How Toddlers Thrive by Tovah P. Klein - There are lots of books about toddler discipline or toddler “training” (potty, sharing, tantrums, bedtime, so much training) but I’m glad I randomly grabbed this one from the library new release section a few weeks ago. It’s a combination of research, anecdotal stories and advice. It’s not a dry instruction manual or a 5-step process to having the well-behaved, tantrum-free toddler of your dreams. There are no “10 Ways to Achieve Potty Training Success” chapters. Instead, Klein talks mostly about toddler psychology and brain development. She explains why common discipline or parenting tactics don’t (and can’t) work and shows how even the smallest changes in the way we talk to toddlers can have immediate and long-lasting effects on their behavior. There is a lot of explaining—this is why this happens, this is why they do that—and then Klein leaves the reader with practical advice that parents can bring into their own home. Klein’s emphasis on establishing predictable, structured routines is something I was nodding my head at each time she mentioned it. Klein argues that the more routine-oriented you are as a parent, the more free your child is to develop flexibility at their own pace. It also affects their ability to handle transitions and change later in life. I notice huge behavioral shifts when we change even a small part of Isobel’s routine. I’ve become more relaxed about her routine as she’s gotten older, but this book was a good reminder not to do that. Klein advocates a very hands-off parenting style: Let them play. Let them make mistakes. Don’t try and fix things for them. The chapter on Toddler Shame was fascinating. Even things we perceive as small (for example, “Let me help you write your name the right way”) leaves a toddler feeling ashamed of their own attempt. Until I read this chapter, I didn’t realize how often I was trying to “help”—let me show you! this is how you do it! let’s try this instead!—and it was eye-opening and humbling. This is the rare parenting book that is as informative as it is instructive.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue - The best part of this book is reading the afterword. It was only then, at the close of the book, that I realized how meticulously researched and carefully plotted the novel actually was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to rescue the other 300-some pages from being agonizingly plodding. The book is set in late-1800’s San Francisco during a brutal heat wave (horses were dying in the streets) and the smallpox epidemic. Donoghue immerses the reader in the city and in the time period in a very visceral way—a small blessing because the plot unfolds slowly, in reverse. The book starts with a murder and then jumps backward a month to work slowly forward until we come again to the murder and its aftermath. The most colorful, fully-imagined character is the one most available to Donoghue (this will seem vague now but I’m trying to avoid spoilers). I cared less and less about the murder mystery the further I read: The rich historical setting was the best part of the book. If the story had been even slightly pared down or the characters a bit more real, I think it would have made a big difference. As it is, I found it good—but not good enough to recommend. I loved Donoghue’s last novel, Room. That book was suspenseful and enormously creative. This book—a murder mystery set in the underbelly of the “Old West” San Francisco—seemed likely to be just as exciting and vivid. But, in the few times the book does come alive, it’s simply a tease.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker - This wildly popular European best-seller was finally published in the US earlier this year—and did not catch on and was poorly reviewed in US publications. I trusted the Europeans though and I’m very glad I did. However, a few housekeeping items: This book is not realistic and it’s a bit too long. It’s mildly ridiculous at times and cliched or cringe-worthy at others. It’s set in a small New Hampshire town and I can almost see Swiss author Dicker sitting at his desk picking the Best of American Character Stereotypes for filling out the roster of characters. (There is one Jewish mother he wrote who is just—no. It’s not good.) But, despite these things, the book is just crazy, stupid fun. The mystery is sufficiently mysterious and the book-within-a-book concept works better than it should. Our narrator, Marcus Goldman, is suffering from major writer’s block a few years after the spectacular success of his first book. Marcus’ old college professor mentor and friend, Harry Quebert, suggests he come to New Hampshire to write. Shortly after Marcus arrives, Quebert is arrested when the bones of a young girl gone missing over 30 years prior are found in Quebert’s garden. Marcus’ publishers—ready to strangle him for dragging his feet on a second book—see a wonderful opportunity. Write about Quebert! Solve the mystery! Find out who murdered the girl! Marcus reluctantly agrees and begins to dig into the town’s long-held secrets. As I said above, the book isn’t perfect. But, it’s also one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a while. