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Review: The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

the namesakeAshima and Ashoke Ganguli begin their lives together with an arranged marriage and a move to the United States from India. Ashoke is still a student, with ambitions to become a professor, while Ashima stays home to take care of their son, Gogol, who is born shortly after their marriage. The Namesake is really about Gogol, who sits between the generations, watching the effect his life has on his immigrant parents even as he tries to sort out his own culture, to reconcile his Bengali roots with his American present.

I’ve been hearing about Jhumpa Lahiri for years, and actually I’ve owned this book since 2008. Shameful, I know, especially because once I got started reading this I completely fell in love. It wasn’t a hard task to win me over; Lahiri managed it almost immediately by tying Gogol, the Russian author, to the story in the form of Gogol, the character, adding in a whole range of meaning for me as a reader of that particular author. I loved how the author followed the character throughout his life, subtly reminding him of his parents, and simultaneously making him confused and guilty and a little bit wistful.

I’m an immigrant myself, and though not nearly as isolated as Ashoke and Ashima, I still sympathised with the feeling of being in a foreign land, lacking friends simply because you have no basis for knowing people, and essentially feeling isolated. The couple eventually make themselves at home, but there’s always something there that is lacking, even once you realize that you’ve lived in a foreign place for long enough that you’ll never quite fit in at home, either.

The contrast between the experience of the parents and the children when they visit India, for instance, is striking. Though Ashoke and Ashima are happy enough in the United States, they come back to themselves in India. In vivid contrast, their children feel irritated at the absence from home and confused by a different way of life. They don’t enjoy the visits, but their parents relish them and despair at leaving.

This is also a novel about identity, about the confusion between who you individually are and where you’ve come from. Gogol, in typical young adult fashion, seems to discard everything about his culture, including his own name, in a search to figure out who he truly is. It takes a powerful shock to remind him that there’s more to his background, that there are essential threads of his life that he just missed while he was busy asserting that identity. But he quickly swings back the other way. It’s not a simple thing, working out who you are and entangling it from the mess created of your life up to that point, and Lahiri not only recognizes this but pulls it off beautifully.

A quiet but powerful book about identity and heritage, The Namesake struck every chord correctly with me, catapulting itself onto my 2011 favorites list at the tail end of the year. Very highly recommended.

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Review: The Reinvention of Love, Helen Humphreys

The affair between Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo’s wife, and Charles Saint-Beuve has gone down in history as a mistake made by everyone; a doomed love affair that simply never should have started. Chock full of details that only history can make believeable, like Saint-Beuve’s hermaphroditism and cross-dressing, and the intoxicating world of 19th century France, the book is really a love story about two people who have made mistakes but have never ceased longing for one another.

I knew I wanted to read another book by Humphreys after Coventry and she certainly hasn’t let me down here. The book is short, but it covers thirty years of the couple’s affair, even after one of them has passed on. We alternate between Adele’s and Saint-Beuve’s voices, witnessing their struggles to be together from both sides. Adele, obviously, cannot leave her husband, who grows increasingly famous, particularly because of her children, while Saint-Beuve struggles to become the man he longs to be in Victor’s ever-present shadow.

I had actually never heard of the affair between Saint-Beuve and Adele, but since reading this book have really come to realize that it was well known in its time and almost universally derided. Saint-Beuve in particular has borne the brunt of the ridicule, possibly because he was actually a hermaphrodite.

This makes for a very interesting book, but instead of making it seem at all vulgar or strange, Humphreys weaves it into his personality and makes his cross-dressing and his confusion sexually just another aspect of him, just like his desire to write is a part of him but does not define him. I thought this was an incredibly sensitive way to handle the subject and Humphreys does an extraordinary job, both with his personality and the way that Adele sees him and falls in love with him and is physically attracted to him despite things like cross-dressing which would immediately put off many straight women in the present.

Another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed, which I briefly alluded to above, is Saint-Beuve’s struggle to define himself. He virtually lives in Victor’s shadow – struggling to surpass Victor’s writing skills, falling in love with his wife, and even at times coveting Victor’s children. He tries so hard to set himself apart, but is all he really wants to be Victor. It’s a real struggle with individuality.

Humphreys is a beautiful writer and her words set nineteenth-century Paris alight. The atmosphere, especially when the couple are together, is wonderful and immediately grants us a sense of place.

A lovely, tender but sad read, The Reinvention of Love is the perfect choice for those who prefer their literary fiction set in the past with a whole heap of doomed romance.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free from Amazon Vine.

