The Memory of Things, by Gae Polisner (2016)

The Memory of ThingsThe Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Severe clear.

Such an ominous sounding term for a perfect sky.

But somehow, when tragedy strikes, people remember the sky. In documentaries about the JFK assassination, a morning shower had stopped, leaving behind beautiful blue skies. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after launch, it was one of the deepest blue skies I’ve ever seen, so clear that I could clearly see that horrible plume all the way from Tallahassee.

September 11th, 2001, dawned with New York skies exemplifying what pilots refer to as “severe clear”: unlimited ceiling, unlimited visibility. Some pilots joke that these skies are so clear you can see tomorrow.

Nobody would want to see tomorrow, not that horrible morning.

On 9/11, sixteen-year-old Kyle Donahue was among the throngs walking away from the wreckage in Manhattan after the planes struck and the Twin Towers collapsed. The crowd was nervous, but strangely calm. Everybody knew they needed to evacuate to Brooklyn, where hopefully they’d be safe.

Kyle was concentrating on the task at hand—keeping his feet moving—when he noticed something in his peripheral vision: a giant bird. He kept walking, then something told him to go back. Something was amiss. This huge bird might be injured. He turned back, fighting his way through the crowd. When he finally reached the bird, he saw what it truly was. It was a girl about his age, wearing a pair of costume wings—the type you might wear in a play or to a Halloween party. The girl was definitely not a bird, those wings were definitely not made for flying, and she was most definitely pondering the waters of the East River below–she was about to jump.

Kyle caught her in time. He got her to her feet, and guided her back into the crowd heading toward Brooklyn. It was obvious the girl was in some sort of trouble. She couldn’t answer the most basic questions—where do you live? Are you hurt? What should I call you? Left with no other option, Kyle led her home to his family’s comfortable apartment—if nothing else, the skies were still clear over Brooklyn, while the world to their backs lay beneath hellish clouds of smoke and ash and debris.

The girl was filthy, covered in the very ash that blanketed Manhattan. He found some clean clothes that would probably fit her well-enough, and guided her to the bathroom so she could shower. He even did his best to clean the dust and ash from the wings.

Until 9/11, Kyle’s life—like that morning’s sky—had been pretty clear. He was a gifted student at Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. He had a tough but loving father, a Lieutenant with the NYPD’s Joint Terrorist Task Force His mother was kind, a trust-fund baby, which is how they could afford the family’s nice Brooklyn apartment. He had a younger sister, Kerri, who—like all little sisters—was a pain in the ass, but you could hear the affection and love he held for her.

As with all of us, occasional storm clouds invaded Kyle’s sky. His beloved Uncle Matt had been in a serious motorcycle accident five months previous, and was confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak clearly or take care of himself. (Thankfully, the family hired Karina, a wonderful caregiver to help with Matt). Also, all of the Donohue men were cops—Kyle’s dad, Uncle Matt, and his Uncle Paul—and nobody really understood why Kyle would want to pursue anything other than joining the NYPD, much less go to Stuyvesant rather than nearby Brooklyn Tech. Kyle once had a passion for playing guitar, but his father and Uncle Paul mocked that as well, and the passion abated. He still loved music—especially U2—but his Guild acoustic rested in its case, untouched for months.

That horrible morning, though, Kyle’s life looked as foreboding as the hideous cloud over Manhattan. His father would have been a first-responder, and Kyle had no idea whether he was alive or dead. His mother and sister were in California, and were due to fly back that morning. Kyle had no idea what fate had befallen them—were they in the air? Were there other hijackings? Bombs at LAX? Amidst the chaos, Karina had not been able to make it to work, meaning Kyle would have to take full responsibility for Uncle Matt’s care. Also, were his classmates safe? His friends? How bad would the damage ultimately be, and—oh, my God—were the attacks even over? Were we at war?

And then there was the strange girl currently occupying his sister’s room. Who was she? She seemed hugely traumatized, and Kyle was convinced she had been about to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge. The girl wouldn’t answer even the most basic questions—did she even know who she was or what had happened? She was an additional problem Kyle didn’t need, especially with all his other new responsibilities, but there was something sad and mysterious about her. He knew she couldn’t go out into the world by herself, not in her current condition, but there was more to it. She was a riddle, and Kyle was determined to solve her.

The fact that she was cute didn’t hurt, either.

My boldest memory from 9/11—other than those wretched images the networks repeated constantly—was that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. They’d knocked down the Twin Towers, destroyed a section of The Pentagon, and where had that fourth plane been headed? The White House? The Capitol? What the hell could possibly happen next?

