This year I got back into reading fiction. I took a break for a while because I was trying to seem sophisticated and knowledgeable by only reading biographies and critically acclaimed nonfiction. Needless to say that got really boring really quickly.
Packer's splintered narrative style and rich characters made The Children's Crusade one of my favorite titles to hit shelves this year. Families, by definition, are dysfunctional. Mine is, and my best friend’s is, and you’d be lying if you said yours isn't. And that's the ugly truth. In Packer’s latest family saga, Bill Blair’s four children (one unwanted) navigate their way through a precarious childhood in an attempt to keep their misguided mother, Penny, from falling off the deep end. Set in what is now Silicon Valley, The Children's Crusade jumps around in time and point-of-view — not in a needlessly confounding way, but as a way to intensify another one of its themes: that the four Blair children (like all children) each came fully loaded at birth with their own idiosyncratic temperaments.
While we’re on the topic of dysfunction, let’s talk about my group of friends: and yours, too, for that matter. Separately, we’re messy people each leading very different lives. Together, we’re still messy people leading very different lives who just happen to appreciate each other’s quirks. Lisa Lutz explores the dynamics of friendship in her 2015 novel How to Start a Fire which follows three college friends through the treacherous territory that is adulthood. Kate Smirnoff (like the vodka), Anna Fury, and George Leoni met in 1993, when all three were students at UC Santa Cruz. Freshman roommates Kate and Anna found George passed out on the lawn outside a party they had all attended. The girls quickly become friends and are bound together for life after a traumatic experience in their mid-20s.
It’s rare to find a novel that’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. Letty Espinosa is suddenly handed responsibility for her two children, 6 year-old Luna and 15 year-old Alex, after her parents (the children's former caregivers) return to their childhood home in Mexico. At first, Letty struggles with the inevitable challenges that motherhood presents, fumbling her way through a series of bad decisions before she gains her footing. Diffenbaugh paints an eye-opening picture of modern day San Francisco for readers; she introduces us to the immigrant families who are hoping to build a life for themselves by working three jobs and living in devastating poverty, simultaneously holding their families together.
Act of God by Jill Ciment
A mysterious, luminescent mold infestation spreads through Brooklyn in the summer of 2015, sparing no New Yorker in its path. The ‘supermold’ is first discovered in the apartments of a rowhouse, entwining the lives of its residents: the elderly twin sisters, Edie and Kat, one a retired librarian, the other a failed bohemian; Vida, a middle-aged actress; and Ashley, an 18-year-old Russian au pair discovered hiding in Vida’s closet. The narrative shifts between the four women as they’re evacuated from their homes, until Edie eventually dies from spore inhalation and Kat is left to face the entire bizarre situation alone with only the company of a crazy cat lady and the unbearable grief that came with the loss of her twin sister. The novel is in some ways a character study and, in others, a play on science fiction in its entirety. Ultimately, it’s weird and that’s what I liked about it. Plus--the cover is really pretty.
Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes
Living can be a distressingly solitary activity and Holmes explores this hard truth with unexpected poignancy, subtlety and humor. Her characters are students and urbanites and rule-breakers and quarter-life-crisis-havers, some of whom own dogs or want to. Holmes is so skillful at characterization — weaving in specific details that illustrate everyday desires, failures and striving — that I was suddenly skeptical when I came to "My Humans," the third-to-last story in the book, which is told from the point of view of a dog. “My Humans", however, is every bit as moving as the other stories in the collection and while not perfect it tells us just as much, if not more, about human nature than the stories actually narrated by people.