Fractured by Catherine McKenzie

FracturedFractured by Catherine McKenzie
Published by Lake Union

Julie, her husband, and their twin six-year-olds have recently moved across the country to Cincinnati from the Pacific Northwest to escape a woman who stalked Julie after she wrote a novel that gave her celebrity status. Feeling lonely and trying unsuccessfully to write her second novel, Julie befriends the neighbor across the street, John, who is home all day after recently losing his job. John’s wife, Hanna, is understandably wary of this friendship, as is Julie’s husband Daniel, but the two persist as running buddies anyway. Pretty soon Julie begins to understand that this neighborhood is more clique-y than she could have imagined, as the queen bee of the block, Cynthia, begins actively campaigning to turn the entire neighborhood against Julie and her family. In addition, creepy things start happening that give her reason to believe that her stalker might have tracked her down to Ohio and could be at it again.

Fractured was a fun read that was entertaining and enjoyable, if a little predictable at times. I have never lived in a neighborhood quite like the one Julie and her family moved into, but oh the drama! These people were dramatic to the point of being silly, but I have to admit that it was fun to read about. The way McKenzie described their block parties, the rules posted to their community online message board, and the interactions between those families who couldn’t get along was just hilarious. One thing I didn’t love was that most of the drama was instigated and perpetuated by the women on the block – mostly stay-at-home moms who “didn’t have anything better to do” – which was annoyingly stereotypical and got old after a while. The men on the street had almost zero personalities and their characters were barely discussed, much less fleshed out in any real way. But I get it – suburban drama, focused on the women, okay fine.

The way McKenzie tells the story is nonlinear, mostly telling it as flashbacks and going back and forth between the point of views of Julie and John, with little snapshots of what’s currently happening, slowly bringing the two time periods together until the conclusion, where everything along both timelines makes sense. This set up definitely increased the anxiety factor, as the reader can see that something BAD happened, but is completely in the dark as to what that could be. And is it Julie’s stalker who did the bad thing? Or another character entirely? Is Julie’s stalker even back or is someone else on the street stalking her? Or is she even being stalked at all, could she possibly be making it up? These questions and more swirl around the story, making it impossible to put the book down because you just have to keep reading to find out what’s really going on here.

I enjoyed Fractured for what it was – a fun novel that I would categorize as suburban thriller. Is that a category? That’s the best way to describe the book for sure. I can see myself reading more from this author because while I didn’t love every aspect of the book, she can definitely write a page-turning story that really kept me on the hook.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

Shrill: Notes from a Loud WomanShrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
Published by Hachette

I hadn’t even heard of Lindy West when her memoir came full-force into the book world, but many of the feminist authors and activists I’ve come to admire over the years were recommending it, so I read a few pieces she’d written online before downloading this audio. I liked the snippets of West’s that I read, so I settled in for what I anticipated to be a smart, funny listen that would hopefully make me think differently about some issues. And I got exactly what I was hoping for.

Lindy West is incredibly smart, darkly funny but also witty and can even be silly funny, and bares all for the reader in her book. She talks about the experience of having an abortion and how it affected her (and, more importantly, the ways in which it did NOT affect her). She talks about having a “debate” on national TV about why it is not okay for comedians to make fun of rape, or more specifically, of women who have been raped. She rails against a societal message that to be fat is to be less than, that we should make judgments about people based on what their bodies look like. There is a LOT packed within these pages and I could have had twice as much, that is how much I enjoyed it.

I listened to the audio of Shrill, which West narrates herself, and it was fantastic. There’s nothing like an intelligent, interesting human telling his/her own story in their own voice, right into your ears.

There’s a lot to discuss within the pages of Shrill, but I’ll leave it short and sweet here. This book is really great, full of anecdotes and opinions, yes, but so much food for thought about topics even I, a self-proclaimed feminist, hadn’t really considered before. Highly recommended.

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the FeastSkeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Crown

The Second World War is coming to a close when we meet the characters in this novel. Anna Emmerich is the daughter of Prussian aristocrats and she and her family, along with thousands of other German citizens, are on the run from the Russian army, hoping to make it to the safety of the British and American lines. Anna and her family are accompanied by her lover Callum, a Scottish prisoner of war, technically their prisoner in a way, who also doesn’t want to get caught by the Russians. Manfred, real name Uri, a Jew who jumped from one of the trains and has disguised himself as a Nazi soldier for the past few years, befriends them and accompanies the family on their journey. We are also introduced to Cecile and the other women in the concentration camp with her, as they endure a death march away from their camp with their jailers in tow. This cast of characters comes together in such a way that is heartbreaking and breathtaking all at once.

