All’s Fair and Other California Stories

by Linda Feyder

Genre: Literary Short StoriesAll's Fair
Publisher: She Writes Press
Pub Date: Sep. 28, 2021 

Mini-Review

After finishing this short story collection, I was not surprised to learn that it is a finalist for the 2021American Fictional Awards. However, I almost did not accept this book because I did not recognize the publisher, She Writes Press.  I assumed the book was self-published or a vanity press. I discovered that it is neither.  Rather a hybrid model, for women writers, published these shorts. The most notable difference from self-publishing is that this model has traditional distribution and manuscript vetting. After reading a few pages of the first short, I knew off the bat that I was reading a literary, well-written and, interesting collection.

In these slice-of-life stories, a varied cast of characters in modern-day Southern California seeks the fulfillment of a better life that The Golden State has always promised. Some of the characters move to the state for a change of mindset that comes with sunshine, or for health reasons that the dry, mild West Coast weather provides. Many stories are only a few pages. Yet the author’s concise writing of the sounds, feels and descriptions make these brief yet telling stories feel longer. I have learned that Feyder received an MA in creative writing and literature.  In addition to writing, she is a practicing psychotherapist, which explains why her characters all seem to be on an inner journey throughout each short. I like some better than others, but overall I am impressed with the collection.

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

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“Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout

Genre: Literary FictionOh William
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: October 19, 2021

In “Oh William!,” Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout explores the mysteries of friendship, marriage, loneliness, and betrayal in her unique, portrait-like style. This is the third book in her Amgash book series where all the novels take place in fictional Amgash, Illinois and the narrator is always a woman named Lucy Barton.  The author writes Lucy in a natural voice who is sharing her memories with us. For those who are familiar with the previous two novels, “Oh William!,” will feel like you are catching up with your old friend Lucy.

The third book picks up after the death of Lucy’s second husband.  She is now 63 and reflecting on her marriage to William who is the father of her two grown daughters. Even though he was unfaithful during the marriage, they remain close friends. This didn’t strike me as strange, though maybe that’s because I am a 65-year-old woman who remains friendly with my ex-husband. Still, I think the effectiveness of these characters is more rooted in the author’s ability to capture human behaviors, and our common imperfections.

Most of the plot takes place when William’s hardly-mentioned third wife leaves him. As in the other Amgash books, family secrets emerge. But the dots are connected slowly. William learns that before his mother, Katherine, married his father, she was married to another man and had a baby girl.  Katherine deserted them both. This changes all of William’s perceptions of his mother. Through a DNA match, he finds his half-sister lives in Maine. He wants to see her and he wants Lucy to accompany him to Maine. Why Lucy? because his first wife is his only wife who would be as shocked as he is with this new knowledge regarding his mom.  Young Lucy knew and loved Katherine too. She had a close relationship with her mother-in-law.  Lucy agrees to join William and together they travel to Maine.

This trip is the meat of the story.  It is bittersweet. You’ll be drawn in when reading about Lucy’s memories with William before and after their divorce.  During the trip, William says, “I’m sorry.” Without any explanation of what he is referring to, Lucy replies, “I know.”  Lucy and William’s life together feels very real. Stout manages this accomplishment while writing in sparse sentences, and poetry-like prose. If you are not accustomed to the author’s style, it might take some time to appreciate this novel, but it is so worth the effort.

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“How Beautiful We Are” by Imbolo Mbue

How Beautiful We Were

Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: March 9, 2021

Imbolo Mbue is a formidable storyteller. Gripping from the first sentence to the last, “How Beautiful We Were” is a novel detailing decades of suffering endured by families in a small fictional African village where an American oil company has arrived ready to drill. (Sounds familiar right)? The oil company is in cahoots with their corrupt dictator. Pipeline spills.  Children die. This multi-generational novel is told through the eyes of the village children while they are still children, as teens, and finally as adults. Different characters at different stages of their life narrate.  However, the storyline is not linear, and slow paced, which can confuse the reader. As the narrators change, the reader learns something new from the perspective of each of them. You will meet a grandmother who was a child herself when the Americans came. She has memories of life before there was an oil company. Her narrations are very different from, Sahel’s, her daughter-in-law.

