Review: “Beartown” by Fredrik Backman

Beartown

I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a pretty fast reader. As a kid, when I used to drag my parents to bookstores, I would often finish a book in the time it took them to buy me more books. A pitfall of my speedy reading is that I sometimes miss the small pleasures that come from the “non-important” parts of the story. Ever since I started blogging, I would like to believe that I have become a more mindful reader. Thankfully, that didn’t manage to put a significant dent in my reading speed. Till I put my hands on Beartown.

Today, I’m participating in my third Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. My first time around, I stayed up for the entire duration and finished 7 books. The next time, I was overconfident and fell asleep around Hour 4. This time, I was all set with a list of nine books. But 10 hours in, I just finished my first book and I am not feeling the slightest twinge of regret. Because Beartown is so brilliant that I wanted to savor every single sentence of it, competitive reading be damned.

As an author, Fredrik Backman has this talent of crafting an intricate novel about human nature revolving around characters that might otherwise come across as mundane. I read A Man Called Ove before it was a New York Times bestseller and the source material of an Oscar-winning film. The protagonist was this gnarly, antisocial curmudgeon that people went out of their way to avoid. But by the time I finished the book, I was completely in love with him. I mourned the passing of his beloved wife and I cheered when he found a new “family” in an evolving Sweden.

Anybody who reads Beartown will also find themselves rooting for its characters, a hard feat to achieve since the book has over ten protagonists. Mr Backman has surpassed himself because he manages to get the reader to care not just for its characters, but the entire town as well. Of course, this doesn’t mean every single character is likable. But the reader comes away with an in-depth understanding of what motivates every single person in Beartown. Though much darker than Mr Backman’s other works, Beartown is undoubtedly his magnum opus.

Beartown is the story of an isolated Swedish town at the edge of the woods that is slowly but surely dying. The residents believe that there is only way to save their home: a national victory for their local ice hockey team, that will bring much-needed investment  and publicity to revitalize the area.

To that end, the entire community pins their hopes and dreams on Kevin, the star player. But when a rape accusation by one of their own, on the day of their big game, leaves the team floundering, things take a dark and menacing turn. The book is full of scenes that bring a tear to one’s eye, or make the reader scream with outrage or chuckle at Mr Backman’s sharp and darkly comic insights. The events that unfold are told from the perspective of different characters, adding layer upon layer to this maze of a novel.

There is another noteworthy and unusual technique used by Backman: repetition, but not for repetition’s sake. Various phrases, sayings, even sounds, when repeated skillfully offer new, dazzling interpretations at different points in the story. The character that’s speaking at that particular moment or the sequence of events unfolding then and there are what colour these phrases, thus creating a looping narrative that continually draws the readers in and makes them feel the full implications of what’s going on. The narrative continually emboldens the heavy, darker tone of the novel which, while not as light as his previous novels (though none of Mr Backman’s works can truly be considered light), still preserves its basic human-ness and even persevering, uplifting spirit.

Lastly, for me, Beartown was an outstanding story for its shrewd observations on how society deals with rape allegations, especially in the context of sportsmen and teenagers. I wish I could pepper this entire review with the quotes I highlighted while reading the book, but that would result in around half of the book being reproduced here. Beartown is a must-read for anyone who loves a good, smart and yet touching story.

 I was provided an Advance Reading Copy by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: “Royal Affair” (Royals in Exile #2) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Affair

So despite not being a huge fan of the opener in this series, I decided to give Royal Affair a shot straight away. The premise was a bit cliched and, TBH, I wasn’t a huge fan of the story for about half of it. But I stuck wth it and I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised. #AlwaysFinishABook

Princess Charlotte Sinclair has always been the wallflower. The traumatic death of her parents and the subsequent exile in North Carolina has left her socially awkward and desirous of wanting a normal life. But when journalist Brooks Walker exposes her family, instead of being outraged like the rest of her siblings, Charlotte is fascinated by his take-no-prisoners, brash style of journalism. When they meet at a charity ball, she propositions him to have an affair with her in exchange for access to her secrets.

Despite coming from an illustrious family, Brooks Walker carved a name out for himself by building a media empire based on honest journalism, no matter how many people it pissed off in the process. When the sweetest of the Sinclairs suggests they have an affair, he readily agrees. However, he soon finds himself overwhelmed by the passion they share and starts to care for Charlotte. When an old enemy of the royal family resurfaces and gives Brooks the biggest scoop of his career, he must decide where his loyalties lie.

