“The Wedding Party” by Jasmine Guillory

The Wedding PartyMaddie Forest and Theo Stephens have something in common: they are both best friends with the same person, Alexa Monroe. With Alexa’s wedding on the horizon, she has naturally asked both of them to be in her wedding party, which means they’ll be seeing a lot of each other. There’s a big problem, though. Maddie and Theo have never gotten along.

Maddie is a stylist who spends her days helping her clients find fashionable outfits; Theo thinks she’s a superficial nitwit who only cares about clothes and celebrities. Theo works for the mayor of Berkeley; Maddie thinks he’s a condescending know-it-all. Then one night after Alexa drags her to Theo’s birthday party, he and Maddie wind up having what both of them firmly insist is a one-night stand.

“Relax,” Theo tells her the morning after. “This will never happen again, and Alexa will never find out.”

However, a few weeks later, it does happen again… and while their sexual connection is obvious, they have nothing else in common, so they’re just having some fun, right? In any case, whatever they’re doing can’t last, so there’s no point in telling Alexa. Or anyone else, for that matter. The two start sneaking around with each other, until something happens that forces them to confront the fact that they might actually have developed feelings for each other.

This is the third book in Guillory’s series (Alexa and her fiancé Drew’s story was told in the author’s first novel, The Wedding Date), and while the enemies-to-lovers trope is well-worn, she handles it with humor and heart. She draws them both sympathetically, giving the reader insight into what makes them tick. Theo’s smartypants behavior masks his deep-down insecurity. And Maddie’s hard outer shell hides a soft, vulnerable center. These opposites actually have a lot in common, and while a happily-ever-after is guaranteed—this is a romance novel, after all—Guillory makes getting to that point a lot of fun.

“The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald

The Readers of Broken Wheel RecommendWhen Sara Lindqvist arrived in Iowa, she was expecting to meet her pen pal Amy, an elderly woman with whom she had been exchanging letters and books for two years. Sara worked at a bookstore in Sweden, until it went out of business, leaving her jobless, with plenty of time on her hands—and enough money to buy a plane ticket to the U.S.

The day she comes to Amy’s hometown of Broken Wheel, however, she is greeted by some unfortunate news: Amy has just died. Her friends decide that Sara can live in Amy’s house until she figures out what to do next. Surely no tourist would want to linger too long in a place like Broken Wheel, a small town where “the buildings were low because there had never been any need for more than two stories. Nowadays, there wasn’t even the need for one… There was something sad about the town, as though generations of problems and disappointments had rubbed off onto its bricks and its roads.”

Sara decides to stay for a while—after all, Amy’s home is full of books, and she is in no rush to return to Sweden. Then she learns that Amy owned an empty storefront in the town’s almost-deserted main drag, and Sara is inspired to give it a fresh coat of paint, add a couple comfortable armchairs, and open a bookshop, using Amy’s vast collection as inventory. Unfortunately, no one in Broken Wheel is particularly interested in reading. However, the townspeople are intrigued enough by Sara that the store manages to attract a handful of customers.

Among the volumes in the store are, of course, a few Scandinavian crime novels, by Stieg Larsson and Jens Lapidus. “It was actually quite disheartening. Broken Wheel’s only image of Sweden was comprised of sadomasochistic conspiracies and organized crime, with a touch of Serbian mafia thrown in to confuse things.” (In the charmingly eccentric categorization used by Sara in her bookshop, these novels are filed under “Sex, Violence, and Weapons.”)

Eventually, Sara realizes that she doesn’t want to leave Broken Wheel, but the U.S. immigration authorities have other ideas. The townspeople don’t want to lose her, either, even though they’re not quite sure why anyone would want to spend so much time around books. They need to come up with a plan…

This is a droll and witty book that paints a vivid picture of small-town midwestern life, despite the fact that Katarina Bivald had never set foot in the U.S. until after her novel had already been published. (She gleaned a lot of knowledge from books, obviously; she has said she was particularly inspired by Spencer, Iowa, home of the celebrated library cat Dewey.) Unlike Sara, I don’t think I’d want to stay in Broken Wheel forever, but I very much enjoyed my visit.

