I am beyond excited about the reviews I am sharing with you today. Four of these books were outstanding and are in the running for my list of favorite books of the year. The fifth, though far from a favorite, certainly left me with plenty to think (and write) about. Let’s get to the reviews!
The Good Neighborhood, by Therese Anne Fowler: Valerie Alston-Holt is a widowed black ecology professor who is raising her biracial, accomplished son, Xavier, in a well-established, middle class neighborhood in North Carolina. But the dynamic in quaint Oak Knoll quickly shifts with the arrival of the Whitmans. Brad Whitman is a showy salesman who is boastful about his new money, his beautiful young wife, and their seemingly traditional family values. Before long, Valerie and Brad have clashed over a historic tree in Valerie’s yard. . . a disagreement that at first seems significant, but pales in comparison to the drama that arises when Brad’s teenage step-daughter, Juniper, strikes up a forbidden romance with Valerie’s son.
With its focus on feuding neighbors and multi-generational relationships, A Good Neighborhood bears a strong resemblance to Ask Again, Yes, one of my favorite books of the last several years. Sadly, A Good Neighborhood was a letdown for me. My first annoyance was the distracting narrative style, with the story told by an unidentified (very opinionated) chorus. I was also frustrated by the one-dimensional characters, who follow tired and unrealistic tropes (the flashy, lecherous white step-father; the liberal black professor with a broken past; the goody two-shoes teenager daughter of an image-obsessed young mother; the family who appears deeply moral but is in fact the opposite ).
Warning: spoilers ahead. My biggest frustration was the way that this book perpetuates some very harmful ideas about purity culture (the book could NOT have gotten this more wrong), sexual consent, and race relations. While I’m a sucker for a theme-heavy novel, I don’t appreciate authors who sacrifice character development or story for the sake of exploring a mishmash of hot button issues. A Good Neighborhood lacks the nuance, depth, and redemption of Ask Again, Yes, and felt very emotionally manipulative. Aspects of the story are downright maddening: the ending is just awful, and don’t get me started on the cringe-inducing dynamic between Juniper and Brad. Even in parts of the story that were somewhat fresh (such as adults wrongly attempting to convince Juniper that she has been date raped ), the moralizing was so forced, and the patronization of marginalized characters was so blatant, that it was difficult to appreciate the points the author was attempting to make.
To its credit, this is an engrossing read that had me racing to find out what would happen in the end. I liked the parallels to classics such as Romeo and Juliet, Greek tragedies, and To Kill a Mockingbird. And the book certainly provides plenty of fodder for book club discussion. But if you are looking for an uplifting or satisfying work of literary fiction, you won’t find it in this neighborhood.
My Rating: 2.5 Stars.
Writers & Lovers, by Lily King: In 1997, Casey Peabody spends her nights waiting tables in Harvard Square while using every spare minute away from the restaurant to work on the novel that she has poured her soul into for the past six years. At 31, Casey has faced her share of heartbreak and trauma—most recently in the form of a tumultuous love affair and her mother’s sudden death—but she is determined to make a name for herself as a published author. Casey’s life grows more complicated when she falls for two men at the same time and harnesses her experiences to fuel her work as she attempts to draw meaning and purpose from the fraying threads of her unraveling life.
This novel about writing a novel is meta in the most delicious of ways. I found Casey’s relationship to her writing—the process, and the work itself—utterly fascinating and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this book was autobiographical. King’s prose is vivid, insightful, and humorous, blending thoughtful observations of grief, ambition, creativity, passion, belonging, and romance into a completely unputdownable story. I resonated with our protagonist, who is still attempting to find herself in her 30s; it was refreshing to read a coming-of-age book about someone other than a young teen. The side characters are also intriguingly complex, and the 1990s setting is perfection. I was skeptical heading into this much-acclaimed book and was happy that it lived up to the hype.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars.
The Holdout, by Graham Moore: Ten years ago, Maya Seale sat on the jury for one of the most sensational cases of the decade. The individual whose future lay in the balance was Bobby Nock, an African American high school teacher who was tried for the murder of his student Jessica Silver, the (white) teenage daughter of a billionaire. The public was convinced of Bobby’s guilt, but Maya eventually persuaded her fellow jurors to deliver a not-guilty verdict. . . a decision that has haunted each juror in the years since the case.
