Review: Make Me a City

“The nearer I get to the end, the more shame I have and the less shame I feel. Every year we pile it up, don’t we, all of us excepting the angels? Maybe that’s why we don’t all go lunatic. And why some of us do.”

Make Me a City (Jonathan Carr, published March 2019 by Henry Holt) is an intriguing tome—marketed as a fictional and “alternate history” to the building of Chicago, the novel is told by a narrator who is, in fact, presenting an alternate history to his peers. Following many disparate threads of remarkably different individuals over the course of one century, the work is exhaustive and, more than once, I wondered how much was rooted in truth (I mean, obviously, I know it’s fiction, but still). Beginning in 1800 “Echicagou” on the estate of Jean Baptiste Point de Sable—unrecognized and sadly victimized founder of the city—and later touching on the vivid lives of John Stephen Wright, Antje Hunter, Gus Swanson, and many others; the novel progresses through time, idling from one strand of the story to the next, offering readers an exhaustive collection of character portraits to feast upon. Each individual is distinctly crafted, each featuring his or her own fears and desires and fervent ambitions, all of which contribute to the city’s creation.

I enjoyed the novel’s odd collection of hosts and found the chapters about Antje, Gus, and Ms. Chappell the most engaging. Historical nuggets can be mined from the pages of the work—though fictional, there are many references to real players in our country’s history, and episodes portraying cultural nuances vividly.

More than once, though, I wondered . . . what is the point? The plot is very loosely constructed, and over the course of 450 pages, readers’ minds are apt to wander without a clear purpose driving the work forward. I know, I know: the point is to give an alternate, fictionalized history of Chicago. But I can’t help but feel that Carr was misled by his editor at times, where narratives could have been trimmed or eliminated altogether.

By and large, the breadth of the work was overwhelming. I had to turn back several times to recall key details from previous scenes—I think there are about 12 perspectives through the novel, with 5-6 major players—and was sometimes frustrated by this. However, when a work is interesting, I’ll overlook this annoyance; and I suppose that the fact I finished the novel speaks for itself. Once the pieces began to come together, I couldn’t finish fast enough.

Overall: 3-ish(?) stars. Recommended for historical fiction buffs, mindful readers (this is not an easy/light read, folks!), and fans of generation-spanning sagas.

Thanks to Henry Holt Books for my review copy. All opinions are my own.

Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?

Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has been making waaaaves in the reading community since it was published in September — and for good reason. I picked up the novel knowing very little about it, other than the allusions to its Agatha-like qualities and absolutely mind-bending plot.

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In fact, when I started reading, my eye caught on an author blurb at the front, and I laughed for a good long minute: “If Agatha Christie and Terry Pratchett had ever had LSD-fueled sex, then The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle would be their acid trip book baby” (Sarah Pinborough, author of Behind Her Eyes).

I rarely admit to it, but this is one book that lives up to its hype.

Set in what appears to be 1920s rural England, the novel opens in mass chaos: the narrator awakens to find himself without any memories of whom or where he is — and it only gets more twisty from there. Our host soon discovers he’s in the heart of a nearly unsolvable mystery: Evelyn Hardcastle, member of high society and daughter of the owners of the crumbling estate we find ourselves at, will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. It is the narrator’s job to solve her murder . . . but each morning, he’ll wake up in a new host’s body. And he’s only got eight days to figure things out.

Which may seem like a fair amount of time, until you take into consideration the duplicitous nature of pretty much everyone who’s been invited to the estate for the week. And the fact that the narrator is not a detective. And that some of his hosts wake up high as a kite, or paralyzingly hungover, or quickly succumb to various near-fatal injuries.

Our narrator struggles through a series of fumbling attempts to escape the estate, and when that doesn’t work, he begins to focus on saving Evelyn Hardcastle — a task, we’re reminded, that is futile. While the narrator works to cobble clues together, he discovers that his actions can have a bearing on how the day plays out, though the slate is wiped clean with each new host.

Set against a backdrop of a romantic and dark forested landscape, with a decrepit old mansion and expansive grounds as the site of the Hardcastle legacy, this murder mystery is a thrill to unravel. Chapters are categorized by the numbered days of which the narrator has been on the grounds, and sometimes these storylines jump backward. Meanwhile, Aiden encounters “himself” in other hosts throughout the day, which only compounds the amount of mind-buggery that is going on in Evelyn Hardcastle.

This book works in its ominous, classical mystery vibes and the complexity of clues dropped along the way. I promise — you’re not likely to “figure it out” before the book ends, and though this unsolvability is sometimes a ridiculous and unwanted surprise (I’m looking at you, Pinborough), that’s not the case in Evelyn Hardcastle. As I neared the close of the book, I was already anticipating a reread to further my grasp on the tale.

You know what else is great about this book? Turton doesn’t merely write a mystery, friends. He serves to readers a hearty meal of character development and existential soul-grappling conundrums. Though the murder is at the forefront of the reading experience, Turton manages to tuck within the pages the struggle to succeed pitted against the struggle to remain true to core values.

