabeth Brooks

Genre: Gothic/Family DynamicsThe House on Orchard
Publisher: Tin House
Pub. Date: Sept. 27, 2022

Mini-Review

This dual narrated novel takes place within two centuries and both are filled with family tension. The story revolves around one girl and one woman who discover the mysteries of an English country house. Thirteen-year-old Maude Gower, an orphan, writes in her diary about losing her parents and having to move in with Miss Kitty Greenaway in 1876. She knows that the family hates this woman but she doesn’t know why. She is heartbroken that she cannot stay with her college-aged older brother Frank. Peggy, Frank’s widowed daughter-in-law, inherits Maude’s home in 1945 and considers relocating there. Frank warns Peggy that the house is haunted and he tries to persuade her to sell it. Most of the story is about Peggy reading Maude’s diary and trying to piece together family secrets. The theme in the novel explores the concept of can we ever truly know what is the truth? There seem to be different truths for our four prognostics regarding the same family history. Is Miss Kitty an evil or misunderstood person? Was someone murdered or not.  I enjoyed the gothic elements in the tale such as why is the cellar locked up. Or when Peggy believes that there is a ghost in the house, both very creepy. However, the tale couldn’t win me over. It kept my interest in the beginning but then it began to read melodramatic. I began to not care what was happening, which is never a good thing while reading any book. However,

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“This Time Tomorrow” by Emma Straub

Genre: Science Fiction/Domestic FictionThis time
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pub. Date: May 17, 2022

Think of Kate Atkinson’s novel “Life After Life,” Bill Murray’s film “Groundhog Day,” and Nicholas Cage’s film “The Family Man,” then add the play “Our Town,” (which celebrates the mundane things of everyday life) to the mix, and you have “This Time Tomorrow.” Alice Stern who has been drifting through life wakes up the morning of her 40th birthday to discover that she has just turned 16 again and the year is 1996. Her confusion and disorientation give way to a cautious joy as she realizes that her father, Leonard, is now in the prime of his life. When she is 40 he was a terminally ill senior. Their bond is particularly strong since he is a single parent. Leonard is the well-known author of the time-travel novel, “Time Brothers,” which is a clever move by Straub. Because, at this moment in time, Alice has the opportunity to ask her father questions about time travel, which she previously had no interest. Now, that she feels as if she has jumped into the plot of the old sci-fi TV show, “Quantum Leap” she has many questions. And, hopes to create a better future for themselves.

The heart of this tale is to make one wonder; if you could go back in time what would you do differently. As the reader, she did make me wonder. It was a fun exercise. Jumping around through the years made me feel nostalgic for my own past such as what was I up to when “Quantum Leap” was on the air. Or, where was I when I watched “Back To The Future” for the first time? Oh yes, I was changing diapers. You get the idea. It was amusing to read about Alice’s attempts to comprehend what was happening to her. I particularly liked when she compares herself to Peggy in the film “When Peggy Sue Got Married.” It almost feels as if Straub is poking fun at herself, which makes her references so funny. And, as a native New Yorker, I especially enjoyed her numerous descriptions of Manhattan. If you are interested in NYC you will also enjoy them, if not you might think “enough already.” Another criticism is that after a while, I got tired of Alice’s many 16th birthdays. It became repetitious.

Typically, I am not a fan of time travel stories. Others undoubtedly do; just look at the numerous books and films referenced in this review. Though not cited in the book, one of my favorite time travel novels is Matt Haig’s work “The Midnight Library,” in which each book allows the protagonist to try out a different life. To be honest, I probably fell in love with this book because the setting takes place in a magical library, which sounds just wonderful. In reality, “Time” and “Midnight” are both good reads that deal with the same theme but with different twists.

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“Winterland” by Rae Meadows

Genre: Historical Fiction Winterland
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Pub. Date: Nov. 29, 2022

“I Will Send Rain” by Rae Meadows captivated me. Set in 1930s Oklahoma, during the dustbowls. It showcased her knack for historical fiction. Her latest historical novel, “Winterland,” is equally powerful. This time we get a brutal look at 1970s Soviet gymnastics, and culture as the athletes prepare for the Olympics. Meadows succeeds once again in restoring the urgency of a distant time and place.