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro - Hmm. I don’t know. This novel (about a group of New York-based members of a mommy group doing a weekend together with their families at the beach) was stressful. I like flawed, annoying characters as a general rule, but this group’s passive aggressive/sometimes actually aggressive in-fighting grew exhausting. There is the requisite adulterous temptation and the sanctimommy of the group unable to shut up about how advanced her child is. (The others think the girl is sociopathic instead.) There are the kids, causing extreme emotional grief and upset for the parents. The kids bite each other. They whine. They cry. One suffers a particularly memorable midnight constipation episode. There are at least 15 personal or interpersonal conflicts happening in one claustrophobic beach house and I stopped caring about most of it about halfway through. I enjoy fiction about parents dealing with honest, realistic problems, whether in their partnership (or non-partnership), or in their life in general or what-have-you, but goddamn—these people were awful. It was an interesting setting and the issues each character faced were compelling, but the characters themselves—my god. The increasingly unrealistic events of the book were emotionally manipulative—a propulsion system designed to keep me reading. “I know you hate these people by now, but how will they cope with THIS AWFUL THING? STAY TUNED!” If nothing else, this is an excellent cautionary tale: A weekend vacation with dramatic adults and too many kids in a too-small house is no vacation at all.
The Partner Track by Helen Wan - It’s hard to tell how much of the fictional The Partner Track is autobiographical, but lawyer Helen Wan’s first novel about a young Asian-American lawyer competing against a pool of men for partnership in her prestigious Manhattan law firm has a “been there, done that, I’m-writing-you-into-this-book” tone. This is especially true for the first quarter of the book, as Wan establishes the setting: Brutally long work hours, law firm hierarchies, and how the corporate politics of race/sex/class affects and influences the personal and professional dynamics for protagonist Ingrid Yung. The tone of the book feels light, like chick lit, but the topics and politics are heavy and serious. It’s a deft combination, especially taking into account the fast-moving, occasionally-juicy plot and the satisfying (if unrealistic) ending. I really enjoyed this, but I knew I would when the first page opened to a Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote.
The Art of Sleeping Alone by Sophie Fontanel - This short memoir feels almost like poetry—short, lyrical chapters, all beautifully written. Paris-based Fontanel, at 27, becomes celibate after seeing her physical and emotional connection to sex become more destructive than fulfilling. It is vulnerable and intimate, like reading a journal. If you want something you can read in an afternoon, this is a good choice.
The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan I. Koerner - This is masterful, fascinating nonfiction. My favorite nonfiction has the ability to pique my extreme interest in topics that could, in theory, be covered in a few Wikipedia paragraphs. Here, though, is book-length coverage of a topic—with all the dates, historical facts, cultural background and other necessities that nonfiction requires—all expertly woven into a plot that feels almost like fiction. Koerner covers the Golden Age of Hijacking (a 5-year period starting in 1968) in which an American jetliner was “skyjacked” nearly once a week. He focuses on one particular hijacking: the taking of Western Airlines Flight 701 by Vietnam veteran Roger Holder and small-time weed dealer Cathy Kerkow. Their story melds the book together, their hijacking a perfect example of how the unrest of the era manifested in hijackings designed to make a political statement, elicit cash ransoms, or both. Given today’s TSA-laden airports, the snippets of the book about the commercial air lobby balking at security checkpoints because they feared travelers would take to the roads to avoid the inconvenience are written appropriately tongue-in-cheek. (“They’ll never submit to having their personal effects X-rayed!”) I wanted to call this one of the most interesting nonfiction books I’ve read this year, but I decided it’s just one of the most interesting I’ve read this year period. Highly recommend it. (I received this book free in exchange for a review.)
