My (Not So) Perfect Life
By Sophie Kinsella
Dial Press, 438 pages, $35
Ever since Confessions of a Shopaholic was published in 2001 – and I recognized myself in a character who threw credit-card bills in the garbage and actually believed this might eradicate their existence – Sophie Kinsella has delivered a steady stream of predictably comfortable, consistently funny books. While the Shopaholic franchise has grown a bit stale, Kinsella's writing, I'm happy to report, has not. In 26-year-old Cat Brenner, Kinsella has created the antithesis to Becky Bloomwood. She's a practical young woman who fears going into debt more than almost anything else, and will go to great and hilarious lengths to avoid it. Kinsella is still at the top of her game, with farcical yet somehow believable situations and a madcap plot – after Cat's financial circumstances change she's forced to move back home, where her father needs help developing a glamping business on the family farm; then, the very person who has caused her such upheaval shows up for a holiday – but there's an unexpected dose of social conscience here, too. "There isn't a ladder big enough to stretch from my place in life to Demeter's place in life, not without something extraordinary happening," Cat, who comes from a working-class background, laments about her older, married and moneyed boss. That a novel such as this prompted me to consider the current state of British politics is perhaps indicative of the current state of the world. Maybe now's not a time for escapist fiction.
By Lucinda Rosenfeld
Little, Brown, 352 pages, $34
In college, Karen Kipple was a feminist sporting a nose ring, but these days she's most likely to wear office-casual neutrals and sensible shoes. She's got a nice-enough husband (who works in the non-profit sector, literally – his socially conscious startup hasn't made any money), an eight-year-old daughter she adores (but whom she wishes would eat less sugar/talk back less often/never twerk) and an apartment in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighbourhood (the bodega at the end of her street is now a hipster-filled bistro with no apparent name). But Karen's not happy and she becomes increasingly less so after a series of bullying incidents at her daughter's school combines with her jealousy over another family using said incidents as an excuse to get their own daughter a safety transfer to a more desirable – read: less diverse – public school. Rosenfeld is lampooning white liberals here, taking aim at the upper-middle-class elite in a way that is definitely necessary – and somewhat uncomfortable if you're a member of the aforementioned social group and don't enjoy laughing at yourself. But Class, in an effort to discredit stereotypes, sometimes perpetuates stereotypes as well. Beyond that, you'll find a genuinely enjoyable story about a woman who is both preposterous and recognizable and a plotline that is at once absurd and possibly happening in your own neighbourhood at this very moment. Class is a novel that forces you to examine your own prejudices and will definitely make you realize how ridiculous they are.
The Orphan's Tale
By Pam Jenoff
Mira, 368 pages, $19.99
This is the heartbreaking and breathtaking story of 17-year-old Noa, who is living in Holland during the Nazi occupation and is ostracized from her community after becoming pregnant by a soldier. She has no choice but to give the child up for adoption, an event that condemns her to the type of life she never imagined would be hers. She ends up living above a German rail station, which is where she stumbles upon a boxcar filled with dozens of Jewish infants, children who have been taken from parents condemned to concentration camps. She reacts to this wrenching discovery in a manner that will change her life again: Reminded of her own child, she steals one of the babies and flees, eventually finding refuge and friendship from an unexpected source: a travelling German circus. Noa is a vivid character who shows the type of inner strength such horrendous moments in history inspired in real people. Her story is also a reminder of the costs of fascism, fear and hatred – a cost that is too high, regardless of the inspirational stories of heroism that always emerge. Pam Jenoff's prose is evocative and compelling, but there's also authority in her words. The author was moved to begin writing this type of historical fiction because of her years spent working at the Pentagon and as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. One might find oneself wishing someone so intent on telling the stories of Holocaust survivors still worked there now, but her writing is just as much of a gift as her public service.
The Impossible Fortress
By Jason Rekulak
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $24.95
I have three brothers, so I can say with a certain amount of authority that Jason Rekulak has nailed it when it comes to accurately depicting the often-strange beast that is a teenage boy. It's 1987 and Bill, Alf and Clark are best friends. Each member in this Stand By Me-esque group is a misfit in his own way: Alf bears an unfortunate resemblance to the alien puppet of the same name, Clark has a physical deformity and Bill has been labelled intellectually dull by his teachers. Bill's true talent is computer coding, and when his friends hatch a harebrained plot to steal the latest copy of Playboy magazine (the one with Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White on the cover), he discovers a pathway toward possible redemption for his academic failings – and maybe even a future – in the form of a computer game coding contest. He also falls in love with the very person he's supposed to betray: Mary Zelinsky, the daughter of the proprietor of the store selling the magazine – because once Bill meets Mary, he pretty much forgets all about Vanna. As Mary becomes the unlikely object of Bill's desire, this adorably geeky and surprisingly heartwarming drama picks up steam. Rekulak's writing is honest and warm, and this is the perfect book for anyone who longs for the simpler days of mixtapes, Phil Collins and the Commodore 64.
By Sara Flannery Murphy
HarperCollins, 368 pages, $26.99
When a book scares me, I'm compelled to read it in one sitting or else I won't be able to sleep that night. That's how I found myself still awake at 2 a.m. on a school night reading Sara Flannery Murphy's chilling and impossible-to-put down debut. Here's the story: Edie is a body. She lives in an unnamed city and works for the Elysian Society, an organization dedicated to helping grieving clients reconnect with loved ones – picture something along the lines of Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, but way creepier. They do this through the use of pills called lotuses, which summon spirits into a host body. Edie is good at what she does because, up until now, she has managed to stay detached from the spirits she invites into her body; some of her colleagues have not been as successful, and one of them has met a tragic end. But everyone has a weakness, and Edie's shows up in the form of handsome widower Patrick Braddock. After she channels his glamorous wife, Sylvia, who mysteriously drowned, she finds she cannot disengage quite so easily. As she spirals toward obsession, details emerge about the life Edie led before choosing such a risky and unconventional line of work, and the reasons she can no longer afford to be so detached from the perils of her career.
This Is How It Always Is
By Laurie Frankel
Flatiron Books, 336 pages, $36.99
My advance copy of Laurie Frankel's third novel contained a letter from the author explaining why it took more than the normal amount of courage to write this particular book, about a transgender child. Frankel's only child is transgender. Books can feel like children, yes, but this really ups the ante. I felt immediate compassion, both as an author and a mother, but I also found my anticipation of the book changed knowing the back story. Sometimes, being too close to a topic can make for heavy-handedness, which almost never makes for good fiction. Not in this case. Frankel's writing is witty and wise, and her characters are reminiscent of those in family capers such as the film The Royal Tenenbaums or Commonwealth, Ann Patchett's recent novel about an eclectic brood. This novel is about Rosie and Penn, parents to five boys, the youngest of whom, Claude, grapples with gender identity. As they struggle with difficult decisions, the interior of this not-so-perfect family is revealed. Some of the choices made are hard to accept, leading to secrecy and a level of family unrest that proves to be disastrous. This is a fascinating, gut-wrenching, timely and enjoyable read – and a must for your next book-club discussion.