Again, I have to reiterate that I did not like this book in the beginning. I thought Charlotte was too naive and Brooke was too much of a wolf. Also, I believed there wasn’t any building up to the affair itself. Ms. Valentine writes like the first chapter is the fifth and the readers are supposed to know things not even mentioned in the previous books in the series.

However, in the later half of the book, there is a lot of character development. The motivation behind the protagonists’ unnatural obsession with each other is explained. Secondary characters are introduced to humanize Brooks, who I still think was portrayed as too jaded to convincingly fall in love with the princess he was supposed to use a source. As usual, there is a flurry of shocking revelations about the Sinclair family. There is A LOT of sex throughout the story, but it really doesn’t add anything to the plot.

Thankfully, this time the banter, as well as the inner monologues, were hilarious and made me actually like the characters. The conflicts were still superficial and resolved too quickly and easily to be of any consequence. But when Brooks and Charlotte finally got together, it seemed largely believable. I was fascinated by the hints dropped about Theo’s and Imogen’s upcoming stories. Hopefully, the next books in the series will actually be great and not fizzle out into mediocrity like the first two.

Review: “Royal Scandal” (Royals in Exile #1) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Scandal

At 19, Crown Prince Colin St Claire–sorry, Sinclair–is forced to go into hiding in small-town America with his siblings after a violent uprising in his homeland results in the death of his parents. There he meets spunky Della Hughes, 17, who treats him with a candor he finds refreshing. So, obviously, he doesn’t tell her he’s royalty. Moreover, he lets her believe he is the father of his two youngest siblings. A decade passes and now Colin is taking steps to reclaim his family’s rightful place. For that, he is required to marry a woman of the Parliament’s choosing but he has someone else in mind.

Della Hughes has been in love with her best friend Colin for as long as she can remember. Practically a co-parent to his “boys” and a part of the Sinclair family, she feels taken for granted because Colin has shown no interest in her as a woman over the past ten years. Imagine her surprise when she finds out he’s a prince and needs her to marry him to secure a real-life throne for his siblings.

Their deep friendship and love for each other (which is blindingly obvious to the rest of the world but not to them) makes them enter into a marriage of convenience, which quickly turns into a passionate union. However, as Colin and Della open up their hearts to each other, both are hiding secrets from the other which they think can destroy their relationship. Set against the backdrop of a litany of shocking revelations about the St Claire family and kingdom, this is, first, a story of how the St Claire family come to terms with their place in the world and then, a modern fairytale romance.

The book has a very contemporary feel to it, with numerous references to Beauty and the Beast and Stranger Things. Colin and Della are fairly progressive protagonists. They do, however, overthink the hell out of their problems, creating barriers where none were necessary on their path to finding true love. The book was unexpectedly sexy and it was slightly disconcerting (but not unenjoyable :P) to read graphic scenes when there was so much family drama in the air. Since Royal Scandal is the opening book in a series, Ms. Valentine laid the ground for a lot of subplots that would be developed in the upcoming stories. However, they sometimes took away from the centrality of Colin and Della’s romance.

Overall, Royal Scandal was an entertaining, if slightly messy, take on a modern fairytale romance. I am excited to see what lies in store for the rest of the St Claire family.

Review: “Speed of Life” by Carol Weston

Speed of Life

Fourteen-year-old Sofia Wolfe is still reeling from the sudden death of her beloved mother almost a year ago when her best friend takes her to a talk by an advice columnist called “Dear Kate”. Despite her initial misgivings, a grieving Sofia writes to Kate to fill the absence of a mother figure. Kate is pretty cool for an agony aunt and understands that not all families have two parents. This encourages Sofia to send her father to another Dear Kate talk. Soon, Sofia is regularly corresponding with Kate about grief, puberty, boys and growing pains.

A year after Sofia’s mother’s death, she realizes her father has started seeing someone. On the one hand, she dearly loves her father and wants to see him happy. On the other hand, she feels it’s too soon and Sofia doesn’t want her mother to be replaced. Imagine her surprise when Dad’s new girlfriend turns out to be none other than “Dear Kate”.