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Review: You Are My Only, Beth Kephart

you are my onlyIt only takes a minute for Emmy’s life to flip upside down; her baby, the spot of joy in her life, stolen, her husband accusing her of the crime. After she goes on a frantic search, Emmy ends up in a mental hospital, longing for her stolen daughter and for justice. In the present day, fourteen-year-old Sophie is hidden from the world, forbidden to do so much as leave her house. She and her mother have constantly been hiding, but Sophie has never understood why. When she befriends her neighbor, a boy called Joey, Sophie begins to put the pieces of her life together and wonder. Told in alternating chapters between the two women, You Are My Only is the story of a mother’s love and a daughter’s longing.

Beth Kephart is a beautiful writer; I first experienced her wonderful style in Nothing But Ghosts and I’ve been looking forward to another read since. She has the incredible talent of getting right to the heart of human emotion and expressing it through her prose while telling a story. Some of the imagery is simply stunning, causing me to go back and read over again just to savor the beauty of the words. As you might expect, then, the point of this book is not the plot, though; it’s easy to see from the outset what exactly has happened.

Instead the book is a slow discovery, watching the characters, especially Sophie, work out what’s happened and how their lives have become like this. It’s also very much a tale about motherhood. Each of the adult women is a mother in different ways – Emmy, whose daughter has been stolen; Sophie’s mother, who craved a child; Joey’s aunts, who are perhaps the most traditionally “motherly” characters in the book despite their somewhat unconventional life. And in the center is Sophie, seeking a vision of motherhood she hasn’t had, and an opportunity to escape the stifling confines of her house and enjoy the life of an ordinary young girl. All of the characters are seeking something, and the heart of the book lies in whether or not they find it, and how they go about looking for it.

I do believe Kephart’s works should be read much more widely, and this wouldn’t be a bad place to start for any reader. Her books are lovely, evocative and full of pure emotion. I’d recommend both this and Nothing But Ghosts, and I’m very much looking forward to reading more of her work.

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

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Review: 22 Britannia Road, Amanda Hodgkinson

22 Britannia RoadWorld War II had a massive effect on lives across the world; Silvana and Janusz, living in war zones, have been affected more than most. Separated at the very beginning of the war as a young married couple with a small son, Janusz immediately joins the army while Silvana is left in Warsaw with their son Aurek. Soon forced to flee the city, Silvana and Aurek hide in the woods, while Janusz eventually finds himself in England as a veteran. Six years after their separation, they’re reunited and start family life in a small house in Ipswich, but both have changed, and both have damaging secrets they’re determined to keep.

22 Britannia Road has received a great deal of acclaim on its release, so I was expecting quite a lot from this novel. World War II stories are everywhere these days, so it does take something special or a different perspective to help a book stand out from the crowd. With its post-war story told simultaneously with the immediate history leading up to the war and afterwards, along with its Polish characters, the book easily accomplishes that much, providing a new family perspective on the hardships endured during the war.

Silvana and Janusz’s reunion is uneasy; they barely remember what one another look like. Everything in their lives has changed. For Aurek, things are even more difficult and confusing, as he simply doesn’t remember his father and just wants to go live with his mother in the woods again. He has no concept of society, much less that required by the strict British school system and, partly, his father, who wants a son to be proud of.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was actually Aurek’s reaction to other children, school, his father, and so on; it demonstrates the adaptability of children as much as it shows how much adults struggle to accept the same tasks. Oddly, in this way it reminded me of Room by Emma Donoghue, even though the subject matters diverge wildly.

And then, of course, there are the secrets, which have the potential to destroy the family’s newly forged life. Complicating things are people who thrust themselves into the Nowaks’ newly forged lives, like Aurek’s first friend Peter and his elegant father. Silvana is a character that is difficult to understand, with her complicated past, while I think Janusz longs for the life that will be familiar to most readers; a promotion, a son to be proud of, a wife who loves him, a shiny new car. The opening scenes of the book, when he paints his house worrying what his stranger wife and child will appreciate, while reminiscing about the woman he’s fallen in love with in France, were actually some of the most poignant for me in the entire book.

While, for me, 22 Britannia Road wasn’t earth shattering, it was a book that certainly shed another light on life during and after World War II, particularly for immigrants. And it’s a worthy look into the minds of both adults and children who have to deal with the nearly unimaginable happening thanks to the horrors of war. Recommended.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free from Amazon Vine.

