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Dog days

jonathanDante is a smart Border Collie. Sissy is a sweet Cocker Spaniel. Jonathan is a daydreaming Almost Grown-up who appears to be on the right track to adulthood: New York apartment, ad agency job, college sweetheart now fiance. But appearances, of course, are deceiving. The apartment is an illegal sublet, the job is soul-deadening, the fiance is all wrong for him. Still, it isn’t until Dante and Sissy enter Jonathan’s life that the recent arts school grad begins to question his chosen path. “Jonathan came home one day from work to find the dogs talking about him.”

That’s the first line of Meg Rosoff’s rom-com Jonathan Unleashed (Viking, review copy), but this isn’t a talking dog book. Actually, it would be easier for Jonathan if Dante and Sissy conversed like humans. Then Jonathan would know what’s wrong with the pair of canines left in his keeping while his brother is in Dubai for six months. Because Jonathan is sure the dogs are depressed and dissatisfied with life in New York City. He takes them to see the vet Dr. Clare. Doesn’t she think Dante looks angry? Doesn’t Sissy look sad? The vet, herself a dogowner, assures him his dogs are fine. “Dogs tend towards happiness. That’s why humans choose to live with them.”

But this is Jonathan she’s talking to, and it’s going to take him awhile to realize he’s projecting his own mixed feelings on Dante and Sissy. After all, he’s the kind of guy who can wonder about a clam’s inner emotional life, or who upon meeting a pretty cafe owner immediately envisions their marriage and names their three children. He draws comic books in his head. And then he somehow agrees to having his wedding to Julie live-streamed by a bridal magazine.

All this is fine fodder for a romp of a book, and Rosoff pulls it off, despite some unlikely contrivances and coincidences. Dante and Sissy turn out to be rescue dogs extraordinaire, the kind who save humans from themselves. Ah, who’s a good dog?

miracleElizabeth Kelly’s engaging The Miracle on Monhegan Island (Norton, digital galley) really is a talking dog book in that it’s ably narrated by a three-year-old Shih Tzu named Ned. He finds himself a member of the wildly dysfunctional Monahan family when black sheep son Spike plucks him from the back seat of a Mercedes and carries him home to Maine as a gift for his 12-year-old son Hally, whom he hasn’t seen in several years.

In short order, Ned is introduced — and introduces us — to Spike’s father Pastor Ragner, who has his own religious sect; his artistic brother Hugh; and to young Hally, whose vision of a Woman in White on the cliffs causes further family upheaval. Pastor Ragner immediately thinks that Hally has seen the Virgin Mary, and uses this news to attract new followers. But Spike is afraid that Hally’s vision signals the onset of the mental illness that afflicted his mother after he was born and is aghast as throngs are drawn to the island. Add in a stalker with murder in mind, and the story becomes darker.

Kelly, however, is an insightful and witty writer — The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is one of my favorites. By having Ned observe and chronicle events, she can explore such weighty issues as family, faith and mental illness with a light touch. Her canine narrator makes for quite a canny tale.

 

 

 

 

 

Beach-worthy

beachbagBeach books traditionally fall into two categories — those as light and bright as a beach ball, or else a doorstop saga that doubles as a beach towel anchor. But a recent essay in the The New Yorker concludes that in this age of e-readers, a beach book can be whatever we want it to be. Ok, then, I want my beach books to make me think I’m on vacation, to immerse me in story and character and place so I forget it’s a 100 sultry degrees outside, that my neighbors have tackled a noisy renovation, and that the haters have taken over the internet. Genre doesn’t matter, and neither does length. Just take me away. Please.

 

invincibleLove, love, love the cover and title of Invincible Summer (Little Brown, digital galley). Alice Adams’ first novel is pretty good, too. The title — a quote from Camus — refers to the summer of 1997 when four English college pals look forward to bright, shiny futures. Eva, who pines for playboy Lucien, heads to London to become an investment banker, while her best friend Sylvie, who is also Lucien’s sister, seems destined for artistic success. Benedict sets aside his crush on Eva to continue his studies as a physicist. Lucien is a natural as a concert promoter, aka drug dealer. Adams follows the course of their friendship as it ebbs and flows over the next 20 years against a backdrop of boom and bust, missed opportunities and wrongheaded decisions. It reminded me a bit of David Nicholl’s novel One Day, the way in which Adams catches one or more of her characters at specific moments in time. Smart, playful, poignant storytelling.

