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Hasn’t Jay Fitger suffered enough? That’s what readers of Julie Schumacher’s novels Dear Committee Members and The Shakespeare Requirement might think upon beginning The English Experience, the final installment in her excellent trilogy. Fortunately, Schumacher’s skewering of academia remains sharp as ever, and more of Fitger’s hilarious frustrations are in store for fans.

He’s still at little-known Payne University, now as chair of the English department. His five novels are out of print. He has been divorced from Janet, a senior administrator at the law school, for more than a decade. Part of the appeal of these books is how Schumacher deftly helps readers sympathize with a 63-year-old man weighed down by those sandbags while making his travails funny and charming.

The provost calls Fitger into her office before the start of winter break and, “after arranging her features into a facsimile of cordial goodwill,” offers him “truly a plum” opportunity: As part of “Experience: Abroad,” a program he argued against, he gets to teach the three-week “Experience: London” class starting in January. He says no, but the provost offers persuasive arguments, including London’s theaters and museums, tea with scones, and the threat of cutting off his funding unless he agrees.

Soon, Fitger and 11 undergraduates are on their way to England, with planned stops in London, Oxford and Bath. Much of the narrative is devoted to those undergraduates and the papers they have to write each day. The topics range from an “object of interest” at the British Museum to the historical figure of their choice. One of the pleasures of The English Experience is the way Schumacher uses these essays to flesh out her characters, a group that includes a young woman who has never been away from her cat and a young man who was under the impression they were going to the Cayman Islands and packed accordingly.

Fitger struggles gamely to keep his charges happy, a tough task made tougher by a sprained ankle early in the trip, a student who keeps skipping off to other countries and Janet’s request that he write a recommendation letter for an out-of-state job that will take away the woman he still secretly loves.

Some running gags go on too long, but fans of the first two entries will find much to like here. “What can happen in three weeks?” Fitger asks to assure himself the trip won’t be as bad as he anticipates. He finds out, uproariously, in this worthy final adventure.

Julie Schumacher’s skewering of academia remains sharp as ever, and fans of the previous two Jay Fitger books will find more hilarious frustrations in store for the hapless protagonist.

Fans of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel, Election (the inspiration for the beloved film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick), will be delighted that protagonist Tracy Flick gets another star turn. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, the sharp-elbowed high schooler with visions of becoming the first female president is now a 40-ish, world-weary (albeit still driven) assistant principal of Green Meadow High School in suburban New Jersey, where she hopes to ascend to the top job after the principal announces his retirement. The darkly comic story that ensues is further proof of Perrotta’s mastery of the subtle complexities of American suburban life.

Tracy’s quest for what she believes is a well-deserved promotion plays out against the search for the first inductees into the high school’s Hall of Fame. The institution is the brainchild of Kyle Dorfman, an alumnus and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s returned to his hometown and now serves as president of the school board. Kyle believes the plan to honor some of the high school’s distinguished graduates will help dispel the “pall of mediocrity and depression hanging over the place.”

As the principal succession search plods on, fueling Tracy’s anxiety at the prospect that she’ll be passed over for a less-qualified candidate, the Hall of Fame committee dutifully sifts through the list of nominees. Perhaps the most obvious choice is Vito Falcone—a former football star who played briefly in the NFL—but the memory of his achievements on the field has been darkened by his alcoholism and the wreckage of three failed marriages. Several of the other candidates, among them a local car dealer and an obscure novelist, possess even more dubious backstories.

Perrotta expertly plumbs the depths of his characters’ lives and loves from multiple points of view, sympathetically assessing their achievements and regrets at falling short of their own expectations and those of the people around them. At the center of the story, of course, is Tracy, whose dream of a life at the pinnacle of American politics vanished long ago in the face of familial duty.

With a light touch, Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success and how we judge what counts as a meaningful life. By the time the Hall of Fame induction ceremony arrives, he has skillfully laid the foundation for the shocking climax of this fast-moving novel. Just as in real life, there are winners and losers, but as he reminds us in this deceptively simple but memorable story, assigning them to their respective categories may not be as easy as it might appear.

Read our starred review of the audiobook, read by Lucy Liu and a full cast!

With a light touch, Tom Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, his memorable return to the heroine of Election.
Review by

The Mutual Friend is a stylized, laugh-out-loud funny social satire with devastating aim.

Like his long-running sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” Carter Bays’ debut novel is a New York City-set ensemble comedy with plenty to say about the discontents of modern life and the difficulty of connection, with one character who acts as a pivot around which the story hinges.

Alice Quick, originally named Truth, was one of twin baby girls adopted by two different families in the Midwest shortly after birth. A musical prodigy turned chronic underachiever, Alice feels rudderless and lost. She wants to be a doctor—possibly, maybe—but lacks the energy to follow through. Even registering for the medical school entrance exam is overwhelming.