In 1954, a year after the death of Stalin, a man named Yuri meets his future wife, Katerina, on the streets of Moscow. Young and ambitious, they both hope to leave their mark on modernizing the USSR. Along with their friends, they join the Communist League of Youth. From there they are sent to Norilsk, North Siberia, to mine copper. Their youthful optimism is relatable, even to an American reader. As their friends succumb to frostbite, scurvy, and starvation, they return to Moscow. Yuri and Katerina remain in Siberia, refusing to surrender their ideals. Their daughter, Anya, becomes the focus of the story.

Anya grows up in Norilsk, where we now experience the frigid Siberian landscape through a child’s eyes. Her youth is defined by the mysterious disappearance of her mother when she is six years old. Vera, an older woman who lives next door, becomes her only confidant. It is through Vera’s stories that we glimpse the most heart-wrenching details of life in the forced labor Gulag camps, where enemies of the party were sent throughout Stalin’s reign. These well-written, hard-to-read scenes are eerily reminiscent of the German concentration camps with which readers are likely more familiar.

There is plenty of Russian history in this book but its heart and soul is Anya’s life as an athlete. In 1973, at the age of nine, Anya is selected to train as a gymnast. Her childhood as she knew it was over. We watch her rise to the top of an ultra-competitive sport, always under the thumb of her abusive trainers. The author will make you cringe as Anya’s friends and teammates are worked into states of disfigurement. The trainers have no sympathy for them; it is all about money and Russian glory. When Anya’s career is over, she is forced to teach gymnastics back in Norilsk. Not much of a thank you. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Yuri migrates to the US, like many Russians did at the time. Despite his hardships, he keeps his communist party card; the dreams of one’s youth are powerful things.

Every section of Meadows’ novel is heartbreaking in this way. From the dashed dreams of an idealist’s youth, to the terror of achieving athletic excellence in a deeply corrupt system, everything is infused with its rightful poignancy. The many broader lessons of Russian history and politics conveyed throughout the novel do nothing to lessen its intimacy. “Winterland” is also sprinkled with Russian poetry, a touch that felt earned. I thought of the line from the novel “Dr. Zhivago”: “But if people love poetry, they love poets. And nobody loves poetry like a Russian.” My only criticism is that I was expecting to learn more about the disappearance of Anya’s mother. But then again, many Russians have disappeared without answers. The novel is unflinching in this way. I highly recommend it.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Summer Place” by Jennifer Weiner

Genre: Beach Read/Women’s Fiction The summer place
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: May 10, 2022

In the book-beach lovers’ world, summer means it’s time for another Jennifer Weiner novel. This year it is “The Summer Place.” The plot is typical of Weiner’s works, with family drama, secrets, and imperfect yet endearing characters. Even though I am not always a fan of Weiner’s books, I read them every summer since they are a terrific way to escape real life. Weiner’s humorous, fast-paced debut 2001 novel, “Good in Bed” has a charming female protagonist who is always dealing with her weight issues, a strong cast of characters, sharp banter, and a take on life’s priorities.  I thoroughly enjoyed it. How I laughed but also felt the woman’s pain when I read that her ex-boyfriend publishes a magazine article about their relationship calling it “Loving a Larger Woman.” I devoured her next 2002 novel, “In her Shoes,” where the tension is between two sisters. One is wild and beautiful while the other sister is stable but not so pretty.

Here the tale revolves around Ronnie Levy’s summer house, which she expected to fill with family through the summers, but is now feeling empty after her husband died and her children are tied up in their own lives. But, when her daughter, Sarah, brings her ten-year-old stepdaughter, Ruby, to the summer house she falls in love with it. Now at the age of twenty-two, Ruby wants to get married at the house. Every family member is dealing with a secret revolving around having an affair that could unravel the fabric of the family. It all comes to a head on the day of the wedding.

It would be a spoiler to tell you who ends up with whom. It is not a spoiler to say Weiner’s books have happy endings. That is the purpose of a beach read. However, this family should not have had a feel-good outcome. I have read about half of Weiner’s thirty-something novels. Somewhere along the line, these endings became too far-fetched to believe, as they were in “Summer Place.” It’s simply too out there to buy into. You need to shift your level of disbelief considerably to accept the plot. Maybe, it is only me who is disappointed and critical of her later books. Still, to the author’s credit, I still read them every summer preferably on a beach.

