“The School for Good Mothers” by Jessamine Chan

This is a quick and interesting read — a thought provoking premise and plot, though it does drag in patches. The novel is mainly about the insanely unrealistic societal expectation of what makes a “good mother.” Other themes include gender and race inequity, model minority bias, mental illness, governmental intrusion and oversight, etc.

Frida is the narrator, a new mother coming apart at the seams, the only daughter of immigrant Chinese parents. In a nutshell, on page 1, Frida has a “bad day” (her words, oft repeated) and walks out leaving her toddler unattended for a few hours. Child protective services gets involved and the rest is a mixed bag with a little bit of a plot, mostly showcasing how absurd it is to try and find a metric for what makes a good mother. The plot line is weak, but the vignettes are powerful. The author dwells at length on Frida’s internal monologue — about her childhood, her marriage, her conflicted feelings about her child and the overwhelmed feeling that all parents know only too well. Also powerful are the stories of the women Frida meets in the Orwellian state-run re-education school that purportedly will teach her to be a good mother.

Most devastating are the standards for being a “good mother” — they are absurd, self-contradictory, and set a bar virtually impossible to meet. If you add in the need for most women to earn a living, to eat and sleep and care for themselves and others, being the ideal mother becomes an even crazier pipe dream. In the satirical presentation of these “good mother” standards, the author is making the point that societal and cultural expectations are warped and pushing women to unreasonable lengths.

Relatively few books I have read mention the duality of parents’ intense emotions towards a baby or toddler. At times, you cannot bear to be apart from your child and at times you simply want to be alone for a breath (or an hour, a day, a week!). There is little understanding and acceptance of this conflict and a lot of judgmental attitudes. The School for Good Mothers brings up this ambivalence and also the harshness with which it is vilified not only by outsiders, but by the very women who experience it.

The details of the weeks and months spent in the reeducation program dragged a little, as did Frida’s occasionally annoying neediness. But all in all, I would recommend this for a quick read and some deep thinking.

The School for Good Mothers
Author: Jessamine Chan
Publisher: ‎ Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: January 2022

Contributor: Seema Varma is a reader of fiction — fantasy, mystery and more

“The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop is a cute read, particularly for music buffs (which I am not). The protagonist (Frank) has had a bohemian childhood, raised by an unconventional and controlling mother with a passion for music on vinyl that she passed on to Frank. Frank owns a music store on a run-down street that sells only vinyl and lives in an apartment above his store. The street is populated with several other run-down stores run by picturesque (and down and out) characters, all of who form a tight knit community where they mind each other’s business. The scene is charmingly set and Frank’s encyclopedic musical knowledge and his “super-power” to find just the right music that speaks to each customer is eloquently described.

Into this setting walks our heroine – a mysterious foreigner who falls in love with Frank (and he with her). The story proceeds and sad things happen but there is some romance and lots of music. Gentrification comes to the run-down street and vinyl is supplanted by CDs and Frank suffers, but the book manages to end on a relatively positive note.

This is not a deep book or even an excellent book but it’s a cute read and the music playlist is lovely – I have been listening to it on Spotify and the range of genres is amazing.

The best thing about this book is that it got me to check out Joyce’s other writing and I found her previous work and read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by her, which I absolutely loved.

If you read this book first, you’ll be well served. If you read Harold Fry first and come to this book expecting something as powerful, you will be disappointed. 

The Music Shop
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: January 2018

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer and an avid reader of fiction.

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce

A friend brought me Rachel Joyce’s new book The Music Shop (also reviewed here) and I liked that so much that I looked up her previous work and found this title which is evidently her best known work.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the story of an awkward, socially inept, mostly overlooked and undervalued plodding sort of man with an unremarkable career and dreary retired life. Harold gets a letter from an ex-colleague saying that she is in hospice, dying of cancer and he is struck by the fact that this woman did something remarkable for him that he never acknowledged or gave thanks for and she simply dropped out of his life for decades. He decides to write back, a note of a sympathy in a sentence or two, but as he walks to the mailbox to mail his missive, he finds himself just walking further and further towards her hospice (which is hundreds of miles away). Without forethought or plan he finds himself taking weeks and months to walk to her side and meet her before she dies.