When Alice’s roommate gets engaged, things go from difficult to worse. Alice is suddenly in need of shelter, and desperation lands her in a basement apartment near Columbia University. Finding housing in a convenient neighborhood seems lucky, but Alice quickly gets caught up in the whirlwind that is her new roommate, the imposing and mercurial Roxy.

Roxy is a tour-de-force character who epitomizes the ephemeral nature of life in 2015 New York City. She has a complicated yet hilarious relationship with reality, and the push-pull of her conversations with Alice is priceless. But Roxy is just one of the wonderful and absurd creations within Bays’ debut.

Like The Bonfire of the Vanities for the era of reality TV and social media, The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in our age of distraction. Similar to Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel, No One is Talking About This, Bays’ novel sometimes replicates the thought processes of a brain addled by the overstimulation of the internet and omnipresent media: run-on sentences, a litany of random bits of information hitting the reader from multiple sources and a narrative that bounces from one topic to another with abandon.

More than anything else though, the nearly 500-page novel explores people bumping into one another and deciding if they have what it takes to make it stick. And because the book is poised for laughs and broad humor, its painful, critical sections hit harder. For example, Roxy’s second date with a slightly older man, Bob, whom she met on a Tinder-like service called “Suitoronomy,” goes south when she discovers that he’s the focus of a “DO NOT date this guy” blog post. Exposed, charming, dimpled Bob hits back with misogynistic venom. His response is beyond cringe; it’s repulsive. Yet it’s hard to dismiss Bob as a mere internet creep, as the novel gives him an origin story, too, and his tendency to follow the newest, shiniest thing is reflected throughout the larger story in many ways.

The Mutual Friend dwells at the corner of restless and randomness, displacement and dissatisfaction. The narrative is full of stray thoughts and chance encounters, everything fleeting and devastating. All told, it’s riveting.

The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as debut novelist Carter Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in the age of distraction.
Review by

An old adage, adapted from the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel, insists that you can’t go home again. Linda Holmes’ deeply entertaining and heartfelt second novel, Flying Solo, counters with: Well, you can, but it will probably be messy and chaotic, and you’ll need some wine and a few friends.

Laurie Sassalyn’s beloved great aunt Dot has died. A journalist living in Seattle, Laurie has been tasked with going through Dot’s belongings and preparing her seaside house in Calcasset, Maine, for sale. Laurie travels to her hometown for the summer and sets to the task at hand with the help of her childhood best friend, June, and her ex-boyfriend Nick, now the town librarian.

As Laurie sorts through 90 years’ worth of photos, letters, books and memorabilia, she comes across a handcarved, beautifully painted duck tucked deep inside a chest. Intrigued, Laurie begins researching this mysterious duck and why Dot had hidden it so carefully. The more Laurie learns, the more she is convinced there is a secret attached to this simple wooden duck.

NPR pop culture reporter Linda Holmes’ first novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over, which was also set in Calcasset, is beloved by readers and critics alike. Flying Solo is another absolute winner. It’s hilarious and insightful, with vivid characters who act and speak in utterly human and believable ways.

Holmes describes Calcasset with such precision and love that it becomes an additional character. In particular, the local library features prominently in the story: “A small parking lot, a bike rack, and a book drop bin sat in front of the big stone building, more like a church than the kind of brutalist block big cities had, or the office-park splat of a structure that too many suburbs got stuck with in the 1970s. This building had been here since 1898 and was on the National Register of Historic Places. This was a proper library.”

Flying Solo has it all: a mystery, shady con artists, a fabulously funny and supportive friend group and even a steamy romance. In the end, though, it’s a deeply felt examination of the choices we make and the many ways we define family.

Linda Holmes’ second novel has it all: a mystery, shady con artists, a fabulously funny and supportive friend group and even a steamy romance.
Review by

One of the many important decisions we had to make in 2020 was who we would allow into our COVID-19 quarantine bubbles. As the first months of the pandemic rip the world apart in Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends, eight friends, strangers and rivals are thrown together in a house in rural New York. The falling-down second home, owned by novelist Sasha Senderovsky, becomes a site of bottomless drama as the crew shelters in place.

Shteyngart is terrific at building characters who feel fully fleshed out, and it’s a real feat to do so with eight primary players. Some of the characters face truly difficult pandemic-related problems: Sasha’s wife, Masha, is terrified of the virus infecting their bubble, and their daughter, Nat, struggles with home-schooling. Others have dragged personal problems to the country refuge: career upswings and downswings, unrequited love, unsatiated horniness and internet infamy.

The dark backdrop of the outside world—COVID deaths, job losses, George Floyd’s murder—is a distant concern to these self-absorbed characters, but the reality of the times casts a pall over the superfluous country house exploits, from the famous actor’s wandering eye to the romantic foibles of a successful app creator.

While most of the plot takes place at the country home, the narrative’s tentacles reach far back in history and all around the globe. Several characters are first-generation immigrants, and they illustrate the mix of hardiness and anxiety that comes with uncertainty on a societal level. These are the moments when it feels like Shteyngart has something to say about resilience and strength.