A few suggestions if you want to make the most out of this read:

  • Avoid the audiobook. It may have a great narrator (I wouldn’t know), but this storyline is so freaking complex I can’t imagine many would be able to keep things straight for very long. I spent some time flipping back and forth between chapters, and for that reason, I’d also recommend skipping the Kindle and grabbing a copy from the library, but that’s a personal preference thing.
  • Don’t look at too many reviews on Goodreads. The less you know going into this read, the better!
  • Do make use of the “guest list” at the front of the book. I flipped back to figure out who’s who several times.
  • Stick with it. Honestly, I was bewildered for the first quarter of the book, and I never really stopped feeling like I couldn’t quite grasp the whole thing — until the end. Even then, Turton leaves readers with a great deal to ponder.

Overall: 4/5 stars. If you like to think, and you’re looking for a Clue-meets-Agatha-meets-Inception vibe, this is your book!

Recommended Reading: 3 Wintry Reads That Live Up to the Hype

Hey there, bookworms. Are you on a quest for some fantasy titles for this wintry season? Look no further! I’ve been feverishly reading some hyped backlist titles and these three are perfect for those chilly winter days spent snuggled on the couch. Check it out!

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  1. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. I finally read this Russian folklore-esque tale a few weeks ago and I freaking loved it. Settled in a northern img_8153 egion of medieval Russia, the story follows young Vasilisa, a strange and perhaps magical girl, as she struggles to take the reins of her own life — despite her resentful stepmother’s attempts to stifle her. Meanwhile, Vasya’s village is plagued by an increasing sense of fear and foreboding about the winter to come. When a new priest arrives, determined to drive out the demons (and the pastoral people’s torn devotion between the modern church and ancient pagan customs), Vasya is (mostly) alone in her struggle to combat the unseen forces that will devastate her people. This work of fantasy is so vivid and rich in its composition, I couldn’t put it down — and now I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that I get the second book in the trilogy for Christmas!
  2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I raved about this fairytale-based novel last Christmas — and I’m strongly tempted to read it again this winter. The story begins with a middle-aged couple who has resettled in the Alaskan territory, determined to forget the disappointments of a childless life amid extended family back East. Mabel and Jack grow increasingly distant with each passing day, each facing their own disappointments about marriage without children; but when they build a snowgirl on a whim during the first snow of the img_8151 laskan winter, they seem to find a bit of joy again. Later, when a mysterious child begins to appear in the snowy forest, Mabel is intent on rescuing the girl — and becoming the mother she’s always longed to be.
  3. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. In an absolutely poetic work of majesty, Wecker weaves together the narrative of Chava the Golem — a clay being brought to life — and Ahmad the Jinni — a fire-spirit trapped in human form. While much of the novel takes place in 1890s New York City, the story crosses centuries and continents in the winding telling of the Jinni’s storied past. The novel begins by bringing both characters “to life” in the overwhelmingly vibrant city, near one another but without any img_8152knowledge that the other exists. When fate crosses their paths, the magical beings forge a friendship that is everything their human relationships cannot be: honest, open, without hidden sections of self. But the Golem and the Jinni are dangerous creatures, and always at risk of being discovered — so when several elements combine to create a disastrous situation, the two must make a devastating decision that may forever end their relationship. I was utterly captivated by the beautiful and exotic worlds Wecker built in this fantasy with its roots in Syrian legends and culture. Truth be told, I never wanted it to end — and I’m now eagerly anticipating the slated-2020 release of the second book in this series.

These three titles absolutely live up to the hype they’ve received online — I marveled at each of the works, all three of them richly composed out of ancient folklore and fairytales with more complexity than the standard Disney lot (no princesses falling for charming blondes, here!). Heroes and villains retain elements of both good and bad, desires are achingly raw and relatable, and the writing itself in each of the novels is commendable.

Have you read any of these works? If so, what’d you think? Tell me in the comments below!

 

Review: One Day in December

May I present to thee — An Unpopular Opinion About a Book Receiving Great Praise But To Which My Feelings Seem To Be Impervious?

One Day in December, by Josie Silver, is receiving all kinds of accolades on the bookstagram-osphere. It was selected as a Book of the Month pick (which, you know, has been more miss than hit this past year or so), and basically anybody who’s somebody has read the book, gushed about it, and scrambled to buy a giveaway copy.

The work is classic rom-com fodder: Girl meets — no, doesn’t meet; she makes eye contact with — boy at a crowded train station. Girl and boy fail to connect, but there was something there — she’s sure of it. Girl tells best friend about boy, and the two search for him. A year later: best friend introduces girl to her new boyfriend. He’s *the* boy. Train Station Boy. Girl unselfishly withholds this information, pines over boy from afar — or, really, actually quite close — and thus ensues a period of unfortunate missed-opportunities.