A decade later, Maya—now a defense attorney in her mid-thirties—reunites with her fellow jurors for a documentary of the famous trial. Before filming can begin, one of the jurors is discovered dead in Maya’s hotel room and she finds herself having to prove her own innocence in yet another high-profile murder case.
This twisty legal thriller is masterfully crafted, with compelling parallel story lines and a cast of engaging characters. The two primary stories are tied in some intriguing ways, with Moore dropping just enough clues along the way to keep both mysteries moving at a breakneck pace. The novel requires quite a bit of suspended disbelief, with many characters acting in some entirely implausible ways, but I was willing to take these mental leaps for the sake of some excellent storytelling. The novel moves beyond plot to dive into intriguing themes of race, justice, and moral conviction. I especially enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the jurors’ deliberation, and learning why each juror came to the decisions they did. This reminded me a lot of Miracle Creek, another legal thriller I deeply enjoyed.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars.
Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You, by Julie Morgenstern: For many of us, being a parent is the most important job we will ever hold, but it’s a job we enter into without any prior experience or even a job description. In Time to Parent, organization expert Julie Morgenstern provides parents with a much-needed blueprint for parenthood, which includes four aspects of RAISING a human being (providing, arranging, relating, and teaching) and four aspects of BEING a human being (sleep, exercise, love, and fun). Morgenstern recognizes that some of these roles will come more easily than others, and she offers actionable tasks for fulfilling each parenting job for parents of kids ages newborn through teens. In addition to including the stories of parents who have put these strategies into practice, she offers plenty of studies and expert advice to back up her ideas.
With its unique blend of organizational tips and parenting advice, this book is unlike any other parenting book I’ve read and I found it incredibly helpful. I appreciated (and needed) the reminders that self care is a necessary (and doable) aspect of being a good parent, and that in being our best selves we are able to be better parents to our kids. This is information we often hear, but Morgenstern actually shoes us HOW that’s possible. I loved the time management strategies and the ways that Morgenstern helps parents capitalize on our strengths while also growing in our weak areas. There is no shaming or unrealistic ideas presented in this book, just solid advice for any parent who is in need of a little guidance. Time to Parent might not appeal to go-with-the-flow parents, but for a Type A like me, this was exactly what I needed.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars.
Dear Edward, by Ann Napolitano: On a summer morning in 2013, 12-year-old Edward Adler boards a plane with his parents and older brother. Edward’s fellow passengers include a curmudgeonly business tycoon, a wounded war hero, a successful Wall Street trader, and a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy. The flight is headed from Newark to Los Angeles, but the plane crashes halfway across the country, and Edward is the sole survivor.
The crash immediately captures the nation’s attention, but Edward seeks anonymity and healing with the aunt and uncle who become his adoptive parents. Through therapy, time, and a relationship with his quirky neighbor Shay, Edward attempts to come to terms with his survivor status while grieving his family and also navigating life as a teenager in the spotlight.
This book surprised me, in a good way. It is not fast-paced or suspenseful, as one might expect from a book about a plane crash. Instead, it’s a tragic and poignant exploration of grief, combined with an atypical coming-of-age story. Napolitano’s presentation of Edward’s experiences is realistic, relatable, and equal parts humorous and heartbreaking. His story is interwoven with those of his fellow passengers, with alternating chapters offering snapshots of the victims’ final moments. These Lost-style vignettes were actually my favorite part of the novel, and I would have liked more from these side characters, though the fact that their stories are not fully fleshed out added vibrancy and significance to Edward’s post-crash life.
I appreciated that the crash itself is not sensationalized. There are no graphic details, and for a book centering on a tragedy, the overall effect is remarkably hopeful. My one major qualm (other than wanting more from the various side stories and characters) was that the general population’s reactions to the crash—and specifically to Edward—didn’t make sense to me, though these reactions do contribute to the overall story in some important ways. Setting aside this small frustration, I found this to be an insightful, thought-provoking, beautifully written and well-plotted novel with profound emotional impact.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars.
I’m linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share what we have been reading. If you’re here from the linkup, you can read Part One of this month’s book reviews here.
And I’ll be back next Monday with Part Three of my June book reviews.
Have you read any of these books? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.