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book review

Modern Lovers

By Emma Straub

Riverhead, 368 pages, $35

Emma Straub (The Vacationers) is at her best when exploring the trials and disappointments of modern family life. Is she poking fun at our collective obsession with property values, free-range beef and children and avocado on toast – or does she feel our existential, First World pain? Perhaps a bit of both, and I didn't mind either way. College friends Elizabeth, Zoe and Andrew used to be in a band together, back in college. After they disbanded, the fourth member, Lydia, took their one good song and ran with it. The song became a transcendental hit before Lydia flamed out at 27, like so many stars before her. A lifetime later, the friends live in Brooklyn and a biopic of Lydia is in the works. This stirs up memories, secrets and illusions they didn't realize they had. Zoe wonders how it's possible that she was once the gorgeous and daring toast of the town. These days, she feels like anything but, with a wife who sleeps in another room and a daughter who treats her like a prison warden. Elizabeth knows she's the one who really wrote that feminist siren song. But these days she's a real estate agent and the mother of a boy on the cusp of becoming a man– meaning she can no longer kiss him and ruffle his curls, and that's really sad. Meanwhile, her husband, Andrew, is experiencing a midlife crisis that's a bit tedious. The weak link that is Andrew is more than made up for by the chapters from the perspectives of their children. Parents, Straub shows, are keenly observed through the eyes of their kids. And they really see us – boy, do they ever. But they could also care less about our problems and pasts, and this presents a fascinating dichotomy that dances on the page.

Girls On Fire

By Robin Wasserman

HarperCollins Canada, 368 pages, $25.99

Full disclosure: I had to take this book out of my bedroom so I could sleep at night. It's dark and horrifying – but also beautiful. It made me remember what was so wonderful about being a teenaged girl, but it also made me recall what was so dangerous, so terrible, what a thin knife edge I was walking on, and I didn't realize it or even care. I couldn't put Girls On Fire down (except when I was sleeping and having those strange, intense dreams that come when you're reading a book like this). It's the nineties, and Kurt Cobain's tortured voice is the soundtrack to the obsessive friendship between outcast Hannah Dexter and powerful, damaged Lacey Champlain. Lacey remakes Hannah into Dex, a fearless new version of the obedient wallflower she used to be, but the excitement of new friendship soon morphs into a twisted, disturbing reality. There's a secret at the epicentre of this book to do with the apparent suicide of a high school basketball star in the woods nearby. The truth is unimaginable, and the journey to get to it is haunting. Wasserman, who is already a successful young-adult author, delivers a brilliant, thrilling shocker with this first adult novel. Buy it, read it, become immersed and enthralled and distressed by it – just don't call me when you can't sleep.

Happy Family

By Tracy Barone

Lee Boudreaux Books, 400 pages, $31.50

"All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That line from Anna Karenina trembles at the core of this exquisite debut by screenwriter and playwright turned author Tracy Barone. The fact that Barone has worked in movies (she was involved with Men in Black and Ali, to name a few) is apparent – in a good way – from the opening pages of Happy Family, when a pregnant drug addict staggers into a health clinic, shoots herself up with morphine, gives birth and flees. What follows this scene is a careful uncoiling of the effects of a single moment on many different lives. Cheri is the child left behind. She's adopted by a family who just lost a child. They haven't healed and their wounds become part of the fabric of her existence. Forty years later, Cheri, a cop turned academic, is stuck in a life that isn't going as planned. She bears the scars of abandonment, but also of being raised by a woman who clung too tightly and still does. Barone does not stumble once, not in plotting or dialogue, and especially not in character development. There are many strings, but they all tie together in a novel about an unconventional family with much to teach about parenthood, childhood and the experience of growing up – something that takes longer, I'm sure, than many adults ever imagined it would.

The A to Z of You and Me

By James Hannah

Sourcebooks, 336 pages, $22.99

This book is about the sharp sting of regret. It's painful to read, but also deeply touching. Ivo is barely middle-aged, but he's already in hospice care because of choices he made when he believed youth was an ally that would never abandon him. Now it's too late and all that is left is for him to catalogue the most meaningful moments of his life, from A to Z, at the suggestion of Shelia, the nurse who cares for him so gently and feels so real to the reader. In fact, each character feels authentic, from Ivo's mother, who was shattered by loss but still cared for her son with everything she had, to his lost love, Mia, whom we learn about in carefully paced doses. Each heartache feels earned, and each memory revealed is so poignant, I felt at moments that they belonged to me too. With tender prose, and very little mincing of words – because indeed this is a story that could easily turn maudlin – Hannah offers a profound story of life, death, and love. You'll need to break out the tissues for this one, but you'll find redemption and inspiration in among the tragedies. Every moment you spend with this book will be worth it.

Not Working

By Lisa Owens

Doubleday Canada, 243 pages, $29.95

I've always had a soft spot for Bridget Jones and will accept no substitutes or cheap imitations. And while Lisa Owens's Claire does bear a whole lot of resemblance to Bridget – the career frustration, the emotionally aloof boyfriend with the mystifying grown-up job, the tendency to guzzle wine and behave inappropriately, the kooky mother – she also has a contemporary voice and a quest all her own. Claire has just quit her job as a creative communications specialist, a job in which she found no meaning. But what is the meaning of life, and specifically, what is the meaning of hers? Through a series of breezy vignettes filled with witty reflections that made me laugh out loud ("More than forty years since man walked on the moon, and yet still no truly viable alternative to bread."), Claire attempts to climb her way out of a life that doesn't make her happy and into one that does. On the way, she learns that fulfilment isn't quite as elusive as she believes it to be. We could all benefit from the takeaway here. Pop this one into your beach bag this summer and prepare to be utterly charmed.

The After Party

By Anton DiSclafani

Riverhead, 384 pages, $34

Anton DiSclafani's (The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls) sophomore effort takes a look at female friendship through the lens of privilege in a similar way to the author's debut. It has her trademark polished writing and cool, affecting gaze – she's basically the authorial equivalent of the smart, rich, sophisticated girl at your high school whom you always felt like such a dolt around (okay, maybe that was just me) and there's something compelling in that, but I always feel a step or two behind. This book is about two 1950s Texas socialites, one who lives in the shadow of the other, the dynamic of so many friendships. Joan and Cece's story sings out from the salons and bedrooms of the uber-affluent River Oaks community in Houston, as they travel from childhood into their mid-20s, with all the drama and angst that comes in between those days. When Joan and Cece were in kindergarten, they were both named Joan. Then a teacher christened Cece with her middle name to avoid confusion – and this moment tells you what you need to know about their friendship, right from the start. There's a big reveal hinted at that you should not be tricked by; the best part of this book is the journey, not the destination. Reading about women in the 1950s and the lengths they needed to go to in order to get what they wanted – even if what they wanted wasn't anywhere close to what they needed – reminded me of how far we've come. This is an ultimately satisfying read that paints a vivid portrait of a time, a place and an unusual friendship.

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