Embarrassed beyond belief, Sofia doesn’t know how to tell Kate that she has been corresponding with her for months beforehand. To compound the problem, Kate has a teenage daughter, Alexa, who is not pleased with the sudden onslaught of strangers in her mother’s life, especially seemingly perfect Sofia. Sofia and her father need to vacate the apartment, which leads them to move in with Kate and Alexa. And, at her new school, Sofia falls for a boy who has a complicated history with Alexa. How ever will she survive this year?

Even though the story is geared at children and young adults, Ms Weston has done a marvelous job of describing Sofia’s grief. Devastated by her loss, it is heartbreaking to see Sofia not understand the normal mother-teenage daughter tension between Kate and Alexa. Narrated over the course of a year, it’s heartening to see Sofia stop grieving and accept that the presence of another woman in her father’s life and her family does not mean that her mother won’t always be with her in spirit. Living with “Dear Kate” also makes her see the flawed woman behind the advice columnist persona.

While the story centers around Sofia, Ms. Weston pays a generous amount of attention to the secondary characters. The arc that Sofia’s relationship takes with Alexa was one of my favourites. The narration from Sofia’s point of view lends the story a poignant and simple tone. It is lovely to see her blossom into a happy young woman with a new “family”. Kudos to Ms. Weston for turning the Cinderella trope on its head and writing a heartwarming and touching story about grief, moving on and growing up.

Review: “Left at the Altar” (A Match Made in Texas #1) by Margaret Brownley

Left at the Altar
Feuds don’t need no reason. Or at least none that matter.”
The year is 1880. The place, Two-Time, Texas, a town filled with gun-toting opinionated people with short fuses. In best-selling author Margaret Brownley’s opening book in her A Match Made in Texas series, Romeo and Juliet gets turned on its head and thoroughly (and delightfully) “western”-ized.
Meg Lockwood and Tommy Farrell have been friends all their life. Children of feuding jewelers who seek to control the town by imposing their own time zones, their wedding was supposed to broker a much sought temporal compromise that goes up in flames when Tommy jilts Meg at the altar.
The sole witness to her humiliation, Grant Garrison, an East Coast lawyer who has recently moved to Two-Time after the tragic death of his sister. Enchanted by Meg’s beauty and courage, Grant nonetheless agrees to represent Tommy in a breach of promise suit filed by meg’s furious father.
Despite their constant run-ins and instant mutual attraction, Grant stays away from Meg and is the perfect foil to the crazy Texans he’s surrounded by. Despite his staid demeanour, there are flashes of wit and a wicked sense of humour. Meg, on the other hand, was a romance heroine I had difficulty warming up to. At first, her thinking seemed provincial and mired in outdated societal mores like propriety and obedience. However, as the story progressed, however, and Meg herself started questioning the roles women are required to play throughout their lifetime (and the alternate ways they can wield power in the absence of political rights) gave the novel a much appreciated proto-feminist bent.
I haven’t read a lot of “clean” romances and it took me over 150 pages to realize that Left at the Altar was one of them. Ms Brownley managed to adequately convey the chemistry between the protagonists, though it is my personal belief that romance could have been developed a tad better. There were a lot of parallel story-lines which left little room for the romance to blossom independently.
The breach of promise suit proves to be a very interesting plot device and also ends up being quite educational through the nuanced arguments made in court and the author’s note at the end of the story. The feud angle felt a bit contrived to me in the beginning but the twisted revolution towards the end proved to be a satisfying explanation. Ms Brownley does a marvelous job of fleshing out her secondary characters and many remain memorable.
Ms Brownley’s Left at the Altar is a fun opener for her A Match Made in Texas series, incorporating socially conscious historical fiction with good, clean romance.   

Review: “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

big-little-lies

When I picked up my first Liane Moriarty at an airport a couple of years ago, I had to choose between an exploding rose and an exploding lollipop. From what little I could gather from the cover, The Husband’s Secret, my alternative, was about women with ethical and emotional issues, men with possibly criminal ones, and contentious goings-on at a school. If you’ve read Big Little Lies, or seen the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman-Shailene Woodley drama now on HBO, you’ll know it has more of the same.

I have always found Ms. Moriarty’s books to be long and gossipy as if she’s using stalling as a literary device. She introduces several sets of major characters, cutting back and forth among them, and scatters the narrative with foreshadowing about the terrible, terrible night — on which something terrible happened. The book is peppered with parents’ voices commenting cryptically and amusingly about whatever it was. Was the root cause a French nanny? An erotic book club? Head lice? Seeing how its predecessor was a #1 New York Times bestseller, Ms. Moriarty seems assured that her readers will happily plow through countless minor incidents to find out.

