City on Fire kept popping up in front of me, the way some things do. I read raves and a few people recommended it so I barely blinked as I downloaded and dug into this buzz novel set in some of the darkest mosh pits of NYC’s punk scene in the 1970s. Hell yeah, rock ‘n’ roll, teenagers gone wild. Then, rookie error, about the time I was getting super into these stories — a misfit with a crush on a super-cool zine maker, a growly old journalist, an old cop, an old-money couple that is splitsville and a no-money couple that is also splitsville — I realized this confounded novel is 900-plus pages. Nine freaking hundred pages. Friends, I forged on and finished the f’er, but. Books don’t need to be this long. Ever. Never. When you write a 900-plus page book, I’m looking at you Garth Risk Hallberg, if that’s your real name, you’re telling readers that you don’t give a rip about the to-be-read pile that is tottering dangerously. Phooey. Never again, authors. Except you, Donna Tartt. You write as long as you want and I’ll be there.
About this time every summer I read a book that is a perfect fit for the season and it sort of seeps into my soul and makes me take bigger, deeper breaths. Summer 2016: I loved The Girls by Emma Cline. This quick-hit story is a retelling of the Manson family from the perspective of a teenager lured into the dirty-toed, tangled hair, partner swapping sect run by an enigmatic shorty at a dusty old ranch outside of town. It’s a streamlined version that leaves the La Bianca family out of the mess, but includes a music producer who goes back on his word. The Charles Manson-sort is a mini character on the periphery. At the center is Suzanne, of The Girls, an older girl who comes along at the right time for the lonely teen. The Manson stuff is told in flashback. Evie is now older, unsettled, and briefly caught in an uncomfortable living situation. This book is gooey, golden goodness.
A woman ditches something vague and seemingly bad in a small southern somewhere and is reborn when she crosses the bridge in her car, packed with the bare minimum, into NYC. The former barista charms her way into a tryout for a job as backwaiter at an upper-whatever restaurant. The kind of place where the wait staff has deep wine knowledge, can dish on music-theater-visual arts, and has a taste for oysters. Tess is pretty green when she first begins navigating this new world, but she gets swept up by her coworkers and the rowdy nightlife that goes along with restaurant life. Then, there’s the badass bartender boy and an enviable longtime server. Tess falls for the former and treats the latter like a mother-figure. Meanwhile, there is something deep, connected, weird and “Flowers in the Attic”-y about her new friends.
You know how when you’re in your 20s you do all of this really stupid stuff that sometimes still causes you to make a sudden cringe face unexpectedly so mostly you just pretend you were born at age 30? Right. So Tess does a lot of really familiar stuff in this book and, because she’s still in the belly of the 20-something beast, she just owns it. And it feels a little good to see someone kind of say “So what?”
Also: Stephanie Danler writes like a dream.