Stalwart fans of Shteyngart’s brand of satire won’t find these characters’ narcissism to be too grating, but given the gravity of the past year and a half, not all readers will have the patience for their flimflammery.

A country home becomes a site of bottomless drama for eight characters during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Behind the Book by

“Most mothers with teenage children would be quite well-suited to wrangling the messy lives of spoiled, young celebrities into perfect order.”

The new novel from Small Admissions author Amy Poeppel puts on a show for readers. Limelight is a hilarious melding of family drama and the world of Broadway. Here, Poeppel walks us through her love of the theater and tells us why a mom would be the best person to manage a spoiled pop star.

I was 10 years old when I saw my first West End show at the Adelphi Theatre in London. That probably sounds more glamorous than it really was; my dad was working in Copenhagen for the summer, and my parents, two sisters and I left our small apartment and took a vacation, driving a hundred hours through Bremen, Brussels and Bruges, all the way to England. On the second day of this adventure our car was broken into and our suitcases stolen, leaving us with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. Somewhere in Germany, I got stung by a wasp. I threw up a lot on that trip, a few times in the Volvo and again on the ferry (with a lovely view of the Cliffs of Dover) and one final time in the stodgy parlor of our London bed and breakfast. My family was mortified.

The trip was, for the most part, a flop, but seeing the musical Irene was a high point of my young life, and it stuck with me ever since. I remember the fun of matching the letters and numbers on our theater tickets to the tiny, brass plaques on the velvet flip seats in the balcony, and as the dark, heavy curtain went up, I clapped until my hands smarted. (My sisters shushed me when I didn’t stop.) I was enchanted by the elegant costumes and the sets depicting New York City, and—most of all—I loved being transported into the life of poor, sweet Irene, who herself was being transported into a life of glamour and riches completely unknown to her before. The entire production was a thrill.

About 10 years later, during my junior year abroad, I was invited by a handsome Brit to see Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre, not far from the Adelphi where Irene had played. To make a good impression on this young man and on ’80s British society in general, I dressed up for the occasion. We had great seats in the orchestra, and not long after the house lights dimmed and the musical began, I found myself tearing up during “I Dreamed a Dream” when Fantine was forced into a life of prostitution. I got even more distraught during “Castle on a Cloud” when poor Cosette imagined how much better her life would be if only she had a loving mother. By the time Éponine sang “On My Own” in act two, I was weeping. People turned to stare as I blew my nose in a soggy tissue and wiped my cheek on my date’s sleeve. The show was so moving and sad, and I was consumed by the injustice that was heaped on the peasants of France, awed by the selflessness of the characters and grief-stricken by the perfectly staged tragic deaths. War! Self-sacrifice! Humanity! Unrequited love!

Speaking of unrequited love, my date never called me again, and yet that in no way dampened my enthusiasm for Les Mis. Back in the States, I bought a cassette tape of the soundtrack and sang “One Day More” in my dorm room loudly, unabashedly and completely off-key (presumably to the dismay of fellow Claflin Hall residents).

Theater began to play a bigger part in my life after that. I met my husband when we were both cast in a college production of The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard, playing a married couple (who got divorced during Act One, though our real marriage is still going strong 25 years later). I worked as an actress in Boston regional theater for several years after college, so I found out what it’s like to be in that spotlight, to memorize lines until they are ingrained and to keep going even when things go wrong on stage. (In Crimes of the Heart, I was playing the part of Babe, and the moment came in the second act when I was supposed to answer the phone, but it didn’t ring, marking the longest 12 seconds of my life.) I also relished the backstage camaraderie, the long, arduous rehearsals, the late-night drinks with cast mates and crew, and the jitters and exhilaration of opening night. I felt the satisfaction of glowing reviews and the mortification of terrible ones.

Although I stopped acting in my late 20s when I turned my attention to teaching drama and literature to high school students and parenting my own children, I continue to go to plays whenever I get the chance (and read them when I don’t). I live in New York, so there’s always a show I’m itching to see. And I still make a scene from my seat in the house, whether it’s laughing in The Play That Goes Wrong, crying and feeling anxious in Dear Evan Hansen, covering my eyes during American Psycho, getting goose bumps in The Band’s Visit or Come from Away or staring star-struck at Tony Award winners like Denzel Washington in Fences or Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard. Being at the theater is always an absorbing experience for me; I’m all in, every time.

One recent theatrical phenomenon I have been intrigued by is the casting of big-name celebrity singers in Broadway shows. I started to wonder how classically trained, experienced actors feel about the pop stars who sometimes take the leads in today’s musicals. Are they welcoming? Or are they wary? Do they feel that such casting adds value to a production, or do they view it as a cheapening of the institution of theater? My short career in theater taught me the importance of actors working in an ensemble, and it occurred to me that if a narcissistic star, especially someone who is disrespectful to the process or to the rest of the cast and crew, were to take a big role in a play, it could be a nightmare for the other actors and a catastrophe for the production. As a writer, I felt right away that there was a story there I wanted to tell.