This might just be my favorite Bohjalian yet. It never fails that every single time I think to myself that I am “over” books about the Holocaust, I read another one that shocks me, breaks my heart, and draws out an intense emotional connection to the characters and the story. Skeletons at the Feast did all of those things and more. What I loved about this book is that we see the nuances in people who were on all sides of this war – Anna’s family believed in the “bad guys” and truly believed that what Hitler was doing was right. But Anna is a good person, she has a good heart, and her parents are not terrible people, either – they are just misguided, brainwashed, a little too comfortable with their prosperity and station in life. When Hitler promises them wealth, power, and happiness, they look at it as a way to maintain their status quo, and completely turn a blind eye to what he does to the Jews. There were so many parts in the book where they simply refused to believe what their government was doing, thought it was lies or nonsense or propaganda, and continued to support Hitler despite everything they knew in their hearts to be true.

Anna’s family is one example of how Bohjalian shows the reader the intricacies and details of real humans dealing with the most dire, desperate, inhuman of circumstances. He shows the reader how despite everything, these people still chose to love, still chose to help others, still chose to find the good in the absolute worst, most miserable, most devastating times life can possibly become for people. The sheer humanity found within these pages took my breath away and I couldn’t stop furiously reading, wanting more and more from these characters and this story, despite how utterly horrifying it was.

I cannot say enough how much I absolutely loved this book, although it broke me in so many ways, I thought it was such an incredible read. I will keep reading Bohjalian as long as I can find more of his novels to voraciously consume.

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

Baker TowersBaker Towers by Jennifer Haigh
Published by Harper Perennial

This novel about the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania gives the reader an intimate portrait of the Novak family. The book begins when the father dies in 1944, and follows the matriarch and her five children – the youngest just a newborn when her father dies – through three decades, up through the 1970’s.

I absolutely love a novel that is heavily character-driven, and this is definitely that kind of book. The way Haigh draws the reader in by revealing these characters’ personalities, idiosyncrasies, deepest hopes and fears, is truly exceptional. Each member of the Novak family is unique and special, and because she does such an excellent job crafting these characters, I couldn’t pick a favorite if I tried. Usually in a book like this, some characters get more “screen time” than others, but in Baker Towers everyone is pretty much treated equally – giving the reader a complete understanding of all six of them.

Although the book is very focused on the evolution of the characters, there is certainly not a lack of plot to go along with that. The town of Bakerton changes quite a bit throughout the time period in the novel, and there are a ton of things that go on within the town as well as outside of it – one character spends time in the military, another lived and worked in D.C. as a young single woman, another character gets sick with diabetes, there is much discussion about coal mining and the toll it takes on people mentally and physically, and more. The town itself almost becomes a character, the way that Haigh paints the picture of daily life for the people who live there, who grow up and fall in love and buy houses of their own all in the same small town of Bakerton, brought the town to life for me.

I have come to appreciate Jennifer Haigh as a consistently fantastic writer who can truly create memorable, complicated characters, and Baker Towers was no exception. I can’t pick a favorite of her novels, but this was one more in the list of great ones.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

Girls on FireGirls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
Published by Harper

Teenagers Hannah and Lacey are not your average high school kids – Hannah is a loner, a girl who doesn’t believe in herself, is painfully insecure, and has few friends, while Lacey is the “bad girl”, someone who is considered a bad influence on others and has very little in the way of support or attention at home. When the two become friends immediately after one of their male classmates has committed suicide, their bond becomes extremely strong very quickly, united in their love of Nirvana and obsession with Kurt Cobain. But there are things Lacey isn’t telling Hannah, and as these secrets are gradually revealed, the reader watches as Hannah transforms into a different person altogether and the two of them make some choices that have shocking – and devastating – consequences.

Reading Girls on Fire is like watching a ten-car pile-up and not being able to do a damn thing to stop anybody from getting killed. This is the type of book that made me literally want to put my hands over my eyes and read through the space in between my fingers – it is just that crazy what happens within this novel. These girls are not only damaged, but the ways that they choose to behave and treat others are just out of the realm of believability. I guess this stuff happens but … I don’t know. If anything like this happened in my high school, I certainly wasn’t aware of it.