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Review: The Crying Tree, Naseem Rakha

the crying treeIrene and Nate Stanley move to Oregon in search of a better life for themselves and their family. Irene is reluctant to leave her extended family, but believes in the hope that her husband gives her. Instead, what they get is a seemingly random housebreaking and the death of their son, Shep. The murderer Daniel Robbin is caught, but the death of a child is something that neither can really cope with – driving away their daughter, Bliss, and launching life-changing consequences for the family.

This was one of the first books I bought for my Kindle nearly a year ago, and all this time it’s simply sat there unread – a book that, like so many, loses its luster once acquired. Luckily, I was travelling and had nothing on me but the Kindle, so when everything else ALSO seemed to lose appeal (don’t we all hate it when that happens?) I finally opened this title and started to read. I’m glad I did – this was a powerful book with a surprise twist at the end that I hardly expected, but which really added to the strength of the entire book.

The novel is told through alternating viewpoints. Most of the book is from Irene’s perspective as she loses her son, with the occasional chapter from Bliss, and the rest of the book is told by Tab Mason, the man who has been ordered to kill Daniel Robbin. Robbin has been on death row for years and Tab has never been the one to actually kill a man, nor is he comfortable with it. This perspective provides a really fascinating and heartbreaking look into the toll the death penalty takes on the people who are actually required to follow through with it.

The main thrust of the storyline, though, is Irene’s personal struggle with the murder of her son and the incredibly difficult pain she has to go through as a mother. She essentially dies inside – at first, she lives for the fact that her son’s murderer is going to be killed, until she decides to forgive him on what would have been Shep’s 25th birthday. She writes him a letter and, surprisingly and secretly, she and Daniel begin corresponding. This leads to the biggest twist in the book, which I obviously won’t spoil for you. It’s a fascinating meditation on the power of forgiveness, though, and the strength of a mother’s love.

For a book I wasn’t actually sure I’d like after I bought it, The Crying Tree was a powerful surprise, and certainly one I’d recommend to those who aren’t afraid of tackling more difficult issues in their reading.

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

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Review: The Nobodies Album, Carolyn Parkhurst

Octavia Frost, a fairly ordinary novelist, has just written her most depressing book to date. Her new book, though, The Nobodies Album, is something completely different – she is rewriting the endings to all of her previous books. It’s perfectly apt for this time in her life, as she wishes many parts of her life could have turned out differently. She can’t begin restitution, however, until she hears shocking news: her rock star son Milo, from whom she has been estranged for years, has been accused of murdering his girlfriend. Octavia immediately flies to his home in California, not knowing what to expect, but ready for a change in her life and to support her son in the most difficult time of his. Interspersed with her story are the endings of all the books she’s written, along with their new chapters, shedding ever-increasing light on the changing state of Octavia’s emotions and outlook on life.

Despite the fact that it’s billed as a literary mystery, I found The Nobodies Album surprisingly satisfying. It’s true that the mystery wasn’t particularly mysterious; there is really only one person who has any motive for murdering Milo’s girlfriend Bettina, so even I, notoriously slow when it comes to solving these things, figured it out before the characters did. But I quite enjoyed the story along the way. Many of the other story elements aren’t revealed until further into the book, so it takes a while to truly understand how they have all gotten to this point. Seeing things from Octavia’s point of view, as an older woman who has made mistakes, tied in with the obvious change of attitude she’s had displayed through the old book endings spread throughout the story, made for a very emotive and moving read.

Though beautifully written, Octavia’s voice is slightly cold to start. I would encourage you to set that aside until the story gets more involved. She has reasons for acting the way that she does, and those reasons lead to the reveal of some fascinating, complex relationships – exactly what I look for in a book like this. The story takes a close look in particular at the relationships between mothers and their children; how even doing the best you can sometimes isn’t quite enough, especially not in the formative years. It’s true that Octavia and Milo have some terrible circumstances to deal with, but she realizes that their personalities – which are very similar – will clash while their lives are still normal. She isn’t the kind of parent Milo needs, but she’s the parent he has left, which leads to problems in their relationship that eventually result in their initial estrangement.

The Nobodies Album is a thoughtful and at times suspenseful literary mystery. Highly recommended to those who enjoy well-written characters and don’t mind the occasional break for another thread of the story.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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Review: Something Missing, Matthew Dicks

Martin is a thief, but he isn’t an ordinary thief. He meticulously studies his victims – who he calls clients – before he steals from them, to ensure that they don’t have any danger factors and that he won’t get caught by a dog or a child home sick from school. He starts to feel that he knows his clients based on the items he takes from them – from one, he’ll steal some laundry detergent and a packet of nearly expired tomatoes, while from another he’ll nab toothpaste or a box of pasta. His big operations take months of planning and he does his best to take things that his clients won’t miss for long periods of time. But when he gets trapped in one of his clients’ homes and starts to believe he can help them, Martin finds that his life of crime may turn into an attempt to be a guardian angel for his clients.

