Small Admissions is a Wise, Funny Novel about a Couple of Serious Topics

I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Poeppel’s first novel Small Admissions.  This is a funny book and not a heavy read, but Poeppel has deft insights about friendship and our assumptions about our friends and relatives.  The characters are appealing and just a little more complicated than they seem.  Even the “bad guys” are kind of charming.  Without giving too much away, Peopppel plops a young woman who is reeling from multiple personal failures into the admissions office of a highly competitive Manhattan private school.  The book is populated with several points of view and highly entertaining emails, all of which combine to keep a brisk, neurotic pace.  Poeppel’s deft treatment of neurotic, competitive parents, coupled with the highly useful question of how much can and should you help flailing friends makes this a thoughtful book, that was also a hoot to read.  Small Admissions would make a great movie!

Lady of Yaddo — The Remarkable Philanthropy of Katrina Trask

Katrina Trask and her husband Spencer Trask were visionary philanthropists at the turn of the century.  Lynn Esmay has written a lovely novel based on Katrina Trask’s diaries and presented as her memoir.  After suffering terrible family tragedies, the Trasks focused on leading meaningful lives and contributing to the welfare of others.  The couple supported all manner of philanthropy, particularly in the vicinity of Saratoga, New York.  The couple lived in both New York City and Saratoga, and seemed to know most of the notables of their day.  Katrina Trask was a published poet and playwright, but her biggest legacy was a colony for artists that she and her husband established at Yaddo, outside Saratoga.  To this day artists and writers enjoy residencies at Yaddo.  This novel tells a heart-warming tale of privileged people who lived elegant lives and yet worked hard and mindfully to create a lasting legacy of artistic nurturing and taking care of the needy.

Hell Fire — Karin Fossum Writes Another Great Norwegian Mystery

Hell Fire is Karin Fossum’s latest excellent murder mystery.  As usual Fossum’s story is heavy with troubled family relationships and people who are struggling.  The detectives are not partcularly quirky; they play a background role in this family tragedy.  The all consuming struggle of two single mothers trying to cope with bad circumstances and parenting challenges moves this story forward.  There isn’t a lot  of emotion to the matter-of-fact narration, but the story is well told and compelling, and I found myself thinking about it quite a bit afterward.

Garnethill — The First, Very Troubling Mystery in Denise Mina’s Garnethill Trilogy

The wonderfully insightful review I had written of Denise Mina’s outstanding Garnethill has somehow vanished.  I’m sure it is my fault; I probably pushed the wrong button somewhere.

Anyway, this is a great and unusual murder mystery set in a seedy, struggling Glasgow.  This was Denise Mina’s first novel, and it was also the first book in her Garnethill trilogy.  Maureen O’Donnell is compelling protagonist.  Maureen has had a tough life, and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better when her married lover is found murdered.  She is worried for herself and her brother and starts getting curious.  She doesn’t really know how to investigate a crime, but she keeps poking around and thinking it through.  This is one of those great books where a very flawed and undisciplined character is thrust into a dangerous situation and thrives!  I rooted for Maureen O’Donnell every step of the way.  Her good heart, her curiosity and her previously untapped intelligence and good heart make her a stellar heroine.  There was enough hanging at the end of the book to suggest that the other two books in the Garnethill trilogy will be equally compelling.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry — Another Wonderful Book by the Author of A Man Called Ove

Fredrik Backman, the author of the remarkable A Man Called Ove, has written another remarkable novel, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.  Told from the point of view of Elsa, a  grieving seven-year-old girl, this novel brings together an odd collection of characters who are struggling with their lives.  When Elsa loses the one person who “gets” her, she is forced to look elsewhere.   The story is in the nature of a quest, with frequent references to Harry Potter, Spider-Man and other fantasy figures.   Elsa is a remarkable, heroic child, who faces bullying and grief with a compelling mixture of stoicism and sarcasm.  This is a wonderful book!  It celebrates quirkiness, bravery, compassion and holding oneself accountable.  I loved it!

Alice and Oliver – A Contemporary Tragedy

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Charles Bock has written a fine autobiographical family novel about cancer.  Specifically Alice and Oliver tells the story of what happens to a family after the young mother’s abrupt diagnosis of cancer.  There is an overwhelming sadness to this book, but a lot of other things are going on as well.  This  young family has taken good health and good fortune for granted.  They leave an optimistic life.  Suddenly everything changes, and nothing will ever be quite the same.   Alice is always ill, and Oliver is confronted with enormous,  unanticipated responsibility.  Life wasn’t supposed to be this way.  In addition to taking care of his wife and child, he struggles to keep his business afloat and figure out how to pay for his wife’s astronomical medical expenses.  This isn’t a story where everyone rises to the occasion and the sick and healthy spouses continue as before, except with increased adoration and nurturing.  This couple is shell shocked and utterly unprepared.  In many ways they take independent paths and aren’t always kind for each other, even as they doggedly pursue a cure.