One and Only by Lauren Sandler - I was in the parenting section at the library looking for another book when I saw this one on the shelf. The topic is, of course, timely (we’ve been talking a lot about this) and I knew the book would be thought-provoking. What I wasn’t expecting was that it was also emotional and vulnerable, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes through Sandler’s anecdotes about being an only child raising an only child. Sandler does not use the book to try and make the argument that only children are the same as children with siblings. Instead, she shows the ways they differ and how that can be positive (only children tend to be more successful) and intense (only children tend to internalize parental relationships and emotions) or even negative (only children often bear the sole burden of emotionally supporting their mother after parents divorce or separate). She explores other topics of interest, including the perceived loneliness of only children, the economics of raising an only child, the intersection of religion and having multiple children, and the environmental impact of having children at all. It is fascinating and well-written. If you don’t have kids, have one child, have more than one—this is a book well worth your time. It’s about more than parenting, more than just logistics and research. It is razor-sharp cultural insight and analysis and I found it incredibly well-done. Here are some passages I loved:
"I want to snuggle with my daughter for as long as she’ll let me, being as present in her life as I can while giving her all the space she needs to discover life on her own terms. I want full participation: in the world, in my family, in my friendships, and in my own actualization. In other words, to have a happy kid, I figure I need to be a happy mother, and to be a happy mother, I need to be a happy person. Like my mother, I feel that I need to make choices within the limits of reality—which means considering work, finances, pleasure—and at the moment I can’t imagine how I could possibly do that with another kid."
"The University of Chicago’s Linda Waite, whose research focuses on how to make marriages last, tells me, ‘You’re better off to ignore your kids and focus on your relationship than to focus on your kids and ignore your relationship,’ which she says few people have the courage to do. Instead, she says, we do the opposite. ‘Kids, kids, kids. That’s how we forget about our own needs—it’s all about them. And no one is happy like that.’"
"What my mother needed to be a happy person is not what all mothers need. She needed to feel she was making a significant contribution through her work, and not just her family, working for more than the necessary paycheck. She needed to live somewhere she could walk a few blocks to buy a really good cookie when she got the craving after diner. She needed to travel, to make her marriage as significant as her motherhood, to be able to go supermarketing and pick up the dry cleaning without being outnumbered by her kids, plural, who were performing the theater of rivalry in the produce section."
"I find that parenting offers an untold bounty of happiness, joy, excitement, contentment, satisfaction, and pride—just not all the time. Each child is an additional source of pride, sure, but also an additional infringement on freedom, privacy, and patience. I can understand why Jean Twenge, in a study on parenthood and marital satisfaction, found that happiness in a marriage tumbles with each additional child. This finding bears out worldwide and not just in the United States."
"A survey tracking families from the late 1980s through the early 1990s showed that while a single child decreases a mother’s employment by about eight hours a week, the second kid leads to a further reduction of about twelve hours. A father’s work hours don’t change at all when a first child is born, but an additional child actually increases his time on the job by about three hours per week."
"Actually, real change [in terms of a societal shift in the way Americans viewed the work/life balance and social policy for mothers] began in the seventies and ground to a halt by the mideighties. That’s when Ellen Willis wrote in her essay ‘Looking for Mr. Good Dad’: ‘the problem is not that women’s demands for freedom are rocking the boat,’ which they surely no longer are, ‘it’s that men have the power to set the terms of their participation in child rearing and women don’t. So long as mothers must depend on the ‘voluntary commitment’ of men who can withdraw it without negotiation at any time, we’re in trouble no matter what we do.’ […] As you’ve read, thirty years after this essay was published, thirty years that could have seen great progress, the US Census considers child care to be parenting when a mother does it, and an ‘arrangement’ when a father does."