The village has someone who they appropriately call, the madman. Through him, the author takes an opportunity to pronounce the unfairness to the village by the soldiers. The madman unintentionally pushes the soldiers too far. Blood is spilled. The author ensures that the reader feels just how unsympathetic the government is towards its own people. When questioned the soldiers state how where they to know that he was mad and didn’t understand the meaning of stealing their keys.

Sahel has a daughter, Thula, who didn’t speak for eleven days after the massacre. She is written as a feminist who is inspirational heroine.  We meet Thula when she was an intelligent 10-year-old girl. As a teen, she was always a bit different from the other girls. She was not interested in marriage or having a hut of her own. She was interested in education. In 1980, she leaves her village to go to America for higher levels of education.  It is in America where she takes part in political activism. She returns in 1988 as a revolutionary.  

Mbue creates empathy and feelings of fondness for her long-suffering characters. Their beauty shows when they are not grieving, the villagers find happiness in each other, their village lifestyle, their traditions, and their faith in the spirits. The author’s ability to make every character’s narration uniquely important to the novel is impressive and seldom dull.  Yet somehow, the dialogue is not as engaging as it should be. Still, the author paints such a fascinating picture of people wronged by their government and Western greed that you will become deeply invested in the village and want to jump into the tale and fight with them. Think of the movie, “Erin Brockovich.”  “How Beautiful We Are” is the sort of novel that you will reflect upon long after you have read the last page.

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“Where the Edge Is” by Grainne Murphy

Genre: Literary FictionWhere the edge is
Publisher: Legend Press
Pub. Date: Sept. 15, 2020

The book’s title refers to the edge of a sinkhole, where most of its characters find themselves trapped. It may also be a metaphor for those who, through no fault of their own, live on the edge of their emotions. A town in rural Ireland wakes up to the news that a road has collapsed, swallowing up a bus with eight people stuck inside.  As the vehicle slowly falls deeper into the earth, the media is all over the story interfering with the rescue team’s attempt to get them out before it is too late. Doesn’t this sound like an action-packed, plot-driven novel?  It is actually a character-driven tale that explores trauma, loss, grief, and survival. Each chapter portrays the lives of the passengers and their families. As well as a news reporter and her ex-husband who is the fire department liaison.  No, this does not morph into a cheap romance novel. Their reconnection, though a bit contrived, helps explore the novel’s broader themes.

Racial and identity issues are examined when the white male bus driver pulls out a brown-skinned female passenger. The author has such control over her characters’ voices that the reader can hear them speak.  He is a regular sort of guy who just wants to please his beloved aging mom and win back his ex-wife.  A sweetheart of a man, yet months before the incident he was suspended for saying a racial slur.  The woman who he saves has lived in Ireland since she was a small child, married to an Irish man, can sing all the Irish songs, and has adapted to the Irish way of life including going to Sunday Mass, but still, the press refers to her as a Pakistani.  Murphy nails her frustration.

While never feeling forced, the author will tug at your heart describing the underground conversations of those trapped in the bus, and the panic of their families above the ground. The author’s ability to go back and forth in time, to reflect on her characters’ multiple points of view, while never losing the feeling of their desperation is admirable. Her talent makes the characters stick with you, haunting you, well after you have read the last page and know the outcome of their ordeal. I was so impressed with the storytelling in this debut novel that I googled the author.  I was not surprised to learn that many of her short stories were shortlisted and longlisted for literary awards.  Without a doubt, I will be on the lookout for her next novel.

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“The Motion of the Body Through Space” by Lionel Shriver

Genre: Literary Fiction/SatireThe Motion
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pub. Date: April 20, 2020

I have enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s previous books but this one disappointed me.  “The Motion of the Body Through Space” is an okay read if you remember that you are reading a satire regarding the many Americans who take physical fitness to extremes and how easy it is to fall into mass conformity. It can get truly tiring to read an entire novel with a one-message theme pounded into your head nonstop.  If you are not in on the joke, the novel will drag on and on.  And, even if you are, the story still can get on your nerves.