I decided to write a book that combines the three passions of my life—New York City, theater and family—while entertaining an unfounded belief I’ve had for years: that most mothers with teenage children would be quite well-suited to wrangling the messy lives of spoiled, young celebrities into perfect order. I’ve often felt I could convince a child star to make good decisions and behave in a respectful manner (while I’d also remember to schedule his or her teeth-cleaning and dermatology appointments). Writing Limelight was a marvelous opportunity to imagine applying the skills I’ve acquired raising my kids to the role of managing a difficult teenage pop star. The main character, Allison Brinkley, mother and new Manhattanite, gets a front-row seat to the staging of a Broadway musical based on Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight. Teen crooner and heartthrob Carter Reid is woefully unprepared to step into his first serious acting role, and Allison discovers she is in a unique position to help salvage his floundering career as the young star faces the biggest challenge of his privileged life. As she tries to take control of Carter’s wildly undisciplined existence, Allison tackles the school crises, break-ups and hormones in her own household, as she and her family find their place in the heart of New York City.


Photo credit George Baier

I was 10 years old when I saw my first West End show at the Adelphi Theatre in London. That probably sounds more glamorous than it really was; my dad was working in Copenhagen for the summer, and my parents, two sisters and I left our small apartment and took a vacation, driving a hundred hours through Bremen, Brussels and Bruges, all the way to England. On the second day of this adventure our car was broken into and our suitcases stolen, leaving us with nothing but the clothes we were wearing.

Behind the Book by

Bestselling author Ben Schott has revived Jeeves and Wooster for a new novel starring literature’s most beloved master and servant. In sparkling, comic prose worthy of P.G. Wodehouse, Schott sends Jeeves and Wooster off on a new (mis)adventure as spies for the English Crown. But how does a contemporary author enter into a well-loved series? Schott explains—in a way.

‘I say, old bean, do you think this is wise?’


‘Prudent, sensible—sane even?’

‘You mean, to dog the patent-leather footsteps of P.G. Wodehouse? The greatest craftsman of comic fiction the English language has known? The genius who created Jeeves and Wooster? The man who spun unforgettable prose, and wove a thread of Englishness on which the sun will never set?’

‘Yup. That’s the chap. And I ask again: Is this wise?’

‘Possibly not.’

‘I’d call it loopy.’

‘You may have a point.’

‘Dashed presumptuous, too. What in heaven inspired you?’

‘Adoration. Admiration. Awe. Many of the words beginning with ‘A.’ And it occurred to me that the universe, being in such a darkly parlous state, might enjoy a tad more Bertie to gladden the heart and lighten the soul.’

‘And so you wrote a new Jeeves and Wooster novel?’

‘I did indeed. It is called Jeeves and the King of Clubs—and it is fully authorized by the Wodehouse Estate.’

‘They must be mad!’

‘The premise is that Jeeves’ club of butlers and valets, the Junior Ganymede, is actually a branch of the British Secret Service. It remains a genuine social club for those in the upper echelons of service, of course, but it is also a conduit of unique intelligence to His Majesty’s Government.’

‘You mean to say, there’s a gang of butlers roaming the halls, sniffing out secrets like the Baker Street Irregulars?’

‘They prefer to think of themselves as the Curzon Street Perfectionists. And for reasons explained in the book, Bertie is inveigled into joining the Junior Ganymede to help thwart the fascist upstart Roderick Spode.’

‘That fat-headed oaf!’

‘Quite. Bertie, naturally, takes to spying like a d. to water, and we are led on an uproarious adventure of espionage through the secret corridors of Whitehall, the sunlit lawns of Brinkley Court and the private Clubland of St James’.’

‘Does Aunt Dahlia appear? I adore Aunt Dahlia.’

‘She does indeed, along with a cast of characters old and new: outraged chefs and exasperated uncles, disreputable politicians and gambling bankers, slushy debs and Cockney cabbies, sphinxlike tailors and sylphlike spies.’

‘Is there action? A spy caper rather demands action, y’know.’

‘Fear not, old crumpet—there’s Action-a-Plenty. In addition to foiling treasonous fascists there are horses to be backed, auctions to be fixed, engagements to be escaped, madmen to be blackballed and a new variety of condiment to be cooked up.’

‘I say, it sounds quite the thing!’

‘Far be it for me to tootle my own trombone, but if Jeeves and the King of Clubs is one hundredth as much fun to read as it was to write, well . . . ’

‘I shall send my man out for a copy immediately.’

‘I say, you are a brick!’


Author photo by Harry MacAuslan

‘I say, old bean, do you think this is wise?’


‘Prudent, sensible—sane even?’