As the story unfolds we learn about Harold’s life – his unhappy marriage and his lack of success as a father, his friendship of Queenie (the dying colleague) – in small snippets, interspersed with the details of his journey, the people he meets and the life stories that are impacted by his journey. We come to know his wife and the love and promise of the early days of their marriage, decaying to endless anger and bitterness in the present moment. And we see Harold as anything but unremarkable in his quest.

This is a short book and a very quick read, written in a straightforward, direct manner with no frills and flourishes. The story is powerful, reading almost like a biblical parable. And the ending is sublime with two twists, one that I saw coming pretty early on and the other that knocked me over. There are a couple of patches in the middle where I was impatient with Harold’s entourage and some side stories, but other than that, each page was a gift.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: July 2012

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer and an avid reader of fiction.

“Snap” by Belinda Bauer

Snap by Belinda Bauer is a murder mystery longlisted for the Booker in 2018, and I absolutely loved it. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries which are gripping, well paced and well plotted but mostly formulaic – it’s not easy to churn out book after book that makes for a pleasant afternoon read, quickly devoured and quickly forgotten but fun while it lasts. There are many authors that do a great job in the thriller category (Lee Child, Baldacci, Turow, etc.) and many that do a wonderful job in the murder mystery genre (Louise Penny is a great favorite and so is Ian Rankin).
However, writing in the same genre but in a class apart are others, like Ruth Rendell, Barbara Vine, Colin Dexter, Tana French.

Like these stellar writers and perhaps even surpassing them, Belinda Bauer has written a murder mystery that is wonderfully populated with characters and their broken lives just like a literary novel, but with the characteristic pace and plotting that makes a mystery novel a page-turner. I couldn’t decide if I should read slowly to savor the writing and the details or read fast to move on with the plot. I did a bit of both!

The protagonist is Jack, a teenage boy trying to hold his family together in the absence of both parents and dealing with the murder of his mother. His character, his thoughts and his trauma are very well depicted with a light and deft narration and Jack retains his teenage-ness without descending into melodrama or pathos. Jack’s siblings, his neighbour and the police men and women are brought to life beautifully, with each having a very distinct voice and personality. The story unfolds slowly and surely but the end doesn’t fully live up to the promise of the beginning. Even so, I highly recommend this book and will be buying a copy or two to give as gifts.

Author: Belinda Bauer
Publisher: Bantam Press
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer, a voracious reader of fiction.

“A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin’s collection of short stories is simply superlative. The stories draw heavily on the author’s eventful life as an alcoholic, a teen single mother, a nurse in ER, and a cleaning lady. Reading the collection is a little like reading an autobiography with detailed insight into some portions of her life and an translucent curtain drawn over other portions. Each story is a beautiful little vignette, a little like a comic strip where character and movement and plot all come together with a few brushstrokes. Her writing is simple and spare, direct and searing, reminding me of Didion and Hemingway, packing a punch to the gut with little fanfare and no drama.

Lucia Berlin had an alcoholic mother, alcoholic uncle, abusive grandfather and a sister who died young, of cancer. She had four sons, the first born while she was a teenager, and she raised them on her own as she slid into alcoholism while working all manner of odd jobs. For some part of her childhood, she lived a life of wealth and privilege in Chile but was disowned by her family after her first pregnancy. These are facts I gleaned from the stories, but in a circuitous way because the stories meander to and fro over the years of her life. There are stories detailing incidents from years of her childhood interspersed with those talking about her nursing of her younger sister as she lies dying in Mexico, surrounded by children, ex-husbands and a lover.

Many of the stories are poignant – an alcoholic single mother gathering coins late at night to get a cup of alcohol, stumbling 45 mins one way to the liquor store that opens at dawn because her grown sons have hidden her car keys and wallet, then trudging back in time to get the laundry done so the younger boys have clean socks for school. Some are heart-wrenching – especially the memorable tale of a young Mexican immigrant with a husband in prison, a newborn son and absolutely no resources. Others are provocative, such as the tale of a mother finding a soulmate and lover in her son’s friend. There is plenty of humor, particularly of the darker sort.

