Rebecca Stropoli

Not much happens in Strangers, British author Anita Brookner’s 24th novel; it’s the quiet tale of a man facing his mortality and wrestling with regret, and much of the action goes on inside the protagonist’s head. But the plot’s minimalism is exactly what makes it so intriguing; the story of Paul Sturgis is so utterly, painfully human that it’s nearly impossible not to relate.

Paul, a retired, never-married banker in his 70s with few remaining acquaintances and no relatives (save for the widow of a long-dead cousin), lives his isolated life in London. He relishes his time spent walking among the strangers who share the city streets—strangers whom he expects to die among—but his interactions with them are superficial at best. The one person whom he visits on a semi-regular basis (Helena, the cousin-in-law) offers him little more than those strangers in the way of companionship and conversation.

What keeps Paul company are his books, thoughts and memories; like so many people who are closer to the end of their lives than to the beginning, his recollections, while frequently painful, often seem more vivid than his present life.

Everything changes for Paul when, on a solitary trip to Venice, he meets a younger woman named Vicky, a peripatetic divorcée who immediately insinuates herself into his life. Soon after he meets Vicky, Paul runs into an old girlfriend, Sarah, a formerly vibrant woman who has been burdened by age. With these two women suddenly a larger part of his life than anyone has been for years, Paul finds himself weighing his desire to be alone against a thirst for human contact that he barely knew he had.

In the account of Paul and the very few people in his life, Brookner expertly taps into the dark realities of the human condition: loneliness, regret, fear of death and sometimes-destructive rumination. Even when Paul’s ponderings become tiresome, they are relatable—after all, who among us doesn’t find our own internal dialogue tedious at times? Ultimately, Strangers is a satisfyingly melancholy read, powerful in its simplicity.  

Not much happens in Strangers, British author Anita Brookner’s 24th novel; it’s the quiet tale of a man facing his mortality and wrestling with regret, and much of the action goes on inside the protagonist’s head. But the plot’s minimalism is exactly what makes it so intriguing; the story of Paul Sturgis is so utterly, […]

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.

Terms & Conditions, the first novel from promising author Robert Glancy, is a mystery tale unraveled through the frequent use of footnotes. While this may not seem like the pitch for an engrossing storyline, Glancy’s witty tone and keen insight into human nature help make this book not just readable but highly enjoyable.*

We meet the narrator, Frank Shaw, as he is awakening in a hospital bed after a car crash. Suffering from temporary amnesia, he does not recognize his own wife and brother, nor does he remember much at all about his pre-crash life. If this plot seems like a soap-opera cliché, fear not—Frank’s humor as he notes the absurdity of the situation is immediately apparent, and this helps make him a character well worth exploring.

Slowly the reader, along with Frank, learns about his pre-accident life, including his monotonous job as a contract lawyer (hence the attraction to footnotes), his marriage to the beautiful but icy Alice, and his relationship with his corpulent and obnoxious brother Oscar, for whom he works at the family firm. As might be expected, Frank comes to realize things in his life are not as they appear; his journey, while always funny, also proves to be quite poignant.

One of the most compelling characters in the book, Frank’s younger brother, Malc, appears mostly through email correspondence. A free spirit indulging his wanderlust in countries across the globe, Malcom acts as a bit of a sage for Frank, constantly touting his lifelong philosophy: “F___ this.” If Shaw writes another novel, I’d love to see Malc as a main character.

The main criticism to be noted here comes toward the end, when the events immediately preceding Frank’s accident are described. The timeline here gets a bit muddied, and readers may want more detail. But the conclusion (which adheres to Malc’s unorthodox philosophy) is wholly satisfying.


*And the footnotes are, in fact, one of the most amusing aspects of the book.

 

 

Terms & Conditions, the first novel from promising author Robert Glancy, is a mystery tale unraveled through the frequent use of footnotes. While this may not seem like the pitch for an engrossing storyline, Glancy’s witty tone and keen insight into human nature help make this book not just readable but highly enjoyable.

The automobile is one of the inanimate objects most subject to the practice of personification. How many besotted car owners have referred to their shiny vehicle as “she” and stroked the hood as one would perhaps stroke a woman? In All I Have in This World, novelist Michael Parker’s eighth novel, a sky blue Buick Electra is as much a character as any other. Readers follow the car, in nonlinear fashion, from its birth to death; what comes in between is compelling, although the story takes a bit of time to rev up.

The two main human characters here are Maria and Marcus, who meet in the West Texas car lot where the 20-year-old Buick Electra has most recently landed. Maria is a young woman returning to her hometown for the first time since an extremely traumatic event drove her away 10 years ago. Marcus is a middle-aged man whose North Carolina business venture has failed, leaving him homeless, jobless and aimless. When his bad luck extends to having his truck stolen in Texas, he sees the Buick as his possible salvation. Maria, having lived a life of walking and taking public transportation, is at the lot to purchase her very first car. She, too, is instantly attracted to the Buick. It isn’t long before they make the improbable agreement to purchase the car together and alternate the days they will drive it.