The tale revolves around a happily married couple who are in their early 60s, living in Hudson, N.Y. Due to profession and physical bad luck, their senior years are not going as smoothly as their earlier years. The husband is fired from his job.  His self-esteem goes out the window.  He decides to run a marathon although he has never had any interest in any physical activities before.  That was always his wife’s gig until recently when her knees gave out.  However, she did her running by herself not part of a spectator’s sport. He makes his announcement to his wife. “In a second-rate sitcom, she’d have spewed coffee across her breakfast.” Adding more tension into the marriage after the marathon, he announces a new goal: a triathlon, under the guidance of an extremely toned, pretty, personal female trainer.  The author’s fictional MettleMan triathlon is her tongue in cheek way of not even bothering to hide the comparison to the real-life Metalman triathlon.

The novel is good at establishing the us-versus-them mentality. Wife to husband: “You do realize that organized sport is an industry?”  Husband to wife: “Soft drinks are an industry. We still buy soda water.” The trainer puts in her two cents, “anyone who says a discouraging word about MettleMan: you’re just gutless, indolent, and weak.” Suddenly, the wife is out of the window along with her husband’s job.  She wearily cries, “MettleMan isn’t just an exercise regime it’s a cult…The man I fell in love with has been kidnapped.”   The argument made throughout the book suggests that extreme sports might be a form of mental sickness.  Once at the multisport event race—that could do permanent physical damage to most of us— the founder of MetalMan gives a speech that leans more Nazi than motivational.  The wife thinks, “Leni Riefenstahl, where are you?”

Although the book can be funny, the punchline wears thin.  The story had the makings of a good romp regarding our weight-fitness obsessed culture, but the satire falls short.  In “Motion,” Shriver also attempts to take on parent-child issues, racial tensions, and politics, but they are hard to find due to the nonstop fixation on physical fitness. I do give her points for daring to write a novel with no likable characters. It is interesting getting into the psyche of those who train for marathons. Still, you might want to run, as fast as you can, away from this novel.

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“Redhead by the Side” of the Road by Anne Tyler

Genre: Literary FictionRedhead
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: April 7, 2020

If I was to host a dinner party with my favorite female authors whose first name is some sort of derivative of “Ann” my guests would include Ann Napolitano, Ann Patchett, Anna Quindlen, and Anne Tyler. In Tyler’s latest novel, the narrative’s tone is overflowing with laugh-out-loud dry wit.  Her protagonist, Micah (an example of a difficult name to remember that I just switch to Michael in my mind) Mortimer is another likable yet quirky character, the kind that the author favors. It takes talent to write comedy with a rather dull hero.

Micah is a fastidiously well-organized 43-year-old tech geek who follows his routines to the point of bordering on OCD.  He heeds all rules, big or small, believing that this gives his life a sense of order. He pretends that there is a Big Brother-like Traffic God watching his every move in the car, which is why he always, always signals—even in his own driveway! When those living in the building he manages do not follow the guidelines, he writes them “friendly” reminders. Most residents get one or more per week. And the poor guy can’t figure out why women keep dumping him.

Micah is the extreme opposite of his lackadaisical family, which makes for some very funny dialogue between himself and the other Mortimers. His brother-in-law asks him “What day is it today? Is it [your] vacuuming day, a dusting day? Is it a scrub-the-baseboards-with-a-Q-tip day? In all seriousness, Micah replies, “it is kitchen day.” His family roars. Halfway through the novel, we meet a new character. A teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. Since Micah is not built for life’s unexpected developments, his world becomes unmanageable. It is not a spoiler to inform you that the redhead in the title is not referring to the boy. Tyler cleverly uses the word redhead throughout the novel as a metaphor for the protagonist’s powerlessness to see clearly.  Is that a redhead child? No, it is a fire hydrant.

Micah fails to understand the ‘need’ to accept—or at least try to accept—the yin and yang of life. He stubbornly refuses to see that he might be the problem.  In the hands of a lesser author, he could easily come off as Mr. Magoo. Tyler keeps him human. She also makes us wonder. Is Miach even capable of change?  Are any of us capable of change?  In the tradition of “Akin” by Emma Donoghue, or “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, “Redhead” is a feel-good story about having second chances in life. Wouldn’t we all like a do-over? Yes, you have read this story before. Still, right about now in these crazy times, can’t we all benefit from a heartwarming tale?