I think most of us pondered that during those days, whether those horrors were the end of a single attack, or the start of a war.

But during those days, life still went on. Meals were cooked and eaten. Dishes were washed. People bathed and did laundry and went to work. Despite our deep-seated national fear, we managed to keep up with life’s basic cadences.

So did Kyle. Drawing on strength he hadn’t known he possessed, he managed, too. He took care of Uncle Matt. He did laundry. He cooked meals. He managed to track down information about his father, and his mother & sister. He reached out to friends, and learned that some of his peers had lost family in the World Trade Center. He felt horrible for them, and intended to call and offer condolences…

But then there was the girl, that puzzling damn girl. Kyle knew he should take her to the police station or a hospital, but she adamantly refused to go. She begged and pleaded. She wouldn’t say why, but she was obviously scared, so Kyle let her stay. At least for a few days, till things simmered down. Plus, he liked having her around, a welcome distraction from the hell a few miles away.

What Gae Polisner has done in her wondrous, addictive novel, The Memory of Things, is to show through Kyle what we all had to do. We had to grieve, of course—not to do so would be inhuman—but we also had to move on with our lives. A few thousand people were dead or dying, and yet the rest of us still had gas tanks to fill, groceries to buy, diapers to change. Our hearts ached, but we had to keep our heads clear, and make sure our lives continued normally.

That’s how Ms. Polisner presents Kyle Donohue. He’s a scared sixteen-year-old kid who’s been forced to shoulder adult responsibilities, to keep life going despite the chaos across the river.

And Kyle’s narrative is as straightforward as his thinking. His thoughts are coherent and clear. He worries about holding everything together, but he manages to do just that. The big wrinkle, though, is the girl. How would he ever return her to her family—and did she even have any family left?

The girl’s portion of the narrative is far different from Kyle’s. Where Kyle steps-up for their odd little family—Kyle, Uncle Matt, and her—her thoughts are a jumble of seemingly random images. Swimming as a child one minute, then dancing, then explosions, then wondering about that boy (“Kyle?”), and what he was going to do with her.

Ms. Polisner writes the girl’s part beautifully. The girl’s mind shimmers with clear, poetic snapshots of memory (or imagination? We can’t tell!). Using these snapshots, we try and piece together who this girl is, her backstory, and where she needs to go next. Initially, her thoughts are so brief and disjointed, her communication so fractured, that we imagine she probably needs a psych ward.

As her four days in the Donohue home pass, though, her thoughts become somewhat clearer. The images coalesce somewhat, and we can see that while she was obviously traumatized by the attacks, there is something even worse, something more damaging and painful that happened to her well before 9/11. The girl’s thoughts imply this event marked her forever, and have left her afraid to open herself up, even to Kyle, her rescuer.

Even after three days together, she still hasn’t told Kyle her name. Initially, she may not even remember it herself, but as lucidity sets in, she begins to recognize her life, and knows she’s just guarding herself.

From what, though? That’s another beautiful part of The Memory of Things. The girl’s mind is not all strictly about memories, about the past. She and Kyle bond during their days together. They become friends. They share conversations, even an afternoon sojourn to a deserted Coney Island. They grow closer, hold hands, and ultimately kiss.

Ms. Polisner could easily have gotten carried away here. She could have had Kyle and the girl fall madly in love, swearing eternal devotion to one another against the smoking ruins across the river. She could have ended the book with an Epilogue, showing the couple twenty years later, sharing a love-rich suburban house with their 2.3 adorable children, and a Golden Retriever named “Daisy.” This would have been such an easy way to wrap up the story. Most readers would be happy for the couple, and we’d all walk away smiling. Fade to black.

But Gae Polisner is too sage an author to lapse into such saccharine cliché. The Memory of Things is too great a story to end on such an unworthy note. If nothing else, these two beautifully drawn characters deserve more than a cheap way out.

In the end, the various strands eventually come together, and we can see how the two teens’ situations will inevitably change. We finally gain insight into the girl’s tragic past. ( I was certain I had it figured out pretty early, and it turns out Gae Polisner threw the nastiest literary curveball I can remember right by me; I couldn’t have been more wrong.)

We’re left to wonder: will Kyle and the girl stay in touch, build on their trial-by-fire relationship, and grow ever closer? It’s possible. They are one another’s first loves, but their circumstances were far more intense than the typical, mawkish, teenagers meet-cute story. There was no nervous promposal or sweaty-palmed attempt at hand-holding.

