In a series of connected vignettes, All Grown Up shares Andrea’s ongoing struggles with getting her life together and overcoming her childhood. It’s funny (often darkly so) and observant. It’s sharp, too, and there’s a strain of melancholy and dissatisfaction that runs through it. While everyone else seems to be moving forward with traditional life milestones, Andrea is 39 and the same person in the same place as she’s always been.
And is that really a problem?
I suppose you could call Andrea unlikeable, given how she can drive you a bit nuts with her selfishness and lack of motivation, but I liked her. Andrea is funny and has rough edges. She comes across as a real human being with issues and flaws, but also with insight and desires and a sense of humor. I like that she does what she wants, even if she regrets it or the situation turns out badly. I can also identify with her sensualist tendencies (there are some great passages about food and the eating thereof in this book).
How does one measure success at being a “grown-up”? How do you know when you are one? Do those traditional milestones (marriage, home ownership, car ownership, boat ownership) really matter at all? Maybe you know you’re a grown-up when you reach the point where you can be there for others even when it’s hard, create connections that matter to you, and when you can hold a sick baby’s hand.
I’m excited to read more of Attenberg’s work. She’s witty and insightful and creates emotional and truthful moments that pack a punch for how unexpectedly they creep up on you.
Girl Waits With Gun is based on real people, and tells the story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States. Her name was Constance Kopp, and she lived in Wyckoff, New Jersey. One day when out in town with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, a wealthy silk factory owner ran into their buggy with his car. Constance’s attempts to get the silk man to pay a $50 repair bill swiftly snowball into a dangerous situation when the man refuses to pay up. Throw in a gang, some gunplay, and a missing child, and then let Constance Kopp save the day.
This is the first in a series, and I’ve also just finished the second installment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble. The second one builds on the first for sure, but it’s a great outing all on its own–Constance finds her job in jeopardy after a criminal escapes on her watch. These mysteries are amusing and filled with great characters. As mysteries both of these books are a nice blend of police work and the more amateur sleuth style, given how Constance is kind of in-between those two worlds.
The pace is quick and the writing is evocative. Stewart does a lot with just a few lines to bring a scene or setting to life. These books are set in the 1910’s, and there’s just enough historical detail to add color and interest. And the characters are very well-realized through the dialogue-driven stories. Their relationships, particularly those between the Kopp sisters, are very well-drawn. In Girl Waits With Gun we get Constance’s backstory, and that of her family, and learn how these sisters ended up on an isolated rural farm.
Constance is presented as no-nonsense and incredibly driven, and I like how matter-of-fact she is about her unorthodox (for her time) profession. This real-life quote from Constance says it all:
“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”
She’s good at what she does and she wants the opportunity to do her job. That’s pretty much all there is to it. I appreciate how Constance just gets on with things, and the story never gets bogged down with the social issues that it touches on. These books are about Constance Kopp taking down criminals, and keeping you delightfully entertained while she does so.
If you want to learn more, Stewart’s website has some great background on the characters and on New Jersey/New York City in the 1910’s. Check it out here.
And the third installment is due in September, so keep your eyes peeled this fall for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions!
Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay has actually been on my to-read list for a while. People rave about this one, and lots of people I know call it one of their favorite novels of all time. After reading it, I see why. It’s got everything.
It’s complex and intricate, but approachable and funny. The characters are three-dimensional and, while not always likeable, always human. The whole saga has a leisurely pace that manages to be sweeping and compelling. It’s got pathos and atmosphere and brilliant historical detail, including cameos by historical figures. It’s got World War II, comic books, escapists and magicians, a story frame which treats Kavalier and Clay as actual figures in the golden era of comics, and a poignant family story.
The basic story is this: In 1939 New York City, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Hitler’s Prague, joins forces with his Brooklyn-born cousin, Sammy Clay, to create comic-book superheroes. The two form Empire Comics, and create a character called The Escapist. The story follows Joe and Sam through the war years and into the mid 1950’s, when superhero comics are going out of fashion.
Chabon takes a lot of time exploring all of the inspiration and fantasies that go into Sam and Joe’s creations as they mature and grow as people, and as the world changes around them. The history of comics in America figures into the plot quite a bit. Most of all, the themes of heroism and escapism (two big appeal factors for superheroes) shine through the most in this meaty novel.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an amazingly rich, detailed, intelligent and entertaining story. I’d suggest it if you’re after a novel to immerse yourself in, if you enjoy novels about the Jewish experience in World War II, if you enjoy novels about New York City, and if you enjoy family-saga type stories. Really. It’s got a little something for everyone.
