Category Archives: First Novels

Youthful Accident or Racial Incident: Upper West Side Story by Susan Pashman

cover imageIn Upper West Side Story, a first novel by philosophy professor and former attorney Susan Pashman, two families in Manhattan are pitted against each other after a tragic accident (possibly a crime) goes from the personal to the political.

The case of two eighth-grade boys – best friends, one white and one black, both in the gifted class and on the chess team – just horsing around or maybe not? – while returning a weekend class trip to Washington, D.C. is nothing like a recent incident of the three black students who opened fire on workers in a Brooklyn school cafeteria, thinks Bettina, who narrates most of the story. Max, the white eighth-grader who becomes a public figure overnight is her son.

Bettina’s a political liberal – an academic – who prides herself on raising her two children – Max and his younger sister Nellie – to be comfortable in a racially diverse, urban environment. Bettina’s husband, Stephen – a city planner enmeshed in local politics – can see clearly how Max and Max’s best friend Cyrus are being used as pawns in the game of racial politics played by the mayor, the district attorney, and most of all the most vocal local activist on racial issues – City Council member Marcus Hake, an African-American fighting for social justice and against racial inequality under the law.

Here’s an excerpt from Upper West Side Story to give you an idea of it:

I stood up to face Stephen, a lump swelling in my throat. “It is simple,” I cried. “I can’t stand all this conniving and second-guessing when the truth is perfectly obvious. It’s always some stupid game with you politicians. But they can’t play games with our son, Stephen. That’s just not going to happen!”

I tore down the hall to our bedroom and stared out at the city. Down every street, behind every window, lives were being ruined – choked by greed, poisoned by ambition, obliterated by self-interest. The city stared back at me, a professor of political theory, a stalwart campaigner for a more just world.

“Sweetheart,” Stephen said gently He stood in the doorway to our room. “I know this could be a bit hard on Max, but it’ll be worse if we try to head it off. Hake will get the press revved up and they’ll mix this in with the cafeteria case even if the D.A. does nothing. It’s better to let them investigate and find nothing. If we get in his way, Hake will blow things up as he always does.

“The mayor’s obviously desperate for a bone to throw to him. The D.A., I’m sure just wants to keep up the office’s image as tough on crimes against kids. She won’t be as eager as the mayor is to yield to Hake. It’s a game, as you said, but I think we have to let it run its course.”

“I won’t have our son made a scapegoat! I won’t let those games get anywhere near him. We owe Max some peace!”

I turned back to the window. I felt a tear start down my cheek and brushed it aside. “They have to leave us in peace, Stephen. You and me, but most of all Max.”

Author Susan Pashman has clearly thought a lot about race, especially in terms of schools and parenting. In January, she started a Kids & Race blog where she posts on these issues. Writing a nuanced novel about a family in crisis allows her to delve more deeply into the complexity of reality vs. theory and imagine what’s happening out of the public eye when an event that you’re used to reading about in the news hits home.

Harvard Square Editions is a publishing house formed by and for Harvard University alumni to publish literary fiction with a social or environmental message. The message in Upper West Side Story that racial politics don’t tell the whole story occasionally overpowers the fiction, but the multilayered story of family, city, and the law, told in the voices of Bettina and Max is moving, and the clash of Bettina’s academic theories and liberal ideals with her maternal desire to protect and defend her son is realistic and thought-provoking.

Upper West Side Story
Pashman, Susan
Harvard Square Editions
May 28, 2015
978-1-941861-03-5
276 pp.
$22.95, softcover

DIsclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review. (I’m not part of the blog tour going on now, but check out it out for a chance to win one of 15 copies of Upper West Side Story.)

An Appetizing Mish-Mash: Delicious! by Ruth Reichl #weekendcooking @BethFishReads

cover imageDelicious! is a first novel by the long-time food writer and former editor of Gourmet Magazine, Ruth Reichl, and it’s a pleasant read. It makes a good book club choice because the themes are clear and there is a little something for everyone – a young woman’s journey into adulthood; a library scavenger hunt; budding romances; a race against time; a blend of contemporary New York life with small town life in World War II connected by old letters; and food! Enough talk about food and cooking to satisfy foodie readers.

Billie avoids her family by moving from California to New York, where her extraordinary palate and ability to discern various spices and ingredients lands her a job with the respected foodie magazine Delicious! (with an exclamation point).  When she gradually begins to uncover a trove of letters dating back to World War II written to a former magazine staffer (James Beard) Billie thinks they might be her own ticket to food writing fame.

Ruth Reichl is the author of several highly acclaimed memoirs about cooking, food writing, and being a restaurant critic, so she must have known she was going out on a limb by publishing a novel for the first time at age 60+. In fact, critical reviews kept me from reading this until it was a February book club choice, so I’m glad I finally gave it a chance. The parallels drawn between Billie’s life and the life of the young writer of the letters, Lulu, are a little obvious, but the multiple story lines and themes, as well as the twin quests that the two young women embark on in their different times, make it a good choice for a book club discussion, especially one with food!

Click here to read what our library book club thought of the book.

Delicious!
Reichl, Ruth
Whelan, Julia, narr.
Random House
May 2014

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy (ARC) of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program a long time ago! I ended up reading parts of the published book (not the ARC) and listening to parts of it on audio. Narrator Julia Whelan does a great job with all of the voices, including the male ones.

Weekend Cooking buttonThis post is part of Weekend Cooking, a weekly feature on Beth Fish Reads. Click here for more Weekend Cooking posts from bloggers around the world.

Shadowy Victorian London: The Quick by Lauren Owen @steeldroppings R.I.P. IX

cover imageThe bookish cover design and these blurbs from authors I really like lured me into reading The Quick by Lauren Owen – over 500 pages of subtle suspense or passages of normal Victorian life, broken up by occasional scenes of intense horror.

“A suspenseful, gloriously atmospheric first novel, and a feast of gothic storytelling that is impossible to resist.” – Kate Atkinson


“A sly and glittering addition to the literature of the macabre…As soon as you have breathed with relief, much worse horrors begin. It’s a skilled, assured performance, and it’s hard to believe it is a first novel.” – Hilary Mantel


“Ambitious, elegant, atmospheric, and often deeply poignant, The Quick is a seamless blend of Victorian London and rich imagination. This is a book to savor.” – Tana French

 Literary fiction with horror elements, The Quick is an engrossing story of love, loss, bravery, and fear, set in a Victorian London where one of the many exclusive, men-only clubs is especially secretive about its mysterious members and club activities.

Oh, yeah. Almost forgot to mention…it’s a vampire novel!

RIP IX Badge
Art credit to Abigail Larson