Rebecca Stropoli

There is a scene in Stephanie Kallos’ new novel in which protagonist Charles Marlow is describing all the clichés associated with an archetypal film on autism. It feels like a wink at the reader, as this book contains many of these same clichés. Yet Language Arts takes enough of a fresh approach to its subject to make it a riveting read.

As the title suggests, Marlow is a language arts teacher: He has taught for more than 20 years at a private sixth- through 12th-grade school in the Seattle area. He’s a respected educator who has a strong relationship with his students. 

He is also the recently divorced father of a severely autistic institutionalized son and has just sent his beloved daughter off to college in New York. As he suffers through the malaise of empty-nest syndrome, he polishes off multiple bottles of wine while digging through a pile of dusty items that track his daughter’s childhood. 

But old report cards and tea sets aren’t the only vestiges of the past Marlow finds himself facing. An article in his local paper quickly brings him back to another language arts classroom, where, as a misfit fourth-grader, he endured a traumatic experience that colored his life for years to come. 

Kallos moves back and forth in time, and among characters, in a story that deftly mixes family drama, neuroscience, mystery and an exploration of the dying art of handwriting that is far more intriguing than it might sound. Along with becoming intimately acquainted with Marlow, readers will find themselves inside the minds of his unreachable son; his daughter, whom he enjoys writing long handwritten letters to; and even a dementia patient in his son’s art program.

A twist toward the end of the novel could have varying effects on the reading audience; some may find it fascinating while others may feel manipulated. However, Kallos—whose 2004 debut, Broken for You, became a hit with book clubs—has enough skill as a storyteller to pull it off. And you’re likely to find yourself rereading it at least once to fully absorb what you may have missed the first time around. 

 

This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

There is a scene in Stephanie Kallos’ new novel in which protagonist Charles Marlow is describing all the clichés associated with an archetypal film on autism. It feels like a wink at the reader, as this book contains many of these same clichés. Yet Language Arts takes enough of a fresh approach to its subject to make it a riveting read.

A beautifully written tale that is a blend of mystery, ghost story and very real human tragedy, The World Before Us is a story about what is missing—and also about what is always present.

In her U.S. debut, Canadian award-winning poet and author Aislinn Hunter dips into the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries to tell the story of a London archivist who is entangled in her own past as well as a much more distant one.

In the summer of 1991, 15-year-old Jane Standen was babysitting 5-year-old Lily during an outing with Lily’s father, William, a researcher studying a Victorian-era plant hunter. The gardens they were visiting were close to a long-abandoned asylum, the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. One moment Lily was there, laughing and playing along the trail while Jane’s thoughts were preoccupied by her dizzying adolescent crush on William. The next moment, Lily was gone—forever.

Lily’s disappearance is never solved, and Jane moves forward in a fog of guilt, aborting a career as a cellist before settling on archiving, a fitting path for someone unable to move beyond one aspect of her own history.

While working with historical documents at the Chester Museum, Jane becomes obsessed with another missing-persons tale. A young woman left the grounds of Whitmore with two men one summer day in 1887—and also seemed to permanently disappear.

As Jane researches this case and continues to grapple with the fallout from her own devastating experience, the reader meets a stream of fascinating characters from three centuries, whose far-reaching and long-spanning connections remind us of the history we breathe in each day as we go about our lives.

The reader is also treated to an original mix of narrators—a ghostly Greek chorus of sorts, made up of long-gone folks who are also obsessed with their own pasts and present identities.

This is a special book that starts out a bit slowly but quickly becomes tremendously absorbing. 

A beautifully written tale that is a blend of mystery, ghost story and very real human tragedy, The World Before Us is a story about what is missing—and also about what is always present.

If you’ve been watching Showtime’s “The Affair,” you may see some similarities in I Regret Everything. Writer and producer (“Big Love”) Seth Greenland’s new novel tells the story of a relationship that some might find inappropriate, from the first-person point of view of both parties. There’s melodrama, and a subplot that involves a crime. But there is also real warmth, wit and irreverence woven throughout this thoroughly readable tale.

The book kicks off with our first narrator, Jeremy Best, a Brooklyn-dwelling trusts and estates lawyer who expresses his lyrical side through poetry written under the (somewhat laughable) pen name of Jinx Bell. Aside from this literary diversion, his life seems rather dull and empty.

Enter Spaulding Simonson, the boss’ pretty and precocious 19-year-old daughter, a budding poet herself who has somehow uncovered Jeremy’s secret identity. She has her own very real troubles: a bitterly broken family, a history of depression and deep loneliness.

As soon as they meet, it’s obvious there’s chemistry between the two. It’s also apparent that Jeremy’s monotonous existence is about to undergo a radical change, despite the real risks involved.

A smart reader may worry about the clichéd premise. But Greenland is smart, and so are his characters. Their inherent likability, along with the humor that’s a welcome contrast to the more maudlin aspects of the story, easily save this sparkling read.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

If you’ve been watching Showtime’s “The Affair,” you may see some similarities in I Regret Everything. Writer and producer (“Big Love”) Seth Greenland’s new novel tells the story of a relationship that some might find inappropriate, from the first-person point of view of both parties. There’s melodrama, and a subplot that involves a crime. But there is also real warmth, wit and irreverence woven throughout this thoroughly readable tale.