"Whether parents are single or coupled, many of us enjoy a quieter side to this intensity [of the relationship between an only child and parent] too; an unspoken intimacy. I remember as a child gingerly opening the door to my parents’ bedroom, slashes of early morning light from the shutters setting the room softly aglow. I would tiptoe to the far side of the bed where my mother slept, and crawl under the paisley flannel duvet. Silently, I’d lay my head beside hers, and try to sync our breathing. Now I lay awake many mornings, awaiting Dahlia’s cry of ‘Mama’ before I creep into her room and lay my head on her pillow. She wriggles in close and takes hold of my elbow. And in the dark cocoon of her tiny room, I feel her try to sync her breathing with my own."
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane - This book sets the intersection of technology and an old-fashioned love of printed books into a delightful, fast-paced work of fiction. The protagonist, Clay, is looking for work after the tech start-up he worked at went under. He stumbles upon a dusty bookstore that is—yes, open 24 hours a day—and is hired as a night clerk by the owner, Mr. Penumbra. He notices a strange revolving door of customers coming in at odd hours to trade their huge, antique-looking volumes for similar looking books—all taken from a mysterious section of the bookstore that houses books with no ISBN numbers. (That Clay can find, anyway.) After he sneaks a peek at the pages and discovers they seem to be written in some kind of code, he embarks on a quest to discover what all this intrigue is about. I was trying to figure out a way to describe this book to my sister and the best I could come up with was that it’s sort of like the Oscar-winning film (-____-) National Treasure: no Nicolas Cage—but with more books, a secret society, and things long hidden in obvious places. If you need a quick, easy read, this is a good choice.
Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer by Hannes Rastam - I read a blurb about this book and knew it might be something I’d be interested in (Swedish crime non-fiction? okay!), but it was disappointing. I’ve actually got about a quarter left to read. I don’t think I’m going to make it. Thomas Quick—imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital—was long considered Sweden’s first and most prolific serial killer after confessing to and being convicted of many heinous, long-unsolved crimes. He was notorious for the brutality of the murders (he claimed to eat his victims) until curious journalists began to uncover faulty confessions and a distinct lack of evidence. This book is about the crimes Quick confessed to and the mistakes law enforcement made in trying to close the unsolved cases. That sounds fascinating, right? It is, in a way. But this book needed extreme editing. It is overlong and bloated with unnecessary information. It seems as though the author was overwhelmed by the amount of information he had accumulated and decided to put it all in—and then add some more. I hate blaming the translator, but maybe that’s what happened here. Anyway, if the book had told the story in a more compelling, concise way, it could have been a fascinating look at the criminal justice system and mental health system colliding.
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas - Daniel Kelly is a talented swimmer who hopes one day to win Olympic gold. He receives a swimming scholarship to an elite boys school and attempts to shrug off his working class upbringing and prove he is The Best. The Fastest. His competitive drive is all-consuming and his intense anger at any slight—perceived or real—starts to create big problems for him in the pool, in class and at home. The story is good, but exhausting. Tsiolkas’ free-wheeling chronological narrative, taking huge leaps in time and space, is not my favorite. Kelly is a flawed protagonist—almost too flawed. I like the honesty of creating a really unlikable character, but it’s hard to cheer for him, whether he’s swimming or screaming or thinking. The strength of the main plot could have benefited from this being a trimmer, more cohesive book. Tsiolkas tried to tackle too many themes and characters, and that, along with the choppy narrative structure, made the book more tiring than thought-provoking. I received this book free in exchange for a review.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead - This is a great example of where a back-and-forth chronological structure can really work in a book’s favor. Astonish Me is about Joan—an American ballerina—who helps a Soviet ballet star defect to the US. The Soviet dancer, Arslan Rusakov, remains a constant fixture in Joan’s life even after the years pass and she marries and has a child with another man. This book—about ballet, love, marriage, friendships—is a treat to read. The chronological structure I mentioned above allows Shipstead to continue revealing crucial back story and context as the novel progresses. Most important: This doesn’t feel like a cheap maneuver to keep the drama high. I really enjoyed this one.
