In this entry I offer my thoughts about: American Fire, by Monica Hesse; Hello, Sunshine, by Laura Dave; The People We Hate At The Wedding, by Grant Ginder; The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid; The Sunshine Sisters, by Jane Green; and, The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle.
It’s that time of year again when the buzzy books tend toward convenient, happy, free of loose-ends conclusions, suitable for vacation reading. I had a week to myself, pet-sitting two pups who are snuggly if slightly neurotic — just like me, right? — and I plowed through five novels and one true crime reportage; I’ll try to keep it brief.
American Fire, Monica Hesse, Hardcover, 288pp, July 2017, Liveright
A true crime account of serial arsonists in an economically deprived county, once the richest in the nation, now pocked with hundreds of abandoned properties and populated by a people who feel abandoned by the American dream, left with menial, low paying jobs in the chicken factories which pollute the once vital and fertile countryside which now wastes away, fallow and uncultivated, much like the hopes and aspirations of its populace.
Compellingly told by Washington Post reporter and novelist, Monica Hesse, in a manner combining the best of journalism and literary fiction, with an attention to the seemingly small but hugely defining details of people’s behaviors and language, this is a non-fiction tour de force chockful of character after character who could fill another book of their own.
It didn’t hurt that the arsonist and central character of the piece happens to share my name: Charlie Smith. But what really sold me on this book (which, by the way, was recommended and hand sold to me by my dear, Marlene, at my local indie, The Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE], which sponsored a reading and meeting with Monica Hesse which I attended and where I found her to be as fascinating and gifted a speaker as she is a writer) was the way in which, by its end, Monica Hesse had made Charlie Smith so human, so emotionally visible, I questioned whether or not I, myself, might not have fallen into a like destructive pattern of behavior. I think you’ll see yourself in Charlie, too, and that gift of the ability to establish that sort of identification is what makes Monica Hesse a writer to enjoy now, and from whom to anticipate even greater things in the future. This work has moved her onto my MUST HAVE EACH BOOK list of authors.
Now, I’ve gone on too long already, so I’ll speed up these next few.
Hello, Sunshine, Laura Dave, Hardcover, 256pp, July 2017, Simon & Schuster
Sunshine Mackenzie is an accidental culinary star with an estranged sister named Rain, a deteriorating-ish marriage, bunches of secrets, and a self-deprecating voice in which she tells us the story of her life’s collapse when she is hacked and her frauds, lies, and misdeeds are exposed, all the way through her approach to redemption and forgiveness — which she needs mostly from herself. Fun summer read, doesn’t demand complete (though, near enough) suspension of disbelief, and offers some laughs and a happy ending.
The People We Hate At The Wedding, Grant Ginder, Hardcover, 326pp, June 2017, Flatiron Books
I love the title. I wish I’d loved the book as much. Almost all of the characters were genuinely unlikeable. And it felt to me as if the author had set out to write a literary fiction and then been pressured into making it beach-ready, resulting in a mish-mash of both that was not awful, but far less fun than the title (and blurbing) promised. At least it never used the word “thrum” — this year’s apparently required word, although there was “clambering” — which is steadily replacing thrum as the must have where once it was limn. Ugh.
The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hardcover, 400pp, June 2017, Atria Books
Legendary Hollywood star, Evelyn Hugo, chooses unknown reporter, Monique Grant, to write her life story, full of the secrets and scandals she has never before divulged. Evelyn Hugo is a little Elizabeth Taylor, a smidgen Katharine Hepburn, but too, an original. Full of salacious goings on delivered in well-crafted prose at a breakneck pace, this mystery-faux-tell-all novel is rip-roaring fun from beginning to end. I recently said I missed Dominick Dunne and Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann — but Taylor Jenkins Reid has filled the empty spot nicely. Read this voraciously, eager to find out what happened next (or, long ago). Loved.
The Sunshine Sisters, Jane Green, Hardcover, 384pp, June 2017, Berkley Books
Ronni Sunshine, once a famous B-movie actress, who barely raised her three daughters has called the siblings — who dislike each other almost as much as they dislike their mother — home for a very important matter. Everyone has agendas. No one really understands the lives of the others. There are myriad complications and hurdles between the past the now and the happy (sort-of-ish) ending. Lifetime movie stuff. Okay for an afternoon when you’re looking for something which doesn’t demand too much of your attention — and, be warned, the foreshadowing is choke and gag you obvious; my most fun reading this was seeing how many pages ahead of something happening I had predicted it. But, it’s meant as a summer read and there is some comfort in knowing what’s coming.
The Changeling, Victor Lavalle, 448pp, June 2017, Spiegel and Grau a division of Penguin Random House
This was mostly a wow for me. First of all, the cover and presentation is beautiful. Second, the prose is so deftly crafted, the voice so compelling I gobbled up its 400-plus pages in one day — honestly, I started in the morning, became enraptured, and did nothing else until I’d finished it in the evening. Third, I love books that defy categorization — this is literary fiction but also fantasy (and I hate fantasy, so, if you do, don’t skip this because of that because it’s not REALLY fantasy) and horror and mystery and myth and metaphor and symbolism and an insightful, thought-provoking exploration of what makes a human a human and to what lengths love will make one go — but it does all of this without hectoring or heavy-handed, pretentious intellectual posing.
Apollo Kagwa, book dealer, having had a child with his wife, Emma, experiences a return of the haunting night-terror-like dreams he suffered as a child after his father had mysteriously disappeared. Soon, Emma commits an unthinkable atrocity, the aftereffects of which Apollo makes it his mission to understand, a journey which take him from Riker’s Island to lands in the mist of the imagination to forest caves to places and events from his past he’d never really understood or remembered.
And there we are, six books in just about 1000 words. Who am I? Well, whoever that is, here I am, going.