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Review: The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez

the book of unknown americansArturo Rivera, his wife Alma, and their daughter Maribel arrive in the United States with close to nothing. Unlike many immigrants, who come to the United States out of poverty and desperation, the Riveras have arrived in the hopes of getting Maribel into a special school for children with brain damage. Beautiful sixteen-year-old Maribel hasn’t been the same since a terrible accident and Arturo and Alma would do anything to help her recover. They find themselves in an apartment building full of other immigrants. Entwined with the Riveras story is that of the Toro family, whose son Mayor falls in love with Maribel on first sight and only loves her more when he gets to know her better, and snapshots from the lives of other immigrants from all over Central and South America.

I really loved The World in Half, the first novel I read by Cristina Henríquez, so when I was offered The Book of Unknown Americans for review consideration, I immediately accepted. Although I’ve forgotten the details, I still remember how beautiful that book was and how much of an effect it had on me. This book was different, but again had an impact and slightly shifted my worldview.

One of the things that stands out most, again, is Henríquez’s beautiful, clear writing. The very first scenes of the novel, when the Riveras are arriving into their new apartment for the first time, are surprisingly moving. We learn the details of their lives – the cracked windows, the cupboards with bedsheets tacked on instead of doors, the mattress a discarded relic they found on the way – and even when the story gains more heft, we know that this is in the background, not only for the Riveras but for the other tenants in the building.

Their story is interspersed with those of the other people in the apartment building. They all have different reasons for arriving in the United States, some legal, some illegal, and this is what the book is trying to convey. There are so many of these people, all Americans, who are unknown, who don’t count as much because they have slightly darker skin, who slip beneath the radar. Like immigrants in what seems the world over, especially those who aren’t white, they suffer simply for being slightly different and are held accountable for all manner of ills. I found this passage really powerful:

I mean, does anyone ever talk about why people are crossing? I can promise you it’s not with some grand ambition to come here and ruin everything for the gringo chingaos. People are desperate, man. We’re talking about people who can’t even get a toilet that works, and the government is so corrupt that when they have money, instead of sharing it, instead of using it in ways that would help their own citizens, they hold on to it and encourage people to go north instead. What choice do people have in the face of that? Like they really want to be tied to the underside of a car or stuffed into a trunk like a rug or walking in nothing but some sorry-ass sandals through the burning sand for days, a bottle of hot water in their hands? (p.241)

I didn’t get tired of these parts of the book, even though I liked the main story too. All of them were different and had stories worth hearing. Although they were brief, and for the most part had settled in that apartment building and left the more difficult parts of their immigration behind, I personally found them really moving and a perspective I hadn’t encountered often enough.

Very highly recommended and I will continue to keep my eyes open for Henríquez’s next book!

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review consideration.

Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

we are all completely beside ourselvesWhen she was a little girl, Rosemary was a chatterbox, happy to talk anyone’s ear off. Her mother told her to choose one of the two things she had to say; when that wasn’t enough, it became one in three. But by the time Rosemary is a college student, she hardly ever speaks, and she’s moved halfway across the country to avoid the gaps in her life. Her brother and her sister have been missing from her life for years and, even though she loved both of them, she’s been spending most of that time misunderstanding why they are gone. Eventually Rosemary can’t deny her past, but in order to unravel it, she begins in the middle with this book, where her father always told her to start stories, when telling the beginning would take too long.

I went into this book knowing almost nothing about it. I have probably mentioned it before, but this is the way that I enjoy books the most, because I don’t have any preconceived notions about what’s in them and I can come to the story in the way I imagine the author intended. That is almost certainly the case for this book, which is why I’ve tried very hard not to give anything away. The bit I’m keen to avoid talking about happens around page 70, so it isn’t as though it takes long – I just think it’s worth not knowing, avoiding preconceptions, before you realize what’s happened.

One of my favorite things in a book is an unreliable narrator, I think mainly because we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives. Rosemary spends quite a bit of time in the book going back to the beginning, to her very early childhood, and often has to confront whether what she remembers is fact or fiction. Does she remember something or does she now only remember being told the story? How much do the facts of her life, as she sees them, line up with what her parents and siblings remember and experienced? I love books that start out in the middle and only gradually reveal what actually happened and what it meant. This is definitely one of those.

There’s also identity and how our family shapes it, by action, inaction, or by simple absence. Rosemary’s adult life is in many ways dictated by what her parents chose to do when she was a child, factors that she simply can’t escape, and maybe shouldn’t, no matter how far from them she tries to go. Though she’s writing this novel as an adult, it actually documents more the process of her coming to terms with this and understanding their actions as well as her own.