BookPage Fiction Top Pick, December 2014

Reading Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl is a bit like listening to an older relative tell stories at Thanksgiving—and that’s a good thing. Because Addie Baum, the book’s 85-year-old narrator (who is telling her tales to her college-age granddaughter throughout the book), is one entertaining older relative.

The story Addie weaves is of her own life, which began in Boston in 1900. She grew up as the whip-smart daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, who struggle to understand their free-spirited child, the only one of their three daughters born in the U.S. But despite being routinely smothered at home, she ably explores life on her own terms.

In 1915, the bookish Addie is asked to recite “Paul Revere’s Ride” at the Saturday Club, a group of young women from many different religious and ethnic backgrounds. This is the start of her intellectual, artistic and feminist journey. From there, we follow Addie as she forms friendships, endures family tragedies, explores career options and social activism and eventually finds romance, all as key world events unfold in the background. While, refreshingly, men are far from her chief focus, one of the more touching sections of the book centers on her short-lived and disastrous relationship with a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Diamant, best known for her best-selling book-club favorite The Red Tent, does a fine job of instantly endearing Addie to the reader. Fiercely independent, frequently awkward and quite witty, Addie is simply fun to hang out with, in a literary sense. Her journey through the 20th century is one readers will relish.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Reading Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl is a bit like listening to an older relative tell stories at Thanksgiving—and that’s a good thing. Because Addie Baum, the book’s 85-year-old narrator (who is telling her tales to her college-age granddaughter throughout the book), is one entertaining older relative.

A blend of mystery, supernatural tale and love story, The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man borrows from several genres but ultimately gets by on its humor. W. Bruce Cameron, best known for his dog-centered fiction series and the memoir 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, uses his own past as a repo man to craft the character of Ruddy McCann, failed college football star who now plays the sometimes dangerous game of seizing autos from their delinquent owners. Residing in the small and dismal-sounding town of Kalkaska, Michigan, he also helps his mousy sister, Becky, manage the family bar and grill, walks his dog and hangs out with the obligatory quirky characters who seem to populate such areas.

Aside from the tragedy that ended his promising football career, there is nothing remarkable about Ruddy’s life—until he starts hearing a voice in his head. And this is no typical voice: It has a name (Alan), and it claims to be a murdered real estate agent. Initially disbelieving, Ruddy slowly begins to build a rapport with Alan, even as part of him insists he must be in the midst of a psychotic break. In short order, Ruddy goes from repo man to detective, helping Alan solve his own murder. At the same time, Ruddy is nursing a crush on a woman who happens to be (perhaps?) the daughter of his current internal companion.

What saves this improbably silly plot is the smart, wry humor that peppers the prose. The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man is a light, breezy read that is pure entertainment.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

A blend of mystery, supernatural tale and love story, The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man borrows from several genres but ultimately gets by on its humor. W. Bruce Cameron, best known for his dog-centered fiction series and the memoir 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, uses his own past as a repo man to craft the character of Ruddy McCann, failed college football star who now plays the sometimes dangerous game of seizing autos from their delinquent owners.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a novel that is both highly celebrated and much hated. Termed “diffuse” and “pretentious” by the likes of Virginia Woolf, the dense book is the subject of much debate within the literary community, with some dismissing it and others embracing it (but very few fully understanding it). Either way, it’s inarguable that Ulysses has made an indelible cultural mark since its publication in 1922. And the release of Maya Lang’s debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, provides more evidence of its lasting influence.

Just as in Ulysses, the main story within The Sixteenth of June takes place over just one day and comprises death, sex, drunkenness and scatology. The three main characters are Leopold and Stephen Portman (brothers named by their parents after the two chief male protagonists in Ulysses) and Nora, Stephen’s best friend and Leopold’s fiancée. Stephen and Leopold come from a family firmly entrenched in the 1 percent, while Nora’s background is modest. Like Leopold’s wife, Molly Bloom, Nora (whom Lang gives the name of Joyce’s real-life wife) is a talented opera singer. But she’s recently abandoned her aspirations as she grieves the death of her mother. Meanwhile, the funeral of Leo and Stephen’s grandmother is the first event bringing the three together on the 16th of June 2004. The second: the centennial Bloomsday bash thrown by Leo and Stephen’s parents, which celebrates the anniversary of the day depicted in Ulysses.

The story is a love triangle of sorts: Stephen, the brooding academic, thinks Nora is too good for Leo, a simple frat-boy type who loves his corporate job and just wants to settle in the suburbs and start breeding. Nora, mourning her mother’s loss in a self-destructive manner, is so numb she doesn’t know what she wants. Much will be revealed by the end of this day, of course, although not much actually happens (another nod to its inspiration).

While Lang’s prose displays real talent, the characters don’t leave a strong impression, and it all feels a bit like an academic exercise rather than a story that can stand strongly on its own. The reader needn’t be familiar with Ulysses to appreciate this book, but recognizing the references would likely make it more entertaining for some.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a novel that is both highly celebrated and much hated. Termed “diffuse” and “pretentious” by the likes of Virginia Woolf, the dense book is the subject of much debate within the literary community, with some dismissing it and others embracing it (but very few fully understanding it). Either way, it’s inarguable that Ulysses has made an indelible cultural mark since its publication in 1922. And the release of Maya Lang’s debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, provides more evidence of its lasting influence.

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