• Safe as Houses

    Marie-Helene Bertino

    Quirky stories where houses rarely seem safe; the shorter ones tend to have better premises than delivery, but the longer ones benefit from the increased development. It felt to me that I enjoyed each story more than the last one, which left an overall positive feeling, though I started out feeling underwhelmed. The finale, “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph,” was my favorite: a woman struggling to adjust from a breakup becomes caretaker at a convent and uncovers secrets of the nuns she lives with. I got a little distracted by tomato growing details that didn’t seem accurate, unless this story takes place somewhere tropical. (Tomato plants are generally grown as annuals where winters are cold, and March would...more

  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

    Muriel Spark

    A strange little novel about a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls with a very unorthodox teaching style in which she focuses more on exposing her students to Art and Culture and stories of her love life rather than covering stuffy subjects like math and history. She collects a core group of girls around her, and they become the “Brodie set,” keeping themselves apart from the rest of the school even as they move on to the senior school. Through periodic flash forwards, we learn that one of Miss Brodie’s girls betrays her, prompting her early retirement while she is still “in her prime.”

    Spark’s writing is remarkably concise with a sarcastic humor that will likely either...more

  • Annie John

    Jamaica Kincaid

    A stunning and spare coming-of-age novel, Annie John was originally published in The New Yorker chapter by chapter as separate stories. Kincaid focuses primarily on the internal shifts Annie experiences as she matures, mostly in how she transitions from loving and wanting to emulate her mother to nearly despising her and feeling ambivalent about her life in Antigua. Though Annie is an excellent student, she has a mischievous side; she steals library books and stashes them with all the marbles she has won, hiding all from her mother’s disapproval. She strives to amuse her classmates by any means necessary and has a couple intense friendships which she keeps secret as well, even keeping the friendships distinctly separate from each other....more

  • Beautiful Mutants / Swallowing Geography

    Deborah Levy

    These two short novels are weird with incredibly loose narratives, or rather collections of characters and scenes in which things happen with a feeling of sequence. Within these loosely tied vignettes are some beautiful passages rooted in the anxieties of exile. Deborah Levy has published several more novels since these first two, and I gather her work has evolved into more conventional territory. Coming off the intensity of reading The Warmth of Other Suns, these were kind of perfect in their surreality but with enough evocative moments to keep me interested.

    Swallowing Geography, features a wanderer named J. K. (after Jack Kerouac) who travels with a typewriter in a pillowcase. At one point she sees a small garden...more

  • In the Unlikely Event

    Judy Blume

    Pretty sure I haven’t read Judy Blume book since I was maybe at the oldest a preteen. This is not a YA novel: in “This American Life” parlance, it goes a little beyond acknowledging the existence of sex between adults. Based on the true events of three planes crashing in Elizabeth, New Jersey (her hometown), between December 1951 and February 1952, Blume constructs a narrative over a cast of characters affected by the disasters.

    It’s kind of too many characters, frankly. I feel like this book would make a better TV mini-series than a novel as some of the shorter sections within the chapters, where she jumps over to someone’s point of view for a few...more

  • Lost Canyon

    Nina Revoyr

    Some suspension of disbelief is necessary to appreciate Lost Canyon, from the moment a park ranger tells the quartet of Los Angeles-based hikers their planned route is closed due to fire and he sets them up with a hand-drawn map for a trail elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada — one that supposedly hasn’t been accessed in years. The book is prefaced by a quote from James Dickey’s Deliverance and seems to be in part a retelling of that story with a more diverse cast of characters. The organizer Tracy, a fitness trainer, organized the backpacking trip with several of her clients; the area has personal significance for her from hearing her Japanese-American grandfather’s tales of slipping away from Manzanar’s internment camp. Her...more

  • Thunderstruck

    Elizabeth McCracken

    Is it really possible that I didn’t read any short story collections in 2015? This is a great one to rekindle an appreciation of short fiction, solid tales with a sense of humanity and a droll flavor. The nine stories in this collection are united in different senses of tragedy: there are both sudden and prolonged deaths, severe injuries, missing people, abandoned homes, and, on the lighter side, artistic betrayal. In the first story “Something Amazing,” two brothers move into a neighborhood haunted by a six-year-old girl who died of lymphoma. The story mostly follows the younger brother who knocks on the door of the ghost girl’s mother, hoping to have a wish granted, and they have a curious interaction...more

  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

    Elena Ferrante

    The Neapolitan novels are a recurring conversation topic among my reading friends, with the vast majority having read them already or starting to read them now. Often in the ongoing discussions, there’s an initial cluelessness in not understanding exactly why everyone keeps talking about the books (and why their covers are so ugly — it’s on purpose!), followed by a kind of wonder at being engulfed as well.

    In some ways it’s hard to describe what is so beguiling about Ferrante’s writing; the language is fairly simple and often chapters are comprised of everyday banalities that progress to interesting moments, but rather slowly. Despite the often mundane nature of the story, there is an emotional intensity and self-awareness in Elena’s...more

  • Dear Thief

    Samantha Harvey

    I saw this book on a giveaway pile and initially ignored it. In concept, it sounded somehow weak, comprised of a letter a woman writes to a friend who disappeared years ago, a letter largely about a betrayal that seemingly lead to their estrangement. Yet the power of this book is its lyrical writing and philosophical asides. There is a story revealed through the letter writer’s reminiscences, but as the pages collect, it seems less like a communication than something else. For one thing she invents a whole life for her friend, nicknamed Butterfly, and describes in detail the cabin in the woods where she imagines Butterfly lives. Late in the book (letter), she writes:

    I wonder if not being

  • Escape Plans

    Teri Vlassopoulos

    The rotating point-of-view structure in fiction has started to become somewhat of a literary trope to me, often unnecessary and even distracting. But I love how Teri uses it with purpose here. (This is another book where I have some friendly bias to acknowledge, having known Teri and her writing for many years.) I can see a lot of her experience in this book, from its settings in Toronto, Montreal, and Greece to its road trip interlude via Niagara Falls, but her characters inhabit those terrains with their own motivations.

    The three narrators are a fragmented family: a separated couple and their sole child. The timeline is anchored around the father Niko’s death; he chronicles his last months while...more