beforefallI’m not much on airplane crash books, and even less so when the crash happens at the story’s beginning and the narrative then flashes back to the lives of the doomed passengers. But television producer and screenwriter Noah Hawley deftly creates suspense in his new thriller, Before the Fall (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley). Just minutes after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard on a foggy summer night, a private jet carrying 11 people goes down in the sea. Artist Scott Burroughs survives and also saves 4-year-old JJ, son of the wealthy TV network executive who chartered the flight. Scott becomes the hero of a media circus, but then is cast as a villain out for financial gain. Meanwhile, a determined investigator works to discover the cause of the crash and who on board might have been a target or culprit. I might not have read Before the Fall except that it’s a summer selection of the trusted She Reads online book club. Buckle up for surprises amidst the turbulence.

doctorknoxI’m currently crushing on Dr. Adam Knox, the wry narrator of Peter Spiegelman’s noirish Dr. Knox (Knopf, digital galley), which I hope is the first in a series. Knox, who cast aside his patrician pedigree to work for an NGO in Africa, now runs a “Skid Row-adjacent” health clinic in LA, treating junkies, prostitutes, illegal immigrants and the homeless. To keep the business afloat, he and his Special Ops buddy Ben Sutter make after-hours calls to criminals and celebrities willing to pay big bucks to buy his silence. Knox’s quest to do the right thing got him into trouble overseas, and when he tries to find the mother of a young boy left at his clinic, he runs up against Russian mobsters and corporate crooks who dabble in human trafficking. Still, Knox is not about to abandon his white horse or his doctor’s bag, even though he’s risking his life, as well as the lives of those closest to him. Lots of grit and a few grins — just what the good doctor ordered.

onedressLove Actually meets The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in the charmer Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen (Doubleday, digital galley). An “LBD” — a little black dress made by 90-year-old Morris Siegel for designer Max Hammer — is the dress of the season as soon as new model Sally Ann steps on the runway. But she’s just the first of nine women (and the men in their lives) who will be transformed by the LBD, which is sold on Bloomingdale’s third floor.  In fact, Bloomies salesgirl Natalie borrows the dress when she acts as a beard for movie star Jeremy, who has mistakenly been outed as gay. Then there’s fifty-something Felicia, who is secretly in love with her widowed boss, as well as Andi, a private detective who puts the skills she learned in her divorce to good use. A recent college grad becomes a social media sensation, while a Muslim teen envisions a less traditional life when she tries on the dress after a suitcase mixup. The snappy set pieces build on each other and link in satisfying ways, making the whole a perfect fit for summer.

forgotyouFans of Terry McMillan since the Waiting to Exhale days will welcome the strong, complicated and sexy women of the upbeat I Almost Forgot About You (Crown, digital galley). Foremost among them is 54-year-old optometrist Georgia Young, adrift in her career and with two failed marriages behind her. Upon hearing that her college sweetheart has died, Georgia decides she needs to backtrack and catch up on old lost loves. She’s also ready to sell her house, give up her job and take a long train trip through Canada during which she’ll figure out what comes next. But the demands of family and friends thwart her plans to reinvent herself as she becomes caught up in their dramas. Still, Georgia does discover that life can offer second chances and that the possibility of something new exists at every age. “Sometimes you know in your heart it’s time for a change.” Yes ma’am.

Great escapes

invisibleSometimes you just need to get away. Could be that out-of-town isn’t enough, or even out-of- the-country. Let’s try out-of-this world.

First stop is Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library (Roc/Penguin, digital galley), where the shelves of books stretch in all directions across time and space and where hidden portals lead to alternate realities. Born and raised in the Library, Irene now works as a spy to retrieve rare volumes to add to the Library’s immense collection. On a mission to pick up a singular copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, she and her new assistant Kai arrive in a London infected by magic known as chaos, resulting in a steampunk Dickensian city whose inhabitants include demons, vampires and the Fair Folk. The rules are different here, as Irene and Kai’s pursuit of the stolen book is threatened by competing factions willing to kill for the prize. In the course of their adventures, they meet up with a Sherlockian detective, Irene’s former mentor and the evil Albion, the Library’s greatest traitor. Fans of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series and/or Dr. Who will appreciate the imaginative worldbuilding, literary references and galloping pace. Sequels The Masked City and The Burning Page arrive in September and December.