The appeal of Alice and Oliver is twofold.  First, the author repeatedly looks at the situation from both the wife and the husband’s point of view.  Secondly, these are flawed and immature young adults who are both terrified and resentful at suddenly have to grow up and get serious.  They don’t always get it right.  Sometimes muddling through is the best you can do.

Charles Bock’s first wife died after suffering from cancer for two-and-a-half years.  She left a young child who wouldn’t remember her and a bewildered, grieving husband.  In Alice and Oliver, Bock addresses his family’s story through a novel.  His efforts to show what his wife was feeling through this ordeal are bolstered by some diary-like pieces she wrote while she was ill.  Questioning Oliver’s behavior, as well as the way Bock elects to present it is one of the puzzles presented by this intriguing yet very sad book.

This is far from a feel-good novel, but I do recommend it for its thoughtful presentation of human behavior under stress.

A Man Called Ove — A Wonderful Swedish Novel

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I loved everything about A Man Called Ove, a wonderful novel by the Swedish writer Fredrik Backman.  Ove is an elderly man struggling with grief.  Ove is his own greatest enemy.  He doesn’t understand other people and has contempt for all. Enter kind neighbors who refuse to take offense or leave him alone and a series of circumstances that Ove can’t avoid or stop, and there is a fine story.  It also happens to be very funny.

Saying any more risks ruining this book, so I’ll just close by saying that this book’s knowing take on the loneliness, frustrations and challenges of old age is very moving

The Railwayman’s Wife – A Beautiful Novel about Post War Australia

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Ashley Hay has written a beautiful novel about a young, grieving widow in post-WWII Australia.  The Railwayman’s Wife is short and to the point.  Most of the characters are suffering from loss, and the intersections of these fragile, young people are what makes this book so good.

Ani Lachlan is the young widow.  She has suddenly lost her husband and is numb, but she also has a young daughter and a sudden need to earn a living.  Somewhat randomly, Ani is thrust back into the world as the local librarian.  Although it feels strange to have a job and a schedule in the face of her grief, this is a good move for her.

The Railwayman’s Wife is particularly appealing and satisfying because it is set in the world of books.  Ani’s library literally provides a welcome haven, as well as a point of entry back into the community.   Throughout this lovely story, there are references to choosing books, poetry and reading aloud.  In the face of terrible grief, books and reading provide sustenance.  They also link Ani to her late husband, whose books and love of reading aloud help describe him.

I loved The Railwayman’s Wife for many of the reasons I loved Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies, which I previously reviewed.  Both books have distinctive and somewhat unusual settings (Joyce’s Staten Island and Hay’s small coastal Australian town), which provide a strong background for their stories.  They also revolve around recent, accidental deaths of young men and the families that survive them.  The numbing shock of loss and uncertainty about how to behave are common to both books, as is the characters’ growing understanding of how they will proceed with their own lives and feel pleasure again.

I strongly recommend The Railwayman’s Wife,  as well as Small Mercies.  These are serious, appealing books that provide intelligent comfort and understanding in the face of traumatic loss.

Small Mercies — A Beautiful, Thoughtful Novel

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Eddie Joyce’s first novel, Small Mercies, is an absolute gem.  The premise is an extended family dealing with the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11/2001.  The rich background of a Staten Island neighborhood and a family’s own history support this story of a family’s struggles to deal with the loss of a son.  This isn’t a soggy tearjerker, and there are no larger-than-life heroes.  Instead, we get to read about real people who sometimes rise to the occasion and sometimes don’t.  By and large they are not at each other’s throats, but they often aren’t really connecting either.

The various family members have done some rotten things and been horribly selfish at times and yet they compel the reader’s empathy.  This isn’t one of those books where the reader is constantly imploring selfish, misguided characters to get their act together.  Instead, the tragedy of losing a beloved son and brother in a horrific attack makes the reader exercise just a little more patience and try just a little bit harder to empathize with the characters’ mistakes.  Background stories of the family’s history are richly seeded throughout the book and add texture to the family’s current struggles.

The prose is clear and simple.   Gail, the mother, is the centerpiece.  She is a rock, except when she’s not.  As demonstrated by the flashbacks to their own courtship and early marriage, Gail and Michael, her husband, have a marriage that has withstood a certain amount of bone-headed behavior on both sides.  You’d like Gail and Michael to really comfort each other, but their griefs are separate.  They understand each other and they have come to understand what they can and cannot expect.  Whether they like it or not, they hold it together in their own ways.

This is a family novel.  The author refrains from assigning saint and sinner roles.  Everyone messes up, some more than others.   All of the characters have some good in them and  yet they can be real self-centered jerks.  By the end of the book, everyone is afforded his or her own individual claim to the reader’s interest and sympathy.  This isn’t a mythical heroic family — instead it is a highly recognizable family comprised of individuals with a common history and mutual responsibilities.  Even when things aren’t going well and a bleak sorrow overwhelms them, there is a momentum.  Things will continue to happen to this family, and some of those things will be good.

I loved this book.