‘You mean, to dog the patent-leather footsteps of P.G. Wodehouse? The greatest craftsman of comic fiction the English language has known? The genius who created Jeeves and Wooster? The man who spun unforgettable prose, and wove a thread of Englishness on which the sun will never set?’

Behind the Book by

My son was 6 years old. I was dropping him at school. I didn’t plan this; it just happened.

“Bye!” I called. “Be kind to yourself, and to everybody else!”

And I drove away. 

It took me a moment to catch my breath.   

Genius, I thought (once I’d caught it). 

Be kind to yourself, and to everybody else. 

It was perfect. Simple yet elegant. There was no better guideline for living.

I decided that this would be our new catchphrase. Each morning, I would repeat it to my son. It would infiltrate his being, fold into his essence.

One day, he would accept the Nobel Peace Prize. “This is for my mother,” he would say, holding up the prize, holding back his tears. “Because she always taught me to be kind to myself, and to everybody else.”

The next day, as I dropped him at school, I called to my son: “Bye! Be kind to yourself, and to—”

My son stopped. He spun around. Stared at me.

“What did you just say?”

“I said, be kind to—”

“Yes, I know what you said. I mean, why did you say that?”

“Well, I just thought it was—good advice for—”

My son was shaking his head. “But you said it yesterday. I heard you then. Never say that again.

And he headed into the school.

Guidelines for living are not for everybody. 


Last year, I was at a writers’ festival, chatting with a group of authors. Somebody asked about my latest book.

“It’s called Gravity Is the Thing,” I said. “It’s about the self-help industry.”

I said the idea had started when I overheard a conversation between two strangers on a train. Both had recently read The Celestine Prophecy. “I don’t yet know,” the young man had said, gazing into the young woman’s eyes, “what message I have for you.” “But you do have a message,” she whispered.

I told the group that I’d spent 15 years researching the novel: reading self-help books, getting my aura read, my face read, my tarot read, studying numerology and tantric sex.

It’s about the illusion of magical possibility (I said). The soothing falsehood that everything is connected. The empty promise that anything is possible, if only we believe. The self-help industry preys on despair (I said), blames the ill for their illness, makes the oppressed responsible for their own oppression.

(And so on. I’d had a few drinks.)  

Everyone agreed, fervently. We moved to another topic. 

A few minutes later, one of the writers took me aside. 

“Don’t tell anybody else this,” he said, “but self-help books changed my life.”

He’d been a deeply troubled teenager, he explained. Then he’d read a series of guidebooks, followed their advice, and now he was a successful, happy author. All of his dreams had come true. 

So, guidelines for living are for some people.  


Personally, I grew up yearning for somebody to tell me how to live. I’ve always been extremely indecisive. (I’m a Libra.) I’m also absentminded. And I have a constant, uneasy sense that I’m getting everything wrong—the way I organize my paperwork, how I converse with my hairdresser, the fact that I let my child collect sticks from parks, bring them home and pile them in his wardrobe. It’s like I’ve missed the meeting where everybody else learned the rules. All I really know is I like chocolate.

In fact, for years, I’ve secretly fantasized that a committee of experts would begin sending me regular, personalized instructions. Reminders to make dentist appointments and to do a spring clean. Advice on fashion (wear brighter colors—you’re washed out in those pastels!), hobbies (sign up for tae kwon do!) and love (dump him—he might be sweet, but he bores you to tears).

The entire time I was researching for this novel, my mind was split neatly in two: half was pure cynicism, the other half completely believed. 


Gravity Is the Thing is a novel about Abigail, owner of the Happiness Café and mother of a 4-year-old named Oscar. When Abigail was 16, her brother went missing and never returned. Around the same time, she started receiving chapters from a self-help book, The Guidebook, in the mail. Now, 20 years later, Abigail has been invited to attend a retreat where, it is promised, she will learn the “truth” about The Guidebook.

It’s a novel about missing persons. (I’ve always been struck by the strength required to cope with this ambiguous loss. The adult son of family friends disappeared over 30 years ago. His mother still bakes him a birthday cake each year, just in case he returns.) It’s also about flight. (I grew up with the language of flight. My father was a pilot, taught us the aviation alphabet and once landed a helicopter in our backyard.) It’s about single motherhood, loss and hope.

And of course, it’s about the self-help industry—about who or what should be telling us how to live our lives. 

(Bye! Be kind to yourself, and to everybody else!) 


Jaclyn Moriarty lives in Sydney, Australia. How’s this for a guideline for living: Read Gravity Is the Thing.

Author photo courtesy of the author.

Award-winning YA author Jaclyn Moriarty on her adult debut, a whimsical tale that plumbs the depths of grief, hope and self-help.
Review by

Set in a small seaside village in Britain, Julietta Henderson’s debut novel, The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman, is a tender tale of comedy, hope and courage, told from the perspective of 12-year-old Norman and his loving single mum, Sadie.

