Fall 2018 Releases to Add to Your List

I don’t know about you, but this month was F U L L. In fact, it feels like Christmas is coming tomorrow — that’s how frazzled school has me! There are so many great books releasing that I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on yet — A Spark of LightThe Witch ElmBridge of Clay — all by some tried-and-true authors that I go back to again and again. There are some other great reads you may not have heard about, though, that I’ve had the pleasure of reading + reviewing — check ’em out below!

  1. The Caregiver by Samuel Park. Simon & Schuster, September 2018. This work focuses on the complex and tumultuous relationship between young Mara Alencar and her mother, Ana, in a Rio neighborhood in the 1970s; and alternately, the relationship between Mara and the woman she cares for within her home in 1990s Bel Air, Kathryn. My full review can be read here.
  2. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. Tin House, October 2018. I’ve already sung a love song to this dark, atmospheric read here. This novel is a very literary work, chock-full of evocative imagery, symbolism, and the kinds of features that make English Lit majors’ hearts go pitter-pat. If you’re in the mood for something with a classic vibe and all kinds of eerie features, this is the read for you. (And if you’re in the mood for something action-packed, keep moving.)
  3. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper Collins, October 2018. A dense, thought-provoking tome from a seasoned author, Unsheltered is a tale of two time periods: 1880s and present-day Vineland, NJ. Alternating between Willa, modern-day mother and freelance journalist struggling to hold together the pieces of her crumbling family (and home) and Thatcher, science teacher and sadly undervalued husband to a very unappreciative young wife in the 1880s. The two narratives are connected by the characters’ place of residence, both then and now a deteriorating and poorly cobbled-together structure that is symbolic of their own ragged lives. A bit overwrought in terms of philosophical political conversations, but the story and characters are compelling, nonetheless.
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird (graphic novel) by Harper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham. Harper Books, October 2018. This classic novel, recently chosen as America’s favorite novel per PBS’s Great American Read vote-off, was republished this month with a bit of a twist. The novel was reworked into a graphic novel, which means that teachers who are sharing the classic coming-of-age tale with students will have an accessible option for those kids who “hate reading.” Shudders — is there such a thing? 

A few others on my stack that I haven’t gotten to but am looking forward to reading soon:

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Tin House, September 2018. “…the adventure of William Tyce, a boy without parents, who grows up near a river in the rural Midwest.” Coming-of-age novel set in the heartland? Ummm, count me in.
  • An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. Henry Holt & Co., November 2018. A nonfiction work of…true crime?…that follows one woman’s obsessive investigation into a mysterious assumed-suicide at the former Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Upping the ante: she uncovers a string of believed-suicides in previous decades, all at the same hotel. I’m HERE FOR IT.

That’s all for now! Back to the school-and-mama-life grind it is. Happy Halloween, and as ever, happy reading, friends.

Review: The Mermaid & Mrs. Hancock

“The stories are of men who, walking on the shore, hear sweet voices far away, see a soft white back turned to them, and — heedless of looming clouds and creaking winds — forget their children’s hands and the click of their wives’ needles, all for the sake of the half-seen face behind a tumble of gale-tossed greenish hair.”

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a hefty tome — seriously, y’all, it’s a brick — but one worth of notice by admirers of literary fiction. I went into this novel expecting something light, whimsical, flirtatious, even; instead, I was thrilled to discover a tale of dark whimsy and an extraordinarily well-researched and -written portrait of 1780s English life. Here’s the scoop:

Mr. Hancock is a middle-aged, rather unexceptional individual who runs a moderately successful acquisitions enterprise in which he oversees the purchasing and sales of various commodities. His wife is deceased, alongside their infant child; and he has long been accustomed to a dreary existence that cycles from work to dinner to bed and back again. One day, though, his captain returns with news: the ship has been sold, pennies on the dollar, in exchange for something rare and nearly unbelievable: a mermaid.

Fascinated by the macabre and unusual, as human nature dictates, Mr. Hancock suspends his anger long enough to view the creature — and is convinced it should be shown to private audiences in order to make a few shillings. Begrudgingly, Mr. Hancock agrees to lease the grotesque mermaid — it’s long dead, and a rather dried-up and gruesome-looking bit of taxidermy, by all accounts — to a whorehouse.

Yeah, you read that right. A whorehouse.