Together or apart, we know that these two will see plenty of blue skies, some puffy white clouds, and no doubt their fair share of gray, rainy days. This is normal; this is real life.

We’ve seen this girl move from wanting to kill herself to relishing the small bits of life she and Kyle have shared. We have seen how—defects and all—she helped Kyle learn that he is strong and smart, and wise enough to choose his own path.

Near the end of this ineffable jewel of a story, Kyle finally learns the girl’s name.

Obviously, I won’t reveal it here—it wouldn’t be fair to either the girl or the author—but this girl who walked with Kyle through that terrible week has an appropriately beautiful name.

And it means “grace.”

Most Highly Recommended
(nb: I received an advance review copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley)

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My Kind of Crazy, by Robin Reul (2016)


Were I in high school, I would totally have a crush on Peyton Breedlove. She’s one of those weird girls who wears tee shirts emblazoned with 1970’s rock band logos, and ripped jeans with smiley faces drawn on her exposed knees. She refuses to eat fruits or vegetables with skins.

Oh, yeah. And she’s a pyromaniac.

We all have our faults, though, right?

However, it’s not Peyton that high school senior Hank Kirby has in his sights for a prom date. He wants to ask one of the hottest girls in school, the beautiful, surprisingly nice Amanda Carlisle. Average guy Hank knows that to have any chance, he’ll have to devise something extra special to get Amanda’s attention and woo her into that all-important prom date. His plan seems brilliant.


One night, he sneaks into Amanda’s front yard, and sticks sparklers in the ground, spelling out “PROM.” He lights them, then calls Amanda’s name. She comes to the window just in time to see the huge cedar tree in her front yard burst into flames and threaten to burn down her house. Hank’s ingenious plan had basically turned into arson. Hank turns tail and hauls ass away on his bike, hoping he can escape.

When he discovers a missing piece of evidence, he returns to the scene, only to find the mysterious Peyton holding the incriminating sparklers box. She compliments him on his fire and returns the box.

Thus begins a friendship, a ride so wild Hank could never have imagined where it would lead.

That’s the beauty of Robin Reul’s novel “My Kind of Crazy”: the characters.

Everyone has their quirks. Hank’s best friend, for example, is a lazy-eyed Italian named Nick, whose father is rumored to have killed a man. The two are the type of friends who are thrust together by circumstance. Neither of them are horrible geeks, but they’re certainly not A-list popular.

All too soon, Peyton finds Hank and Nick in the cafeteria, and an interesting triangle is set up. Amanda and prom pretty much disappear from Hank’s mind, as he finds himself drawn to the troubled, mysterious Peyton. Then Amanda—who finds the arson/promposal intriguing—sets up an online questionnaire, trying to discover her would-be suitor’s identity so that she can accept his offer and go to prom with him.

Over 400 guys sign up, answering questions about how and why they performed the pyrotechnic act.

How the Amanda Carlisle sweepstakes turns out is just one of the great surprises in “My Kind of Crazy.”

There’s so much to love in this book. To me, the greatest joy in reading it is that Robin Reul obviously had a ball creating this world. Her characters all have their own brand of crazy working. Like all teens, there are parental issues, some worse than others. There are the standard issues all teens face—the inevitable awkwardness, even among the elite, the love for chili cheese fries, worrying about appearance, et cetera. But Ms. Reul loves her characters, and treats them all with affection, even when they’re at their worst.

“My Kind of Crazy” is an apt title, too. Everyone in the novel has their own set of oddities. Even the apparently flawless Amanda…I mean, who sets up an online contest for an unknown guy to be her prom date? Especially when the guy nearly burned down her house. That’s just weird.

What Robin Reul is able to do, though, is show that while we’re all crazy, sometimes our crazies mesh harmoniously, and we create bonds stronger than we ever imagined possible.

I once had a girl tell me, “The crazy in me gets off on the crazy in you.” (It turned out she was a complete lunatic, but it was still a great line)

In the end, Hank, Peyton, Nick, and even Amanda are all changed in their own ways. It’s a tweak of confidence here, a dollop of affection there, and a whole lot of self-discovery along the way. The ending leaves us with a sense that everyone will be okay. Nobody’s life will be perfect. Nick won’t be the lothario he dreams of being, and Hank will never be a hero like in one of his beloved comics, but we know they’ll be fine.

That’s what we do in this world. We make our way through as best we can, even though—as the song goes—“Mama, we’re all crazy now.”