onedamnedSpeaking of timey-wimey stuff, Jodi Taylor’s Just One Damned Thing After Another (Night Shade/Skyhorse, digital galley) is also a British import, the first in the series known as the Chronicles of St. Mary’s. Time-traveling historians aren’t new — American Connie Willis has been dispatching them with elan for years — but Taylor takes the concept and runs with it. Narrator Madeleine Maxwell is a new recruit to the mysterious St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where trained historians like herself “investigate historical events in contemporary time” — yep, time travel. Max soon discovers that hurtling back centuries can be downright dangerous, as when she and her colleagues work in a World War I battlefield hospital. But that’s nothing to the Cretaceous Period, where slathering dinosaur jaws await the unwary, as well as time-traveling terrorists determined to sabotage St. Mary’s research. Really, it’s one disaster after another for Max and company, but it’s often hilarious. Good thing, because the pace is uneven, the secondary characters underdeveloped and the laws of logic don’t apply. The whole could use an editor. Still,  A Symphony of Echoes arrives next week, and I understand there will be Dodos.

paperfireAction and adventure, knowledge and power. They’re intertwined in Rachel Caine’s Great Library series, which began last year with the thrilling Ink and Bone. In that book, London book smuggler Jess Brightwell was sent off to study at the Great Library of Alexandria, which has survived through the ages as librarians rule the world by limiting access to all original books. In the second book, Paper and Fire (NAL/Penguin, review copy), Jess and his fellow students who made it through the perilous final exams are ready to enter the ranks as soldiers or scholars. But the dark side of the Library is revealing itself: Jess’ best friend Thomas has been accused of treason and reportedly executed, his girlfriend Morgan’s alchemical talents have landed her in the Iron Tower, and their teacher, Scholar Christopher Wolfe, is barely recovering from torture and imprisonment at the hands of the evil Archivist. Still, when Jess and his friends figure out that Thomas is being held captive in Rome, they set out to rescue him, braving the fearful automata of the Library and the deadly explosives of the heretical Burners. Yes, you really need to read the first book, although Caine tries to fill in gaps for newcomers. This makes for some slow going at the beginning of Paper and Fire, but the action picks up in Rome, and then it’s off full speed ahead to London and presumed safety.  Ha! I’m booking passage now for a third book.

thegirlsI’ve been catching up with the second season of Aquarius, the NBC series set in the age of and leading up to the Manson murders in August 1969. “You’re looking at life through a dirty window,” one character says in the third episode, and I know what she’s talking about. Everything and everybody looks murky in the sepia shadows, as if the camera lens was smeared with dust.  This is in sharp contrast to the clarity of Emma Cline’s ambitious first novel The Girls (Random House, digital galley), which covers the same period, although she changes the names  and relocates events from L.A. to the Bay area.

“It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless formless summer.” This is Evie Boyd looking back from disappointed middle age to when she was 14, formless and yearning in the way 14-year-old girls are. A child of divorce set to go to boarding school in the fall, she becomes aware of three long-haired girls making their way through a local park. “Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.” She sees them again in a grimy black school bus, dumpster diving for food and shoplifting toilet paper. She is especially drawn to the fierce, feral Suzanne, who shepherds Evie to the rundown ranch where a troubadour called Russell holds sway over a squalid commune. Evie easily succumbs to Russell’s scruffy charisma but her loyalty and love lie with Suzanne.

These scenes from that long-ago summer are interspersed with chapters of present-day Evie, a caregiver whose house-sitting gig is interrupted by the arrival of the homeowner’s druggie son and his teenage girlfriend. The son announces Evie’s past with reverence, but she downplays her role in the famous cult because she didn’t kill anyone. Why not? For that answer the narrative returns to those hot August nights humming with menace, their chilling aftermath.

Cline’s prose is mostly hypnotic as Evie recounts that pivotal time, although the occasional overwritten sentence calls attention to itself and detracts from the fascinating story. Still, watching Aquarius, I’m ready to reread The Girls.

americangirlsIf not for Cline’s buzzed-about novel, I suspect more attention would be paid to Alison Umminger’s smart YA novel American Girls (Flatiron Books, digital books), in which the memories of the Manson murders shadow the present day.