This was a startlingly original and often delightful read. Who could imagine that a thief could be so lovable? It helps that he hardly ever steals anything actually worth money, and when he does he takes extra effort to ensure its owners will never miss it. Instead, he seems to consider his clients as friends. He’s a peculiar character to start; he’s obsessed with mapping out houses and following his routines. He thinks he’s gone on dates with a woman at the local diner when she’s just being friendly, and has a single friend to his name. He works at a coffee shop and tells the people that he knows that he writes technical manuals rather than divulging his real career. He seems as though he might have happily gone along continuing to steal from his clients for years, until he realizes that maybe he can use his intimate knowledge of them for good rather than for his own personal gain.

In some respects, I think making it so easy to relate to him trivializes the fact that he is actually stealing, but this is a minor note and is completely contradicted by the good he actually ends up doing. Since we spend over 100 pages following him on his travels, we get a really good idea of what he actually steals and how he goes about doing it. Still, somehow, we appreciate and start to like him even as he describes his meticulous process of removing fingerprints and approaching houses from a variety of methods. It’s after we’ve known him that the book takes off – things start to go wrong and Martin has to cope with not only dangers but unfamiliar environments he isn’t prepared for. I didn’t feel anxious for his clients as he investigated, I felt anxious for him.

Something Missing completely delivers on its unusual premise with a fantastic main character as well as an intense and addicting storyline. This sweet read is highly recommended.

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

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Review: You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon

you know when the men are goneLife in the military is difficult, not only for the men who go off to war, but for the women and children they are forced to leave behind. This new collection of stories from Siobhan Fallon explores the lives of the men and women who are forced to endure the separation, from both perspectives. We see men who dream of nothing but home, only to find themselves strangely out of place away from the war. We meet women who are bereft without their men, but when the men return are unsure how to fit them back into their strict lives. And we witness the spouses who can’t take the separation, who cheat, from both sides of the equation.

Every tiny bit of praise you’ve heard for You Know When the Men Are Gone is true. This is an incredible collection of stories, and I say that as someone who doesn’t normally like short stories, whose loved ones are all civilians, and who is hesitant about reading books about modern day women’s emotions. Each story in this book is wonderful on its own and as part of this collection. They are all very loosely connected, some having more links than others, but with several universal themes coming through.

Many of those themes are explored through the two different perspectives. We witness just how difficult it is for women when their husbands are gone. They bond together with other mothers, have children early to have something left of their husbands, and end up coping with absolutely everything in the men’s absence. Meanwhile, the men are dreaming of home, even as they’re adjusting to Iraq. Each story in some way deals with a soldier’s return or lack of return.

Infidelity is a big concern for both the soldiers and the women who are waiting for them. After all, a year’s deployment is a very long time, and all of them can get desperate. One husband returns, convinced his wife is cheating, and hides in his own basement to catch her in the act. A wife suspects her husband of cheating, but decides to forgive him and save the love that she still has for him and, she hopes, him for her.

Each story in this collection affected me in some way, tugging on my heartstrings relentlessly. Several had me in tears, which doesn’t happen very often for me and books. I can’t imagine how difficult these lives are, but I truly feel that Fallon gave me a glimpse into the tough struggles that military families go through each and every day. There is definitely a reason this collection has earned so much buzz, and it’s so well deserved. I’m glad to add my voice to the many others who have fallen in love with this book – Fallon is unquestionably an author to watch and You Know When the Men Are Gone is an amazing read.

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

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Review: Room, Emma Donoghue

5 year old Jack and his Ma live in one room. Jack has never known anything different; he adheres closely to their daily rituals and truly believes that the world doesn’t extend outside the one room. His only view of the outside world is a skylight and he thinks everything that happens there is really just in the TV. He dreads visits from “Old Nick”, the man who visits his mother, and has to hide in the wardrobe every time he comes to visit. When Jack turns five, his mother starts trying to tell him about the world, but Jack isn’t sure he’s ready to face it.

Just a quick warning, this book is best going into it knowing nothing more than that, and I will be including spoilers in my review.