By the way, that song was originally by the English band, Slade, then covered by Quiet Riot.

Peyton would know this. And that’s why I’d have loved her.

Most Highly Recommended
(nb: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

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“Hello?”, by Liza Wiemer (2015)


There are so many different openings I came up with to review Liza Wiemer’s miracle of a novel, “Hello?”, yet not one of them really works.

I thought of the REM song lyric, “Everybody hurts, sometimes.” In “Hello?”, everybody hurts at some point or another. Sometimes, it’s because of their own actions—a missed signal given or acted upon, a lie left to fester too long. Other times, the hurt comes from the death of a most-cherished loved one, or memories of long-ago wounds. Still others hurt because they don’t know how to relate to their loved ones’ pain—or when, simply, to give them the space and time they need to sort out their feelings.

I thought, too, of a really nasty curveball. In baseball, a great curveball comes out of the pitcher’s hand, and it looks so incredibly enticing—OMG, this guy made a mistake! I’m going to smash this into the cheap seats—then, right at the point the batter swings, the ball breaks sharply downward, and bat misses ball by a ridiculous margin. “Hello?” is full of curveballs. Liza Wiemer’s characters all have their secrets and scars (some scars metaphorical, others corporeal). When some of her characters think they know another’s truth, there’s the sharp break, and they’re off by a mile.

Similarly, as readers, we are kept back on our heels, as curveball after curveball leaps up at us from the page. Practically every time we know just what a person has been through or why they behave a certain way, there it is, and we’re left wide-eyed, wondering how we could’ve been so badly fooled.

This isn’t authorial trickery, though. It’s our own fault for expecting people—and characters—to be so easily predictable and shallow, that we can properly assume what lurks beneath their respective surfaces. We know the clichés: the good-hearted, nice-guy jock, the unruly party girl, the emo outsider, the emotionally stunted sad girl. We know them all so well, but “Hello?” chips through these veneers, and shows us what we so rarely see: the insecurities and desperation to be understood that lurks around dark corners in each of our hearts. It is a tribute to Ms. Wiemer that her writing peels back these layers, so we can see in her characters those same emotions and feelings most of us try to hide.

The image I finally settled upon as best representing “Hello?” is the Olympic Rings. Five rings, interconnected into one symbol.

Indeed, “Hello?” has five main characters, all of them high school seniors. There’s Tricia, who just lost her grandmother, her last surviving relative, and her only link to her past. Emerson is a popular jock and excellent student, whose heart holds a terrible guilt he’s incapable of releasing. Angie has secrets so dark she can only express her thoughts through her poetry journal. Brian is a potter, a hugely talented artist, who sets his own life aside for his best friend, a choice that hurts them both. Brenda is a brilliant actress and screenplay writer, who is most comfortable seeing herself in the third-person, as if she were a character in her own drama.

These five lives intersect in some ways that are predictable—students at the same small high school would obviously know each other, for example—but it’s the serendipitous way other circles connect that makes “Hello?” such a joy to read.

GOD, there are so many things I would love to write about “Hello?”, but spoilers. “Hello?” deserves for each reader to approach it without any preconceived notions, able to savor every nuance and twist with fresh eyes.

At the end of the day, The Universe has an odd way of working things out, and what begins with a tearful, late night, wrong number phone call, can somehow end up with a hugely satisfying resolution. The Universe has a bitch of a curveball. So does Liza Wiemer. “Hello?” is a beautiful, intelligent, unpredictable ride.

Take it.

Most Highly Recommended

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Dorothy Parker Drank Here, by Ellen Meister (2015)

One of my favorite things about “Dorothy Parker Drank Here” is learning that author Ellen Meister has created a series starring the sharp-tongued Mrs. Parker. Book #1 was the excellent “Farewell, Dorothy Parker.” “Dorothy Parker Drank Here” is the second installment.

Here, Mrs. Parker decides she doesn’t want to be alone for all eternity. So she tries to get reclusive author Ted Shriver—who’s holed-up in one of the Algonquin Hotel’s rooms, impatiently waiting to die from a brain tumor—to sign the famed Algonquin Guestbook. If he signs, he will be allowed to remain in The Algonquin as long as he wants.

Mrs. Parker’s problem, however, is that all of her friends seem anxious to move on into the light once they die. She’s not ready to go.

She soon finds herself helping TV production assistant, Norah Wolfe, as she tries to land an interview with the intensely private and rude Shriver. Between guiding Norah, and cajoling Ted Shriver directly, wheels are set in motion. However, the story takes twists and turns Norah is ill-prepared to handle, and in the end, she faces what could be the greatest tragedy of her young life.