This is not a book to miss. I was enthralled and uncharacteristically read it slowly so I could draw it out and savor each story, mull it over and digest it before I moved to the next. I have already bought a copy to give to a friend and will be passing my copy around to a few more friends.

A Manual for Cleaning Women
Author: Lucia Berlin
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: August 2015

Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader, sometime engineer.

“Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones is Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 National Book Award winner (she is much in the news lately for her 2017 National Book Award winner Sing, Unburied, Sing which I loved). It is the story of a family living in poverty in semi-rural Mississippi in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage. The protagonist is a young teenage girl who has two older brothers and a younger brother. Their father is largely absent in any supervisory sort of parenting role and focused on preparing the house for the onslaught of Katrina. The mother has died some years ago in childbirth.

As the story unfolds, we get to meet the family and their friends and see the world from our protagonist’s viewpoint, with all the pain and panic of realizing she is pregnant, the care and concern for her brothers and the anguish of unrequited love. We see her brothers struggle with their own demons – one brother has basketball aspirations and hopes for opportunity, another is totally absorbed with his dog and her litter and the puppies’ well being. The father is focused on preparing their decrepit house to withstand the coming storm, oblivious of the storms raging in his children’s lives. Ward is not verbose and descriptions do not drag on, but the early chapters are awash with all manner of big and small details of life that make this family real to the reader. When the storm finally hits, we are heavily vested in their struggle to survive, and the description of the power and majesty of the storm is gripping. However, it is in the aftermath with the family picking themselves up, that this book shines brightest.

The writing is lyrical and reminds me of Maya Angelou – Jesmyn Ward writes like a painter or poet. The scenes she sets, the characters she puts in those scenes and the description is so absorbing that you barely notice the story unfolding. Ward takes a poor dysfunctional family with problems aplenty (petty crime, dog fighting, drugs and teenage pregnancy) and makes them beautiful and noble and heroic.

This is a book that will shine for some years to come. I am so glad to have read it.

Salvage the Bones
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: September 2011

Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader, sometime engineer.

“Canada” by Richard Ford


Richard Ford’s “Canada” is the first of his books that I have read, but it will not be the last. An author in the grand tradition of Franzen in his description of family dysfunction, he writes a slow moving and subtle book, emphasizing the inner workings of his character’s mind and his difficult coming of age story rather than the intricacies of plotting.

Dell Parsons is the teenage son of Neeva and Bev Parsons and twin brother of Berner Parsons whose life story is grandly dramatic and worthy of a fast-moving pulp fiction thriller. Dell’s life falls apart one summer in Montana as his parents make a giant foolish leap into criminality and fail spectacularly. He is cast from the proverbial frying pan into the fire in his “escape” to Canada. Within the broad and grand sweep of this story, the author details his protagonist in small steady brush strokes. The first couple of hundred pages are very slow as Dell prepares for high school in his little town and talks about his family, his surroundings and small day to day events and descriptions. Taken at the pace the author sets, it’s like watching a train wreck in super-slow motion. Richard Ford sets this up cleverly, telling us the most important dramatic details right up front in the first few sentences.

This book falls short on a few counts and succeeds in others. It needed some self-discipline to plod through the first couple of hundred pages which are slow and meandering. For the more impatient modern reader, 200+ pages of slow moving storyline could be a deal-breaker. However, the second half of the book had me completely hooked, so the discipline of working my way through the slow first half paid off amply in the end.

The book’s great success is in describing a “regular” adolescent faced with “irregular” life experiences and painting a clear, believable picture of the protagonist that resonated with me as the reader. The poignant contrast of the melodramatic events in the plot and the protagonist’s calm and matter of fact narration are masterful.

Author: Richard Ford
Publisher: Ecco Press
Publication Date: June 2012

Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader – mystery, fantasy, literary fiction.