The Loyal Lieutenant by Georgie Hincapie - You look at the cover of this book and you think, “Great! We can finally hear Hincapie’s side.” That’s the book I wanted to read. I always loved watching him ride. His long, celebrated career was exciting and interesting. This book is not. Once I cracked the cover, I started to quickly figure out the more juicy parts of his story by what he didn’t include. If you don’t sniff out the same thing right away, you certainly will when you open to the sparse and carefully curated picture section in the middle of the book. Hincapie wants to write the “let’s play down the doping and Lance Armstrong association” game here by talking about everything else instead. When he does mention the reason most people will pick up the book (he put Armstrong on the cover, come on!), it either comes off heavily edited or is a rehashing of what we already know. Let me put it this way: I would have read this book even without all the doping scandal revelations of the past few years. And, yes—I know there are only a few ways you can say, “That climb was fucking hard and I was pedaling as fast as I could.” But George. GEORGE. First: The ghost-writing sucked. The voice doesn’t feel authentic and there is flowery, splashy prose to back that up. Second, he eagerly speeds through the US Postal and the Tour de France years to get back to his more singular accomplishments in the classics. Understandable, okay, but annoying for the reader. He didn’t have to expunge one for the other. If you’re going to tell your story, tell the whole thing. Which leads me to my third issue: He really wants to lift the doper mantle right off his shoulders. He tries several tactics to make this happen. He downplays it. He talks about his naturally high hematocrit level which limited the amount of dope he could do. (This is fair, but reads like a “I did it but not as bad as that other guy” whine.) He talks about when made the decision to ride clean in the late 2000’s. He talks about this a lot. What he doesn’t talk about is anything that could potentially tarnish the good guy reputation that he hopes to preserve. The funny thing is that the more he pleads his case, the more he tries to strategically skip from Tour to Tour in order to move on to other things, the more I began to believe that he was instead an integral, upper level cog in the US Postal doping machine.
Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell - I’ve now read several books about the Lance Armstrong fiasco and this one differs by coming at the doping conspiracy from a mostly financial perspective. Lance Armstrong The Athlete is superficially discussed (his Tour de France wins occupy a few paragraphs each), but Lance Armstrong The Celebrity and Lance Armstrong The Charity Founder are researched in great detail. It might be easy—especially if you didn’t get interested in this story until it started blowing up—to wonder why Lance’s doping seems to fully eclipse the other cyclists who transfused their blood alongside him. Why is he so vilified, especially when you take into account his massive personal and financial investment in a cancer foundation he created? Wheelmen lays out that answer very neatly. It’s no secret that Lance Armstrong was a focused, driven, ambitious athlete with a mean streak. Wheelmen demonstrates how his personality and ego were very complementary of the general corporate greed and powerful sports entities that have followed him through the past few decades. Since his admission to Oprah on TV that he did dope during his Tour wins, he has continued to frame the doping in a leveling-the-playing-field context. If you didn’t dope, you weren’t even a competitor. This trite, dismissive attitude is laughable against the backdrop of the Armstrong Machine that the authors of Wheelmen write about. Did other cyclists lose $75 million in sponsorships in a single day after recording a poorly performed interview with the most famous talk show host in the world? No. That’s why they’re still writing books about this cyclist. And, as far as the Lance Armstrong-postmortem books go, this is a good one.
Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan - You may know Boylan from her memoir She’s Not There. In this book, Boylan talks about parenting roles and how her personal parenting experiences in different genders (pre- and post-transition, primarily) impacted her and her family. Boylan writes beautifully. She is funny, insightful and poignant—sometimes all in the same paragraph. Her memoir portions of the book are fantastic. Unfortunately, there are regular breaks for short Q&A interview sessions Boylan conducts with other writers, friends, etc. I found these uneven—some were very insightful, others not so much—and I started skimming through them hoping to return quickly to Boylan’s story. And another thing: While I enjoyed (loved) Boylan’s voice throughout the story, the story omits her wife’s point of view almost entirely. Boylan mentions wife Deidre often, but we get little idea about their personal relationship or interactions. I get it—this IS Boylan’s memoir after all or perhaps there were privacy issues involved—but Boylan’s intimate memories of her sons felt incredibly rich and detailed compared to the references to Deidre. Although I wanted more—more Boylan, more Deidre—I still came away thinking this book was pretty great. It was sweet and heart-warming, full of love and food for thought. I received this book free in exchange for a review.