“The Warehouse” by Rob Hart

The WarehouseThe first thing I saw when I opened The Warehouse was the dedication: “For Maria Fernandes.” As a rule, I don’t pay a lot of attention to dedications in books, unless I happen to recognize the name of the dedicatee. In this case, I did not; I assumed it was a friend or relative of the author, turned the page, and didn’t think anything else of it.

Until, that is, I finished the book and read the acknowledgments section. The final paragraph explains who Maria Fernandes is and why the book is dedicated to her, and at that point it all makes sense and has an unexpectedly powerful impact. (If you read the book—and you should—I urge you not to skip ahead; I guarantee that The Warehouse is such an exciting novel that you’ll be completely caught up in it.)

The Warehouse takes place a few decades from now. Global warming has taken its toll, and we learn that something called the Black Friday Massacres caused virtually all brick & mortar retailers in the U.S. to close. What’s left is Cloud: a sort of Amazon.com on steroids. All of their products are delivered by drone. The company employs a huge segment of the American populace and houses them in live-work facilities. The employees wear color-coded shirts depending on what job they are assigned, and are paid in credits, which they can use for everything from delicious CloudBurgers to an extra five minutes in their morning shower. CloudBand bracelets keep track of where the employees are, what they’re supposed to be doing at any given moment when they’re on the job, and stores their credits.

As the book begins, we meet two new employees: Paxton, a former prison security guard who quit his job in order to form his own company, which was a success until Cloud gradually forced him to tighten his margins, forcing him out of business (a story no doubt inspired by the real-life facts in the 2003 Fast Company piece “The WalMart You Don’t Know”); and Zinnia, the code name adopted by a corporate spy who’s been hired to gain some inside information on Cloud. Because of his prior occupation, Paxton is assigned to security at Cloud. He takes an immediate fancy to Zinnia, and she decides a man in his position could be of use. Paxton is genuinely head over heels, while Zinnia is trying to figure out how she can fulfill what is an insanely difficult mission, considering the surveillance culture of Cloud.

Zinnia and Paxton’s stories are interspersed with blog entries written by the terminally ill billionaire founder of Cloud, Gibson Wells, who plans to reveal the identity of his hand-picked successor while on a final journey to visit as many Cloud locations as possible. Wells adopts a folksy “we’re all family” tone, but it’s clear to the reader that what he has accomplished is the ultimate goal of many corporate titans in the U.S.: privatizing absolutely everything, from education to the FAA. (There’s no mention made of who the president of the country is, but whoever it is, he or she probably has a good deal less power than Gibson Wells.) The mandatory live/work aspect of employment at Cloud also ensures that they control every facet of their workers’ lives.

As Wells prepares to visit Zinnia and Paxton’s facility, the novel continues to reach new heights of suspense as our two protagonists get ready for the big day in very different ways. This is not a particularly optimistic story, but it is one that will make readers consider where we’re headed and whether or not we want to hand corporations the power granted to Cloud, which makes even Microsoft and WalMart look like small potatoes.

“Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi

Trust ExerciseWhen I was in high school, the tests in my English classes were given to make sure that we’d actually read the books on our assigned-reading lists. The questions were all about the characters and plot. As a result, when I got to college and was asked to analyze texts, I felt completely at sea. Suddenly, I was expected to have original thoughts and ideas about the great novels we were reading (at least one book every week! Imagine that). Used to simply parroting back the who, what and where, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the why.

Those old sensations came rushing back to me as I read Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, which left me feeling confused and, yes, a little bit stupid. As regular readers of this blog are aware, I mainly read and review crime fiction, but I do dip into literary fiction from time to time. Trust Exercise is certainly one of the most lauded books of the year so far, with the Boston Globe calling it “piercingly intelligent, engrossingly entertaining” and Publishers Weekly raving, “Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic.”

I might have given up on it after the first 30-40 pages had it not been from the blurb on the back by one of my favorite authors, Tom Perrotta, who described it as “an uncanny evocation of the not-so-distant past that turns into a meditation on the slipperiness of memory and the ethics of storytelling.” The book starts out by telling the story of a romance between two high school freshmen, Sarah and David, who attend a performing-arts school with a theater department that is led by a highly charismatic teacher. Sarah and David have a lot of sex, described in a way that is almost repulsive, which may be appropriate, since who wants to get turned on by reading about two 15-year-olds?