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“The Woman in the Library” by Sulari Gentill

Genre: Murder MysteryThe woman in the library
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Pub. Date: June 7, 2022

A fictional author named Hannah is writing a novel about three undergraduate students and one graduate student, two men, and two women, who meet in the library and quickly become good friends. Two of the characters are writers. One of them is writing a novel based on the experiences of the other three, which makes for a confusing plot. However, I can say that the actual author, Sulari Gentill, gives us good insight into a writer’s process of creating a story.

During their first time in the library, the students hear a piercing scream and learn that a female college student is found dead. For me, even with drug addiction and violence, this still reads like a Nancy Drew mystery. The amateur detectives become romantic partners, adding to the characters’ adolescent-like behavior. To be fair, the novel does highlight the claim that all novels are romance stories. Still, their dialogue reads as if they are 14-years-old. Especially, the females who talk about their love interests as if they were at a junior high sleepover.

In the secondary plot, we are reading a narrative of a story within a story. This is the most creative part of the book (though it certainly has been done before). The book begins with a letter from Leo, a Boston research assistant who is assisting Australian author Hannah with information for her novel that takes place in Boston. Eventually, Hannah creates Ben as a character in her novel about the students who hear the scream. I know it’s interesting but it is also perplexing to follow. As long as you remember that Hannah and Leo are both Gentil’s characters you will be fine.

If you enjoy the idea of a novel within a novel then you might enjoy this book. In the tale, Gentil is witty when writing about writers. Still, “Library” wasn’t for me. I never cared for Nancy Drew once I left my early teens. But, if you like murder mysteries you may want to give this one a try. I did not guess who the murderer was until near the end.

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“The Martins” by David Foenkinos Translated by Sam Taylor

Genre: Family/Comedy
Published:  France 2020  English translation 2022
Publisher: Gallic Books

Mini-ReviewThe Martins

A Parisian author trying to overcome his writer’s block decides to write a novel about the first person he sees outside his apartment: an elderly woman. She agrees to an interview, so long as she can put away her groceries first. Making his way into the life of the octogenarian and her family, he finds himself sucked deeper and deeper into their story, with unexpected consequences. At first, aiming to be a neutral observer, he finds himself helping his subject hunt down an old love on Facebook, interrogating a prospective boyfriend of her granddaughter, and otherwise doing the bidding of his would-be characters. Despite its wit and quirkiness, the novel boils down to everyday hopes and fears. Am I going to lose my job? Does my spouse still love me? Are my teenage children normal or future delinquents? It is fair to say that this is a story about art imitating life, while life is, imitates art. Though it can lag in places, Foenkinos provides an entertaining read that I recommend.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Genre: Literary/General FictionRoses in test tube
Publisher: Celadon Books
Pub. Date: May 31, 2022

I was first introduced to the talented author when I read her novel “The Plot,” a witty thriller that was turned into a TV series. This novel reads like a dramedy revolving around a wealthy, unhappy NYC family. We follow the Oppenheim triplets, a girl and two boys, which their mother desperately wanted, and had to endure numerous attempts with In vitro fertilization (IVF) to conceive. From birth, the triplets never had the kind of close bond that their mother expected them to have. Actually, the siblings seem to loath one another, which makes for entertaining dialogue between them. Most of the time, the mother is the only character that you will like. Just as the triplets are leaving for college, they learn that a fourth sibling, the long-gestating egg from their in-vitro procedure, is on the way—the “latecomber.” Korelitz keeps us in suspense wondering what role the “latecomer,” a second sister, will play in this odd group. Will she help heal or move the family even further apart? Through her quirky characters, loss, guilt, trauma, and privilege are explored because of the family’s experiences. Korelitz is known for her rich character studies, which are evident in “Latecomer.” It is hard not to cringe and smile simultaneously while reading this funny yet poignant family narrative.

