Tag Archives: fiction

Review: Stinky Tofu

Recap: It’s the 80’s in Chicago and banker Sam Lowe is living his best life. He’s a man about town: making good money, always fit and well-dressed and dating around. He’s well-respected at work and happy living in Chicago. Until he’s not. Expecting a big bonus, he’s instead sent off on a new project. He finds himself at a conference that he’s completely dreading until one woman changes everything. Linda Liu. She’s so beautiful, he doesn’t even know quite where to begin.

But Sam’s sure-of-himself attitude takes over and soon the two are seriously dating. After months of long distance, he moves to New York to be with her and marry her. Sam is Jewish. Linda is Chinese. What Sam didn’t realize is that before they could marry, Linda would first need approval from her family in Taiwan. They make the trip and spend some good quality time with her family. They’re not too sure of him at first, and they don’t hesitate to put him through the ringer.

But once again, Sam miscalculates. The family not only approves of him. They now want to move to New York with Sam and Linda too. Suddenly Sam’s life is being controlled by his wife’s family, and he doesn’t seem to have much say in the matter.

Analysis: Here’s the thing. This semi-autobiographical novel is described and marketed as “a comedic novel.” But mostly it just feels racist and uncomfortable. Every bit of Asian culture Linda and her family bring into Sam’s life, he rejects and then ultimately succumbs to it.

I read the book because I identified with Sam. I’m Jewish and thought this would be like if I married someone Asian or even someone non-Jewish. The book is about the marriage of two cultures, and that’s something everyone can relate to in this day and age. But the lines meant to be funny read as offensive. The worst part is the author doesn’t even seem aware of how offensive his writing is. Lines like “I tried speaking to her in English, but it was as if she’d just stepped off the boat” is the least of it.

Set aside the racism, the writing feels juvenile and the characters are unlikable. Sam bends over and takes whatever Linda and her family throw his way. You could say he does it for love, but we never get a clear picture of just how in love he and Linda are. He comes across as weak, and Linda and her family are so selfish and demanding, they’re not likable either.

MVP: No one.

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Review: The Light We Lost

Recap: Can you really blame Lucy? It’s not entirely her “fault” she fell obsessively in love with Gabe. It was an impressionable age, an impressionable time, an impressionable place and period in history even. New York City, September 11, 2001. A chance meeting in class at Columbia followed by a tragedy at a level the city had never seen before. Lucy and Gabe ran together, watched the city go up in smoke and kissed. They needed a glimmer of hope and found it in each other. They needed to believe this wasn’t the end and that while everything broke around them, they could still find something fresh, beautiful and new. And yet. Gabe had a girlfriend. Or an ex who kept them from really exploring the relationship until more than a year later.

By then, they’d considered it a sign. And they were off and running, falling madly, deeply in love with each other in only the way people can when they’re under the age of 25 — romantic to the point of cheesy and incredibly lustful.

Which is why when they break up, Lucy defines break. She falls apart into a million pieces, unable to function or move on. September 11th inspired Gabe to travel to the Middle East and find work as a photojournalist. It was the only thing he felt he could do in response to the terror attacks of that dreaded day. But Lucy couldn’t bring herself to go, and Gabe couldn’t stay.

Lucy eventually finds solace, comfort and ease in Darren. They marry. They build a life together. But Gabe is always there, even when he’s not. The years pass and the more she thinks about him, the more confused Lucy becomes about what Gabe means to her and if their love was ever real at all.

Analysis: From page one, Lucy takes the reader full-throttle into the depths of her heart and mind. She speaks in the second person to “you,” an unusual choice. We don’t immediately know who “you” is but very quickly learn it’s a guy (insert heart-eyes-smiley emoji here). It takes the entire book to find out why she’s speaking in the second person to him, and when we finally do, it’s shocking and desperately sad. But in its completely depressive state, we — and Lucy – finally realize who means what to her. It’s a formatting and narrative decision that really pays off in the end, and throughout the book. Author Jill Santopolo does an excellent job of foreshadowing and dropping just enough hints and clues to force me to turn the page.

The book less has a plot than it really just follows Lucy throughout 13 years of her life, but it’s compellingly written and has unexpected twists and turns, even though that seems like something appropriate for murder mysteries. I felt so in tune with who Lucy was and what she struggled with that I simply devoured the book. Her feelings of first love are nostalgic and relatable for any reader. Each person I know who has read this book has said the same thing: “it’s sad, but it is the most honest portrayal of first love I’ve seen in a book” and THAT is powerful.

MVP: Lucy. She’s complicated, and I didn’t always agree with her decisions or actions, but she’s also like anyone else: just trying to figure it out along the way and doing the best she can given the circumstances and curveballs thrown her way.

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Review: The Girls in the Picture

Recap: It’s the early 1900’s and Frances Marion isn’t sure what she wants, but she knows what she doesn’t want. She no longer wants to be married to a man she doesn’t live in San Francisco, a city that does nothing for her. So she moves to Los Angeles just as the movie industry starts to develop. She is fixated on somehow being a part of the world of cinema, but isn’t sure how. Until she meets Mary Pickford. And that’s when everything changes. 