Some of the writing seems pretty bad, especially when a troupe of performers from the U.K. come to Sarah and David’s school in order to present a run of “Candide.” The British characters’ speech patterns struck me as particularly fake, kind of like an “oi, guvnor” parody. But eventually, I figured, something would turn, as Perrotta’s quote promised. And it finally does, about halfway through, when we are presented with a new narrator who informs us that everything we’ve read up to now is from a novel written by “Sarah,” looking back on her high school experiences. An untrustworthy narrator, as it were. But is the person narrating part 2 any more reliable?

What really made my head hurt, though, was the book’s brief third part, which upends almost everything we’ve read about in parts one and two. If I’d been assigned to write a term paper about what it all meant, I’d have given up in frustration. But luckily, there’s Google, and I searched for “Trust Exercise ending.” That led me to this brilliant review by a college professor, who just goes ahead and lays out her whole theory of what happens in the book and what it all means. (Spoiler alert, obviously.) I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading the novel, but Adriel Trott’s review made so many things click into place that I felt at least I finally understood what the author was getting at.

So while Trust Exercise isn’t a particularly fun or entertaining book to sit and read by yourself, I do think it would be an interesting book to discuss. I wasn’t sure I wanted to review it, since admitting that your first thoughts upon closing a novel are “What did I just read? What just happened?” is kind of embarrassing. But there can be value in getting out of your comfort zone, right? Still, I think the next book I read will be something a little more straightforward.

“The Cactus” by Sarah Haywood and “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert

The CactusI’ll say one thing about Sarah Haywood, she is nothing if not self-aware. In The Cactus, her main character, Susan, has lent a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to her neighbor Kate. “I quite liked it,” Kate says to Susan as she returns the novel, “but I didn’t get Miss Brodie. She didn’t seem very likable. I can’t enjoy a book if I don’t warm to the main character.”

“I disagree,” Susan responds. “I’d rather read about someone interesting than someone who’s just nice.”

That passage is definitely delivered with a wink on the part of the author, because Susan could certainly be considered an unsympathetic heroine. As the title suggests, she cultivates cacti, which are prickly, just like her—again, very on the nose. But I really enjoyed The Cactus, which does a superb job of gradually rolling out Susan’s backstory and giving some insight as to why she became the way she is: an extremely self-contained control freak, the very definition of that British expression, “she keeps herself to herself.”

Susan, a Londoner in her mid-40s, has led a very well-ordered life, avoiding other people as much as possible. She’s the kind of person who is super-competent at her job but never wants to socialize with her co-workers, or even spare a couple minutes for a chat. Naturally, she avoids romantic entanglements, too, though for 12 years, she’s enjoyed a no-strings-attached relationship with a writer named Richard, whom she meets every Wednesday for an evening at the theater or the opera followed by a sexual encounter. It’s a satisfying arrangement, until one fateful day when Susan discovers that she’s pregnant. (“I’d always assumed that barriers methods were foolproof, but I’ve learned to my cost that they aren’t.”)

Susan decides to have the baby, which, of course, changes her life in a myriad of ways. As the book progresses, she is forced to renegotiate her relationships with a multitude of people, including her brother, Edward, with whom she has had an increasingly fraught relationship ever since their mother died and left him the family home. Susan vows to challenge her mother’s will, causing an even greater rift between the siblings. Despite that complication, her world starts to expand little by little, preparing her for the chaos that is destined to descend on the day she finally meets the most unpredictable person of all: her own child.

City of GirlsWas there ever a more glamorous era than New York City in the pre-war 1940s? Elizabeth Gilbert takes readers back to that heady time in City of Girls, a book that starts out as light and fizzy as a champagne cocktail but gradually becomes darker and more poignant. Vivian Morris, freshly dismissed from Vassar (“on account of never having attended classes and thereby failing every single one of my freshman exams”), is sent by her disappointed parents to spend the summer with her Aunt Peg. Peg owns a run-down theater called the Lily Playhouse, which serves its working-class audience by presenting escapist fare featuring corny jokes and glamorous showgirls. Vivian, thanks to her talent for sewing, soon becomes a crucial part of the Lily Playhouse ecosystem, but everything changes—and not always for the better—when the theater actually manages to score a massive hit show, “City of Girls.”