After a calamity has been established, we jump back to a chapter called “Six Months Before the Trivia Night.” And the book establishes what a power-crazed group parents of kindergarteners can be. The book is set on a scenic peninsula outside Sydney, Australia, near a beautiful beach, where there is only one school, which must accommodate children of very different backgrounds. So there are rich, bossy power moms and mousy stay-at-home types. One of the mice is the literally plain Jane, a single mother trying to make ends meet. New to the area, she gets into trouble before school has even started. At the end of orientation day, a hotshot mother with a high-powered job accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy, of having tried to hurt her daughter. Ziggy becomes a pariah, and Jane becomes a victim.

Two other moms come to Jane’s rescue. One is Celeste, who is impossibly perfect and beautiful — impossibly because, in Ms. Moriarty’s literary universe, everybody is hiding something awful. The other is Madeline Martha Mackenzie, for whom the wearing of spike heels is a main character trait and who tends to get outraged at the drop of a hat. Despite her apparent bubbly nature, Madeline was abandoned by a husband who now has a New Age-y wife and a young daughter who is in the same class with Madeline’s daughter with her second husband. And on and on it goes.

As the book proceeds and the schadenfreude kicks in, we discover just how secretly miserable these women are. Suffice it to say that bullying and cruelty were major themes throughout, with some well-researched parts about domestic violence thrown in. As for the question of whether Ziggy, who turns out to be the product of a one-night stand, really is a vicious boy at heart, the book traces a long strand of DNA right into one of the other kindergarten families.

Ms. Moriarty writes all this in an easy, girlfriend-y style that occasionally sounds flat. And a low-level bitchiness thrums throughout the narrative, becoming one of its indispensable pleasures. The witnesses’ descriptions of whatever happened are usually comically distorted, as in a game of telephone, so that everyone’s understanding of what happened at Trivia Night is at best half-wrong. The Australian busybody is a type very much in evidence here, and if there’s one trait all the mothers share, it’s wanting to bad-mouth all the other ones.

Ms. Moriarty also sends up the kinds of crises that rise to epic proportions in the hothouse of a contentious kindergarten. Woe betide the mother who loses Harry the Hippo, the official class toy. Here’s what she gets for trying to make reparations: “That cheap synthetic toy she replaced it with smelled just terrible. Made in China. The hippo’s face wasn’t even friendly.” Then there are the opposing forces that face off over a petition to ban birthday cupcakes. (“It’s so adversarial. Why can’t you just make a suggestion?”) But by the time the teacher insists that the kids make posters illustrating their family trees, real harm is being done over a supposedly innocent matter. Ziggy doesn’t even know his father’s name. And all hell will break loose if Jane reveals it.

The ferocity that Ms. Moriarty brings to scenes of masculine sadism really is shocking. A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality, in ways that gives Big Little Lies a definite edge over her earlier works. She’s done her homework well in describing the uh-oh moments, the tiny slights, the faint changes in the atmosphere around a charming, loving Dr. Jekyll who is about to turn into Mr. Hyde, and the battered woman who has learned to live with this and make excuses for it. Big Little Lies isn’t likely to attract much of a male readership, aside from the demographic of guys who enjoy being demonized. But it champions its women with a handy, all-purpose rationale: Sometimes doing the wrong thing is also right.

Review: “A Window Opens” by Elisabeth Egan

a-window-opens

There was this article in The New York Times a couple of years ago about Amazon, which sparked a larger debate about work culture at tech companies, that kept flashing in my head as I read Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens. Although the debut novelist sends her protagonist to work at a company called Scroll, the similarities between the two retail giants are fairly obvious. Both start off selling books and quickly expand to include anything a customer might want. Both make use of computer-generated data for a laser-like focus on commercial success. And both, apparently–if the Times report is to be believed–expect nothing less than complete, servile allegiance from their employees.

As A Window Opens begins, Alice is a part-time books columnist and a full-time mother of three. A New Jersey suburbanite, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, who owns an independent bookstore, her lawyer husband, and their extended family. The only disruption in her merry life is her father’s cancer, which has robbed him of his voice but appears to be in remission. All that changes when her husband’s career goes off the rails, and Alice is forced to seek a full-time job.