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“The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt” by Andrea Bobotis

Genre:           Southern Literary Fiction/Mysterythe last list
Publisher:    Sourcebooks Landmark
Pub.  Date:   July 9, 2019

This novel has such a crisp Southern voice that the reader will be surprised that the book is a debut novel.   The author, Andrea Bobotis, is no stranger to good writing.   She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Virginia.  Her fiction has received awards from the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.  The novel is based in a fictional town in South Carolina (Bobotis is a native of South Carolina) and splits its time between1989 and 1929.  The author interweaves the moving timelines throughout the novel without missing a heartbeat.   Miss Judith Kratt is a white woman now aged into her late seventies.  She is the eldest daughter in the family.  The Kratts were once the most powerful family in a cotton town that they owned.   Now their once-stately home, as well as the town, is falling apart.  She lives in her family home with her black companion, Olva.   Judith views her relationship with Olva as part family member, part friend, and part housemaid.   Judith is writing her last list, which is made up of family heirlooms.  The writing can move at a slow, Southern pace, but is never boring.  In the present, through Judith’s memories, we learn of her family’s dark secrets.  Some you will be able to guess.  Others you will not.

There are similarities in “The Last List” to the novel, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.”  Both books are narrated by the protagonist through the time period changes.  They both explore the themes of the segregated south, family, aging, male brutality towards females, and the dehumanizing effects of racism.  Still, both tales give the reader demonstrations of female strength while also managing to squeeze in some humor.    Judith is a quirky one.   It is fun to read how Olva, who is one year older than Judith, deals with her companion’s eccentric ways.  “The Last List” is obviously racially charged.   It is sad to realize that these same racial tensions are still around in the year 2019.  It can make one feel weary. Still, the author does a good job of capturing the aspects of what can be called the genteel South and its sweet southern style.  But make no mistake, the book is truly about the ugly truth hidden behind those grand Southern mansions.  After most chapters, the inventory grows.  Each listed item is cleverly written to connect to the story-line.  Bobotis does an excellent job in these thought-provoking connections.  Possibly, the author created the list to challenge the reader to examine the imprints of their own memories.   And to acknowledge the unfair power that comes from the objects (or once people) that we own, begging the question:  Will we ever truly live in a world of equality?   The story may read slowly, but it is a page-turner.

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“Baby of the Family” by Maura Roosevelt

Genre:           Literary FictionBaby of the family
Publisher:    PENGUIN GROUP Dutton
Pub. Date:    March 5, 2019

The author, Maura Roosevelt, is the great-granddaughter of Eleanor and Franklin.  Her novel is about a fictional modern-day American dynasty, the Whitbys.  I admit the author’s own family lineage is what captured my eye in choosing this book to review.  The fictional Whitbys will make you think of the once enormously wealthy real-life Astor family.   In the past, the Astors were known as “The Landlords of New York.”  I love how this novel begins:  First, with a quote from George W. Bush: “When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.”  Then, in the book’s opening, we learn that the always-foolish, current family patriarch, Roger Whitby Jr., dies after squandering away a fortune.   We learn that, half a century prior, a Whitby death would’ve made headlines around the world—not anymore.  The reader immediately knows that we will be entering the world of Roger’s offspring and their children as they learn to live minus the billions.

Roger Whitby Jr. has many children from four marriages that all ended in divorce.  (The author added in a family tree, which is a nice touch).   After his death, he bequeaths what is left of the fortune to his last son, who is adopted, as well as the baby in the family.  This naturally becomes the tension in the story.  The reader will become familiar with three of his children, each from a different marriage, who play major roles in the novel.  They are half-siblings but still, they share the same feeling of abandonment.   In these three, we learn that the story is not actually about the inheritance, but rather the half-siblings’ childhood and adult struggles that stem from being a member of a famous clan (Heh, I can’t help but wonder about the author’s motives for writing this book).