Norman’s quiet, lonely life gets a surge of excitement when a new student named Jax joins his class. Jax is loud, funny and a perpetual troublemaker—the yang to Norman’s yin. Their instant friendship is strengthened by their shared love for stand-up comedy. The two dream of performing as a comedic duo at Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe when they turn 15.

But when Jax dies, a heartbroken Norman decides to revise the plan. Despite the fact that Jax was the one with the comedic timing, Norman will enter the comedy festival in four weeks’ time to honor his friend’s memory. He also wants to find out who his father is—something that Sadie cannot answer.

Sadie is caught off-guard by Norman’s announcements, but seeing him get excited about something, anything, makes it impossible for her to refuse to go along with his plan. Filled with fear and trepidation, she agrees to a road trip to Edinburgh, planned by her elderly but sharp friend Leonard. Reminiscent of the movie Little Miss Sunshine, the trio set out on an adventure with plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Henderson’s cheekiness and humor shine as mother and son share their innermost fears and discuss how to carry on amid loss and grief. A lineup of great supporting characters keep things memorable and often laugh-out-loud funny. At its core, the novel is a celebration of friendships, new and old, that shape life in the best possible way. This is a happy tear-jerker for sure.

Julietta Henderson’s debut novel is a celebration of friendships, new and old, that shape life in the best possible way—a happy tear-jerker for sure.

If a handful of characters were transported from Anne Tyler’s Baltimore to tiny Boyne City, Michigan, they might act a bit like the ones Katherine Heiny has gathered in Early Morning Riser. But Heiny’s gentle exploration of how we tiptoe and often stumble through the minefield of love is both fresh and consistently entertaining.

When second grade teacher Jane Wilkes meets Duncan Ryfield, they quickly fall in lust. But Jane’s attraction to Duncan, a handsome and capable woodworker who’s more skilled at starting projects than he is at finishing them, is complicated by the discovery that he is, as a friend politely puts it, “extremely . . . social”—meaning he’s slept with most of the available women in this part of rural Michigan. In particular, Duncan has a puzzlingly close relationship with his ex-wife, an aggressive, opinionated real estate agent, even though it’s been many years since their divorce and her remarriage.

Heiny’s novel navigates nearly 20 years of small-town life, with weddings—one canceled and two consummated—children and a con man’s shocking scheme. Some of these events combine to upend Jane and Duncan’s life when they become responsible for the care of Jimmy Jellico, a developmentally disabled man who works as a helper in Duncan’s shop. This unique relationship, and others among this novel's cast of characters, raises intriguing questions about the definition of family and how the families we inhabit from birth differ from those we create.

Though she mostly goes easy on her quirky creations, Heiny is unfailingly honest and never at a loss for a witty observation, as when she describes the run-up to Christmas in the early days of Jane and Duncan’s relationship as “sort of like the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of escalating tension.” Early Morning Riser is an amiable and observant novel with perfect pitch and plenty of grace notes along the way.

Katherine Heiny’s gentle exploration of how we tiptoe and often stumble through the minefield of love is both fresh and consistently entertaining.
Review by

Noni Blake is in a rut. Her teaching job doesn’t fulfill her. A nine-year relationship has come to its sad but inevitable end. She hates her hair and probably drinks too much. Noni decides what she needs is to shake things up.

Her first instinct is to revisit old flames, the ones who got away. But hooking up with the men and women from her past doesn’t give her what she’s seeking, and Noni realizes she needs something else. She needs a pleasure quest.

“I would never tolerate the things I say to myself if someone else was saying them,” Noni realizes. “I disregard my feelings. I don’t value my desires. I don’t nurture myself. I’m mean. Holy shit. Pleasure isn’t a person. It’s personal. And I need to work out what it looks like to me.”

With an unexpected windfall from the sale of her house, Noni embarks on a six-month sabbatical in Europe. She frequents London pubs with old friends. She buys lingerie in Amsterdam. She visits a retreat center nestled in the Scottish mountains. She reads and walks and thinks. And in Edinburgh, she decides to get a tattoo. The tattooist’s name is Beau, but Noni calls him “the Viking” for his gorgeous face and solid frame. (Picture Jason Momoa; I know I did.) Noni’s pleasure quest did not include plans to meet a beautiful Scottish man, but she finds herself drawn to the Viking. As she gets to know him better, Noni realizes the plans she has made for her life may be at odds with her heart.

It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake is, well, pure pleasure. An Australian playwright and novelist who previously published a young adult novel titled Beautiful Mess, Claire Christian is a deliciously fun writer, letting us peek into Noni’s mind as she learns to listen to her own voice. Amid gorgeous European landscapes, Noni and the people she encounters are wholly likable, even when making questionable decisions.

Sexy and joyful, this is the story of a woman grappling with the idea that it’s OK to seek—even prioritize—pleasure.