At first, the position at Scroll sounds ideal. Although Alice doesn’t understand much of the jargon of her new workplace, she is thrilled to be “Content Manager-slash-Industry Liaison,” or, as she is told by her chummy supervisor Genevieve, “an arbiter of impeccable taste,” collecting titles to sell in upscale Scroll “lounges.” She learns to call printed books “carbon based” and to mouth tenets like “we don’t sell merchandise, we sell the future.”

Although the job quickly becomes more than full-time and Alice misses “the kindergarten ice cream social, the first day of school, a PTA meeting,” she is content. Only just as Alice is almost accustomed to both the new grind and the loss of family time, her father’s health takes a turn for the worse. And then her bosses begin to ask for more, pushing Alice into a new position that targets her sensitivities both as a longtime bibliophile and as a mother.

That’s where Ms Egan, currently the books editor at Glamour magazine after a brief stint at Amazon Publishing, falters. Although the “pivot,” to use a Scroll word, isn’t that far-fetched, it is one step too far. It’s all a little too perfectly horrid, just as Genevieve is a little too duplicitous, bonding with Alice over House Hunters before firing off denigrating emails to Alice’s work account.

Likewise, her colleagues–all younger and apparently childless–are a little too clueless. Not one seems to have any understanding of how cancer affects a family, as if illness were only confined to the over-35 crowd, and when, on a visit to corporate headquarters, Alice overhears the line “What can I say? She’s a mom,” she recognizes it as an insult.

 With its sharp, perceptive humour, this novel plays like The Devil Wears Prada for the online giant, poking fun at the kind of ridiculous situations that anyone who has worked with a start-up will recognize. But A Window Opens lacks The Devil Wears Prada‘s moment of realization–that is, any revelation about the awful boss’s humanity. While we do get to see the toll of the stress on Genevieve–“her nails were dull, bitten to the quick. There was a greenish cast to her skin“–we never learn what motivated her. Without more understanding of how she became the “befriend then berate” leader who so disappointed Alice, Genevieve remains one-dimensional, as do too many of the supporting characters in this book.

Ms Egan obviously tapped into the zeitgeist with her debut, capturing not only the craziness of an Amazon-like company but also the debate over the “Lean In” philosophy that would have women, even mothers of three, commit to their jobs at any cost. She does so with wit, weaving the family stories into the workplace saga. But at almost-400 pages, A Window Opens is a little too long for what is simply a humourous, topical novel. The Scroll jargon must have been great fun to write, but replacing some of that with more fully realized characters would have made this book better.

Review: “Modern Lovers” by Emma Straub

Modern Lovers

When do the wheels come off the wagon?  In your 20s, after a short-lived stint in a rock band? In your 30s, after your kids have sucked the life out of you? In your 40s, after you acquire grey hair and a real estate licence? How about when your almost-adult child starts having sex with your best friend’s almost-adult child? Or maybe it’s when you, nearing 50, find a guru? And the guru turns out to be a con artist?

Sigh. It’s all of the above in Emma Straub’s witty third novel Modern Lovers. Elizabeth and Andrew are a married couple in their late 40s living in Brooklyn, a few doors down from their former college band mate, Zoe, and her wife, Jane. Along with their college friend Lydia, their band, Kitty’s Mustache (a nod to Tolstoy’s heroine), first sang what later became a monster hit called ‘Mistress of Myself’ (Sense and Sensibility FTW), one of those anthemic, eternally meaningful songs whose lyrics people tattoo on their inner arms.

Lydia died glamorously of a drug overdose at 27, leaving the remaining three band members to round the corner on hipster senescence without her. There’s a saying about beautiful women and champion athletes dying two deaths. To that, I might add this: To be once young and briefly famous and painfully of-the-­moment and then morph into ­regular-people middle age is rather more insulting, as if your whole life is the worst Instagram fail.

And this is where we find the novel’s 40-something friends, past millennial hipness and on into hot flashes. Zoe and Jane own a restaurant; their daughter, Ruby, is sullen, sexual and terribly chic. Their marriage has traveled into the chill zone of lesbian bed death. Meantime, Elizabeth, a rebellious rocker in college, has traded her guitar for a career selling real estate in Ditmas Park, in one of those ­enclaves where you brew your own kombucha or risk the neighbors’ disdain. Her husband, Andrew, an aimless trustafarian, perceives himself as a brave escapee from the limestone canyons of Park Avenue. In reality, he’s a dilettante who meanders from career to career, working vaguely at a lifestyle magazine for Brooklyn fathers and seeking fulfillment through cinematography classes and carpentry. At one point, his guru—Dave, distinctive mainly for his large, shiny teeth—remarks on the artful imperfection of the shelf Andrew is fabricating: “This is beautiful, man. Wabi-­sabi, right?” It is, in fact, not an example of wabi-sabi, the Japanese term for artful imperfection and decay. It’s just sloppy woodwork.