Have you read either one? What are you all reading now?
I’ve had this on my Kindle for so long that I almost forgot about it. Luckily I scrolled past it this week, started reading, and immediately wished I’d done so sooner.
It’s a rich, layered book set in a rural, elite Vermont college. (Where else? So many good stories begin at rural, elite colleges.) The narrator, Richard, arrives there by way of financial aid and sets out to prove himself worthy of the institution by seeking to enter a demanding and clique-ish group of Classics students. Their professor—notoriously stingy about accepting new pupils—finally accepts Richard into the fold. Richard’s fellow students are brilliant and bizarre and he is drawn to them by their camaraderie, their leisure pursuits and their common interest in Greek literature.
But, given the title and the first few pages of the book, it’s obvious that this is a group with secrets. Some are small (but terrible) and some are larger (and more terrible still). Richard navigates his way through the group of friends and their ever-growing list of terrible decisions feeling conflicted: He is loyal and repulsed. He is an accomplice and an outsider. The book becomes increasingly suspenseful, but it never feels cheap or frenzied. It was a very, very good read.
I usually love a good dysfunctional family novel, but Mother, Mother (a story about a mom with Narcissist Personality Disorder told through the eyes of her two youngest children) is almost too disturbing to enjoy.
I like psychological thrillers/dramas. I like them a lot. This book takes that genre to a new level—mental health gone awry! Watch them squirm! That makes it difficult to read. The book is about Josephine, a deeply disturbed mother. We learn about her through the eyes of her autistic, home-schooled son William and her rebellious middle child, Violet. The eldest daughter, Rose, escaped the family and ran away from home. Josephine’s husband Douglas lives firmly under her command and is content to let her call the shots. (For a while, anyway.)
Josephine is a fascinating, terrible character, fleshed out in uncomfortable detail. She’s abusive and manipulative. She’s obsessed with her youngest son, turning him into a pseudo-husband/emotional ally and this becomes creepier as the book progresses. The other family members interact with Josephine in any number of different ways to try to keep her at bay. They are alternatively frightened, cautious, placating—and that’s the book’s strongest quality. The book conveys their animosity (Violet), loyalty (William) and submission (Douglas) so well.
But I didn’t love the book. It was predictable. There’s a mystery throughout with a big twist and reveal near the end, but I saw it coming long before it happened. Losing the element of surprise (the best thing about psychological thrillers) left me annoyed. Besides that, this book made me very anxious. The relentless manipulation and emotional blackmail was exhausting. I’m happy to leave it behind.
I received this book free in exchange for a review.
I’m a big Stephen King fan and was really looking forward to reading this. Long story short: It wasn’t my favorite. It’s not that it wasn’t exciting or suspenseful. It really was. Maybe it’s because I’m hoping every new King will be an 11/22/63. It’s not really fair to make that comparison. This is completely different type of book. Mr. Mercedes is a classic detective-on-the-case story—no supernatural stuff here—with classic Stephen King-isms sprinkled throughout.
The retired detective in the story is close to what you’d expect. He’s overweight, depressed and haunted by a mass murder case he could never solve. That case involved someone running down and killing people standing in a job fair line. A heavy Mercedes sedan was the murder weapon. The police could never get any solid leads and the case went cold, but the retired detective (Bill Hodges) is sucked back into the hunt when a taunting letter arrives at his home years after the fact.