Atlanta teen Anna is a bit of a brat and something of a mean girl at book’s beginning. Feeling left out of her divorced parents’ new families, she uses her stepmother’s credit card to buy a ticket to L.A. to see her half-sister, a striving actress. Delia agrees with Anna that their mother isn’t the best, and works out a deal so that Anna can stay with her for the summer, provided she earns money to pay back her plane fare. Conveniently, Delia’s ex-boyfriend Roger is an indie film director and hires Anna to research Hollywood murders, especially the Manson girls. Anna is surprised to discover parallels between herself and the “regular” girls who became killers, and is disturbed when it appears a stalker has targeted Delia. Hanging out on the set of a popular teen drama scripted by Delia’s current boyfriend, Anna also is exposed to competitive backlot Hollywood, where fame proves fleeting for young starlets. Meanwhile, news from back home has her rethinking her relationships.

Anna sounds like a real 15-year-old — smart but insecure, sarcastic yet vulnerable. Her candid voice reveals the complexities of her life in particular and those of girls in general. Did I mention that American Girls is also a first novel? It sure doesn’t read like one.

 

 

Kiss me, Katya

vinegarAlthough Anne Tyler’s new novel is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew commissioned for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, digital galley) reads more like a Tyleresque version of the movie Green Card. That’s fine with me, because I’ve always found Shrew problematic for its sexism, even if the two lovers appear to be in cahoots by the end. But I remember Green Card as a charming rom-com, and Vinegar Girl has the easy charm of many of Tyler’s books, with their endearingly oddball characters living seemingly ordinary lives. And, of course, the setting is now Baltimore, “Charm City.”

Kate Battista is a 29-year-old teaching assistant at a neighborhood pre-school, still living at home looking after her widower scientist father Louis and her pretty 15-year-old sister Bunny. She’s not so much shrewish as forthright and tactless — an altercation with a college professor led to her dropping out without a degree in botany — and while her young students adore her, their parents aren’t as comfortable. Still, she’s remarkably patient with her father’s eccentricities –“meat mash” for dinner all week — and over-indulgence of Bunny, at least until he proposes she marry his research assistant, Pyotr, so he can stay in the country. She’s mad and sad as she stomps up the stairs: “He must think she was of no value; she was nothing but a bargaining chip in his single-minded quest for a scientific miracle.”

This then is the farcical set-up for courtship, but the ensuing antics are mild and rather sweet. Pyotr, although literal-minded, is nowhere near as clueless as his employer. He admires Kate’s individuality, her long black curls, how she “resemble flamingo dancer.” Sure, he speaks bluntly without articles and adjectives, but Kate realizes he has layers of thought and feeling. She defends him to busybody relatives, and then is surprised when Aunt Thelma pronounces him “a cutie.”

A subplot involving Bunny’s sudden attraction to a pot-smoking neighbor and thus to veganism and animal-rights seems somewhat forced, but it does provide Tyler the chance for some satirical observations and to kick the action up a gear. The scenes of Kate at nursery school are spot on. The kids play and bicker — “Did so.” “Did not” — like the four-year-olds they are, occasionally spouting perfect gems, as when one girl talks about frolicking baby goats: “Yes, a few of them were just barely beginning to fly.”  The children may not see Kate as an authority figure, but they recognize her as a kindred spirit. The little boys want to marry her one day. They accept her for who she is, as does Pyotr, who knows she is more than a green card.

Still, the question remains. Will Kate and Pyotr marry for convenience, go their separate ways, or will they make a true match of it? Tyler takes her cue from another Shakespeare play: All’s well that ends well. Summer reading, anyone?

Sunday in Orlando

redpulseSomething woke me around 5 this morning. I thought it was the cats, and as I shooed them out the room, I heard the thump-thump-thump of helicopters overhead. As a friend and neighbor noted earlier on Facebook, we hear helicopters all the time this close to downtown and the hospital. But then I got a message from another friend: “When did Orlando become the capital of crazy?” And I turned on the TV.

Hours later, the TV is still on, the helicopters still whirring, and I’m still struggling to get my head around this act of terrorism and hate. Fifty dead, fifty three injured. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The City Beautiful is in mourning, but it is also standing together. People are lined up to donate blood, while others donate water and food to those in line, as well as first responders and volunteers. We are praying, for those whose lives were lost and those who have lost family members and friends.

Obviously, this isn’t the blog post I had planned to write. My thoughts on Emma Cline’s The Girls can wait a few days. But I did follow through on one plan this Sunday: I went to the matinee performance of Avenue Q at Mad Cow Theatre in downtown Orlando. As one of the actors said at a talkback afterwards, “The show goes on for a reason.” He and other cast members said they wanted — had to — perform, especially this musical, with its LGBT  and racial concerns, its light heart and its serious themes. Love and accept yourself and others. Have purpose. Be mindful. When you help others, you help yourself. Be happy. Live in peace.