Anyway. This is one wild ride. These girls are on the brink of adulthood, but they have NO idea how to act like adults. There is a ton of sex and drugs throughout the book, and that part, at least, felt very believable and true to reality. If nothing else, the book illustrated just how far a teenager will go to fit in, just how damaging it is for teens to feel as though their reputations are destroyed, and exactly how a seemingly innocent situation spirals out of control, in the hands of the wrong people, especially the wrong teenagers.

The novel was great in that I couldn’t put it down, the characters were so well-drawn and fully developed so that I felt like I really knew them, and the story itself just didn’t stop moving. While some of the elements of the novel bordered on unbelievable, I get what Wasserman was trying to do here and I think that for the most part, she succeeded.

One Day by David Nicholls

One DayOne Day by David Nicholls
Published by Hodder & Stoughton

Dexter and Emma meet on the night of their graduation from college, July 15th, and while they spend a passionate night together, both agree that there is no real future for the two of them and they go their separate ways. But over the course of the next twenty years, their paths intertwine in various ways, and the novel shows the reader exactly how they are in and out of each other’s lives by giving us a snapshot of each year on July 15th.

This is one of those novels where I can’t figure out what I really think about it or how to feel about it. To start with, I didn’t enjoy either Dexter or Emma as characters – Dexter was selfish and obnoxious, Emma was too passive and didn’t ever want to make decisions about her own life. I sort of liked Emma as a person, and I wanted to root for her, but she frustrated me. Dexter I just plain couldn’t stand. He was SUCH A JERK. To the point that when he finally stopped being such a major asshole, I couldn’t care about his character enough to be happy that he had grown as a person. I was just done with him.

So much of the plot felt manipulative to me as the reader. Nicholls was trying to create emotions within the reader, and while he definitely did that, it felt a bit overdone. Like one more bad thing couldn’t possibly happen to drive these two apart when it was obvious from the first chapter that the whole point of this book is for them to be together, eventually. The ending especially made me angry … and while I can appreciate an ending like this, it was just not what I had ever imagined could possibly happen to this story and these characters. It left me wanting to throw the book across the room.

BUT. Here’s the thing. I could not put this book down. I read it voraciously, intensely, desperately. It had been a long time since I’d felt so tied to a book, so desperate to find out what would happen next. Additionally, I find it incredible that Nicholls was able to pull these emotions out of me, about fictional characters’ lives. The fact that he made me question whether I loved or hated the book (and I’m still not sure) is a testament to his talent as a writer.

So would I recommend the book? Absolutely yes, based on the experience I had reading it and how deeply I felt tied to it. Did I love it? No, but I loved how it made me feel. I didn’t hate it either – I can’t quite categorize my feelings. But this back and forth in my brain about the book makes me want to talk about it with everyone, so please let me know if you’ve read it and what you thought!

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

KitchenKitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Published by Grove Press

This is a sweet little book about Mikage, who was orphaned as a young child and then raised by her grandmother. When her grandmother dies, she finds solace in her friend Yoichi and his mother Eriko. The three of them become a new kind of family, and the book details their relationship as well as how the losses the three of them suffer, independently and as a unit, affect each of them in a myriad of ways.

There were some things I absolutely loved about this book. The writing is really pretty, flowery without being over the top, descriptive but not to the point of being annoying. The way Yoshimoto describes grief and its hold on a person’s soul is absolutely gorgeous. I also loved how the relationships between the three main characters went places I wasn’t expecting while at the same time remaining very true to their personalities. Another thing I loved was Yoshimoto’s handling of a trans character in Eriko. Eriko used to be Yoichi’s father and is now his mother, and the way that Yoshimoto has the characters handle this fact is SO nonchalant, like it’s no big deal whatsoever (as it shouldn’t be) is really amazing. The way that Yoichi explained it to Mikage, and how Mikage just accepted it and loved Eriko exactly the same as she did before she knew this information about her, was really incredible to see in fiction.

While I loved certain aspects of Kitchen, overall it was not my favorite novel. I appreciate that it was slim, but I wanted more from it. I wanted more emotion, I wanted to get to know the characters even better, and I wanted to feel a deeper connection to them. This could possibly have been accomplished by making the novel longer, but I’m not sure that Yoshimoto’s style could have made that happen for me. Either way, I can see what people love about this author and there were definitely things about the book that really worked for me.