The beauty of this series, of course, is that Dorothy Parker’s ghost plays such a role in things. She’s ready to tongue-lash any idiots who cross her path, and there are plenty of idiots, both in New York and the various situations she encounters. It’s almost like “Murder, She Wrote,” but with a shrewish wit helping her various new acquaintances.

As in “Farewell, Dorothy Parker,” Ms. Meister shows an encyclopedic knowledge of Dorothy Parker’s wit. Even when not using one of Mrs. Parker’s direct quotes, the author has a firm, hilarious command of what she would say, and how she would say it.

Dorothy Parker is sui generis in American letters. She could out-snark anybody, which is what makes her such a wonderful recurring heroine. It will be interesting to see whether Ms. Meister can maintain the first two volumes’ quality across a series. After all, Mrs. Parker deserves no less.


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Dirty London, by Kelley York (2014)

London Noble is a high school senior, who—unlike most of her counterparts—doesn’t want to be popular. She really just wants to fly under the radar, unnoticed, till she can graduate and move on.

Her life is complicated by her younger sister, Jasmine, who is mentally unstable and doesn’t always take her meds. Add into the mix that she and her sister are polar opposites who have to share a room, plus London’s serious dislike of her estranged father, and you find one very stressed-out young woman.

Oh, yeah. Plus London is secretly gay.

One day, she finds herself invited to join the drama club. A girl London has been crushing on is in the club, so she accepts. While there, she meets Wade, a hugely popular stud. The two bond in drama club, and become friends of a sort.

Oh, yeah: it turns out Wade is secretly gay, also.

Their solution is a simple, if ill-advised one: London and Wade will act like a couple. They go on double-dates, carry on in school hallways, and look like a legitimate dating couple.

Where the complications arise is that few of the school’s popular girls can believe Wade would date London, who’s essentially a nobody. The only possible explanation, in their eyes, is that London is putting-out. After a night of drama club…well, drama, the rumor gets out that London has slept with another popular boy. Then another boy confesses that he, too, has had sex with London. Then another.

Eventually, London—who’d wanted nothing but anonymity—finds herself called the school slut. Her locker becomes emblazoned with the words “Dirty London,” and the popular girls are ruthless in taunting her.

Her only solace seems to be with Amber, a quiet fellow drama club student. Amber understands and serves as a friend when London most desperately needs one. The two grow closer, until London has forgotten all about the crush that got her into drama club in the first place.

Kelley York’s novel, “Dirty London,” does an excellent job presenting a troubled young girl. London just wants to escape high school unnoticed, and yet there she is, embroiled in the biggest social scandal of the year. Her relationship with her popularity-driven sister deteriorates with each subsequent embarrassing revelation, especially when London figures out exactly where Jasmine’s psych meds have been going.

London can’t believe the situation she’s found herself in, but with Amber’s help, she manages to cope. When illusions begin to dissolve in her world—when the truths out—London’s life becomes quite a bit easier.

I love Ms. York’s portrayal of London. I didn’t really want to be popular in high school, either. Let the other kids worry about it. Like a lot of teens, I just kept my head down and did my work, till I could graduate and go off to college. I had more friends than London—most kids do—but the idea was the same. Popular kids have some sort of manifest destiny to be popular, a golden ticket few of us are given.

Jasmine, too, is beautifully written. She is embarrassed by her sister in general. She doesn’t want any of her popular friends to know that London is her older sister. She cringes every time somebody could make the association. The way their relationship evolves is wonderfully handled.

I also like the way Amber figures into the story. There were no explosive meeting sparks. Amber just wants to be in the background, too. She doesn’t act in drama club. All she wants to do is work on sets and backdrops. That’s a perfect metaphor for her role in school, even as she grows to be more of a star in London’s eyes.

High school can be a bitch under the best of circumstances. In London’s case, it grows to seem insurmountable. But with Amber’s help and Wade’s—plus her mom’s—London can find her way through, and thrive despite her tumultuous year.

Highly Recommended

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler (2013)

Years ago, I was out drinking with a friend who was having marital problems. He was on his third marriage to the same woman, a decidedly unstable woman at that. I couldn’t help but ask him, “Dave, WHY do you keep marrying her, when it always ends up like this?”

He shook his head, and ruefully drained his Manhattan. “She’s my Zelda, Tom. She’s my Southern Belle. My Zelda.”

I knew just what he meant.