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“My Evil Mother” by Margaret Atwood

Genre: General Fiction/Short StoryMy Evil Mother
Publisher: Amazon Original Stories
Pub. Date: April 1, 2022

If you are expecting to read a horror novel, this short story is not for you. There is nothing scary in this fun, light-hearted novella. That is unless you consider exploring the mother/daughter relationship frightening. Life is difficult enough for our unnamed fifteen-year-old narrator. In the 1950s, she and her single mother live alone in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. Not too many single moms back then so our protagonist might have felt out of place anyway. However, she is further teased in school because her mother acts oddly. The rumors are that her mom is a crazy person. At home, just between the two of them, her mother has always claimed that she is a witch with insights into the future. This is where all the fun comes in.

Since childhood, her mother has given her some peculiar advice, much of which is intrusive, and downright bizarre. As a four-year-old when she asked her mom a question, mom would reply, “go ask your father.” According to her mom, her dad is the garden gnome. There are many other hilarious exchanges between the mother and her resentful daughter, with the added twist that this mother may or may not be a witch. You will read of the customary mother-daughter squabbles about a boyfriend. However, the mother’s point in this story is not that the boy is unsuitable for the daughter. Rather, the mother informs her daughter that she must break up with the boy because if they continue together, he would die in a car accident, which she will be held responsible for. What a brilliant technique to break your teenager’s romance without having to worry about her sneaking off with him behind your back.

When the daughter is especially teenage challenging the mother threatens that she will “point,” at her. It seems this is how the father became a gnome. The author keeps us wondering whether the mom is insane or using unorthodox impressive parenting skills. As the years pass, our protagonist alternates between believing that her mother is performing witchcraft, or simply a quirky and troubled woman. Either way, this is a perfectly crafted short story about the lengths mothers will go to protect their daughters. Few authors could condense and catch the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship into so few pages written in such an unusual manner. Margaret Atwood may be in her 80s but her writing skills are still as sharp as a sorceress’ knife. And, every bit as powerful as a witch’s brew.  

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“Godspeed” by Nickolas Butler

Genre: Literary Fiction Godspeed
Publisher: Putna
Pub. Date: July 27, 2021

This book is difficult to review because the pace is often slow. Still, it picks up in places, almost feeling like a thriller. At both speeds, it draws the reader into a story about friendship, addiction, class, and greed. It centers around three blue-collar buddies in their forties who start a construction company together. They’re just scraping by when a wealthy woman offers them a contract to finish her trophy house in the mountains. They’ll earn a big sum, including a sizable bonus, if they can finish it in her four-month deadline. The hitch is that it’s nearly impossible considering the amount of work involved. They begin the project knowing that they will almost certainly incur exhaustion and physical injuries.

Godspeed” brims with insights into the politics of rural gentrification. As the townies rage at the influx of affluence into their small community, we see how stronger forces work against them. The mystery surrounding the trophy house’s previous contractors, as well as the purpose behind the four-month deadline, create further tension for the protagonists still. But even with all this conflict to explore, Butler sometimes dwells, too often, on the beauty of the house and countryside at the exclusion of his characters. The descriptions are lovely, but after a while, they get tedious.

A few of the book’s plot twists seem modeled after those of a thriller novel. There was good suspense however, Butler is stronger when focusing on the complexities of working-class male friendships, especially in the setting of physically-demanding work. He ensures that the reader comprehends what construction work really means. I have a newfound admiration for people who work outside with their hands. I also found the woman footing the house’s construction compelling, and wish Butler did more to develop her. Still, the novel succeeds as a story about the haves and have-nots. A couple of the twists are over the top, but the novel’s core message rarely suffers. Whether it’s leaning too hard into its genre trappings, or its physical descriptions of the mountains, “Godspeed” always manages to keep us thinking about survival, and what we’re willing to sacrifice in an unequal world.

Personal note: If you read this book, am I the only one who thought that this novel was more than a thriller.

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“The Circus Train” by Amita Parikh

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s SonsThe Circus Train
Pub. Date: December 6, 2022

As an infant, our heroine suffered from  Polio. We watch her fight to live a normal life. Well, as normal as can be for someone who grows up in a traveling circus. The blurb states that “The Circus Train” is a cross between “The Night Circus” and “Water for Elephants.” I enjoyed both of those books as I did “Train.” However, “Train” was more entertainment than historical fiction. The writing was lacking in comparison to the other two novels. Still, I did enjoy being entertained. It may not read believable but the magic, mystery, and love story in Nazi-occupied Europe kept my interest.

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