Noni Blake is in a rut. Her teaching job doesn’t fulfill her. A nine-year relationship has come to its sad but inevitable end. She hates her hair and probably drinks too much. Noni decides what she needs is to shake things up.

Two lexicographers employed by the same company and separated by a century are at the heart of The Liar’s Dictionary, an imaginative, funny, intriguing novel by Eley Williams, author of the critically lauded 2017 short story collection Attrib. and Other Stories.

At the end of the 19th century in London, Swansby House is a place of high hopes and bustling industriousness. There, Peter Winceworth writes the letter “S” entries for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He’s also in a pickle of his own making: From childhood, he has affected a lisp as a means to get special treatment, and the stress of maintaining the ruse ensures an undercurrent of discomfiture in his every interaction. Combine that with his irritatingly extroverted co-workers and an unrequited crush on a colleague’s fiancée, and he needs a release—which comes in the form of false entries (or mountweazels) that he secretly inserts in the dictionary as an act of quiet, clever rebellion.

In the present day, intern Mallory is the sole employee of Swansby family descendant David, who is determined to complete the dictionary after a century of lying fallow. Production was halted by the onset of World War I, during which the staff perished and the printing presses were melted down for munitions. David wants to give the dictionary new life by digitizing it, but first Mallory must suss out and remove the mountweazels that pepper its pages. She’s also assigned to phone-answering duty, which isn’t as mundane as it sounds: Every day, a stranger threatens violence because the definition of marriage is changing. These calls are particularly distressing because Mallory is struggling with coming out.

Williams ushers readers back and forth in time as Peter and Mallory wrangle with capricious office politics, unresolved romantic feelings and the assorted indignities of being human, often to hilarious effect. The author has a gift for writing set pieces and inner monologues that at first seem quotidian and then gradually spiral—or soar—into delightful absurdity.

In The Liar’s Dictionary, Williams has created a supremely entertaining and edifying meditation on how language records and reflects how we see the world, and what we wish it could be.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Eley Williams shares how her relationship to language has changed, plus a deeper look at her charming debut novel.

Two lexicographers employed by the same company and separated by a century are at the heart of The Liar’s Dictionary, an imaginative, funny, intriguing novel by Eley Williams, author of the critically lauded 2017 short story collection Attrib. and Other Stories.

A literary whodunit, a comedy of intentional errors, a paean to romance and rebellion—when talking about Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary, it’s hard to resist uttering a constellation of descriptors, thanks to the abundance of clever (delightful, inventive, loopy, memorable) words that pepper its pages.

WATCH NOW: BookPage editor Cat Acree chats with January cover star Eley Williams! The author of The Liar’s Dictionary talks about her lifelong love of language and why her favorite word is pamphlet.

In the mystery aspect of Williams’ entertaining tale, the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary is the case file, and mountweazels (made-up dictionary entries) are the crimes against vocabulary. The perpetrator of said crimes and the sleuth sniffing them out are separated by a century but bound together by their mutual employer, London’s Swansby House. And the potential victims? Well, that’s where reading the book—and learning a plethora of pleasurable words, genuine and fake—come in.

Williams speaks with BookPage as she walks her dog near her London home, where she lives with her wife, writer Nell Stevens. Williams explains that the inspiration for the novel came from acts of literary subterfuge that were born both of her studies—her Ph.D. research and thesis were about mountweazels—and the ways in which her own perspective on dictionaries and other arbiters of language has changed over time.

“Words are deemed slang or dialect rather than proper English, but who is making that call?”

When she was a child, Williams explains, her parents “kept an illustrated Collins Dictionary by the dinner table. It seemed normal at the time, but it’s probably not good to have books surrounded by steam.” Potentially wrinkled pages aside, she says that for a long time, “I found comfort in pedantry and in saying no, that’s not what that word means; I can check. . . . That rigidity was a useful thing worth preserving.”

But as the years passed, her outlook on language became more fluid. “Words are deemed slang or dialect rather than proper English, but who is making that call?” she says. “What does that say about their political or ideological position? Now it’s more important to me to query that, to resist the idea of immutability.”

And so, in the hands of her character Peter Winceworth, mountweazels become tools of resistance. The year is 1899, and he works as a lexicographer in charge of the letter “S” for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. One of many employees at the bustling Swansby House, he’s a reserved man prone to (and it seems, fond of) lying.

The Liar's DictionaryOne of his longest deceptions: a lisp he affected as a child when he realized it “made people respond to him with a greater gentleness.” Williams paints a spot-on portrait of an emotionally stunted man who is always at least a little bit enraged, often hilariously so. His erudition makes for some impressively articulate internal rants about, say, a too-loud bird or his boisterous co-workers.

While there’s a certain poetic justice in seeing Peter seethe at a situation created by his co-opting a speech impairment for his own gain, it’s also fascinating to bear witness as he embarks on his next fabrication—or rather, series of fabrications, via mountweazels galore. He knows that language “is something you accept or trust rather than necessarily want to test out,” thus ensuring that made-up words like “skipsty (v.), the act of taking steps two at a time” will be published unnoticed because, after all, who would even think of inserting dishonesty into a dictionary?