He was referring to the notoriously tumultuous relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda Sayre, the so-called “King and Queen of The Jazz Age.”

Their legend is famous: wild parties, famous friends, a relationship so vibrant it crackled from New York City to the fashionable salons of Europe. Scott was uncontrollably alcoholic; Zelda battled severe mental illness. It’s as legendary as Fitzgerald’s magnum opus “The Great Gatsby.”

But what if the reality were different from that legend?

In “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” author Therese Anne Fowler provides Zelda’s autobiography from that period.

That’s the hard part about reading this book: remembering that it IS, in fact, a novel. The writing and tone are perfect representations of what an autobiography would sound like. Ms. Fowler has researched Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald exhaustively, and that comes through in this book.

I keep calling it “a book,” because it really transcends belief as a novel. Many of the details are real, gleaned from other tomes written about this magical, tragic pair. So much was written about the two, that there is no shortage of source material, and I get the feeling Ms. Fowler has read it all.

But what she fills in are the personal details, the “behind closed doors” realities that other tomes leave behind. We see Zelda playing with the couple’s daughter, Scottie, making paper dolls and learning French together. We are a fly on the wall for horrific arguments and the odd lashing out. We see the nasty splits and the passionate makings-up.

The human villain here—the one who Zelda says led Scott astray—is Ernest Hemingway. The book is filled with references to Hemingway, and his various misbehaviors and cruelties toward both Fitzgeralds. (In his book “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway was less than kind in his portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald, so that part feels believable.)

The way Zelda narrates her life with Scott is equally believable.
For all of the majesty and hell of her ride with Scott, Zelda Fitzgerald—Queen of The Jazz Age—was really just Zelda Sayre, daughter of a Montgomery, Alabama, judge. That’s how she is at the narrative’s beginning and, having come full circle, at the story’s end.

The relationship between Scott and Zelda is truly, legendarily tragic. I’m not a Fitzgerald scholar by any means, but I’ve read about the alcoholism, tempestuousness, and constant money problems.

The couple’s relationship has to be the most storied relationship of that period, a tale of grandeur and human weakness. What Therese Anne Fowler has done in “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” is to flesh out this tale in a conversational style, to give humanity and validity to the salacious legends. Ms. Fowler’s work is an amazing achievement.
It’s just really damned hard to believe that it’s a novel.

Most Highly Recommended

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Farewell, Dorothy Parker, by Ellen Meister (2013)

Violet Epps is a famous film critic for America’s top weekly entertainment magazine. Her specialty—the very core of her celebrity—is her acerbic skewering of bad films. So arrogant are her reviews, that it’s difficult to believe how shy she is in real life. She avoids television appearances, and refuses to use her fame to get good seats at restaurants or other perqs.

Not everyone is so shy about using her fame. Violet had a reservation for lunch at New York’s famous Algonquin Hotel. She was going to break-up with her boyfriend, who was planning to move in that weekend. He loudly used her name to get seated and order drinks, mortifying Violet, and strengthening her resolve to end the relationship. When the moment is at hand, the Algonquin’s general manager comes to her table, and asks whether Violet will sign the restaurant’s guestbook. Violet looks through the book, and sees the first page. Right there is the signature of her idol, Dorothy Parker.

When Violet touches Mrs. Parker’s signature, she’s suddenly taken with a fit. It’s almost like Dorothy Parker’s spirit is possessing her. But that couldn’t happen, right? Violet faints. When she comes-to a few moments later, she slips the Algonquin register into her bag, and rushes from the hotel.

Back in her apartment, she opens the book again, and touches Mrs. Parker’s signature. Suddenly, Dorothy Parker is sitting there in Violet’s living room, asking for a cocktail.

Thus begins Violet’s incredible journey with Dorothy Parker. Mrs. Parker—she always insists on being called Mrs. Parker, and calling Violet Ms. Epps—serves as a teacher, a friend, a confidante, a nuisance, and a general befuddlement to Violet. Generally, Mrs. Parker occupies her own body (she can be corporeal as long as the guestbook is open). There are other times when she possesses Violet, generally when Ms. Epps needs a little backbone.

As their relationship wears on, Violet does grow stronger. With Mrs. Parker’s help, she’s able to dump her boyfriend, find a new boyfriend, improve her standing at work, and—best of all—fight for custody of her niece, Delaney.