The teenage children begin an affair. Zoe and Jane’s restaurant burns down suspiciously. (But their marriage is simultaneously and magically rekindled, apparently, by a good Chinese meal.) Elizabeth, succumbing to the entreaties of a stealthy Hollywood producer, signs away her and Andrew’s rights to a movie in the works about the mythic Lydia. (The producer describes it as “ ‘Ray’ meets ‘Sid and Nancy’ minus the Sid, meets ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ only the coal miner is an orthopedic surgeon from Scarsdale.’ ”) Elizabeth learns that Andrew may have had sex with Lydia when they were all in college, a discovery that sends their marriage into some sort of cliff-of-divorce drama that I can’t really fathom. Why the huge sense of betrayal? It wasn’t last week, after all. Does anyone remember who anyone slept with in college? (And if you do, don’t email me and burst my bubble.)

Perhaps these Brooklyn couples in their postmodern Peyton Place—one with nutritional yeast and cosmic trance nights and talk of ayahuasca retreats—are more sensitive than, say, most of the married couples in Tolstoy, Updike, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence or Jackie Collins. Or even, I would venture to say, Dr. Seuss.

Modern Lovers hurries to tie up its loose ends, and the interwoven climaxes seem sludgy. The final chapter employs a lazy literary device, a series of announcements (a notice in the New York Times weddings section, trivia from one character’s IMDB page, a précis of a thesis proposal, postings from foodie websites) that would seem more at home in the closing credits of Animal House. (Bluto becomes a United States senator!) But up until then, Modern Lovers is a wise, sophisticated romp through the pampered middle-aged neuroses of urban softies.

Review: “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” by Carol Rifka Brunt

tell-the-wolves-im-home-9781447202134

The Greek language contains multiple words for love. Agape means spiritual love. Eros means physical love. Philia means friendship. Storge means familial love. In English, a single word — love — umbrellas all these emotional varietals. Without so many fine distinctions, is it surprising that 14-year old June Elbus’s first feelings of love leave her mixed up?

In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, debut novelist Carol Rifka Brunt poignantly portrays an adolescent girl’s struggle to comprehend love in a time and culture under strain as it comes to term with a complicated disease.

Set in Manhattan and Westchester, New York in 1987, the book opens with the death of June’s beloved uncle Finn, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Finn was not just June’s uncle, however; he was her godfather, her inspiration, her first true love. Finn, a gifted artist, introduced June to everything she considers beautiful in her life–Mozart’s Requiem, visits to the Cloisters, an appreciation for the fine details all around her. June believes that the bonds between her and Finn are all-encompassing, but in the weeks following his death, she begins to realise that Finn had an entire life that she knew nothing about, and is forced to reexamine her relationship with Finn and its central role in her life.

As June reels through previously unimagined depths of loss, she is contacted by a stranger, Toby, who reveals himself to have had a key role in Finn’s life. Finn, before his death, left secret messages asking June to take care of Toby and Toby to take care of June, and as they try to honour Finn’s wishes, they find themselves connecting through shared bonds of loss, love and jealousy. June is shattered to realise how much she didn’t know about her uncle, as Toby struggles to let her in and to give dignity to June’s adolescent broken heart. As June mourns Finn and all she thinks she has lost, her older sister Greta acts out in her own brand of grief and loneliness in a desperate attempt to be understood and to reforge a connection before it’s too late.