As a movie, this would’ve probably worked for me. I’d have been entertained, I might’ve shed a tear or two, and it may have become one of those love stories I watch when I need a reminder that romance lives on. And I won’t be surprised if it does become a movie.

Sadly, as a novel, the story didn’t work for me. Because the story reminded me so much of former books-turned-films One Day and Something Borrowed, the plot felt predictable and cliche. I knew what would ultimately happen before I even turned the page of the third chapter, and thus, there was little magic in this one, for me. And maybe that’s why I disliked the book so much — I was hoping for that magical Christmastime vibe, and One Day in December just didn’t have it, because predictability.

Perhaps even more off-putting than the predictability: the main characters. I know, I know — this is shaping up to be a weird review. Most of you have probably only seen gushing and heart-eyes emoji about the novel’s characters who are “refreshingly real.” Here’s my issue: Laurie starts off the novel in a foul mood (we’ve all had those, totally understand that). She’s on a crowded bus, irritated with the closeness of strangers, and her inner dialogue is horrendous. I think she actually hates the woman in front of her for having dandruff — and that, my friends, got me started on the wrong foot. It’s just . . . too spiteful for me, I think. Later, she comes across as a much kinder person, but at the back of my mind, I just kept thinking about her vitriol from page one and the lady with dandruff. I couldn’t shake the scene. (Isn’t it weird, what readers latch on to?) And then Jack: Jack is painted as this knight in shining armor, right from the start. He’s introduced as thoughtful, sweet, and charming. So later, when he starts making some choices and acting in a way that feels like a complete 180, that’s when it starts to get uncomfortable. He’s a jerk, point blank, and I didn’t find that a redeeming bit of “realism”. 

Perhaps most unsettling for me: the way the main characters continually trample the emotions of their “friends” to get what they want. Laurie and Jack do it to each other, to their significant others, and to their friends throughout the course of the book. All’s fair in love and war, it seems, quite literally.

Ultimately, I couldn’t get on board with this kind of sabotage, and though I was compelled enough to finish the novel, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. If you’re into romance and you’re more capable of suspending disbelief than I, this might be the read for you. But if you have a hard time justifying despicable behavior and self-serving attitudes, well, you might want to pass.

Overall: 2 stars.

Review: An Unexplained Death

If you follow me on Instagram, you already know how I feel about Mikita Brottman’s latest work of nonfiction, An Unexplained Death. In a few words: transcendent. Introspective. Provocative.

I was immediately drawn to the story’s premise: Rey Rivera, a charismatic and kind young man, goes missing one spring day. A week later, his body is discovered at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore, and the investigators spend very little time determining it is likely a suicide . . . but they dub the causes “undetermined.” Belvedere resident (the hotel is now an apartment building) Mikita Brottman is captivated by this mystery. Was it really a suicide? Why did the investigators do such a terrific job of traipsing all over the crime scene? Why wasn’t she questioned, though the body fell right past her window? What would lead such a handsome and seemingly-successful man to take his own life?

What ensues is Brottman’s obsessive investigation of Rivera’s death and, mingled in among the details of the hunt, her macabre fascination with the hotel’s history of remarkable suicides. An Unexplained Death is almost, to be honest, three different novels in one: it’s a history of the Belvedere Hotel; it’s a true crime work that explores Rey Rivera’s death; and it’s an exploratory memoir that maps out Brottman’s fixation with life, death, and worthiness.

Brottman’s strengths lie in her analyses of very human traits — our fixation on the misfortune of others, our proclivities for stories with “juicy” details and gruesome outcomes, our predilection for judgement even in the cases of victims. I was stricken many times by the honest — and far-reaching — insights Brottman presents to readers. An example:

“Our unease and mistrust around the stories of missing people is a defense mechanism that lets us keep the horror at bay; we can reassure ourselves that many missing people aren’t ‘really’ missing, and as for kidnap victims, they must have been weak and gullible enough to fall in love with their captors, something a stable, rational person would surely never do.” (p. 6)

I mean, seriously. Here’s the nail, and here’s Brottman hitting it on the head.

“When it comes to missing people, the first day or two after they have gone, it is as though they have left a door open behind them, and they can still turn around and come back. But after five or six days, you get the sense they have crossed all the way over. All that remains, if you’re lucky, is a vague glimpse, caught on tape somewhere, of a pixelated ghost.” (p. 11)

And it doesn’t end at page 11, the noteworthy gemmary of Brottman Wisdom:

“When an event has far-reaching consequences, we assume its causes must be equally momentous, just as when we want to roll a higher number, we shake the dice harder, and for a longer time.” (p. 79)

An Unexplained Death is more than a well-researched work of nonfiction. In a highly-readable narrative form, Brottman manages to take readers on a journey of discovery — of Rey Rivera’s life and death, of the author’s own sense of self, of readers’ tendencies toward the macabre and morbidity. The work is obsessive, it’s introspective, and it’s absolutely captivating. Brottman’s insightful observations on human nature throughout this book are just startlingly good.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A must-read for fans of true crime or nonfiction in general.

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.