It is important to note that mountweazels have often been deliberately employed by dictionary publishers as a creative means of protecting their copyright. The evocative term originated in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, which describes the fictional Lillian Virginia Mountweazel as having died “in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.”

But generally speaking, one presumably would not expect a dictionary-house employee to simply make up words . . . unless that employee was Peter, who is trapped in a life of unending frustration, massive workloads and unrequited love.

“So much of the novel is actually about the workplace and how one can feel valued or under-valued or purposeless within a structure or architecture that’s bigger than you,” Williams says. “The motif of the dictionary formed a correspondence with notions of labor and of boredom, and of value and self-worth.”

Indeed, despite having never held an office job (“It was an entire fantasy!” she says with a laugh), Williams truly captures the essence of office life— its moments of revelation and accomplishment, as well as its lack of privacy and enforced camaraderie—both on the cusp of the 20th century and, as in the novel’s second timeline, in the 21st century, when sole Swansby’s employee Mallory is tasked with digitizing the entire dictionary.

Mallory works under the supervision of 70-year-old David, a descendant of the Victorian-era Swansbys, who is determined to create a new company legacy. Mallory’s assignment sounds straightforward enough, if a bit of a slog, but there is an unfortunate catch. Her mission will not be complete until she has found and eradicated all of the mountweazels from the dictionary, while tracking her work on what she believes to be the world’s slowest computer. Like Peter’s irritated ravings, Mallory’s restless internal perseveration on her computer’s please-wait hourglass is grimly humorous in its familiarity: “The iconography of the hourglass hinted at a particular progression: that all natural things tend toward death. This was not good for office morale.”

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Liar’s Dictionary.

Betwixt and between hourglass-induced distress, Mallory’s other primary duty is fielding daily phone calls from a deranged-sounding man who issues bomb threats because he’s angry that the definition of marriage is changing (to include more than just a man and a woman). The calls are terrible and traumatic, and doubly so because Mallory is struggling with self-disclosure. Her partner, the gregarious and loving Pip, has always been out, but Mallory isn’t ready just yet.

Williams says that this aspect of The Liar’s Dictionary drew on real-life events from when she was writing the novel, particularly the backlash to certain dictionaries making changes to their definition of marriage. This, she explains, raises “the idea of language as no longer a useful tool that rises from society, but rather something potentially constrictive and to do with didacticism, rather than something changeable and mutable.”

Williams is far from alone in her desire to reexamine and challenge the status quo of societal monoliths, dictionaries or otherwise. After all, she says, “The idea of an infallible dictionary can seem quite sinister, and not about what language can be, and is. There are enough syllables in the world . . . for us to communicate while being supple with language, ambiguous rather than relying on fixity and an ordained truth.”

Under Williams’ guiding hand, much is mutable in The Liar’s Dictionary, and wonderfully so. The narrators’ parallel secrets surge to the fore and shrink back, heightening their feelings of isolation and honing their desire for genuine personal freedom. Comedic set pieces involving an unfortunate hard-boiled egg, drunken perambulation and an agitated pelican are as memorable as they are deliciously subversive (and in the case of the pelican, just . . . astonishing). And there are more secrets in this book than those—ones that inexorably lead our heroes to a conclusion that is exciting and gratifying in the realms of both vocation and vocabulary.

On the whole, The Liar’s Dictionary is a smart, funny, passionate exploration of how language can serve, challenge or define us. It’s also a testament to the power of speaking up and using our voices, whether on the page, in our own heads or out loud.

Fans of Williams’ acclaimed Attrib. and Other Stories have been looking forward to this novel, which she wrote while working as a lecturer in creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She’s also a fellow of England’s Royal Society of Literature where, she jokes, “We all have a go at sitting on the throne.”

Alas, there are no literal thrones—but she does get to be “a part of literary culture” in England. “The best bit is,” she says, “when you’re inducted, you get to sign your name in a big book, and you get to choose a pen. The pens on offer—one belonged to Byron, another to George Eliot, I think another was T.S. Eliot, and they’d just stopped using the one from Charles Dickens. You do have that moment a bit like Mallory and Winceworth, where it’s just an object, just a thing, but you’ve invested so much in notions of literary worth and value, and you’re just enthralled by it and have that moment of connection.”

At this point in our chat, Williams and her dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Bryher, prepare to hurry on home. Of her dog, Williams insists, “You must say, ‘She’s so athletic and dedicated!’”

Done and done.


Author photo by Antonio Olmos

A literary whodunit, a comedy of intentional errors, a paean to romance and rebellion—when talking about Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary, it’s hard to resist uttering a constellation of descriptors, thanks to the abundance of clever (delightful, inventive, loopy, memorable) words that pepper its pages.

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