An engaging and hope-filled novel that serves as a reminder of the difficult but joyful game that family life can be.

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A STOP IN THE PARK

Dissatisfied with his crumbling marriage, hectic workload and chaotic family life, a Washington, D.C., attorney with anger management issues resolves to change his life.

Strack’s moving novel depicts a desperate modern family’s struggle to restore the sense of simple fun and romance that once united them. Since his recent promotion to attorney manager, Michael Stolis is overworked but making enough money to temporarily patch the holes of his life. When his two daughters aren’t watching television or eating junk food, it’s only because Michael is berating them and his wife, Jamie, for allowing it. Jamie, a former journalist who left her career to become a mom, is equally miserable. To distract herself from the poisonous atmosphere, she spends hours shopping online and flirting with other men on Facebook. Michael has numerous passions—chess, running, healthy eating. One day, while walking through Dupont Circle toward another disappointing family dinner, Michael slips away from the family in search of a blitz chess competitor and meets Rufus, a retired black man Michael immediately envies for his “demeanor [that] exuded serenity.” A jovial, sagelike presence, Rufus is an excellent player but doesn’t care about winning, a fact ever-competitive Michael fails to comprehend, especially after he gets creamed. But when Jamie finally boots Michael from the house, which “could be the beginning of the marriage bust” that neither person wants, Rufus may be just the man to help him restore the lighthearted nature of his early marriage. Hopping back and forth between Michael’s and Jamie’s perspectives, Strack delivers piercing dialogue and intense emotional struggle that fashions a chesslike battle for their daughters’ approval and the upper hand. Filled with moments of tenderness and insight, particularly in Michael’s attempts to make his wife and daughters laugh, Strack’s novel expertly captures the nuances of a complicated marriage, including the small tics that can become explosions of contempt. Certain metaphors feel heavy-handed (after discovering a hornets’ nest outside the kitchen window, Jamie sprays it and later notes how, like the nest, “She had a body, but it was vacant”), and the story often errs on the side of melodrama, but Strack writes with clear, thoughtful and passionate prose, making for a tense and compulsively readable story of family redemption.

An engaging and hope-filled novel that serves as a reminder of the difficult but joyful game that family life can be.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2012

ISBN: 9781475150995

Page Count: 366

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 6, 2012

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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A story with both comedy and heartbreak sure to please Backman fans.

ANXIOUS PEOPLE

Eight people become unlikely friends during a hostage situation created by an inept bank robber.

In a town in Sweden, a desperate parent turns to bank robbery to help pay the rent. Unfortunately, the target turns out to be a cashless bank, which means that no robbery can take place. In an attempt to flee the police, the would-be perpetrator runs into a nearby apartment building and interrupts an open house, causing the would-be buyers to assume they're being held hostage. After the situation has ended with an absent bank robber and blood on the carpet, a father-and-son police pair work through maddening interviews with the witnesses: the ridiculous realtor; an older couple who renovates and sells apartments in an effort to stay busy; a bickering young couple expecting their first child; a well-off woman interested only in the view from the balcony of a significant bridge in her life; an elderly woman missing her husband as New Year’s Eve approaches; and, absurdly, an actor dressed as a rabbit hired to disrupt the showing and drive down the apartment price. Backman’s latest novel focuses on how a shared event can change the course of multiple people’s lives even in times of deep and ongoing anxiousness. The observer/narrator is winding and given to tangents and, in early moments, might distract a bit too much from the strongly drawn characters. But the story gains energy and sureness as it develops, resulting in moments of insight and connection between its numerous amiable characters.

A story with both comedy and heartbreak sure to please Backman fans.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6083-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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