The Home Place

home place

When her reckless, drug-abusing sister is found dead, lying face down and unattended in the snow, Alma must return to her hometown and help police with the investigation. It could have just been exposure – having had the bad luck to pass out unconscious in the brutal Montana cold  - or it could have been murder.

In Vicky and Alma, La Seur creates a tension of opposites. Though on the one hand they seem a bit like stock characters – in fact, many of the characters in this book seemed archetypal to me – it’s compelling to watch Alma’s steely resolve crumble, to bear  witness as she learns that not everything can be controlled, stored away, hidden from.  As she’s forced to reacquaint herself with the people that made up her past and the mistakes that perhaps led to this present, Alma must examine her long-ago choices, and see if there is anything she can do now to make them right.

It’s always heartening to watch a character go on this sort of journey, to come up against moments of reckoning, to grab that long-lost chance. My problem here was that I couldn’t connect to the characters – or even to the plot. It felt very much as if the author was trying to check all her boxes, to keep all her cogs in place, to ensure the pace moved meanderingly along to the denouement. Vicky’s death never felt like a loss to me – only the event that set the story in motion. I couldn’t feel the gravity of her passing, perhaps because the people touched by her death – her sister, her young child – are resolved not to cry. As a reader, I was waiting for the chink in the armor, for the moment that would make the tragedy seem tragic instead of just a call for efficacy.

I wish I hadn’t felt so detached, because I thought the book held great promise. It’s being compared with dramas like The House Girl which I loved and, structured differently, I think it could’ve been very powerful. Throughout, I wanted first person narration rather than third, and a novel told in multiple voices: Maybe  Vicky’s, post-mortem, Lovely Bones style, Alma’s and finally Vicky’s daughter, Brittany. Pete the turned-around older brother and Uncle Walt, a volatile Vietnam vet, could’ve also been good narrative choices – especially because either of them could’ve stopped Vicky’s death from happening.

I think this sort of creativity was hampered by the direct journey we take from beginning to end. (The book is even told chronologically, with no straying from the timeline). But who knows – this is only a debut, with some very strong, evocative writing, particularly on its first few pages. We will see more from this author. Perhaps on her next attempt, she will show us more reach.

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for my advance review copy!

“Astonish Me” at the Library

Since moving to Deal, NJ for the summer at the end of June, I’ve been so thankful for by my local library – a cozy, bright, inviting place that’s a joy to visit. I’m not much of a library patron – snobby as this sounds, I don’t like the feel of used books or that musty library smell. I like my books crisp and fresh and this library delivers. It’s orderly and clean, the books are new as can be and how amazing to catch up on books I’ve always wanted to read (or recently heard about) for free?

elberon library

Nearly every Friday, I’ve taken my 18-month-old there for story time and of course there is much lingering at the shelves when it’s over. For the first time in a long time (bookstores don’t do this for me anymore) I’ve felt like a serendipitous browser. And the selection is amazing! Books that came out a week ago are in stock here. No waits, no holds – it’s mine as fast as I can snatch it up.

Among the first batch of books I checked out was Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me and it is most certainly aptly named!

astonish me

While there was so much I admired about this novel – the carefully measured writing, the interior narrative voice and the immersive way Shipstead incorporated ballet culture and terminology, the last quarter of it was downright creepy – wholly unexpected and I might even say unearned. Was this where Shipstead was going all along? If so, she should have done more through the first half of the book to foreshadow or make the relationship credible. Did she happen upon this idea suddenly and decide to go through with it for shock value’s sake? (Authors do this and I hate it – it’s so manipulative!) What was going through her head? Did she see the end at the very beginning? And if so, how did she keep up the book-length facade? I’m intentionally being unclear here because I don’t want to give anything away, but those of you who’ve read it, what’s your verdict? Is this book well-choreographed, masterfully planned? Or does it completely crumple under the way of an unviable ending? Share. Opinions. Please!

Land of Love and Drowning

land of love

I first got turned on to this book from Rebecca at BookRiot.com. She said she read it in delicious little sips and that it was full of magic and myth. I couldn’t resist that sort of exuberance – the promise of a gorgeously-written, slightly fantastical world. And so I requested this one for review and wasn’t disappointed. The book is finely executed and infused with all the twang and charm of the Caribbean. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but that turned out to be a wholly refreshing thing.

I’ll come right out and say this for the sake of those who need to know it: incest is a big part of the plot – father/daughter and half-brother/half-sister. Normally, that sort of thing makes me squeamish, but here…though it was incest, I didn’t see it like that, really. Perhaps this is owing to the strength of Yanique’s writing. She makes you feel like these are simply cases of forbidden love. Love that cannot be permitted, certainly, but still love that is valid and true and strong. I didn’t feel as if the half-siblings were that to eachother – more like they were thwarted romantic partners, who, if they could be together, would do very well with eachother. The same goes for the feelings sprouting up between father and daughter -rather than a gross abomination, they felt like idolation taken a bit too far.

Why does Yanique paint her situations this way? Why does she makes us feel the pull of her characters’ connections, even as they are entirely wrong for eachother? I think because she wants us to think about something larger than the appropriateness of a relationship. What about when you’re in the thing already – because objectified, being romanticized – what then? Sometimes, in life, it is too late to turn back, you’ve already gotten swept up in the current or swayed by a false impression. It’s already happened. So what do you make of the future remaining?

This book is about otherness, it’s about colonization and belonging, desire and freedom – and love in its many forms. Yanique draws her characters with empathy and tenderness rather than the shame and disgust you’d expect given the subject matter. And that is what makes this such an interesting read. It’s not often my perspective is broadened to this degree – so that I see the struggle above all things. Yanique should be praised for not only taking a risk but doing so beautifully – with bravery and with grace.

Many thanks to Riverhead Books for my advance reader’s copy!

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky

toledo

This book was such a pleasure to read. I gave it 5 stars easily – as easily as Lydia Netzer’s characters fall in love once they meet.

Smart and observant, laugh-out-loud funny with vulnerability underneath, Netzer’s latest is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It seeks to undermine the traditional love story – even make a mockery of romantic love by taking it literally. We loosely throw around the concept of soul mates and the notion of fate, but in reality, do they exist? And if they don’t, can we will that majesty into being via our own machinations?

A bit of an aside: In the Jewish religion it’s actually believed that married couples are two halves of a single soul, so that when they meet on earth there’s a resounding connection between them. It’s not fabricated, the way it is in this book by George and Irene’s mothers – we believe it’s preordained by G-d. Nevertheless, this concept felt familiar to me and real: how you might ground and control a very spiritual concept.

I think Lydia Netzer believes in romantic love – but her characters chaf against it at first and, ultimately, want it to be earned. That’s the most interesting part about this book, I think (and there are many fascinating elements) – the emotional journey the characters undergo before and after they find eachother.

I loved How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. I thought it crackled with energy and each day its storyline was something I couldn’t wait to get back to. It’s pure, guitless pleasure, hours of unabashed fun and also a very smart meditation on the core of human experience: love. I hope you all enjoy it this summer!

Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press for my review copy!

It’s Monday….

Hello, everyone!

I thought I’d breathe some life back into this blog by sharing what I’m reading this week. I may have finally gotten into the reading groove, having finished a book last week, wrote a blog post and started another one soon after. The book was Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique and a review will be up on its publication day, July 10th. Now I’m reading Lydia Netzer’s How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky

toledo

and it’s so much fun! I think I’m enjoying it a little too much. But it’s just what I needed to restore my faith in reading and thaw out my mental state.

On that front, I got a job at my old high school! It doesn’t feel real yet, because I haven’t signed a contract, but I’ll be teaching two semesters of creative writing (one to juniors and one to seniors) working hours in their writing center and also supervising the literary magazine. I’ve been given complete flexibility with the creative writing class – I can shape the curriculum however i want – which is really exciting. I’ve never taught at the high school level or made so many lesson plans before but I think I’ll really enjoy the process. I’m trying to breathe through it all and tell myself I’ll still be able to read books for pleasure.

I hope to finish Toledo today (it’s  completely addicting) and have a review up on pub day tomorrow – so keep a look out!

It’s Monday….What Are You Reading?

So, as you’ve probably noticed, the blog’s gone a major hiatus lately. It feels major, though my last post is only  a week old. I haven’t been able to think about blogging, let alone reading, for reasons I hope I’ll be able to share in the next few days. Until this pans out, my reading has gone into freeze mode. But  for the past 10 days, I’ve been aimlessly reading:

cartographer

As Shannon from River City Reading warned, it’s very battle-heavy and it isn’t keeping my attention. I’m debating over whether to keep at it or abandon it in favor of a fantasy novel (choices: Alias Hook, Queen of the Tearling, Book 1 of The Magicians series) which seems to be what I need right now. Though I did hope to review it this month, as it’s just been released in paperback.

I apologize, really, for not visiting any of your blogs in the past week. Let me just get my life in order, and I’ll be back soon :)

We Are Called To Rise

we are called to rise

We Are Called To Rise is that rare thing – a novel with lofty aspirations that actually lives up to them. Laura McBride aims to make us just a little more compassionate, a little more cognizant of this world and our role in it. The small acts, the big ones – the way both sets are equally important but unequally acknowledged. In We Are Called To Rise,  she calls us to attention, asks us to bear witness – and it is profoundly moving reading experience.

I’m in awe of McBride and what she has done here – the level of sophistication, of forethought and existentialism that she has brought to this novel. There is a deftness of execution, an understanding of the human condition, that few novelists achieve in their best attempts. This is her first attempt and she has nailed it.

You’ve heard the expression “this novel will leave you changed.” Perhaps you’re tired of it. Perhaps you don’t believe it. Well, believe it now, because this one will. It will make you conscious of the effect you can have as an individual – and it will make you want to do big, grand things in consequence.

McBride explores these conditions: The immigrant experience, the child’s perspective, a former solider’s struggle, the disintegration of a long-time marriage. Those are its pieces. But more generally this novel is about war and the way its effects can ricochet, violently disturbing everyone in its orbit. It is about the way four embattled people can come together, hurt one another and then make each other whole again.

The writing in this book is phenomenal. It is the kind of writing that makes you sit up straighter, read faster but also with more care because you know something special is happening in the sentences. Each narration is stretched taut with meaning – with the pain and contradiction of human experience. McBride does such a good job of this – of creating characters who are real and raw and whose hopes and regrets are palpable.

We Are Called to Rise is a must-read. If only because it will enlarge your heart, open your eyes, ensure that you don’t shy away from the next horrific news segment. It’s in facing the unbearable that we become bigger, better people. Laura McBride wants that for each of her readers. She’s penned her story with these lofty expectations. Now she hopes we’ll go out into the world and surpass them.

Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for my advance reader’s copy!

Mrs. Hemingway

28book "Mrs. Hemingway" by Naomi Wood.

If you’re like me, you think you know everything there is to know about Hemingway’s romantic exploits. You’ve read The Paris Wife  about Ernest’s marriage to first wife Hadley and you’ve read Hemingway’s Girl about his marriage to Fife. Lo and behold there’s another two wives to add to the mix – a quartet of women who got tangled up in matrimony with this serial cheater.

What’s so wonderful about Mrs. Hemingway are the perspectives of Martha and Mary, only briefly mentioned in the other two books that I read and given about 80 page each, here. Reading about these two women – about all of them, really – was akin to reading a gossip magazine or eating the sweetest candy. Just pure, guilt-less enjoyment – and maybe a bit voyeuristic. The genius of Wood’s technique is that she doesn’t keep these women separate. She lets their sections bleed into one another, so that they make cameo appearances in each other’s stories and, more often than not, become friends commiserating over their loaf of a husband.

Wood begins each women’s point of view with the end of her marriage to Hemingway – the point at which it is beginning to disintegrate in favor of the next woman waiting. Because we get the end before we get beginning, the chronology was a bit disorienting to me. Wood may start out in August of a certain year, go back to April and then flash forward again to September so that the reader never knows what slice of the romance they’re going to get next or which way the story is going to be colored. I would’ve liked Wood to go in order month-wise in each of her sections, but that’s really the only gripe I have with this novel.