Although Mr. Hancock has some qualms about loaning his oddity to a house of ill-repute, he cannot prepare himself for the wild twists of fate the establishment will cast his way.

Here’s what I loved most: characters are deeply flawed and ripe with the most basic — and tumultuous — of human desires. A current of wanting-but-not-having sweeps the plot along until fate steps in; and then, we’re reminded of the sour plateauing sensation that comes with getting what we want most. Gowar fastidiously composes each individual in the novel to portray some of the most fundamental heartwishes of our species. Mr. Hancock longs for company, fulfillment, something greater than the rote existence he has been leading; Angelica Neal, lady of the night, wants nothing more than to be the mistress of her own ship — she’s desperate to control her own destiny and will stop at nothing to find a means to this end; Mrs. Frost seeks her own means of self-support and control.

Perhaps the most striking theme to me in the novel is the female quest for self-reliance and power: each woman featured fiercely desires to remove herself from under the thumb of whatever forces are keeping them in place. The novel may be a tale of dark whimsy, but it’s also a relentless portrait of feminism and the serach for control over fortunes and fates in a world dominated by males and monetary wealth.

Mermaid moves along at an indolent loll, and to be quite honest, not a great deal of action occurs. However! The beauty in this work is found in the artfully constructed characters and their unremarkable lives that serve as a backdrop against the constant current of power struggles. And in the end — the bitter, raw metaphor of possession and wealth as isolation and ultimately, not the bringer of joy — well, that was icing on the cake.

Overall: 4.5 stars. Read this one when you’re in the mood to appreciate some serious fiction with rich prose and a slow-moving but mysteriously mesmerizing unfolding of events.

Thanks a million to Harper Books, who sent me this book free in exchange for my honest review! All opinions are my own.

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 Parking Lot Attendant

In January (or February?) I won a pretty sweet giveaway from Henry Holt & Co., an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. The reward: a stack of books from debut authors, set to release this spring. First up on the list for me was The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat.

The Parking Lot Attendant is a title that probably falls under the genre “literary fiction,” although I’ll be real honest with y’all: I love that genre and decidedly did not love this book.

Tamirat’s debut novel is seemingly the definition of a slow burn — except that it merely flickers and sputters out, without enough fodder to maintain a flame. Truthfully, up until page 170, very little discernible action occurs. And while I love a good bit of background-building (here’s looking at you, Steinbeck), 170 pages is a bit much.

Readers are introduced to the unnamed narrator and her father, who are self-proclaimed “unwelcome guests” on the unnamed island of B——. We get a brief — albeit perplexing — peek at daily life ok the island, where a commune lives in “utopian” peace, separate from the island’s bulk and natural inhabitants. We’re told things aren’t quite as ideal as they seem, then thrust backward in time to Boston to receive background on how the narrator and her father came to reside on B——.

Alas, Boston was sluggish and full of self-indulgent ramblings on the author’s end. (I get it; sometimes I let my own writing ramble because I like the look of it. But still.) The narrator — 15? 16? — befriends Ayale, an older man who is a parking lot attendant somewhere generally near the narrator’s home. Despite the gap in their ages, Ayale and the narrator find commonality in their Ethiopian roots and he takes the girl under his expansive gangster wing, acting almost like a father: checking on her schoolwork, asking about her life, giving her gifts and cash. They have some late-night meals — dates? — at diners and spend long hours chatting on the telephone, even after she’s spent post-school hours at the parking lot with Ayale. In short, the relationship teeters at the brink of awkward and inappropriate 90% of the time. Even the narrator’s utterly incapable father recognizes the sheer wrongness of the friendship and makes feeble attempts to end it. Meanwhile, I spent most of the book dreading their seemingly imminent sexual…coming together, if you will. (Spoiler: it never happens, THANK GOD.)

The novel concludes back on the island, with a brief description of how things have gone awry and a hint as to what will come. In short, 170 pages of mostly rambling fluff, only to be left with a hint at what might happen to our narrator. Sigh.

Tamirat’s strength lies in her writing of passionate diatribes from Ayale regarding the immigrant experience (I flagged a few of these gems as I read), and the occasional cheeky quip from the narrator, such as:

“I marvel at those who have made a living out of seamlessly appearing to be someone other than themselves. I haven’t done a particularly bang-up job of being me, and if I can’t manage that, it seems unlikely that I’ll ever do better by taking on someone else. I suspect that on the whole, I am untalented at the art of existence.”