And, although all of this sounds very serious, and most of the book is serious and sad, there’s also a light touch. Some of it is genuinely funny, almost to relieve the tension of everything else. Fowler maintains a delicate balance between a book that is extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking and one that is a pleasure to read.

The book is about so much more as well, but as I said above, I don’t really want to give it away. I just really want other people to read it so I can talk about it more. So I hope that, despite the “mystery”, others will feel the same way, and perhaps be inspired to pick We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves up. I would certainly recommend it.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

the art of fieldingHenry Skrimshander is an outstanding shortstop and it’s that which draws Mike Schwartz to recruit him to Westish College in Wisconsin. Within a very short space of time, Henry has revitalized the Westish team and brought them victories that had been vastly beyond their reach. But with one missed throw, Henry’s entire life is thrown off balance. Who is he, if he can’t always throw perfectly? And what is the team without him? Surrounding Henry are all of the dramas of closed-in literary college life; affairs with professors, mature students, deadly dull jobs, and even a bit of studying every now and again.

It’s taken me a while to review this book, which I’m not sure is entirely positive; I loved it and I felt like I had a lot to say about it once I’d finished, but I left it a long while to actually sit down and write. The Art of Fielding is a book that, without question, has received an enormous amount of hype. Even before Kathy brought it across an ocean for me, she told me that it was going to be one of the big releases of 2011, and I’ve watched it receive review after review. I managed to keep myself away from spoilers of all kinds and experience the book for myself, though, when I was ready for it.

I made the right decision, because I loved this book. I felt as though it tapped right down into a deep sense of American nostalgia, a story about being the best you can be and what happens when you’re not sure you can achieve that any longer. Where do we go once we’ve hit our peak? Not only does Henry experience this, but each of the other characters are faced with periods of monumental change and the fact that their lives simply can’t be the same again. It reminded me of my own leaving college; I loved my time there and even now when I look at the pictures I’m blasted with a ton of nostalgia. But I’ve moved on, and these characters have to move on, too, regardless of whether their stardom is behind them or right in front of them.

At times, I did feel the book was a little bit long; there was one particular spot in the latter middle where I felt the story was dragging. But for the most part, I got completely swept up into this world. I’m not a fan of baseball, although I certainly know my way around a field mostly because I grew up amongst Yankee fans and went to a public high school. That may have helped, but I think the book is deeper than that and touches something universal – it might apply to baseball, but it might equally apply to a writer who isn’t sure he or she can ever write a novel as good as their first, or a musician who fears becoming a one-hit wonder. If that should happen, when do we let go? Or do we carry on trying?

I know this review is not really a review – it’s very obscure, instead. But I think The Art of Fielding is a book that is well worth your time. It was a surprisingly fast read, for its size, and it swept me up in its simultaneously grandiose and personal story. I recommend it.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free – thanks again Kathy!

Review: The Book of Lies, Mary Horlock

Cathy Rozier opens her narrative by informing us that she’s actually killed her best friend Nic. But before we find out how, we must go back and discover why; how two friends who spent so much time together could end up so opposed that their relationship ends in death. Intertwined with Cathy’s difficult story of angst-ridden teenagers is the story of Guernsey throughout World War II, when her father, uncle, and grandparents struggled through the German occupation, narrated through documents and letters in a variety of different voices. Put together, it’s the tale of an island then and now, the secrets held by so many people and the damage they can wreak on other lives.

At first, I found it difficult to get into this book. Cathy’s voice is acerbic, cynical, and self-deprecating; she’s a character I don’t think I could ever like. At the same time, her teenage attitude is incredibly appropriate for the kind of book this is, and it isn’t always necessary to like a character in order to gain appreciation for a book. And in the end I love the twisted storylines, particularly the historical letters and details from Charlie’s side of the story (surprise surprise).

There are quite a few bits and pieces in this novel about the occupation that are skipped out or found no place elsewhere, such as the burying of the prisoners’ bodies, that helped flesh out what I’d read before and add true atmosphere to this novel. Knowing precisely what happened in the past adds layers to Cathy’s story that simply wouldn’t exist in an ordinary contemporary novel with a mystery. Cathy has revelations to make about her family that can deeply impact her, but throughout she acts as a teenager would and I was completely convinced by her character.

Once engrossed, the novel is easy to race through, as we are keen to figure out just what happens next and how Cathy will handle everything that is happening around her. Perhaps not surprising given the subject matter, this is a dark book, with a setting that feels particularly grim. We can sense Cathy’s dissatisfaction with Guernsey and the little it offers to a modern day teenager even as the richness of its past has strong impacts on precisely the present that is so hum drum.