It’s a good read. It’s genuinely creepy every now and then and at those points I’d remember, oh yes! This is a Stephen King novel. But the rest feels a little too basic for him. To make matters worse, the ending wasn’t worthy of the rest of the book. The suspenseful build-up to the end was fun, but once I read past the climax, the plot suddenly felt like a rapidly deflating balloon. Pffffft.
It wasn’t my favorite but it’s Stephen King, which means it’s still better than most run-of-the-mill thrillers. If you’re a fan, it’s worth reading because it’s so different than his other work. If you’re new to Stephen King, read these first instead.
This book is set in one day—Philadelphia on Christmas Eve Eve—and follows several different characters, including Madeleine, a nine-year-old aspiring jazz singer who recently lost her mother to cancer; Madeleine’s teacher Sarina; The Cat’s Pajamas club owner Lorca and his son Alex, and several others. Madeleine and Sarina are the most engaging and Madeleine’s feisty independence made her a fun character to spend time with. As the book gradually winds all the characters closer and closer together, they all benefit, becoming more important and interesting to the reader.
It’s a strange book to describe—the story is very literal at first, but it becomes fantastical or fairy tale-like at unexpected times. This felt a little off-putting while I was reading it. Now, about 12 hours after finishing the book, I think the fantastical elements were a good idea. The entire book feels a little magical, so what’s one more magical thing among the rest?
If you’re looking for a new book club read, this would be a fun option. (It’s also short and fast enough not to be a burden to club members who drag their toes.) It has plenty to talk about in terms of plot and characterization and there are a few passages in the book that are really, really delightful and worth marking to come back to later.
The best way I can think to describe this book is to tell you how I felt after reading it. Did you have a childhood movie or book that you would watch or read often? And it left with you this little warm feeling in your stomach that made you feel like everything in the world could be as fun and magical as what you just saw or read about? After turning the last page of 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, I recognized the happy, contented feeling as one I’d had before: It was like the childishly optimistic, happy afterglow that would stick around after a favorite movie or book. I didn’t think 2 A.M. was the perfect book, but it did make me smile. That counts for a lot when it comes to books these days.
I received this advance review copy for free, but I’ll always write an honest review. Even if I hate it. Especially if I hate it! I love writing angry reviews.
Our narrator is Emily Shepard, a teenage girl whose parents were killed when the Vermont nuclear power plant they worked at suffered a catastrophic meltdown. Emily’s story comes in pieces as she reflects on the past. She tells us early about Cameron, a young boy she stumbles upon when they are both living on the street post-meltdown. They’re both hiding there for different reasons and she takes him under her wing. We don’t hear much about him again for a little while—her story is divided into two sections: B.C. and A.C. (Before Cameron and After Cameron).
The plot of this book is inherently interesting and dramatic, but it’s also dark and sad. The theme of family—what is it, why does it matter—comes up a lot. Emily’s maternal instincts toward Cameron are a painful reflection on what she’s lost herself (and sometimes doubted she ever had). She acknowledges her parents, but isn’t sure how to feel about them. (I won’t spoil it, but there are a few reasons for this.) When she thinks about home, it’s usually because she’s worried about her dog left in the closed-off radioactive zone around the plant. It’s a very complicated book, touching on everything from mental health to prostitution to alcoholism. It’s also about the danger of aging nuclear power plants, though this point is very subtly made.
It was fascinating to see how well the adult, male author conveyed the voice and actions of a 17-year-old girl. Even better was that he didn’t try to improve her teenage-ness—something that happens so often and is so irritating in novels with teenagers as main characters. There are very few things more contrived than giving teenagers the gift of adult-like conversation and logical decision-making skills. When that happens, we have 14-year-olds who are better read than most college graduates and speak to each other like philosophy professors. In Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, teenage Emily likes poetry, but it’s a believable interest. She’s not doing university-level literary analysis.
In short, this book is very, very good. The plot is dramatic, yes, but Emily’s vivid and realistic character is the reason I encourage you to read it.