It was a wonderful show, and the cast and audience thanked each other for being there.

Avenue Q was a Tony Award winner in 2004, and I understand that tonight’s Tonys will be dedicated to Orlando. I will be watching, because I love theater and how it transforms lives and reminds us of truths, of how it brings us both comfort and escape. Mad Cow quoted George Bernard Shaw on its Facebook page: “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”

The helicopters have stopped. It’s dark and it’s raining. The TV says there are still people in Pulse, which is less than a mile from here. Unbelievable. You think it can’t happen here and then it does. Sadly, it can happen anywhere, and anywhere is too close to home.

Love and peace to all.

 

Order up

sweetbitterStephanie Danler’s first novel arrives like the tangy summer cocktail you didn’t know you wanted but can’t stop drinking. Sweetbitter (Knopf, digital galley) turns out to be the perfect title for this coming-of-age, living-in-New York tale, a heady concoction of youthful yearning and impulse.

Coffee-shop waitress Tess, 22, arrives in New York in 2006 and gets a job as a backwaiter at a landmark restaurant, where she is yelled at by the chef, hazed by her fellows and mentored by the older server Simone. She learns about fine wine and good food, from the seductiveness of figs to the aggressiveness of winter lettuces. She is just as hungry for experience, and indulges in after-hour drinks and drugs with the staff, and despite Simone’s warnings, falls for bartender Jake. “I could tell you to leave him alone. That he’s complicated, not in a sexy way, but in a damaged way. I could tell you damage isn’t sexy, it’s scary. You’re still young enough to think every experience will improve you in some long-term way, but it isn’t true. How do you suppose damage gets passed on?”

Tess pays no attention and gives into desire, consequences be damned. Danler writes the same way, giving voice to the reckless invincibility of being young and in love with love and life. When a buttoned-down college acquaintance shows up at the restaurant and snobbishly suggests that Tess be his table’s waitress, Tess hides behind a polite smile.  “I wanted to say,  My life is full. I chose this life because it’s a constant assault of color and taste and light and it’s raw and ugly and fast and it’s mine. And you’ll never understand. Until you live it, you don’t understand.”

Or you could read Sweetbitter.

modernWhen do you grow up? What rite of passage marks you as an adult? College graduation?  Buying a house? Marriage? Parenthood? Or is it the first time you have sex? Or how about when you first find out your kids are having sex? Two of the three couples in Emma Straub’s new novel Modern Lovers (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley) mull over such mid-life mysteries as neighbors in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. The other couple — teens Ruby and Harry — are too busy obeying hormones to ask anything beyond, “Do you have something?”

Harry’s parents — Elizabeth and Andrew — were classmates at Oberlin with one of Ruby’s moms, Zoe, and they had a band called Kitty’s Mustache. A fourth bandmate, Lydia, broke away and soared to fame with a song Elizabeth wrote, “Mistress of Myself,” then died of a heroin overdose at 27. Now, 20 years later, the past comes calling when Hollywood wants to make a biopic of  Lydia, and needs the other three to sign over rights. That’s ok with Zoe, who is coping with Ruby’s moods and with her faltering marriage to Jane, the chef  at their trendy restaurant Hyacinth. Elizabeth, now a real estate agent, thinks the movie idea is cool and is surprised that her trust-fund husband Andrew is so adamantly against it. Andrew, who has never had a meaningful job, wants to put life on pause while he sorts things out, so he gets involved with a local yoga/meditation commune. Meanwhile, rebellious Ruby, who has just graduated from high school, fools around with mild-mannered Harry, who can’t believe his luck.

Straub is a sharp, observant writer, and Modern Lovers is a diverting comedy of manners much like her last novel, The Vacationers. But the characters aren’t nearly as interesting and cool as they think they are — Andrew is especially annoying — and their meanderings don’t really add up to much. At one point, a marriage counselor asks Zoe and Jane why they aren’t asking each other the hard questions, and they reply that things are ok and they don’t want to rock the boat for fear it might topple. Mmm. Modern Lovers could do with more rocking and rolling. Instead, it glides along, easily handling the gentle swells of modern middle age.

 

 

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