This is a book that, off-putting to start, turns out to be an addicting read. I had quite a time with it and feel I’ve been left with a lot to think about now that I’ve finished. I would definitely recommend The Book of Lies to those who are also interested in probing the past, about the difficulties of teenage years, or even just looking for a good story.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from Netgalley.

Review: Amaryllis in Blueberry, Christina Meldrum

amaryllis in blueberryThe Slepy family story begins with Christina ‘Seena’ Slepy on trial for her husband’s murder in Africa. The portion of the story leading up to the day is slowly revealed through flashbacks interposed with Seena’s thoughts on just how she and her family got to this point. Dick’s obsession with Catholicism, Seena’s affair, Amaryllis – so dark and different from her sisters – questions her parentage, and Mary Grace, Mary Tessa, and Mary Catherine all grapple with their own problems related to growing up and becoming women. Arrival in Africa merely exacerbates the tensions between the family members, each a world unto themselves, until the novel’s explosive conclusion.

I struggled with Amaryllis in Blueberry for a number of reasons, primary among them the fact that it reads like a shallower imitation of The Poisonwood Bible. I loved that book when I read it in high school and I have even managed to read it again since, a rarity for books I read in those days. It has stuck with me over the years in a big way, enough that the parallels between these books, with the divided family of daughters, one vain, one religious, the super-religious father, all heading to Africa on said father’s initiative, struck me at once. In that book, I was swept away by how the characters grew and developed, how Africa changed them in ways both good and bad.

Christina Meldrum appears to be trying for the same effect here, and while I enjoyed the book as I was reading it, just a day away from it has made me question it. It certainly did not have a similar effect on me, and I’m sure that’s in part because I didn’t care for the characters. They all seemed very self-absorbed, not unrealistic, but people I couldn’t relate to. Even Amaryllis, the title character, is a vague and shadowy girl.

One thing I did very much appreciate, though, was the characters’ efforts to break free of boxes, particularly Grace. She knows that because she is beautiful and blonde that she doesn’t have to be smart and that people in fact expect her to be dumb and make mistakes. So, even though she was clever as a child, she begins to rely on her beauty and becomes the stereotype that others expect. Some of the events in Africa help her to realize that she doesn’t have to be that way, that she shouldn’t put others in the boxes she hates herself, and that she can be both smart and beautiful.

I also think part of the problem is that the book is too short for what it’s trying to do. The narrative skips around between a huge number of characters, a real problem when their chapters are only a couple of pages long, and it’s difficult to get to know any of them particularly well. Some of the storylines seemed unnecessary, like Clara’s, and at times I felt irritated that the book led me to think in one direction just to provide an ‘a-ha!’ moment at the end. It felt cheap to me because the book wasn’t powerful enough to deliver an ‘a-ha!’ moment on its own. The writing was lovely, but in the end I just didn’t connect with it.

A few other reviews to give you a different perspective …

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

Review: Pictures of You, Caroline Leavitt

Isabelle is leaving her husband. She’s found out that he’s been cheating on her and she can’t wait to get away. Three hours from home in Cape Cod, she sees a car stopped in the middle of the road, facing the wrong direction. It’s so foggy that she doesn’t see the car until it’s too late, and she’s struck it, killing the woman inside. Her young son survived, too far out from the wreck, but his and his father Charlie’s lives are irrevocably changed. Isabelle can’t help running into them when they both return to their lives in Cape Cod, and she finds herself drawn to this widower and his adorable, asthmatic son Sam, despite the role she’s played in their grief.

I am so glad my Skype book club chose this for our February read because I would never have read it otherwise – and I truly enjoyed it, finding that it surpassed my expectations by far. Before I even got into the story, I found that the writing instantly swept me away, evoking perfectly Isabelle’s feelings as she fled her husband and then encountered April’s car in the midst of the fog. I was drawn instantly in and looked forward to returning to it whenever I had to go do something else.

One of the most interesting parts of the novel was actually April’s backstory. Though she dies in the first few pages of the novel, she is one of the most compelling characters. Clearly mentally ill in some way, she is the classic overprotective mother in some respects but incredibly negligent in others. She needs someone else to need her and this seems to motivate almost all of her choices in life. Meanwhile, her husband Charlie has always been desperately in love with her. Discovering that she may have been leaving him – with their son in tow – is devastating for him, and he is obsessed with finding out why.