So last time we met I was talking about how I wasn’t able to settle down to anything. I had piles and piles of books that I just couldn’t get into. And then, bam! Two in a row! Two novels read in as many days because I found I just couldn’t put them down.
The Ramblers by Aidan Donnelley Rowley, about a trio of thirty-somethings in contemporary New York City finding love and friendship and coming to terms with their families and relationships, is far from my usual. But I was intrigued from the get-go. I liked the style, the characters, and the depiction of New York City.
At its core, this is a novel about how we’re all a little bit broken in different ways, and about coming to terms with that brokenness and learning to thrive. It’s also a love letter to New York–to the people, the history, the architecture, the culture.
The writing is skillful and insightful, and there are some great comedy bits. The characters are extremely well-fleshed out and three-dimensional in their yearnings and challenges. This novel really reminded me of a wistful, older romantic comedy. These characters aren’t in their twenties anymore, and it shows. Setting the story in the week of Thanksgiving is a nice choice–it’s a time which traditionally lends itself to confronting complicated family dynamics, and Rowley does that really well.
The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer, on the other hand, is much more typical of my usual reading fare. Eight-year-old Carmel gets separated from her mother, Beth, at a storytelling festival, and disappears. The alternating narratives, one from Carmel’s point of view and the other from Beth’s, tell the story of Beth’s search and where Carmel has disappeared to.
I found Carmel’s storyline to be far more interesting, but that could just be because she gets the bulk of the plot. Beth, her mother, is left picking up the pieces of her old life, remaining stagnant until well into the final third. The more I consider it the more I think this wasn’t by accident. But the why of Carmel’s disappearance is out of the ordinary, and it’s incredibly refreshing to read. I won’t spoil it here, but it makes for a riveting story.
Though billed as a thriller, I hesitate to call it that. The pace never quite gets intense enough. There’s also not quite enough tension for suspense. However, both Beth and Carmel have distinct voices and they both grow and change in believable ways. The writing is compelling, leaving you wanting to know when and if the story threads will all come together in the end.
Sometimes all you want to curl up with is a good old-fashioned haunted house story brimming with creepy imagery, unsettling atmosphere, and a main character who’s not quite all there. Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan delivers.
Audrey Lucas, an architect with a lot of baggage, is on the hunt for a place to live in New York. Apartment 14B in the historic Breviary building on the Upper West Side is available at an astonishingly low price. Even though she thinks it must be too good to be true, Audrey can’t pass up the opportunity to live for cheap in such a unique building–it’s the last standing example of the Chaotic Naturalism school of architecture. Never mind the fact that just recently a woman murdered all of her children in that same apartment, and then killed herself. And never mind the fact that Audrey immediately begins to have strange, vivid nightmares, and hears a voice telling her to build a door.
Fans of The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House will find a lot to like in Audrey’s Door. In fact, Langan gives those works and a few others their due in a note at the beginning of the book. Gloomy corridors, a protagonist on a downward spiral that’s seemingly impossible to stop, a building with a mind of its own, and when the terrifying insanity ramps up, it ramps up.
Like the Overlook Hotel and Hill House, the Breviary is a character, complete with motivations and personality. It’s such a strong entity that it can’t help but overcome any human beings who come into contact with it. Langan takes the time and care to give the Breviary’s backstory just as much attention as she does Audrey’s, which works to build the connection between the building and its chosen favorite.
That’s what separates the good haunted house stories from the so-so ones–the good ones make sure the house has a personality and a history, a reason for being the way that it is. A haunted house doesn’t just have ghosts or ghoulies in it. A haunted house has an energy, a force, one that turns our cozy idea of hearth and home on its head. That’s why they’re scary, after all. You’re supposed to feel safe in your home. When your home is insane, there’s nowhere to hide.
As much as Langan might owe to haunted house classics, she has a style all her own. She has a great talent for writing compelling protagonists and for truly disturbing and creepy imagery. Her writing is very character-driven, and everyone has a strong voice and personality. Audrey’s descent into madness is a chilling one to witness. Langan is also darkly funny at times, too, which always makes a welcome counterpoint to the scary. There are also some very well-placed New York City references and nods, which add a nice sense of place.
If you’re after a cozy, old-fashioned spook house book for Halloween this year, Audrey’s Door might be a good one to try.
This novel is what you’d get if you crossed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with Citizen Kane. And added lots of delicious ice cream.