The novel’s first-person narrative is by a much-older Vivian, looking back at her life and addressing a younger woman named Angela. What is their relationship? That isn’t revealed until much later in the book, but along the way, it’s such a delight to just sit back and enjoy the ride, savoring the pleasure of spending a few hours in a long-ago world of Manhattan showbiz.

“The View from Alameda Island” by Robyn Carr

The View from Alameda IslandThe very pretty illustration on the cover of The View from Alameda Island does not, in fact, depict the view from Alameda Island. It looks more like the view from a different island—Alcatraz. Also, I can state with some authority (as a resident of 10+ years) that absolutely no one who lives there ever refers to it as “Alameda Island.”

Nitpicks aside, however, I was very eager to read this book, despite the fact that I wasn’t familiar with Robyn Carr. She’s a popular author of women’s fiction, a genre I enjoy, and I was hoping that she’d spent some time soaking up local color to include in the novel. The possibilities are endless: romantic strolls on Crown Beach! Picnics at Crab Cove! Mai tais at Forbidden Island! Maybe her characters would shop for collectibles at the monthly antiques fair, catch a show at Altarena Playhouse, or check out the famous Fourth of July Parade.

Alas, I was very disappointed at the lack of local references; except for some mentions of Alameda’s famous Victorian homes, and the ferry to San Francisco, it could have taken place anywhere. The characters frequent an unnamed pub, but the description is so vague that it didn’t seem to be a stand-in for any actual location (though I guess it could have been the Churchward).

As for the story itself, I found it slightly rough going. The writing is pedestrian, and the main characters are either purely good (the protagonist, Lauren, and her love interest, Beau) or totally evil (Lauren and Beau’s exes). I will admit that I may have enjoyed it more had I not read it immediately after Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything, which is such an ambitious, thoughtful and nuanced work. Lauren never felt real to me, and neither, sadly, did Carr’s depiction of Alameda.

“Mrs. Everything” by Jennifer Weiner

Mrs. EverythingIt’s been a long wait for fans of Jennifer Weiner, whose last novel for adults was published in 2015. It turns out that, like many of us, Weiner was thrown for a loop by the 2016 presidential election; she told Bustle that she spent a year and a half working on a dark, dystopian novel about “a world in which abortion and contraception became illegal.” That book didn’t work out, so she set it aside and wrote Mrs. Everything, a historical novel covering the past 70 years through the eyes of two Baby Boomer sisters whose lives turn out very differently.

Bethie is the perfect, pretty sister who can do no wrong in the eyes of the girls’ mother, whereas Jo is always getting into trouble. You’d expect Bethie to get married and have babies, but instead, she gets caught up in the 60s counterculture, while Jo—who realized early on that she was attracted to women—winds up with the more traditional life. Between them, they cover all the bases of mid- to late-20th-century formative Boomer experiences: Woodstock, an illegal pre-Roe v. Wade abortion, protests against the Vietnam War and for civil rights, consciousness-raising, Jane Fonda-style workout videos, Diane Keaton-in-“Baby Boom” homespun female entrepreneurship… the list goes on.

However, it was only in retrospect that I realized how many of those beats Weiner had hit, because as I was reading the book, I was so caught up in the lives of Bethie and Jo that it truly felt it was a story about real people, not two-dimensional avatars of the Female Experience. It also struck me what an important book this is—Weiner has readers of all ages, and the younger ones absolutely need to know what their foremothers went through (and where we could go back, if we’re not mindful of our rights). This is a moving, beautifully-written and deeply researched novel that pulls off the neat trick of being both extremely entertaining and a statement about how women’s lives have changed over the past few decades.

The author Roxane Gay once said that “Anytime I write a story about a women’s experience I am committing a political act.” That is certainly true of Jennifer Weiner, whose previous books were all too frequently dismissed as “chick lit” (a term that has, fortunately, become passé in recent years, in no small part due to Weiner’s own brave outspokenness about the literary establishment’s dismissal of novels written by and mostly for women). With Mrs. Everything, she has reached a new peak in her already-impressive 20-year-long career.