Book review: ‘The Wonder Bread Summer’ by Jessica Anya Blau

The Wonder Bread SummerAllie Dodgson thought she was doing everything right. The serious daughter of a restaurant owner and a wild tambourine girl, she’s used to towing the line to put herself through college. Misjudging an ex-boyfriend lands her in some financial trouble — which leads her to Jonas, an unscrupulous businessman who sells more than ill-fitting women’s fashions at his Berkeley storefront.

After Jonas refuses to pay Allie the wages she’s owed, a snap decision — stealing a Wonder Bread bag full of his pure cocaine — sends her on the run. With a friend’s fancy car and a hit man on her tail, Allie takes off toward Los Angeles with the vague hope that someone will come to her rescue. She just doesn’t know that person will be her.

Jessica Anya Blau’s The Wonder Bread Summer is a fast-paced, madcap, drug-induced craze of a novel. It’s fun and spunky and really, really wild — crazy, even — which made its illusions to Alice In Wonderland make a little more sense. I finished it in days, unable to put it down, and couldn’t believe the endless pickles into which Allie could catapult herself. But that was much of its charm.

Blau has created strange, effervescent characters that are almost caricatures of themselves. Allie herself is a college student in 1983, the daughter of a biracial black man and a biracial Chinese woman. Her overlapping identities play a large role in Allie’s self-discovery — and The Wonder Bread Summer felt very much like a trippy coming-of-age novel. Its frequent references to drug use and sexual situations might make a straitlaced reader like me blush, but her adventures were compelling and unique enough to keep me reading.

“Unique” is a pretty good summation of this story, which seemed “curiouser and curiouser” until its unexpected close. While I never felt emotionally attached to these folks, that wasn’t really the point. I was along for the ride, and I loved Allie’s odd encounter with Billy Idol and frequent references she makes to her Chinese grandmother’s words of wisdom. Told in all caps, Wai Po’s advice — A SPARK CAN START A FIRE THAT BURNS THE ENTIRE PRAIRIE; IF YOU HAVE NOTHING ELSE TO OFFER, OFFER YOUR SMILE always made me grin. Despite the messes in which Allie finds herself again and again, we know she has a good heart . . . and that she’s just trying to figure everything out.

Like how to get rid of all that coke.

While The Wonder Bread Summer isn’t your typical “beach bag” read, its sunny California setting and quick pace made for a fun early summer read. Blau uses sparse but vivid descriptions to draw us to her characters, one seriously oddball crew, and I’d recommend it to fans of contemporary fiction, adventure and ’80s-inspired reads.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062199552 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Drinking Closer To Home’ by Jessica Anya Blau

Siblings Portia, Anna and Emery return to their California home after their mother — the irrepressable, ethereal and intense Louise — suffers a heart attack. As the Stein family comes to terms with her mortality, each of Buzzy and Louise’s children sift through memories of their tumultuous childhoods at the hands of their parents, a free-wheeling couple with little regard for their children. It’s only by cataloguing the past that they are once again invited into each other’s lives, and each of their demons holds less purchase as they begin to reconcile who they were with where they are now.

Jessica Anya Blau’s Drinking Closer To Home, while fast-paced and shocking, is a difficult novel to digest. We’re presented with a group of very disturbed people, but I couldn’t put the book down; I had to know how this family became so eternally messed up. And how they all managed to emerge from that — though not unscathed.

Blau’s focus on family dynamics, marriage and infidelity were what carried the book for me. For having spent more than 300 pages with these people, I never felt like I got a good sense of any character — but maybe that was the point. Of everyone here, Anna probably enraged me the most. Wanton, disagreeable, surly and destructive, the eldest daughter treated everyone in the family in a cavalier way that made me want to slap her. But if I slapped her, I’d have to hit Louise, too.

Because really, who sucked more than Louise? She’s a “mother,” but we can use the term loosely. She’s selfish. Uncouth. More concerned with creating “art” in the 1960s than parenting her children, all of whom must become self-reliant at a young age. When she “quits” mothering, Portia must carry the slack for her disturbed older sister and confused younger brother. Louise would rather get high and read magazines than care for her kids, and her husband — a lawyer — encourages this. Or, if nothing else, does nothing to stop it. And finances it.

It was enraging.

The “twisted family” trope is nothing new. How many times have we read about screwed-up people who screw up their children? A thousand. And yet, Blau’s novel managed to keep and hold my attention from the first page to the last, probably because of the shocking sexual antics, insane life choices and complicated dynamics happening within its pages. Blurbers comment on the author’s wit and, yes, parts are sort of funny, but it’s mostly in a “Did they really say that?” way. In a “No grandfather could call his granddaughter that” way. A “That’s so disturbing that surely it’s meant to be comical” way.

And that’s not really how I like my books.

That’s not to say that Drinking Closer To Home isn’t a worthwhile read. It’s certainly well-written and engrossing, and if you enjoy examining the bonds of siblings and joining a family on a decades-long jaunt through time? Well, Blau’s novel would certainly entertain and bother you for a few days. In many ways, the dynamics at play reminded me of Robin Antalek’s The Summer We Fell Apart, a novel I absolutely loved. And, to my surprise, Antalek actually blurbed the book herself! She writes:

Drinking Closer To Home is as raw and heartbreaking as it is tender . . . an honest, haunting story with a keen insight into the human psyche.

Emphasis on the “haunting.”

And I have yet to figure out if that’s a good thing.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061984027 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours