Review: The Caregiver

Having grown up in an unbroken home, with present and participative parents and enough food to eat and clothes that I didn’t have to buy (or beg for) secondhand, I’ve taken a lot for granted, I know. One major “thing”: my relationship with my parents, and in particular, with my mother. She’s always been a positive part of my life, overflowing with love and kindness and patience. But I know that not everyone is so fortunate, and possibly because of that, I’ve forever been fascinated by the relationships between mothers and daughters.

The Caregiver, by the late Samuel Park, is just that: a portrait of mother and daughter, displayed in pieces of the past. Mara Alencar is an immigrant living in Bel Air in the 1990s, serving as an in-home caregiver for a wealthy (and isolated) woman who is battling cancer. Their relationship is complicated — one stranger caring intimately for another, what wouldn’t be awkward about that, at first? — and made even more so by the fact that Mara’s patient, Kathryn, begins to make extravagant promises about her will and Mara’s imminent inheritance. These “current” snapshots of Mara’s life as an immigrant are full of gems about the unfamiliar nature of common life in America that native residents so take for granted. For example,

“Nothing made me feel more American than being in a supermarket. So much choice, so many different ways to fill yourself up. . . . Even if I didn’t buy anything, walking down the aisles gave me a sense of belonging. . . . Going to the supermarket was free; there was no admission price. Nobody questioned my right to be there. It was the most democratic institution in the city.” (p. 7)

Park writes with clarity on this strange world-inhabiting experience, about what must surely feel like being devoured whole. However, Mara’s life in modern-day California isn’t the bright, shiny bit of this novel. The real gem: the intermittent flashbacks to 1970s Rio de Janeiro, with eight-year-old Mara living in turbulent political times with her mother, Ana.

These flashbacks offer readers something almost tangible, thanks to some vivid and unrestrained writing from Park. Mara’s mother is a voice-over actress, dubbing American films into Portuguese for the general population; and in her mind, something of a starlet. She’s beautiful and almost frivolous, flitting from one idea to the next with only the hounding necessity of money to stabilize her focus. The two live alone, without husband or father, and survive from paycheck to paycheck: feasting and luxuriating in good fortune after payday, grumbling and skimping when jobs are few and far between. As the country nears its political breaking point, Ana’s desperation peaks and she takes a job as an actress — partly out of a desire to prove her worth (to whom, it’s unclear) and partly out of sheer necessity: their cash stores are running low.

When Ana becomes entangled in something far greater than she could have foreseen, their lives are launched onto a trajectory that has devastating consequences for the pairing.

Park writes with a stunning depth of feeling and wisdom in these flashbacks — Ana’s desperation to be something and Mara’s furious devotion to her mother had me captivated. The political unrest and turmoil of 1970s Brazil provides a provocative backdrop, and as events fall into place, the novel seems to scurry toward something dark and unavoidable.

When Mara is an adult, she seeks the truth about her mother’s life, desperate to reconcile her own image of her mother with that harsh mistress — Truth.

Unfortunately, these two narratives don’t . . . quite . . . connect. I was so immersed in Mara’s younger years, but less drawn to her relationship with Kathryn which ultimately left me dissatisfied and a bit underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong — there are parallels, here; they just don’t seem to ever flesh out completely. The novel feels unresolved, and maybe that’s just because I didn’t get what I was expecting — or hoping for? — at the end. There were some loose ends that needed tying up, and Lazarus’s role in particular felt anticlimactic.

That being said, I appreciated Park’s smooth writing and the various nuggets of genius sprinkled throughout the novel, so I’ll leave you with one more:

“I realized then that I hated when people tried to find the silver lining in tragedy. There was no upside, none. I did not grow from it, or become a better person, or learn to appreciate life, or any such cliche. . . . death would not seed some kind of beautiful legacy . . . It’d just make those [she] left behind feel sad and morose.” (p. 235)

Overall: 3/5 stars. Recommended for those with an interest in family relationships and diaspora literature.

Review: The Waiter

I was drawn to The Waiter — a translation of the Swedish work by Mattias Faldbakken — for a simple reason: the book is advertised as a portrait in miniature, an intimate and classical-feeling depiction of one man’s life as a waiter within the confines of a prestigious and centuries-old family eatery. It didn’t hurt that the book was compared to Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow — a decadent, exquisite gem of a novel.

While it’s true that both novels employ dense prose with a classical vibe and settings that are confined to one particular space, the similarities end there.

The Waiter opens with an introduction to the title character: a middle-aged waiter in the well-established European restaurant called “The Hills.” The waiter offers a vessel for readers to traverse the inner-workings of the restaurant (which itself is merely a means of exposing readers to the choreography and near-relationship of waitstaff in proximity to customers on a daily basis). Our unnamed title character puts forth a series of cynical observations about the restaurant staff, the diners, the esteemed artwork crammed onto the walls, and the restaurant itself with little rhyme or reason.

“The Hills is one of the capital’s defining institutions, one of which gives Oslo character and draws the long lines. The space, or the premises, where I now and will forever stand in my waiter’s jacket, is an intricate meshwork of scraped-together items, and I sometimes feel sick at the thought that the longest-standing, most constant and unchanging ‘traditional place’ is a mosaic of items dragged and scraped together.”

Time and again, the waiter makes it perfectly clear to readers: he is meticulous, he is old-fashioned and tetchy when routine is disrupted, and he is very preoccupied with the hobby of ensuring things are done as nearly perfect as possible. In fact, at more than one juncture, I wondered if the character might be intended to exude signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so intent is he on following certain procedures repeatedly with or without necessity, and on doing things just-so. I’m fairly certain the author did not intend this conclusion, though; I think readers are just supposed to find the waiter steeped in habit as well as socially awkward and stand-offish.

One of the things I loved most about Towles’s Gentleman is that the novel offered readers a portrait of confinement amid luxury and a constantly shifting political and social landscape within the hotel over the course of several decades. Rather than offer readers just one major character to latch onto, though, Towles provided a host of other fastidiously drawn, intriguing individuals to play supporting roles.

While readers are exposed greatly to the waiter’s innermost ramblings, Faldbakken takes a huge misstep with the omission of other significant characterization. Sure, there are a slew of other cast members introduced — “the Pig,” a regular customer of a commanding sort of presence; Sellers, a rowdy party-boy given behavioral freedoms others aren’t on the basis of his several acquisitions for The Hills; Child Lady, a beautiful woman with otherwise very little clear significance to the story; Edgar and Anna, a father-daughter duo that regularly patronize the restaurant and serve as the waiter’s only friends; and a handful of restaurant workers — but the characters themselves don’t feel significant.

Now that I think of it, allow me to correct myself — characterization is not shortchanged in The Waiter; it’s purpose that the novel is severely lacking. All of the aforementioned characters have distinct features and personalities, but at the end of the novel, I couldn’t really tell you why most of them were included in the work. At all.

And that brings me to the saddest point: the plot is virtually nonexistent. Readers spend a few days in the waiter’s hemisphere, privy to his inner ramblings and increasingly neurotic behaviors, only to arrive at a conclusion that is head-scratchingly underwhelming. I’m not sure what Faldbakken envisioned as the driving force behind this narrative, but it certainly was not plot. Was there a climax? Was there a purpose behind the waiter’s actions? Was there a point to Anna’s stay? I don’t know. And I’m not going to lie: this uncertainty on my end left me wondering for several days — am I missing something, here?

To be sure, there are some gems tucked in amid the perplexing meandering of the narrative; a few times, I positively chortled. And Faldbakken makes some painfully accurate estimations of modern culture; each time, I kept cheering and thinking — Now we’re getting somewhere! Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“It’s as though my face is a cast of all the concerns that have built up within me over the years: the concerns are the mold for my face.”

and

“‘The adornment of a city is manpower, of a body beauty, of a soul wisdom, of an object durability, of a speech truth,’ Gorgias writes in the Encomium of Helen. The part about the body is the only one which still applies, it seems.”

A particular favorite, relating to the minds of children:

“There are a few golden years between infancy and the teenage years, Edgar says, when kids are as smart as they’re ever going to be, or that’s how it seems, when they’re still uncorrupted.”

There were several other striking observations made by the author which redeemed this otherwise sadly-under-edited work, and it’s those bits and pieces that I’ve added to my journal which make The Waiter a difficult work to rate. I wanted to love this novel so much, but I ultimately found the most fundamental aspect — a purpose, a driving force — lacking, or too obscure to be discerned by my brain.

Overall: 2 stars.

The Waiter was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion and review. I’m grateful to Simon & Schuster / Scout Press for sharing a free digital copy with me in advance of publication and my thoughts are all my own — in no way affected by the exchange of goods and services.

Review: News of Our Loved Ones

Goodreads [condensed] blurb: Set in France and America, News of Our Loved Ones [by Abigail DeWitt] is a haunting and intimate examination of love and loss, beauty and the cost of survival, witnessed through two generations of one French family, whose lives are all touched by the tragic events surrounding the D-Day bombings in Normandy.

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News of Our Loved Ones is a difficult novel to review, friends. The prose is melodic and the story is ultimately one that should be on your radar if you’re invested in the genres of WW2 and historical fiction, like I am. It’s difficult to name major players, though, as the novel reads like a series of narratives — almost short stories? — cobbled together by threads of DNA with varying degrees of strength.

Each segment of the novel provides readers with a nugget of the Delasalle family history, starting with young Yvonne, in love with a stranger who cycles past her window daily; and later winds up with Polly, a niece of Yvonne’s who visits Paris decades later and is feverish with her desire to make sense of her mother’s behavior and her place in the world.

The experience of reading this compilation of narratives is a bit off-putting — I struggled consistently to place myself in the story, and by the time I was settled, the chapter had ended and a new thread was picking up, but not where the previous had left off. I really appreciated DeWitt’s intimate development of each of the characters; they were distinctive, complex, and rich with life. However, I wish there had been more to each of the characters’ stories, or that there had been fewer family members to keep up with, or perhaps just that I’d been told to read this book one segment per day, rather than in large chunks. At the end, the author thanks a number of literary publications that featured segments of the novel prior to its publication; and truthfully, I think that I would’ve enjoyed the stories even more if I’d gone into the reading with that in mind: these were a collection of narrative, some more tightly tethered together than others.

While I struggled to piece together the narratives in a way that made the characters’ connections clear, I did love the little glimpses we were given into each individual’s experiences during – and in the aftermath of – WW2. My favorite chapters/stories were “Mathilde,” “Someone Else,” and “The Visit.”

Overall: 4/5 stars. Read if you’re a fan of historical fiction and you enjoy family sagas, and if you don’t mind a bit of complexity when it comes to tying together narratives.

Thanks to Harper Books for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion! All thoughts in this post are my own and in no way influenced by the publisher.

Review: Not Our Kind

I’m a sucker for historical fiction. I won’t even try to deny it: I’m obsessed. It’s always been my thing, though, to be honest; my first literary love affair was with the American Girl: Felicity and Little House series, both of which I read numerous times. I daydreamed about living in colonial houses at the start of the American Revolution; and of living in a dugout on the plains, not too far from where I grew up.

Some of my adult favorites include The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. When Harper Books offered an advance copy of Not Our Kind, then, I jumped at the opportunity to read and review the title by Kitty Zeldis (pseudonym). Here’s the synopsis:

One rainy morning in June, two years after the end of World War II, a minor traffic accident brings together Eleanor Moskowitz and Patricia Bellamy. Their encounter seems fated: Eleanor, a teacher and recent Vassar graduate, needs a job. Patricia’s difficult thirteen-year-old daughter, Margaux, recovering from polio, needs a private tutor.

Though she feels out of place in the Bellamys’ rarefied and elegant Park Avenue milieu, Eleanor forms an instant bond with Margaux. Soon the idealistic young woman is filling the bright young girl’s mind with Shakespeare and Latin. Though her mother, a hatmaker with a little shop on Second Avenue, disapproves, Eleanor takes pride in her work, even if she must use the name “Moss” to enter the Bellamys’ restricted doorman building each morning and feels that Patricia’s husband, Wynn, may have a problem with her being Jewish.

Invited to keep Margaux company at the Bellamys’ country home in a small town in Connecticut, Eleanor meets Patricia’s unreliable, bohemian brother, Tom, recently returned from Europe. The spark between Eleanor and Tom is instant and intense. Flushed with new romance and increasingly attached to her young pupil, Eleanor begins to feel more comfortable with Patricia and much of the world she inhabits. As the summer wears on, the two women’s friendship grows — until one hot summer evening when a line is crossed. Both Eleanor and Patricia will have to make important decisions — choices that will reverberate through their lives.

Unfortunately, my excitement was short lived. Not Our Kind began with an engaging start — an unfortunate accident crosses the paths of Gentile and Jew, post-WWII — but soon devolved into a frenzy of hot-and-cold emotions and a cast of characters in a story arc that felt more like a juvenile romance novel than adult fiction.

Characters had every opportunity for depth and complexity, but instead, I found them to be drawn with broad strokes. Where Patricia Bellamy faced a number of struggles — conflict with her only daughter, whom she desperately wants to love; a growing distance between herself and her ghastly husband; the battle between what is right and what is socially accepted — instead, Zeldis spends a majority of the novel focusing on Patricia’s reluctance to sacrifice her social standing, wealth, and personal respect in exchange for treating a Jew as a human being. While this sort of thinking is no doubt par for the course among white Americans after the war, I sincerely wish Zeldis had focused equally — or moreso — on other sources of emotional trauma for the character. In particular, I was largely off-put by the “resolution” of one of Patricia’s most climactic problems in the story; a resolution which was ultimately hastily cobbled together and left me wanting so much more.

Additionally, emotions ran hot and cold — there was absolutely no in-between. One minute, a character was sorrowful and withdrawn; the next, chipper and flamboyant. Decisions were made with about as much thought as it takes to flip a light switch. Major conflicts were resolved more conveniently than I like, and the writing ultimately just felt . . . juvenile. Abundant cliches, an overwhelming abuse of adjectives, cringe-worthy metaphors. *Sigh.*

I know that all sounds bad, and, well, it wasn’t great. However, I did have enough of an interest in the storyline to finish the book; and I feel that the novel would have been stronger if an editor had told the author: don’t make this such a deliberately preachy book — just tell the damn story and let readers come to their own conclusions. Too often, I felt that Zeldis was trying to spoon-feed me the theme; and honestly, that’s something I outgrew in grade school. All of this is sadly too bad: themes like consent and racism ended up feeling like generic concepts the author wanted to write about but couldn’t manage to compose effectively for an adult audience.

Overall: 2/5 stars. If you’re not looking for a super impactful or dense story and enjoy YA fiction, this book will probably be a welcome distraction. Truthfully, if a couple of steamy-ish sex scenes were removed, this would be a great book for those romance-monger teenage girls that populate the halls of my middle school.

Thanks to Harper Books for sharing an advance copy of the novel with me in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Review: The Dinner List

We’ve all been asked the hypothetical question at some point in our lives: If you could have dinner with any 5 people, dead or alive . . . who? and why?

My five changes frequently — sometimes Matthew McConaughey’s on the list, sometimes he’s replaced by John Krasinski (they seem so down-to-earth — how could I not?). My mama is always there, though I alternate between Jodi Picoult and J.K. Rowling on a pretty regular basis. (I’m trembling at the mere thought of being graced by their presence.) Stephen King — duh. Edgar Allan Poe — ditto.

And what would I do if, by some stroke of fortune, we all ended up actually sharing a meal and a few bottles of champ together? Um. Well.

In Rebecca Serle’s debut novel, The Dinner List, this is exactly the predicament Sabrina finds herself in when she arrives at her restaurant birthday-dinner date with her best friend: seated around the table alongside her best friend, Jessica, Sabrina sees her father, her ex-lover, her former philosophy professor, and — gulp! — Audrey-freaking-Hepburn. It’s an initially unfortunate-seeming mishmash of individuals: Audrey’s clearly out of place with the other mere mortals, and Sabrina needs some convincing that the situation is real. But once the cork is popped and appetizers ordered, the table finds itself thrown into the inevitable: serious conversation. Sabrina is forced to confront regrets, frustrations, anxieties, and losses from previous years; not the least of which is her failed relationship with Tobias, the man she’s long considered the love of her life.

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A great deal of this book worked for me: I enjoyed the premise, the storyline trotted along at a quick clip, characters were largely a fun and supportive mix that worked for the scenario. To be honest, I picked this book up thinking it would be a “fluff” read — a little bit of romance, some drama, basic chick-lit — but by the time I was done, I was quite surprised to have had so many feelings while I read. And introspective thoughts. For that, I applaud Serle — she managed to compose a narrative that is seemingly simple and predominantly light, but not without depth.

And while the timeline is all-too-familiar in today’s market — back and forth, past and present — I found it a successful formatting for The Dinner List, in which the “present” portions are noted with the time on the clock (hence creating a countdown vibe that enticed me to stay up until 1 in the morning on a work night) and the flashbacks provide a more adequate portrait of Sabrina and Tobias’s shared history.

In a sense, the novel includes a touch of romance — after all, it is Sabrina and Tobias’s love story — but don’t head into this one expecting anything steamy, sexy, or happy-go-lucky. The pair’s history is fraught with frustrating turns of fate and unfortunate circumstances. But the book is so much more than this love story, too — it’s a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and really, the concept of fate and how our every choice alters fate on a minute-by-minute basis.

My one gripe: Audrey. I know, I know — she’s an icon. She deserved to have a seat at that table, and on several occasions, I felt that seat was well-filled. HOWEVER, for the most part, it seemed Serle became a bit heavy-handed with Audrey’s portions; instead of being another player at the table with a bit of starshine, she became a history lesson for readers and that became a bit tedious. More often than not, it seemed Serle needed to justify her inclusion of Audrey with reasons for Sabrina’s (aka Serle’s?) obsession with the actress, and it wound up feeling like a biography-within-a-novel . . . which took me right out of the story on more than one circumstance.

That being said, the novel is a largely compelling read with an intriguing and witty storyline. I’d recommend it to just about anyone — but I’ll warn you to be wary of the f-word: The Dinner List goes above and beyond fun. It’s downright decadent.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Thank you to Flatiron Books for sharing a review copy of this title with me! All opinions are my own and were in no way impacted by the publisher.

Review: Bitter Orange

Well, friends, I’ve done it: I’ve read my “best book” of 2018, and it’s only going to be downhill from here. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’m just basically 923% positive none of my other reads this year will top it.)

In July, I reached out to Tin House to request a copy of Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller, slated for release October 9. I’d previously read her dark and disturbing family drama, Swimming Lessons, and I was extremely pleased to have been granted an early copy by the publishing gods.

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The novel comes adorned with a dark and mysterious cover that features three oranges — two grouped together, one off to the side; appropriate when one takes into consideration the synopsis:

Frances (“Franny”) is a reclusive 39-year-old woman whose only friend (and roommate — her mother) has just died. She’s never had pals her own age before, and remembers in all-too-vivid detail the humiliation of childhood birthday parties attended out of obligation. As she reaches middle age, Franny is socially isolated and overweight — characteristics I later came to attribute to her mother’s overpowering nature. At any rate, in the wake of her mother’s passing, Franny accepts a stint at Lyntons for the summer. She’s to move to the countryside estate and take stock of its outbuildings and decorative architectural features, then report back to a wealthy American who has just purchased the sprawling property sight-unseen.

Naturally, when Franny discovers she’ll be living with two others, she’s a bit hesitant — how should she greet them? Is it too forward to assume they’ll even speak? But she’s quickly welcomed into Cara and Peter’s lives and granted access to their life-loving ways: late night picnics, drinking on the roof, skinny-dipping in the pond. Ever uncomfortable in her own skin, Franny flirts with the idea of becoming beloved to someone.

When she discovers a peephole in the floor of her bathroom — leading directly into Cara and Peter’s bathroom below hers — Franny is overcome with curiosity . . . and remorse. She can’t resist the temptation to peek into their private lives, but the choice leaves her feeling guilty. And lemme tell y’all: guilt is a beautiful thing when you’re writing a character.

Fuller does SO. MANY. THINGS. right with this novel — the prose is evocative and atmospheric, the very definition of “painting a picture with words.” For example:

“I went into the corridor and looked both ways but there was no one there. I called for them again but heard nothing. The shadow at my back returned, grey air pressing up against me, and I spun around to catch it. Wrongdoing. The word came into my head as if someone had spoken it aloud. “Hello?“ I said, but my voice sounded hollow, and I ran then, along the corridor—the locket around my neck bouncing— out of the staircase door, and up into the daylight.”

And:

“Small grey mounds lay on the floor in various states of decay and I saw they were oranges, and I realized that for years the tree must have been fruiting and dropping them on the stone paving, nature hoping some of them would seed. I flapped my hand in front of my face to keep away the tiny flies and wasps which buzzed around the rotting fruit. There were no orange tree saplings in the orangery; the main tree had been taking all the water and light. But other plants were growing: bindweed snaked across the floor, and the whole of the back wall, which must have been built of brick, once whitewashed and covered with trellis, was pasted with the great hairy trunks of ivy, and almost completely obscured. Many of the iron seats around the sides of the room had rusted away, and there were gaps in the stone pavers where an underfloor heating system must have once supplied warmth.”

And sure, the writing is gorgeous; but what about the meat of the story? That’s what you want to know about, right? Is the plot strong?

In a word:

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I discussed this novel in depth with my bookstagram buddy, @cassinthewilds, and we couldn’t stop swooning over Fuller’s absolutely thrilling current of suspense that slowly builds from the start. I may or may not have referred to Fuller as the Queen of Modern Horror at one point. And it’s a silent horror; that’s the beauty of it. I’m not keen on graphic violence, shock-factor, or gore — I think it takes a great deal more skill to quietly horrify readers — and Bitter Orange does just that. The creep-factor sneaks up on you slowly, until you find yourself asking Why am I reading this at 11:47 pm on a Saturday night when I’m home alone?

Another strength lies in Fuller’s characterization of the two leading females, Cara and Frances. Both display complex, deeply-rooted psychological . . . disturbances? . . . which are a direct result of their relationships with their mothers. In turn, their relationships with other humans are also tainted by these past experiences — Franny’s inability to live without her mother has rendered her incapable of self confidence and independence. I’ll leave Cara to you for analysis, dear readers, but just know this — the parallels between the two women are utterly fascinating.

I thought I knew how the book would end. I was certain there’d be a murder, and I was equally sure I knew “whodunnit” — alas, I was absolutely incorrect in my musings. The resolution left me a bit breathless, and to be honest, I’m already looking forward to rereading the novel to follow the trail of breadcrumbs again (this time with the conclusion in mind). I will warn you, though: once you start thinking about the narrative, and the characters, and the concept of truth — you’re going to have a few questions to consider at the end of this book.

Overall: 5 stars. Do not wait to read this book. Pre-order it today. I get nothing if you do, but you’ll get a freaking amazing thrill and I’ll have more friends to talk about this new obsession of mine with.

Also: for fans of Shirley Jackson, “A Rose for Emily,” and Shutter Island. 

Review: Suicide Club

Imagine a world in which people have achieved near-immortality: It’s possible to live for four-hundred years. Skin is replaced with a tougher, more luminous counterpart that renders pimples a thing of the past and leaves people literally glowing. Organs are seamlessly replaced as needed, stress is discouraged by government mandates, and the science of healthful eating has been unlocked and dispersed for all.

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Such is the world of debut author Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club, a novel in which members are fixated on both life and death — as if it’s possible to focus on one without the other. Lea Kirino is a member of the elite “lifer” society: she enjoys the benefits of a well-paying career, such as a separate living facility with its own bathroom and views of the city; she lives a virtually stress-free existence; she’s engaged to one of the nation’s wealthiest and most well-established bachelors; and she’s got a nearly-flawless life record, with few tarnishes such as dangerous risk-taking behavior, burger-imbibing, and no limb replacements to date. That is, until she steps into oncoming traffic on her 100th birthday.

In a world where life — and the strife for immortality — is sanctimonious, Lea’s actions (I’ll let you read about her reasons) are cause for immediate observation by government-ordered officials, at work and in public and possibly even within the walls of her own home. It’s illegal to take a life, or to show anything less than zeal for living, and Lea’s little “accident” has put her hopes for the Third Wave (read: the Immortality generation) at odds.

Lea soon becomes acquainted with the “Suicide Club,” a group of high-society Lifers who by all outward appearances, seem to be living with adequate demonstrations of joy. However, it becomes clear these privileged individuals seek more than mere immortality, and Lea is forced to broaden her perspective on what it means to truly be life-loving.

***

I was utterly mesmerized by the world-building Heng accomplishes in her debut novel — honestly, I haven’t been quite so sucked into a fiction-verse like this in many, many years. It sounds cheesy, but I was honestly reminded of my middle- and high-school years when I read a great deal of fantasy and sci-fi, and I found myself quickly steeped in the world that I was reading about.

The book struck me as an interesting portrayal of societal grooming. Characters are taught that living as long as possible is the most worthwhile achievement a person can make. They’re obsessed with prolonging their lives, so much so that relationships — and anything else that is considered cortisol-producing — are minimized and abbreviated. In some ways, the observations in the book felt a bit like a sardonic glance at society’s current fads: characters get their nutrition from a drink, not unlike the juicing and Advocare fanatics who swear by the supreme nutrition of liquefied meals. Characters are zealous about their appearance, fretting over any visible wrinkles or laugh lines, and it is a mark of the truly elite that they are able to receive “treatments” that eliminate signs of aging. Again, I was reminded of our cultural fear of aging, and especially the efforts undertaken to retain youthful features (here’s looking at you, Kardashian troupe).

So, is it possible to enjoy such a novel — one in which characters are ultimately superficial and human relationships are dictated by social class and the placability of such pairings? In a word: YES. I found so much to love in the flawed characters and ideologies of Heng’s futuristic world. This book moved me in deep ways, forcing me to reflect on the darker realities of death as an endpoint — or a destination — of living.

While some bigger questions went unanswered — chiefly, who/what determines the “number” people are assigned at birth? Is it random? Why? — I wasn’t significantly distracted by these flaws in the plot. If you’re a highly cynical reader, though, you may find more to criticize in that respect.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A thoroughly enjoyable read about living and dying; one that I see myself recommending often!

Review: What We Were Promised

Last week, a highly-anticipated novel made its debut: What We Were Promised, by Lucy Tan. Little, Brown sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review — thanks, publisher friends! — and I decided to dive right in almost immediately after I opened the package.

What We Were Promised is a family saga, of sorts, and chock-full of d-r-a-m-a. Tan crafts a story around the Zhen family: Wei and Lina grew up in China before moving to America to pursue lofty dreams of higher education and corporate success. After twenty-some years, the couple has returned to their motherland, a couple decades older and joined this time by their teenage daughter, Karen. During their years abroad, they accrued wealth and success, and Wei was offered the opportunity to oversee his budding company’s newly-opened Shanghai-branch. They move into an elite hotel community at Lanson Suites, where their laundry, cooking, and cleaning are all accomplished by staff members and Lina doesn’t have to lift a finger to do more than shop for extravagant clothes and accessories. Karen spends most of the year in America at an elite boarding school, but summers with her parents in a land that is completely foreign to her.

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The family lives together, but each person seems to occupy a separate sphere of existence, interacting superficially at mealtimes (when Wei makes it home in time) and during rare moments of collective free time. At first glance, I chalked the characters up as superficial; but after deeper reflections on Wei and Lina’s complicated early relationship, I began to see the characters as complex — albeit often shallow — and savored the unwinding of their histories and present lives.

Woven into the narrative of the Zhen family’s daily life, in poignant juxtaposition, is the telling of Sunny’s experiences as first the family’s maid, and later, their ayi (nanny). Sunny is an anomaly: she’s in her late twenties/early thirties (her age is a bit ambiguous) and although she was married once before, she lives a simple, work-driven life as a single woman — childless, no less — in a society that seems to value women more when they are homemakers and wives and mothers. Sunny’s observations bring another dimension to What We Were Promised, offering readers a juicy (and often, maddening) outsider evaluation of the Zhen household.

While this book didn’t quite shake me as much as I expected it to, I did find a great deal to appreciate in Tan’s work. Her themes of cultural displacement + collective identity gave WWWP a dimension I didn’t think I’d find at the onset of the novel. The family dynamic (or quiet dysfunction, if you will), combined with the bitter taste of rotting dreams, created an atmosphere of regret and desire that made this book a compelling read.

Overall: 4 stars. Read this one if you’re a fan of family dramas and stories that span cultures. What We Were Promised is in the vein of The Leavers (think longing to belong and unfulfilling life choices), Winter Garden (think tension, unresolved pasts, and sibling rivalry/competition/contempt), and

Review: The Ruin

While I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the suspense/thriller genre as a whole, I am finding an increased appreciation for the artfully constructed detective novel. Perhaps this is a nod to earlier years in which I pored over Nancy Drew and Mandie novels, hell-bent on solving the mysteries before they could; perhaps it’s merely a fascination with the minds of those far cleverer than I. At any rate, I don’t even need a rainy day any more to excuse curling up in a poorly-lit room with a dark mystery and my trusty tobacco pipe. (I kid, I kid.)

Dervla McTiernan’s newly-released (in the US) DI novel is an ideal blend of dark, twisty, and Irish — and what more can you ask for in a work of detective fiction?

The novel opens in the past: 1993, rural Ireland, a young Cormac Reilly dispatched on one of his first cases — what he believes to be a routine domestic disturbance call. When he arrives, he discovers a house in disrepair, two young children equally neglected, and a deceased woman, whom he finds to be the mother of the children (and deceased for hours). When Cormac also finds signs of abuse mingled in with the obvious markings of neglect, he gathers the children up and takes them to the nearest hospital. Later, the case is removed from his hands and he moves on with his career.

Twenty years later, in Galway, a young man commits suicide. When his sister returns from the (presumed) dead days later, Cormac Reilly is called to the case by his superiors: it would seem he made the acquaintance of the two some decades previously, on the night their mother died. . . .

As the past and present are immersed in a tangled dance of fates, Cormac enters a dangerous game with members of the force — some who can be trusted, and others, apparently, who cannot. As the mystery unravels, McTiernan hurtles readers toward a conclusion that is both unforeseeable and nail-bitingly suspenseful. I raced through this work in a couple of sittings and, truthfully, wouldn’t have put it down if it would’ve been considered socially acceptable to let my 1-year-old fend for himself for a day or two. Sink or swim, right? 😉

The Good: See above for sung praises. I was adequately pleased by character construction, plotting, and the not-so-meandering stories-within-the-story. McTiernan has kicked off what I anticipate will be a brilliant dark series, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the second book (rumor on the street has it coming out March 2019).

The Bad: There are several timelines, stories, and characters — seemingly disjointed — being drawn together in The Ruin. At times, the various side stories can be confusing, if not a bit distracting. For the most part, the conclusion of this work cleared up ambiguities and made the short-lived confusion worthwhile.

The Verdict: 4.5 stars. If you enjoy smart, carefully constructed detective fiction à la Tana French and Robert Galbraith, give The Ruin a closer look.

Review: Outlander

A year or two ago, one of my favorite English professors of all time took a journey to Scotland to visit the set where the Outlander television series is filmed — she was fortunate enough to have a family member involved in the show, and as an avid fan, jumped all over the opportunity. Meanwhile, she’d only hounded me to read the damn books six or seven times previously, promising I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Well, Dr. Duffy, I’m two books in and I can assure you — you weren’t wrong.

It started innocently enough: I purchased the first book in the series, Outlander, and admired it as it sat on my shelf for a year or so. One day, I happened to post a #shelfie on my bookstagram account (yo! check me out –> @littlereaderontheprairie) and two strangers from the other side of the country said, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to read that book but it’s so huge, I’m intimidated!” And so began my second — and most successful — buddy-reading experience. (Read more about how to execute one of your own here.)

Outlander and its companion novels — there are 7 other titles published in the series, with the promise of another coming in 2019 — are penned by Diana Gabaldon, a scholar of various subjects. The novel is often touted as historical fiction, but it’s also apt to describe the book as romance and fantasy and science fiction and adventure. Um, hello — who wouldn’t love to read a 700+ page tome that encapsulates the best of what literature has to offer?!

I digress.

The first book introduces readers to Claire Randall, wife of Frank Randall and trained nurse living in post-WWII England. The two have been married for eight years — but only spent a fraction of that time together, thanks to the war that ripped a world apart. Once reunited after the fighting is over, the two head to Scotland (to the place they were married) to rekindle their romance (suggestive brow wiggle) on a much-delayed honeymoon. Things are going pretty swimmingly for the two until — surprise! — Claire is sucked through a time-warp and finds herself in 1743 Scotland, soon-to-be victim of all sorts of misadventure.

Full disclosure: This novel is smutty. It’s not philosophical literature, although Gabaldon does prove herself a noteworthy author, capable of deeply complex plot structures and compelling character arcs, all while maintaining a steady level of absolutely blush-inducing romance. I’m not one for the genre, personally — in fact, I think the last “romance” book I read was a middle grades novel by Lurlene McDaniel — so I was surprised to enjoy the romance portion of this novel so much. On a scale of Holy Bible to Fifty Shades of Grey, the Outlander series falls somewhere in the upper middle — as my buddy reading pal, Taylor, so aptly put it: “Ooooh, yeah girl, this book is spicy!” — without treading uncomfortably inappropriate.

While many modern housewives appear to have gone gaga for the series based on its steamy bedroom scenes (in truth, that’s only a portion of the book, y’all) and the curly-haired lad that plays Jamie on the Starz adaptation of the series, I actually enjoyed the first two books primarily for a couple of other reasons:

  • the writing is fluid, well-paced, and imaginative; and
  • characters, conflict, and setting are utterly engrossing.

Outlander isn’t chock-full of one-dimensional stock characters, and that’s like a breath of fresh air. Gabaldon writes with finesse, so it’s quite easy to envision yourself in the company of several rarely-bathed Scottish Highlanders passing ’round the flask.

That being said, I do want to point out a few gripes.

  • Gabaldon’s heroine leaves a bit to be desired, frequently. Claire is perpetually in some sort of life-and-death situation — she’s very much a damsel in distress, though wittier and more feisty — and disappointingly, Gabaldon writes Jamie to the rescue every. single. time. I hope to see more from Claire’s character as the series progresses, because honestly, I can only be so invested in weak female characters for so long.
  • Rape happens. A lotThis is one of the series’ most hotly-debated features, and a topic that I go back and forth on. In the first book alone, there are several instances in which Claire is nearly raped — and in which other main characters are molested. Some argue that Gabaldon should not use this as a plot device, and in truth, I can’t help but agree that she overdoes the topic, relying on these encounters to propel the plot where other devices might have sufficed. On the other hand, I think it would be erroneous to pretend that rape wasn’t something that happened frequently in the 1700s; and as my pals and I buddy read the first book, we discussed some especially debated scenes and came to the conclusion that it would be wrong to assess this book with solely a 21st Century-perspective. I’ve seen gripes from readers who complain that such-and-such circumstances glorify sexual and domestic abuse, and honestly, I couldn’t disagree more. (But that’s a discussion for another day . . . ) The point is, readers should be prepared for a sprinkling of graphic scenes throughout the series.
  • Certain circumstances in the novel — primarily, Claire’s relationship with Frank — lack in development, leaving readers in moral dilemmas that never quite come around fullyLook, guys, I don’t want to give too much away; but Claire’s relationship with Frank is absolutely bewildering. I had a hard time wrapping my head around their marriage and the subsequent challenges they faced.

Ultimately, there were a few things in the first book that I found lacking, but I was so wrapped up in Claire’s story, it’s taken me a few months to write this review without simply gushing. And that, in and of itself, should tell you just how fantastic Outlander really is. I’ve since read the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, and though it moves more slowly, I found myself greatly appreciative of Gabaldon’s efforts to create a complex and winding narrative, with the loose ends neatly gathered by the last page. In fact, I couldn’t wait to start the third book, but my buddies suggested we hold off for a bit, and I’m begrudgingly complying. 😉

Overall: 4.5 stars.

Bottom line: If you’re interested in a compelling, engrossing adventure series with great character and plot development and not too bothered by the doings of fictional characters, this is a great series to dive into. If you’re deep into analysis and have a proclivity for picking apart anything that might seem to be less-than-feminist in spirit, steer clear.