The transformation from the shrinking Violet to the strong Ms. Epps is a striking one, and it’s one of the great joys of “Farewell, Dorothy Parker.” At the book’s core, though, is the beautifully realized friendship between the two women. Dorothy Parker was famous for her biting, frequently harsh wit, and we are privy to that. I laughed out loud at a bunch of her bon mots, and my Kindle is filled with highlighted quotes.

There are tender parts, too, where Violet helps Dorothy deal with her insecurities and her own fears. Their relationship is hardly just teacher and pupil.

By the book’s end, both Violet Epps and Dorothy Parker are redeemed, and ready to move on with their life and afterlife, respectively.

It’s been a long time since I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed a book like this. The characters are wonderful, especially author Ellen Meister’s portrayal of Dorothy Parker. I recently had the pleasure of reading the biography, “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?” by Marion Meade, and Ms. Meister does an excellent job of capturing Mrs. Parker’s essence. It’s always dicey when an author mixes real characters into an otherwise fictional novel. “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” does this seamlessly.

This is one of those novels that ended long before I was ready for it to end. However, it wraps-up at the right time, and on the right note.

All in all, “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” contains periods of pure joy, interspersed with serious patches. In short, it’s the same rollercoaster ride most of our lives are.

Pity we all can’t have Mrs. Parker to guide us.

Most Highly Recommended

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William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return (William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, #6), by Ian Doescher (2014)

If you’re a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy–as well as a fan of Shakespearean prose–you will find perhaps no greater treat than Ian Doescher’s “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” trilogy.

The premise is simple, if painstakingly difficult to execute. Doescher took one of Hollywood’s most-beloved film series, and wrote it as William Shakespeare would have.

Well, or might have, if The Bard knew anything about Death Stars and androids.

All three films are reimagined in beautiful Shakespearean language. This takes some serious skill on the author’s part. Not only did he need a firm grounding in William Shakespeare’s writing style, he also needed an expert knowledge of the Star Wars saga.

“The Jedi Doth Return” is the third installment, and it’s a good one. We follow Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia–and loyal droids C3PO and R2D2–as they battle “Jabba of the Hutt” for their freedom. Then it’s off to the forest moon of Endor, where they have to disable the newly renovated Death Super Star’s energy shield, in order that the rebellion can destroy it. Then–huzzah!–peace will reign throughout the Universe.

Ah, if only it were that easy. The evil Emperor Palpatine and his dark henchman, Darth Vader, have other plans. The forest moon housing the energy shield generator is full of Imperial troops. Forsooth! The Rebels were tricked! Thus, Han, Leia, Chewy, and the droids have to team up with small, teddy bearesque creatures called Ewoks to defeat the Imperial troops and disable the shield.

Even worse, Luke Skywalker is bound to face off with Darth Vader, who we know from “The Empire Striketh Back” is actually Luke’s father. Luke’s plan is to turn his father back from the Dark Side, and restore him to his destined place as a Jedi Knight.

If you’re one of the three or four dozen people on Earth who hasn’t seen “The Return of The Jedi,” I won’t spoil the story.

All I can do is tell you that this installment of “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” is an amazing ride.

One small note, though. I think the first two episodes translated slightly better to the Shakespearean treatment, for they worked better at conveying the visual aspects of each film. The entire scenes on the forest moon, Endor, were harder for me to imagine strictly based on the description. I don’t think this was any fault of Ian Doescher’s at all, just that “The Return of The Jedi” had settings far different from the more easily described space sets in the first two. (Even the desert scenes in the first novel were more readily translated to prose)

I remember feeling the same way watching “Return of The Jedi” in the cinema. When it got to the forest moon, I shook my head: What the hell is THIS doing out in space? It was like Star Wars had moved to a redwood forest.

That small observation aside, reading “The Jedi Doth Return” kept a smile on my face, just as the first two installments did. The stories are so familiar to me–and, I imagine, to literally millions of others–that this revisiting was a joy to read.

If you hated the Star Wars films, I doubt you’ll like this book. If you loved Star Wars, but you’re iffy on Shakespearean prose, you might still like it. The language here is not as foreboding and impenetrable as much of Shakespeare’s work, and the narrative construction often cracked me up.

For example, R2D2’s dialogue is, true to the film, a bunch of beeps and blaps and whistles. However, when R2 speaks to the audience in an aside, he’s surprisingly sarcastic and funny.

All in all, Ian Doescher’s “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” series is a joy to read, a true tour de force of writing skill. More importantly, though, it’s an inspired piece of storytelling from an author who’s also–quite obviously–a huge fan of these epic tales.

Highly Recommended

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store, by Robin Sloan (2012)

It’s perhaps ironic that a book about books and a bookstore is so damn hard to write a book review about.