I believe that Roosevelt attempted to write a novel on family love and healing.  If so, that is not what I read.  Basically, this is a poor little rich kid tale.  There are so many subplots with each grown child that I became confused, which led to lack of interest.  Spoiler:  One daughter, in her early twenties (in the first job of her life) is clearly being sexually abused by the man she works for, yet I didn’t feel the anger that I should have felt.   Her story gets lost in between the others.  This is a shame as the novel has such potential.  It reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections.”   There are strong similarities (meaning lots of Tolstoy-like soap).  I am not comparing the talents of the famous Russian author to either of these current day writers.  I am trying to say that Roosevelt’s “Baby” is missing the American Gothic feel that “Corrections” managed to catch.

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“Other People’s Love Affairs” by D. Wystan Owen

Genre:         Literary FictionOther People Affairs
Publisher:    Algonquin Books
Pub. Date:   August 21, 2018

My first thought, once I finished the last page of this connected short story collection, was that the author, D. Wystan Owen, manages to pen a book to the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby.” With its lyrics of, “All the lonely people, Where do they all come from?  All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?”  This mostly brilliant ten story collection follows the lives of characters who live in the same coastal English village. All are unhappy.  All are desperately lonely.  All are disappointed in life.

The title story is one of the weakest tales in the collection.   Two women have lived together for twenty years.  Neither the village people nor the reader knows if they are lovers or simply friends.  No matter, they are passionately devoted to one another and inseparable.  After the death of one, the other learns that years ago the deceased had a male lover.  The living companion is devastated to learn this news.  She is left feeling that she never really knew her partner at all.  Reading of their longtime relationship is glorious.  The tale is filled with pieces of the fine and playful life that they made together.  The ending is a bit melodramatic.

“Housekeeper” is the stellar story in the collection.   An unmarried woman cares for an old man with dementia.  From the beginning, when she moves into his home, she is grateful that she is no longer alone in the world.  She is pleased when he mistakes her for his deceased wife.   She encourages his confusion and pretends to be the wife.  She now feels that she too can say she has been in a marriage.  She is very loving towards him.  She is an endearing character.  And yes, to be pleased with this fictional marriage and other actions I cannot mention for fear of a spoiler, also makes her very creepy.

Owen frequently changes voices within a story, allowing the reader different interruptions of the characters. This can clearly be seen in “The Patroness.”   A widow of a wealthy man hosts elaborate bi-weekly luncheons to make herself feel special among the once-famous.  At such an event, she purposely seats next to one another an elderly, once-beautiful film goddess and a young male student.  This reviewer was surprised by the malice intentions of the generous hostess.  There is darkness and devastation in the storylines, but there is also a dual sweetness to the characters that lingers.

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“Virgil Wander” by Leif Enger

Genre:          Literary FictionVirgil
Publisher:    Grove Press
Pub. Date:    Oct. 2, 2018

The author, Leif Enger, is the winner of many awards including the 2008 Midwest Booksellers’ Choice Award Honor Book for Fiction.  He captures the heart of small-town life when the town has seen better days.  This may be because he lives on a farm with his wife and two children in the Midwest.  The title gets its name from the story’s protagonist and narrator.  Virgil owns and runs the town’s only movie theater, The Empress.  For that reason and other similarities, this novel has shades of the 1971 film, “The Last Picture Show.”  But there is also much different.  The film is a realistic version of a flagging town. This book is like reading about a small-town while smoking a joint.  The writing is playful, sometimes too much so and it can get puzzling.

The book’s pages are filled with quirky characters.  Among others, there is, of course, Virgil, who survives a near-death experience in the book’s opening pages.  He awakens in the hospital in a fog-like state, which sets the tone for the rest of the novel.  There is also his friend who was a minor league eccentric baseball pitcher.   He disappeared years ago, leaving behind his beautiful wife and now depressed teenage son.  We also meet an old man kite-flying Norwegian pied-piper, who has come in search of the son he never knew he had until recently.  The son is the disappeared pitcher.  There is even a pet raccoon, not to mention a killer sturgeon fish who takes the life of a father, leaving yet another fatherless son in the story.  The town’s bad luck is every bit as much of a character.  Still, expect a fun read.  All in all, this is a story that will make you chuckle.  You will smile that happiness can be found in hard times.  But, the goofiness can begin to feel like overload.

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