These shiny moments in her work give me hope for Tamirat’s future works.

Ultimately, though, the novel was full of characters I didn’t particularly care for or like and meandering inaction. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m grateful for the review copy nonetheless. It’s always good to be exposed to different types of writing, right? Right. (Here’s looking at you, Henry Holt Books!)

Overall: 2 stars, not likely to recommend.

Review: Pachinko

My first read of 2018 — at least, the first book I started and finished this year — is a stunner, y’all, and it left me feeling absolutely drained. But in a good way, y’know? I tried explaining my feelings to my husband while I neared the end of the book and he was not having it at all.

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#BookwormLife looks a little different now that I’ve got a toy-monger on my hands…

Pachinko had been sitting on my shelf for 11 months. ELEVEN. I chose it as my February 2017 book in my BOTM box, and then I kind of just neglected the poor thing for basically — gulp — an entire year. But, in the spirit of Bookstagram’s #theunreadshelfproject, I made this hefty tome my first read of the year and it did not disappoint. In fact, I’m a little worried about the rest of 2018, because Min Jin Lee set the bar preeeeeetty damn high. (Sorry in advance, Other Books, which I shall spend the year comparing to this one…)

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Synopsis: The novel opens in 1910 in Korea, in a small village where a man and his wife run a boarding house. In a few short pages, readers are given a short rundown of a couple generations and introduced to Yangjin, the widower who runs the boarding house in the 1920s, and her daughter, Sunja — a simple but sturdy girl who works diligently and efficiently alongside her mother. Sunja is 16 when she first meets Koh Hansu, a wealthy broker at the local market where Sunja does her shopping. Although Hansu is much older than Sunja, she is drawn to the clean, wealthy, kindly-seeming man when he rescues her from an undesirable situation. The two become friends, seemingly innocently, until one day Sunja becomes something else to Hansu: his lover. The two revel in one another’s company until Sunja discovers she is pregnant — and that Hansu is married with three children of his own. Crushed, Sunja dismisses Hansu from her life and marries another man before moving to Japan. As years pass like the falling of sand through an hourglass, Sunja never forgets the handsome man she had first fallen in love with; but she also remains a dedicated wife and mother to her children. Through many trying decades and oftentimes seemingly insurmountable adversity, Sunja persists in a quest for more than just survival; rather, for the fullness and richness of a life well-lived.

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Pachinko is an extraordinary family saga in the vein of Amy Tan’s many works, but set against a backdrop of WWII-era Japan and the postwar culture that continued to discriminate against those of Korean descent. I’ve read minimal works set in Japan (or even told from an Asian culture’s perspective) during the World War II years (and the years following), so I was fascinated by the narrative that Lee offered readers. I was especially surprised to discover the rampant and open racism and hostility that the Japanese displayed toward Koreans, which extended so far as to require Koreans to register for permission to stay in the country when they turned 14 and every 3 years following — even if they’d been born in Japan to begin with.

The novel is so much more than an examination of race or prejudice, though; Pachinko is a love song to women and, in particular, mothers. More than one matron’s dedication to her children is featured in this novel, which explores what it means to truly be a mother — and what it means to be family. I found so much to savor in the flowering of Sunja as she became a mother and defied cultural norms and traditional expectations. It was truly a treat to follow her lifetime throughout the course of the novel and I found myself crying sympathetically at many moments in the book.

The Good: Pachinko is a deeply moving, vivid family saga that provides insight to a different culture than is commonly found in contemporary literature. The characters are all developed so thoroughly that readers won’t be able to help becoming attached — and invested in their outcomes. The length of the novel, though perhaps a deterrent to some, ends up being a huge “pro” for the story, allowing multiple character storylines to play out and the plot to reach a satisfying and not-ridiculous or -rushed outcome.

The Bad: It’s not such a bad thing, per se, but the novel isn’t one that can be read absentmindedly. Pachinko is a demanding work that requires both time and devout attention. I do wish that Haruki’s storyline would have been drawn to some sort of conclusion, but I recognize that he wasn’t a major character and the cliff Lee leaves us at is a concession I’m willing to make.

The Verdict: 5 stars. This is a stellar, impressive work for those who are fans of Amy Tan and Khaled Hosseini or Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Although the novel is a bit lengthy, every glorious page matters.