Thursday, June 24, 2021

Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell: Absolutely Top-Tier Literary Fiction

So yeah, everyone is right: Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell is an unbelievably powerful piece of art  — top-tier literary fiction. 

I was sitting outside on my balcony reading the end of this novel, and the sun had gone behind the building across the street, and the temperature was dropping quickly, and with about five pages to go, I realized I was shivering uncontrollably, and I wasn't sure if it was because I was cold or if it was because the ending of this novel is so affecting, so finely rendered, so dramatically powerful. Either way, I couldn't move until it was over. 

But the rest of the novel that leads to this ending is brilliant, as well. This, as it's subtitled, is a novel of the plague — but specifically, it's about Shakespeare (who is never named as Shakespeare) and his wife, Agnes (Anne?) and their twins, Hamnet and Judith, one of whom dies of the plague.

We get alternating stories about "the Latin tutor" and his courtship of Agnes, and then the real-time story after they're married and one of the twins is dying. I loved the universality of this story. Of course, the pandemic aspect is pretty relatable these days. But also, this is a novel about family, parenthood, love and loyalty, and the inspiration behind great art. Again, the last scene in this novel, as Agnes is watching the play inspired by her son, is mesmerizing. I was reading as if in a trance. 

I can't recommend this book more highly. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

All Together Now: Summery Fun with a Twist

Matthew Norman just keeps getting better. All Together Now, his fourth novel, is my favorite of his — and I've loved all of his other three. 

All Together Now is an endearing, funny, summery novel about a group of high school friends now in their mid-30s who assemble at a beach mansion for a reunion weekend. But there's a twist — one of them, a mysterious billionaire, is dying. Hilarity ensues? 

Well, yeah, believe it or not, it does. But also, plenty that's definitely not hilarious. Not counting the dude who's dying — that dude's problems are a whole different level of severe — each of the other three friends has his or her own issues: A failing marriage, a failed career, and just general failing. But there is nothing like old friends to get yourself back on the right track, is there? Norman excels here in rendering these relationships, lumps and all. 

So this novel ends up being a little bit Friends, a pinch of American Pie 2 (the one with the summer beach house and big party at the end), but mostly Norman's own unique thing. 

Fans of Nickolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs or Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You or Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings will love this book. Need a beach read this summer? This is it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Legends Of The North Cascades, by Jonathan Evison: On the Power of Human Connection

Jonathan Evison's latest novel, Legends Of The North Cascades, a multi-narrator story set in two time periods tens of thousands of years apart is certainly ambitious. But this great adventure story continues a common theme in Evison’s novels: Connection, belonging, finding a place in the world among other humans. He writes: "Our only buffer against the cold, cruel world was one another." This is hard to admit sometimes, especially because humans are consistently disappointing. But like it our not, as the pandemic has certainly shown, we are at heart social beings.

After the death of his wife, Dave, a three-tours Iraq veteran, and his 7-year-old daughter Bella, go to live off the grid in the North Cascades mountains. Dave's had enough. Humans have nothing to offer him anymore. Even though you know this isn't going to work out, and is dangerous to the point of irresponsible, it's hard not to root for him, to nod along with his reasons. Sometimes we've all had more than our share of humans.

Meanwhile, Bella forms a sort of mythical connection to some people who lived on this land centuries before. Just like Dave and Bella, these early humans are just looking for their place in the world too. 

I loved this book, mainly for the character Bella. Writing children can't be easy, but Evison nails this, giving her only as much as she can handle. After all, "The sad reality of the world was that nobody was quite as resilient as a child, and nobody paid a higher price for it."

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau: 'Almost Famous' in Book Form

Yes, there's definitely an "Almost Famous" feel to Mary Jane, Jessica Anya Blau's terrific 70s-set coming of age novel, right down to the sing-alongs with rock stars. Mary Jane, 14, living with her extremely traditional parents in a nice bedroom community in Baltimore, gets a job nannying for the five-year-old daughter of a couple nearby. But this couple has a secret: They're harboring a hugely famous actress and her hugely famous rock star husband, while the rock star is being treated for addiction. Mary Jane is star-struck at first, but soon gets over it: Celebrities are just like us, after all. Well, mostly. 

Throughout her summer, Mary Jane learns a lot about the world as it really is and people as they really are. But as importantly, she starts to learn about who she really is. 

We all have that moment (or hopefully many moments) when we are exposed to new ideas, and learn something (or many things) that completely contradicts everything we thought we knew...or what our parents had taught us. How we comprehend and deal with these new ideas plays an incredibly important role in who we become. Mary Jane has about one of these moments a day as she becomes more and more embedded in this bohemian household. 

If you remember what it was like to be an awkward teenager suddenly finding out that not everything is as it seems, this is a perfect novel for you. Also, if you love music, this is a perfect novel for you. This is smart and funny and hugely entertaining. A huge win!