Sam’s relationship with Isabelle is another really well-done aspect of the novel. Having caught just a glimpse of her at the accident scene, Sam believes that Isabelle is an angel, and when he seeks something to hold onto in the absence of his mother, she turns into it. Isabelle herself is looking to refresh her life, away from her ex-husband and his girlfriend’s baby, but no longer has a place in the community where she’s ostracised as the woman who killed a young mother. Her desire to recover lead to some very difficult choices, but I felt she always handles them in an appropriate way.

The only unrealistic aspect of the novel, in my view, was the way Isabelle was treated after the accident. How could she be ostracised so completely for an accident which really wasn’t her fault? I don’t think any woman would experience this kind of backlash when she ran into another car, facing the wrong direction, lights off, in a thick fog. The rest of the novel drew me in so much that I managed to ignore this but it did strike the single odd note.

My book club really enjoyed this book and found tons to discuss in it, only some of which I have touched on here. This would be a great selection for other book clubs too – there is a lot to pull out of this one and talk about!

Pictures of You was a sparkling read, chock full of interesting, multi faceted characters, strong relationship development, and beautiful prose. The mystery within it. about just why April ran, made a strong book that much more appealing. Highly recommended.

I am an Amazon Associate. I bought this book.

Review: Fall for Anything, Courtney Summers

fall for anythingWhen Eddie’s father killed himself, her life fell apart. She can’t figure out how he could have left her, left her mother, when they all seemed so happy. Now her mother can’t get out of her bathrobe, her mother’s best friend Beth is constantly in the house and invading Eddie’s life, and there are ever-growing boundaries between her and her own best friend Milo. When Eddie meets her father’s last student, Culler Evans, she begins to hope that he can finally answer the question “why?”, even at the expense of everyone and everything she thinks she knows.

I don’t think I can do this book justice in a review. It was such an all-consuming experience, a complete cascade of grief, hope, and love, that I genuinely don’t think I can express the effect this book had on me. Needless to say, I was totally wrapped up in Eddie’s experiences. At times, I wished she could have been more forthcoming – that all of the people in the novel could say what they really wanted to – but conversations in real life are difficult, too, and I didn’t think the author could have done a better job portraying real people suffering.

When Culler comes into the picture, I could completely understand Eddie’s desire to know, to understand. A death, especially a suicide, makes us question what happened, and in our grief, it can be so easy to get lost in that question. I was worried for her, dealing with an older boy who could hurt her so easily, and at that moment I realized just how wrapped up I was in this book. I didn’t want to put it down for anything, I just wanted to see what happened and whether Eddie managed to find the meaning she so craved.

Amidst all of this are the usual teenage dramas – because at the heart of it these characters are distinctly teenage even when their lives are turned upside down. Eddie still wants to be with her friend, Milo, even though he won’t tell her essential facts about the night her father died. His ex-girlfriend still manages to get in the way of their friendship. And she still sometimes goes out to parties, where occasionally she feels a spark of normality. She’s changed but she’s still recognizably a teenage girl, which gives us hope that she will find answers and return to enjoying her life eventually.

Fall for Anything was simply an incredible book. Beautifully written, with realistic characters and an absolutely gut-wrenching storyline, don’t miss this if you enjoy contemporary YA. And let me tell you, I have Some Girls Are on my shelf and I cannot wait to get to it now.

I am an Amazon Associate. Many thanks to the author and publisher for sending me this review copy!

Review: Foreign Tongue, Vanina Marsot

When her boyfriend not only dumps her but becomes famous, shoving his betrayal in her face at every turn, Anna realizes that she has to get away from her American life.  So she takes a cue from her French side and goes to live in her aunt’s Paris apartment for free.  She stumbles upon a job translating an erotic novel from French to English, and as she writes more and gets involved in a French romance, she starts to wonder if the characters in the book are real.

I’m sad to say I didn’t particularly like this book.  For one thing, there was just too much emphasis on sex.  I didn’t realize she was translating an erotic novel!  I don’t read the backs of books and sometimes that does lead to nasty surprises like this one.  The novel wasn’t particularly nice either – I will admit that after the first one, I skimmed all the rest of the excerpts of the erotic novel.

Still, I persevered in reading the rest of the book, hoping Anna would learn something from her French life to apply back to her American life.  I was disappointed in that too.  It seemed to me that she just constantly moped in her apartment, lamenting the unfortunate state of her life, except when she went to hang out with her trendy French friends who all had their own issues and subsequently complained about them.  The mystery of the erotic novel didn’t pan out either as I wasn’t interested in the book enough to actually remember the characters’ names.  Bad, I know – but by the end, I was genuinely skimming the entire book and skimmed huge sections just to get to the end.