I had two reactions to this book. I struggled with the beginning. Unlike Jack, I knew what was going on. I knew “Old Nick” had kidnapped and raped his mother, and that Jack was the product of that rape; it seemed incredibly sad to me how he simply got on with his life as though it were normal. I doubt any mother could have chosen to do anything else, there certainly isn’t any sense in raising a child to be miserable, but it was hard to take. I felt stifled just thinking about the life of Jack’s Ma. I must admit that I was also quite disgusted at the continuation of breast feeding, though I could see why there was no reason to actually stop.

And then they escape, and I started to appreciate the book more. For me, their integration into the real world was the interesting part. Seeing how much Jack hadn’t experienced and how poorly equipped he was for the actual world was, again, heartbreaking. One of the more interesting parts of it, though, was the fact that Jack completely misses out on societal stigmas. He doesn’t think it’s weird that he has long hair like a girl, or that Dora is his favorite television character. He carries a pink Dora backpack and thinks nothing of it – an interesting, and I think accurate, view on how society teaches us about the differences between boys and girls.

When they emerge into the real world, it’s also apparent that Jack has the adaptive ability of his age, while Ma struggles desperately to cope. Despite his confusion over separation from her, he continues to learn about the world and find his own place in it, which in contrast to the rest of the book is heartwarming and gives us hope. I loved the sections when he’s with his grandparents and learning little things about the world that he likes. It’s really a testimony to the power of childhood. He struggles at first, but he does realize that the outside world is a nice place – and that he can still be with his Ma in it.

Room has garnered quite a bit of attention in the press and on blogs due to its recent Booker prize nomination, so I don’t think I’m adding anything new to the discussion; regardless, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s dark, but not without its strands of hope.

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

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Review: Remedies, Kate Ledger

By all outward appearances, and in their own minds, Simon and Emily Bear lead a happy life.  Simon is a successful doctor, beloved by his patients and staff.  Emily is a star in the PR world, effortlessly smoothing over crises as she gives talks and inspires young people to pursue her career path.  Perhaps the only outward dark spot in their life is their daughter, Jamie, but as she’s a teenager, she’s expected to be rebellious.  As the book continues, however, we learn about the cracks in their marriage, like the baby boy who died just weeks after his birth, the man that Emily left because he wasn’t suiting her direction in life, the problems that Simon has with his parents.  As the book continues, we learn that appearances aren’t everything, and perhaps the most successful of all of us could be the most broken on the inside.

This was a book that’s grown on me since I finished it.  I’m not really a fan of stories about modern relationships, as I’ve mentioned in depth on this blog in the past.  I live my own life in the real world, so it takes a special something to capture me in a story that’s about the same world.  In fact, I only read this one because my mom requested it from Amazon Vine but left the review too long, and because it’s published by Amy Einhorn Books, of which I’m a fan.

As expected, it took me a while to get into the book.  I really wasn’t interested in the fate of this particular family at first; they felt too normal, too much a suburban couple thinking more of themselves than what they are.  Interestingly, I found I related much more to Emily – I vastly preferred her sections to Simon’s.  I put down the book once or twice when they switched – I just didn’t want to read from his perspective.  Simon felt to me like a very arrogant person.  He constantly denies anything that’s slightly wrong in his life, glossing over it, inserting himself awkwardly into situations, trying to take control when he’s clearly not wanted.  The way he dismisses the intern at the start put me against him right away – he just couldn’t deal with the fact that she didn’t adore him like everyone else.  As the book progressed, I could see where he came from.  I found his attempt to find a cure for chronic pain almost ironic; he’s trying to cure physical pain when the pain that really impacts his life is the emotional kind, which both he and Emily still suffer from years after their initial loss.  Despite understanding, I still couldn’t like him.

Emily, on the other hand, I sympathized with, perhaps because I could see how she made the choices she did when she was young.  I felt her pain more clearly; I could understand how she got the way she was but still feel for the woman she’d become.  This is so strange, because she commits wrongs over the course of the book that are substantially worse than Simon’s.  I was left wondering if I could feel for her, and not him, because her problems were ones I could better relate to as a woman even though I hadn’t experienced them myself.  Some sort of instinctive sympathy, perhaps – I really don’t know, but the fact stands.

Remedies would be a great choice for those who really like to peek into the lives of a successful family and see deep into the layers of relationships.  For me, however, it fell a bit short, but I’m sticking that firmly in the realm of personal preference and looking forward to seeing if Kate Ledger writes something that’s more to my taste next time.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from Amazon Vine.

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