The two quickly become best friends. Mary works toward a career in acting, while Frances soon finds herself writing screenplays. In the 1910’s and 1920’s, they are unicorns: women in the film industry. But they have the support of each other to keep working toward their dreams. They promise to never let men get in the way of their friendship. 


But it’s a promise made at too young an age to keep. When Mary falls in love with an already-married actor and Frances finds the perfect husband, Mary and Frances begin judging each other and the choices they’re making. As they stop supporting each other personally, they stop supporting each other professionally too. But will the different directions their lives are taking them ultimately bring them back together?


Analysis: I knew this was a historical fiction novel from the beginning, but didn’t know until midway through the book when author Melanie Benjamin started name-dropping other celebrities that Mary Pickford and Frances Marion were real women, and this was their true story, written in a fictionalized view, making the story all the more interesting. 


But more than anything else, the story is relatable. Every woman goes through ups and downs, even with their closest girlfriends. Every woman goes through ups and downs professionally. It’s a timeless story of women trying to balance friendship, work and love in modern times.


But their story is also timely. Historical fiction has a way of showing us how much and how little things have changed over the years. The film industry has changed immensely since it began in the 1910’s. All movies are “talkies” now, and shot in color and digital and the list goes on and on. But the #MeToo era proves that the painful experiences that women in film face — sexual harassment, pay disparity and lack of respect, power and opportunity — live on even after more than 100 years. 


Both tragic and beautiful, The Girls in the Picture gripped me so deeply, I couldn’t stop talking about it or recommending it to any woman or any fan of movies. 


MVP: Frances. Though stubborn in her ways and often judgemental, she is far more realistic than Mary about her role in the world. That gives her the ability to see clearly and realize when she has to take a step back from certain parts of her life. 

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Review: Dead If You Don’t

Recap: It was supposed to be a fun Saturday soccer (football) game. Everyone and their mother seemed to be going — or father as the case may be. But the day quickly turned as stadium officials received threats of a terrorist attack at the game, threatening to kill and injure hundreds of fans. But that was just the beginning. Before the game even began, Kipp Brown realized his son, Mungo, was missing. They’d been fighting earlier, but surely his teenage son wouldn’t leave the biggest game of the year over a fight with his father.

The police are slammed, facing both a potential terror attack and kidnapping. The kidnapping is no big surprise considering who Mungo’s father is; Kipp is a well-known and successful business. Anyone would go after him for his money, but they’d be sadly surprised to learn that Brown also has a massive gambling problem and little to no money to his name.

The ransom calls start coming in, and soon Detective Superintendent Roy Grace must step in to deter the terror attack and find Kipp’s son. The investigation leads him to a group of dangerous Albanian men who have made a life for themselves in England by killing anyone who gets in the way of their greedy quest for money, wealth and power. But where is Mungo? And will they get to him in time before he becomes another victim?

Analysis: A straight-up crime detective novel, Dead If You Don’t pulls no punches, getting right to the many tropes that make a crime novel a good one: lots of characters, winding and intertwined storylines, good guys and bad guys, unforeseen turns and short chapters with little cliffhangers that help move the story along quickly.

It didn’t, however, necessarily feel like Roy Grace was the main character of the story. I was more invested in Kipp Brown, his family and his financial stupidity — hoping and praying that he’d learn his lesson when it comes to money. To be fair, of all the officers, Roy Grace was the one whose name I knew the best; he was clearly the star of the unit and the man in charge, but his story was less compelling than some of the other characters in the book. Basic in its structure, but effective in its plotting, Dead If You Don’t was the perfect read if you’re in the mood for a quick and easy crime novel.

MVP: Roy Grace, for the sole reason that he saves the day and Kipp Brown never quite lives up to his full potential.

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Review: The Storyteller’s Secret

Recap: It’s after Jaya’s third miscarriage that her marriage falls apart. A journalist in New York, she is at a loss. She no longer has her husband to turn to for support, and her relationship with her mother has always been difficult, lacking love and support. It’s around this time that Jaya learns the grandfather she never knew is dying. He lives in India, where her parents were born, but her mother has no interest in returning home to see her father. Confused and alone, desperately seeking comfort and support in her family, Jaya decides to visit India, to get away from her own problems and to meet her grandfather and learn why he sent her mother away to America many years ago.

By the time she arrives, he has already passed. Inside her mother’s childhood home, she instead finds Ravi, her mother and grandmother’s servant. Ravi welcomes Jaya instantly and over the course of several weeks shows Ravi around India and tells her about her grandparents. It’s a long saga about love, secrets and finding one’s own path. It’s a story that even Jaya’s mother knows nothing about. It’s a story that changes her perception of her life, world and family forever. In looking to the past, Jaya is able to better understand her present and re-shape her future.