How that seemingly preposterous agreement came to be is told through their backstories and the history of the Buick itself. Each previous owner has an emotional motive for unloading the car, some more believable than others but all pointing to the tradition of auto anthropomorphism.

As these stories weave into those of Maria and Marcus, both before and after the Buick purchase, another theme emerges as well: that of the past attached to so many objects we come to own. When you buy a used book or piece of furniture or article of clothing, how often do you consider the lives of those who possessed them before you? Or of those who created them? This initially slow-going but ultimately rewarding novel allows the reader to ponder this in a fresh and moving way.

The automobile is one of the inanimate objects most subject to the practice of personification. How many besotted car owners have referred to their shiny vehicle as “she” and stroked the hood as one would perhaps stroke a woman? In All I Have in This World, novelist Michael Parker’s eighth novel, a sky blue Buick Electra is as much a character as any other. Readers follow the car, in nonlinear fashion, from its birth to death; what comes in between is compelling, although the story takes a bit of time to rev up.

An epistolary tale told through emails, interoffice memos, legal documents and handwritten notes, The Divorce Papers is a witty and engaging first novel from author Susan Rieger. As is obvious from the title, the book features a divorce at its center. However, Rieger makes it about much more as she covers topics ranging from childhood trauma and fresh romances to office politics and literary theory.

Sophie Diehl is a criminal law associate living in New England and apprehensively approaching her 30th birthday. She is horrified when her boss hands her a divorce case on a week when the firm’s experienced divorce lawyers are away; she prefers the minimal-contact work she specializes in and, as a child of divorce herself, wants nothing to do with handling one. But when her efforts to extricate herself from the case fail, she finds herself immersed in the extremely bitter marriage dissolution of Mia Meiklejohn (her client) and her wealthy oncologist husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim. The case involves not only infidelity and dramatic clashes, but also a troubled 10-year-old daughter.

While this plot might sound like an overwrought soap opera with a chick-lit slant, the execution is funny and intelligent. Rieger herself went to Columbia Law School and has worked as an attorney and university administrator, and her prose—peppered with literary, historical and philosophical references—is whip smart. And although there is no traditional narration, the reader becomes well acquainted with Sophie and her inner world, particularly through emails sent to her best friend Maggie, her new boyfriend, her parents and her charmingly erudite boss, David Greaves.

The narrative flow does stumble at times, particularly when several pages of full legal documents are presented; while Rieger obviously has a great enthusiasm for the intricacies of the law, some readers might find these sections tough to slog through. But overall, The Divorce Papers is a sharp read and an impressive debut.

An epistolary tale told through emails, interoffice memos, legal documents and handwritten notes, The Divorce Papers is a witty and engaging first novel from author Susan Rieger. As is obvious from the title, the book features a divorce at its center. However, Rieger makes it about much more as she covers topics ranging from childhood trauma and fresh romances to office politics and literary theory.

How often do we contemplate what it is that makes us human? Caught up in the daily minutiae of our lives, many of us lose sight of the true miracle that is our existence. This is the sentiment explored by British author Matt Haig in his novel The Humans, which takes a hackneyed premise (the observation of Earthlings by a visitor from another galaxy) and turns it into a surprisingly touching and often hilarious tale.

Our narrator is Professor Andrew Martin, a brilliant mathematician who has just cracked the Riemann hypothesis, a mind-bending, real-life theory that is considered one of the math world’s most significant unsolved problems. Only it isn’t really Andrew the reader is following. Our protagonist is actually an alien being, sent from his hosts on a far-distant and extremely advanced planet to kill the professor, take on his identity and delete all knowledge of the solved hypothesis from Earth. In the view of these extra­terrestrials, humans are nothing but incredibly simple, brutally violent, money-hungry beings who aren’t worthy of the revolutionary effects this proof would have.

If this sounds far-fetched and a bit ridiculous, well . . . it is. But Haig elevates the premise with his deft, humor-rich storytelling skills, even as some plot points can be seen several pages away. Will the alien Andrew Martin realize that the “simplicity” of human emotions such as love and grief—things not experienced in any way on his planet—are actually complex and beautiful? Will the idea of mortality—also not seen on his planet—cause him to appreciate the magnificent fragility of earthly life?

What do you think?

Yet even when the storyline seems predictable, there is much pleasure in the journey as the previously impassive “professor” is awakened to the joys of the Talking Heads, crunchy peanut butter, sex, soccer and the sloppy-tongued loyalty of a good dog. A reverence for mathematics and history also runs through the book, cutting through some of the sentimentality with a healthy dose of intellectualism. The Humans is an engaging summer read.

How often do we contemplate what it is that makes us human? Caught up in the daily minutiae of our lives, many of us lose sight of the true miracle that is our existence. This is the sentiment explored by British author Matt Haig in his novel The Humans, which takes a hackneyed premise (the […]

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