The author does a wonderful job of capturing a particular time and place: New York, in the first throes of fear and ignorance about AIDS. Glancing references are made to Finn’s “special friend”, whom June’s parents consider a murderer—blaming him for Finn’s illness and death—and who is ostracised and banned from the funeral. June worries about catching AIDS from a kiss under the mistletoe; Greta is yelled at by their mother for using Finn’s chapstick. Other small details of life in the 80s bring the time to life: June wears her Gunne Sax dress in a desperate effort to isolate herself from the real world, as she hides out alone in the woods behind the school and pretends to live in the Middle Ages she so adores. Finn gives June cassette tapes of favorite music; June’s parents listen only to Greatest Hits albums (“it was like the thought of getting even one bum track was too much for them to handle”), and June has a fondness for “99 Luftballons” (the German version — much cooler sounding). June wears Bonne Belle lip gloss, and Greta has half of a “best friends” necklace, the other half of which some erstwhile best friend has long since discarded. It’s these small details and more which lend this book such a sense of nostalgic poignancy. At the same time, this coming-of-age story feels like it could be the story of any girl—or rather, every girl—growing up, seeing the human flaws in her parents, realizing that long-held truths may be illusions, finding and losing love, and coming to terms with a picture of one’s inner self which isn’t always so pretty.

Brunt strikes a difficult balance, imbuing June with the disarming candor of a child and the melancholy wisdom of a heart-scarred adult. Here, for instance, June reflects on the diminishing returns of getting older: “It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. . . . Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck.

Though Brunt’s approach to AIDS and homosexuality is bold, her novel is mostly an extended meditation on all the meanness that could come out of loving someone too much. The plot is never dull, and the convincing emotional climaxes, while overwrought, are appropriate for a narrator of June’s age. Though the book has young adult–novel qualities, with moral conflicts that resolve themselves too easily and characters nursing hearts of gold, there’s enough ambiguity and subtlety to interest a wider audience.

Review: “The One Plus One” by Jojo Moyes

The One Plus One

Rich is paying every single bill on time without thinking about it. Rich is being able to have a holiday or get through Christmas without having to borrow against January or February. Actually, rich would be just not thinking about money all the bloody time.

Jess is a single mother, struggling to make ends meet after her husband upped and left.  In a small English seaside town, she is trying to be both a role model and the best parent she can to her daughter and step-son, all the while working two low-end jobs only to, still, barely cover the bills. Her daughter, Tanzie, is a math prodigy, who solves complex equations all day with their huge dog, Norman, at her feet. Her teenage stepson, Nicky, is forever getting beaten up for expressing his individuality.

Then, a chance to turn their lives around presents itself when Tanzie’s math teacher mentions an upcoming Olympiad, all the way up in Aberdeen, with a generous prize for the winner, which will enable Tanzie to go to a good school. So Jess piles them all up in her husband’s barely-working Rolls Royce and starts driving to Scotland only to be stopped a few miles out of town for driving a car without insurance. Here, a relative stranger steps up and offers to drive them to their destination and thus starts a quite incredible and unexpected journey.

Why does Ed Nicholls, Jess’ boss, volunteer to drive an employee he doesn’t even know very well, plus her carsick daughter, moody stepson and flatulent dog, such a distance? Well, Ed has made a few bad decisions of late which has him facing a lot of trouble. Ed has just been done over by an unstable ex-lover. His family is expecting him for a very important lunch across the country. His ex-wife is plaguing him for more money. His lifelong friend and business partner won’t talk to him and Ed is about to be charged with insider trading.

Told from the shifting perspectives of Jess, Ed and the children, Moyes explores a number of issues facing modern western society today, such as the impact of bullying and antisocial behaviour, family breakdown, the slow erosion of community values and the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots. In the given set up, it would have been easy and stereotypical to have a Mr. Rochester-Jane Eyre type relationship develop between Ed and Jess. Instead, Moyes paints her characters more like Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy–each equally sharp-witted and neither superior to the other, despite their finances.

Moyes has an unerring sense for the serious as well as for the ridiculous, and The One Plus One shimmers with both unyielding warmth and canny incisiveness. While it captures the desperation exposed by the chasm of income inequality and the horrific aspects of bullying, it also catches the more enchanting elements of life’s rich pageant, from “the magnificence of total strangers”   to that moment when someone first notices the relaxing effect they’re having on another person and experiences the joyful epiphany of realizing that they are exactly where they belong.

This was my first Jojo Moyes novel so I am not going to go on about how this was like (or better than) Me Before You. I will also not compare it to Little Miss Sunshine because that movie annoyed the hell out of me. But I will say that The One Plus One is one of those stories where everything that can go wrong does. But it makes the book all the more hilarious and heartbreaking. All in all, The One Plus One is a likable, not terribly memorable, but a far from simple-minded story.