Clay Jannon lost his job at an upstart, high-tech bagel chain. Desperate for cash, he ends up getting a job at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in San Francisco. What soon becomes a bafflement to Clay is that very few of the customers on his overnight shift seem interested in the store’s small new book selection. They ask for volumes from “the wayback” shelves, towering shelves of books with obscure names. Moreover, they don’t pay for the books: those patrons of the Wayback books all have library cards. They bring in one book, and leave with another.

One night, Clay opens one of the books, only to find that it’s gibberish, strings of letters that make no sense.

In time, he meets a young Google programmer named Kat Potente, who helps unlock one mystery of the shelves. This leads to a greater mystery, one involving Festina Lente,a secret cabal of book decoders hidden deep beneath New York City. Clay’s link to Festina Lente comes from Mr. Ajax Penumbra himself.

The Festina Lente group are trying to crack the code of a centuries-old manuscript that may–just may–contain the key to immortality.

Add in a common, though mysterious, font called Gerritszoon, and the entire mystery grows as thick as San Francisco sea fog.

My description doesn’t do this novel justice. The story is so wonderfully quirky and unusual, that it defies easy summation. The characters are unusual, yet so fully drawn, that you can’t help but fall in love with them (well, with MOST of them, anyway).

Clay comes off as being the most normal character in the book, and as such, he’s a perfect narrator. He seems to accept the eccentrics he encounters in stride, and he works with the information he’s given, regardless of how bizarre it may seem.

Author Robin Sloan has created a beautiful mythology living just below our workaday surface. Stir in the aforementioned eccentrics, and you have the recipe for a truly entertaining read.

Most Highly Recommended

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Reading, Writing, and Being Blocked

Most anyone who’s tried to write has experienced writer’s block. Whether it’s a brief college paper or a full-length novel, you sit there, staring at a blank screen, the cursor blinking at you almost mockingly.

I’ve discovered something equally nefarious in my life: reader’s block.

For the past few years, I’ve suffered from severe bi-polar disorder. One of the more difficult symptoms for me has been lack of concentration. Sadly, with this lack of concentration has come the inability to focus long enough to read a novel. Hell, sometimes I can barely get through a magazine article, much less a 300 page book.

We heal, though, and with the help of various medications, I’ve gotten my focus back.

I can’t tell you how liberating it has been to start a book, then actually read it through to the end. Even better, to read, then be able to write a cogent review for Goodreads or my book blog (—sheer bliss.

My book-blogging Maven went through a period of reader’s block a while back. She devours a book a day, and she hit a wall, too, so I don’t feel bad.

Where I feel bad is that it was almost six months between book reviews—I hadn’t posted anything this year. I may as well have just shut down my blog altogether.

Happily, the reader’s block has been lifted, at least for now. The fog has cleared, and I’m once more free and able to participate in one of my greatest pleasures: reading.

As a book blogger, I have a bunch of review copies, both in my Kindle and stacked on my desk. To some, plowing through them would seem like a daunting chore. To me, it’s a challenge of love. I want to read and review them, and finally, I am able.

I’ve always taken reading for granted, all the way back to when I was nine and devouring a Hardy Boys mystery every day. I’ll never take it for granted again.

The reader’s block has been intermittent, retreating and attacking over the past three years. This past bout was the longest and worst yet. I’m hoping it’s been vanquished once and for all. In the meantime, I plan to spend my free time with my nose in a book (or staring at my Kindle screen).

Reading has always been my friend. Girlfriends have come and gone, and I’ve had close friends leave my life so thoroughly that I can neither recall their names nor visualize their faces. But books have been steady companions. Sometimes, I’ll see a title somewhere in my blog or on Goodreads, and I won’t remember what the book is about. Once I read the first few sentences of the review, the whole story comes back to me, as rich and real as it was the first time. My real-life memory should be so acute.

I guess this is just a paean to my love of reading, and my lament that it left me for so long. Be the Gods of Literacy willing, this will never happen again.

I’ve also neglected both of my blogs. With the lack of focus came the inability to write anything longer than a lame-ass Facebook status, or the occasional pithy comment. I promise I’ll use some of this renewed focus to do more than drabble out some nonsense every few months. I used to be a reasonably good blogger—at least, I was reasonably frequent. Lately, I’ve had nothing. Here’s hoping that, too, can change going forward.

Anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this. And thanks for your patience. I plan to be back doing what I love to do, and doing it anon. Happy Wednesday.

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