Just about the only thing I did like about the book was the wordplay and the rumination on the nature of language.  Because Anna is a translator, she ends up thinking a lot about how concepts work in different languages and how some phrases just don’t work outside of their native tongue.  I have studied four languages, five if you count Middle English, and although I don’t know any of them particularly well, this is a concept I’ve run into quite a bit.  I definitely wanted to learn French.

Don’t take my word for it, though, as you might feel differently; Jennifer at Literate Housewife loved this book and named it one of her top 10 of 2009.  I wish I’d felt the same way as she did!  Foreign Tongue was definitely not the book for me.

I am an Amazon Associate. To be honest, I’m not sure why I have this book or where it came from, but I know it was sent to me for free.

Review: The Bird Room, Chris Killen

Since he is such a socially awkward person, Will is astonished when Alice spontaneously makes her interest in him clear.  She’s Will’s first girlfriend, as well as beautiful and smart.  He can’t stop obsessing over her and worrying what’s going to go wrong.  As always happens in such situations, his obsession begins to drive Alice away, and it’s only then that Will’s passion displays its most damaging consequences.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book and I was surprised, in a pleasant way, by what I found.  This book reads partly like an example of how not to conduct a relationship.  The situations are occasionally as sad as they are hilarious, but it’s impossible not to laugh.  The author has taken obsessive love to an extreme which is difficult to believe in, but which provides uneasy entertainment nonetheless.  We know there is something sad and wrong with these people, but at the same time they are mocking themselves.

The book alternates narration, using first person only when Will has the viewpoint perspective and third person for the other character.  This gives the reader an insight into his uncomfortable and obsessive mind, since otherwise we’d have no reason as to why he behaves the way he does, but at the same time contrasts his inner thoughts with his outer appearance and behavior.

The Bird Room doesn’t flinch in describing any aspect of these relationships.  A lot of the novel is obsessed with sex, as young people in new relationships generally are.  One of the characters is an actress using her body to get by and to erase her previous school persona, so there really is a fair amount of graphic content.  The book feels edgy, using the characters’ sexuality to portray the other happenings in their lives.  Helen, always lacking confidence, feels beautiful when a man wants her enough to sleep with her.  Will needs Viagra to encourage him along when his obsession with Alice takes control of his life.

A darkly comic tale about the extremes of obsession, The Bird Room manages to finish with hope and provides some very provoking thoughts to consider.  This little book is worth a read for those who enjoy character studies.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.

Review: South of Broad, Pat Conroy

Leopard Bloom King is an awkward, ugly 18-year-old with few friends.  His life has been a mess ever since his brother, Stephen, killed himself at only ten years old.  After spending years in mental institutions and later caught with cocaine in his pocket, Leo’s life has been anything but normal.  In the summer before his senior year of high school, he meets the people who will influence the rest of his life, forming friendships and bonds that will prove stronger than anything Leo has known previously.  Years later, their friendship will remain of primary importance to Leo as he and they must endure extraordinary hardships brought on by nature, the human mind, and a terrible disease.

My only previous experience with Pat Conroy was The Water Is Wide, a memoir that I just adored in high school, and I’ve meant to read more by him ever since.  So when I opened this book, it was with a great deal of anticipation.  And I enjoyed this story; the beginning feels slow and meandering, accustoming readers to the feel and the flow of South Carolina and the beginning of teenage friendships that are meant to last.  The second section is more exciting and begins to encompass the troubles that these friendships have wrought even as they have brought blessings.  The third section gives us another peek into the origin of the group, and the final section includes their pivotal struggle against a madman and a hurricane.

The story is indeed big and sprawling as the back cover promises, but I still wanted more.  Largely, I wanted more of the origins of these friendships.  I still found it hard to understand why they all coped with Chad, a member of the arrogant Southern aristocracy determined to put everyone down, or some of the other members of the group.  I saw how they came together, but I suppose I didn’t understand how it lasted for all of the members of this group.  Their conversations were entertaining, but rang somewhat untrue for me, and I just couldn’t believe anyone like Sheba Poe actually existed.  Who stage manages their entry into a house party of close friends?  The later sections were powerful, but without that essential basis, at times I couldn’t believe in the story.

And that’s a shame, because the story is quite a wild ride through almost every issue you can name.  The friends go in search of a missing member of the group and have to deal with death, rape, adultery, and murder among their ranks.  They even have a natural disaster pitted against them.  The book resonates with the strength and feel of Charleston, a place I’ve never been to but would quite like to visit now.  Conroy is an excellent writer and can make the words on the page simply come alive, even as he packs the story full with almost too much trauma.

South of Broad is a good book that, I think, has unfortunately missed being great.  Still, I am encouraged to read more of Conroy’s works, as I think he is an excellent writer and is still worth my time.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review here.