• 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

  • Nights of Indigo Blue

    Theresa Varela

    I’ve been friends with Theresa since before her first novel Covering the Sun With My Hand, so a bit of partiality will be inevitable here. There are some similarities between the two books — both are set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Theresa grew up — but this one is a little different as it’s the first in a series of mystery novels centered around the character Daisy Muñoz. I don’t read many mysteries these days, but like Theresa I obsessively read Agatha Christie novels and other series when I was younger, so it was fun and a little nostalgic to return to reading that style of fiction.

    A good mystery hinges largely on strong plotting, and Nights of Indigo Blue has...more

  • Infinite Home

    Kathleen Alcott

    I suppose we are reaching peak Brooklyn when in the course of two months, I’ve read two recent ensemble novels based in Brooklyn brownstones. (The other one I skipped writing about.) The characters of Infinite Home are a disparate group who barely interact with each other for years, yet in the course of this story come to bond into a familial unit. It’s a breeze to read, the chapters bouncing quickly around the different apartments of the building, and Alcott manages to fill in everyone’s back story while moving the greater narrative forward. But for the most part the characters remained fictional personas to me. They are all affectedly flawed with too many contrived and even out-of-character moments — as when (spoiler)...more

  • My Brilliant Friend

    Elena Ferrante

    After reading A Little Life, I floundered about, starting and not finishing several books, getting to the end of one only by skimming through the last twenty pages. Some of them are surely good ones, I just wasn’t in the mood for them. As September neared and Ferrante fever grew in anticipation of the publication of the fourth and final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I borrowed a copy of #1 and thankfully fell under its spell. I needed something to break the trauma hex I was under.

    I’m writing this as I’m about 80% through the second book, so it’s hard to really just write about this one. I can already see why people have said...more