Analysis: In its simplest form, the plot of The Storyteller’s Secret sounds like the start of Eat, Pray, Love: woman’s life falls apart, woman sets out on journey across the world, woman finds herself. But Secret also adds the element of the past. The story also changes time periods and storytellers, switching back and forth between Jaya and her grandmother, Amisha, decades earlier. It gives the story an extra layer of depth and mystery that the read is dying to uncover. I found I could not put this book down, desperately wanting to know what happened in Jaya’s family history and how it affected her today.

The title of the book is a reference to so much storytelling that’s happening here: the narration from both Jaya and Amish, the story of Jaya’s past as told to her by Ravi, and the storytelling that Jaya does as a journalist and that her grandmother used to do as a writer and writing teacher. The parallels between Jaya and her unknown grandmother are beautiful and help to deepen the bond between Jaya and her mother. The story is moving in its statements about different cultures and especially womanhood: relationships between women, the strength of women and the sacrifices they make for their families.

The Storyteller’s Secret is a powerful, unstoppable read that makes you laugh, cry, think and feel. A truly excellent story.

MVP: Ravi. While the women are the focus of this book, Ravi may be the real star, the glue that binds together the woman of generations past and present, telling the stories that Amisha is unable to tell in her death. His generosity and love knows no bounds.

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Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Recap: As her father further declines into the world of Alzheimer’s, Ruth decides it’s time to come home and help her mother take care of him. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, Joel. She has no real attachment to her job. And unlike her younger brother, she doesn’t have the devastating memories from the years when her father abused alcohol and cheated on their mom. With nothing keeping her away, she heads home.


But when her father is let go from his job because of his health, she becomes determined to keep him as active as possible. Teaming up with one of his TA’s, they help her father continue to hold classes sneaking around empty rooms on campus or having off-campus “field trips.” The jig can only last for so long, but she is looking for something. She needs something for both her father and herself as his brain gets worse and worse.


Her story is documented like a diary or journal. and every so often her father hands her notes from his old journal. The notes detail memories of her as a child, memories that he is quickly losing and ones that she doesn’t recall, memories of happier times. Together Ruth and her father hold onto the past in bits while making new memories in the present and dreading the future and what the disease will likely bring.


Analysis: The format of this book is what really moves the story along. The use of dated journal entries helps to show just how quickly Alzheimer’s Disease progresses. The juxtaposition of the journal entries and notes from Ruth’s dad are a beautiful way of showing how the two of them are desperately trying to hold onto the memories her father is losing. Toward the end, she stops referring to her father as her father, and starts referring to him as “you.” It’s a clear distinction in the writing, showing that she has now started to keep notes for him so he can remember the times they’re spending together as adults.

As eloquent as the formatting is, much of the book is odd and quirky. There are some weird sections about things that happen to her that don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the book, like when she meets a truck driver or how she tries to avoid the mailman for fear they would have an awkward conversation. I found myself reading these sections and thinking Okay, why do I care about this? At a certain point, I interpreted it this way: all roads lead back to Ruth’s dad. Once I started reading these sections through the lens of “this is how her father must feel when he talks to a stranger” or “this is an weird habit, like something her father might do in his current state,” I found a lot more meaning in these sections.


MVP: Ruth. She wasn’t always the most likable and she’s certainly one of the weirder main characters I’ve followed in a book, but the effort she makes to make her dad more comfortable with the progression of his disease is not only respectable, it’s inspiring.

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Review: One More Thing

Recap: When a book opens with a story about a tortoise and a hare, I first have to wonder if I’m reading a copy of Aesop’s Fables. But when the story turned into a version in which the hare loses and then demands a rematch against the tortoise, I knew we were no longer in Aesop’s territory. Thanks, B.J. Novak. The comedian and actor, best known for his role in The Office dives into his funny, sarcastic, sometimes dark and then surprisingly poignant mind with this collection of short stories that made me laugh and think. 


The content of many of the stories seemed random: in “Dark Matter,” a guy visiting a planetarium; in “Walking on Eggshells,” a woman set on having sex with Tony Robbins; in “MONSTER: The Roller Coaster,” a focus group selecting the name of a roller coaster. Despite the premises, they often had strong, affecting messages at the end about what matters most to us as people, about whether it’s worth it to be in a relationship that may not serve you, about things not turning out the way we expect them to. 
With some of the longer short stories, including the one from which the book got its title “Sophia,” I came to expect something poignant at the end. In the case of “Sophia,” I didn’t ever get it. 


Some stories, like “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela,” were just plain funny, an opportunity for Novak to show off his comedic writing skills. Others were simple plays on words like “If I Had a Nickel” and “If You Love Something,” good for a nice chuckle.

Analysis: As someone who’d never actually read a book of short stories, I didn’t know what to expect and wasn’t particularly excited to read it. I doubted I would enjoy it without a central story powerful enough to keep me flipping through the pages. But color me shocked when I found that I really, truly enjoyed it. Sure, some stories were better than others. Some had me scratching my head (and not in a thoughtful way, more in a what-the-hell-was-that kind of way). But I caught myself laughing several times and stopping to think about some of the stories before going on to read the next ones. I also found that because some of the stories were so short, I was able to fly through the book. How Novak came up with some of the crazy, weird, and creatively thoughtful stories is impressive and delightful.

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