Wood has done her research, without getting bogged down in it. Hers is more of a human interest story, where I’m sure creative liberties were taken. She looks deeply into each Mrs. Hemingway painting them as strong, personable women – rather than people who would let themselves get taken. Her sympathy clearly lies with them, even as some trickles down for the depressed and sorry Hemingway.

Readers have been given a treat with this novel – a complete picture of the Hemingway marriages and an indirect portrait of the man himself.

Many thanks to Penguin Books for my advanced reader’s copy!

The Unfinished Child

unfinished child

More than a novel with Down Syndrome at its center, The Unfinished Child is a story about friendship. Friendship, infertility, impending motherhood and the often impossible choices that women are forced to make in their lives.  Told in alternating narratives, decades apart, the two story lines eventually converge in a gripping  and exciting way.

Initially, I felt more drawn to one narrative than the other; I found the Marie/Elizabeth sections to be steeped in repetition and predictability (Bitterness, self-pity. Bitterness, self-pity.) (Then again, I’ve never known what it’s like to be unable to conceive – or to conceive by surprise. How can I judge these characters’ emotions?)  In contrast, the Margaret/Dr. Maclean sections to be written with a heightened sensitivity – as if the stakes were raised. In a way they were. With them, Shea was trying to make an important point about the way Down Syndrome was initially perceived and treated – heinously. Ultimately, though,  her book is about so much more than a medical condition and its evolution over time. As the story progresses, an added layer of complexity settles itself like a shroud and all of its threads become increasingly tangled up in each other. It’s just wonderful how Shea brings it all together – these two seemingly unconnected, time-lapsed narratives relating in the most important way.

There is a crucial decision made in the novel. One that will change the course of three lives and a friendship. I didn’t feel like Shea explained fully the rationale for why that decision was made (which is ironic, really, because the book is all about decision- making). I think I understand the oversight, though. Shea was trying to go for the grand effect – for a dialed-up level of suspense and drama. As such, she was in a rush – telling the ending just as quickly as her reader was turning the pages. She succeeded in her momentum-building, but failed to give her story the closure it needed. If I were her editor I would’ve asked to unpack that final decision a little more fully – or at least more clearly.

Still, The Unfinished Child is a powerful, sensitively-told tale. Join in with Margaret, Elizabeth and Marie as they struggle to make the toughest life choices. And ask yourself, would you have done differently?

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for my review copy and for having me as a host!

The Vacationers

vacationers

We’ve all read these sorts of novels: “Angst-ridden family clusters together in a single location. A myriad of emotions surface.” And yet, there is nothing stale about this book. The Vacationers manages to be a feel-good, lighthearted story, despite the fact that many of its characters are healing from betrayal. Though the premise may be typical, the execution is not. Be prepared to smile, nod in recognition, laugh in wry amusement, roll your eyes and get that warm blush during the tender moments. Emma Straub’s characters are a winsome combination.

The Vacationers may not be as ambitious as Straub’s previous work, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, but it must have required a deft and careful touch. Straub’s narration, as she places these characters with their scandalous backstories in such close proximity, is wise and reflective, warm and knowing. It makes you wish she’d look in on your life and give you advice.

On to the Post clan, inhabiting a beach house in Mallorca, Spain for a two-week vacation. There’s the 60-year-old father who cheated on his wife with an intern after 35 years of marriage, the gay husbands, one of whom is the mother’s best friend, the daughter, trying her best to forget an alcohol-laden party and also to lose her virginity and the infantile son, buried in debt, who has brought along his much-older girlfriend. With so many of the characters skirting around one another, it’s no surprise Straub uses an omniscient narrator who knows these people better than they know themselves. Until, of course, they begin to know themselves and change.

I would’ve liked more “bruised-character-to-bruised-character” interaction, instead of so many third parties delicately broaching the difficult subjects. But then again the few moments where these characters do interact are poignant and frankly just right. So I will give no more constructive criticism to Straub, who has created such real and human characters that they carry her story for her. We will root for them and engage with them  no matter the setting – be it a common-enough hometown or Mallorca, Spain. I for one am still thinking about Jim, Franny, Sylvia and Bobby, characters so vividly drawn they may as well be real friends.

Many thanks to Riverhead Books for my advanced reader’s copy!