This is a stunning debut—multilayered with characters who have unique voices, strong desires, and each their own arc through the story. It is a very realistically written book, both in the characters and setting, which feels eerily too close to home.
The new Personhood Amendment grants all liberties and rights to every embryo. A small, sleepy, rainy fishing town in Oregon hosts the four main voices of this book: the biographer, the daughter, the wife, and the mender, all women who are on their own journeys through understanding these new laws and dealing with challenges that women have always faced: motherhood—whether wanted or not, persecution for lifestyle, accepted gender roles, and their own pursuits of life, freedom, and happiness in the face of social or political objection.
There is also a fifth voice of the novel, a little-known polar-ice explorer, who the biographer has been trying to write a book about. She gets a small section between each chapter, usually beautifully poetic, often with crossed out words, and I loved these interludes into a story of strength and resilience filtered through the mind of the biographer at work.
Even though there is a dystopian near-future setting for this book, it is not the ruling force, unlike so many of these highly popular stylized novels today. Rather it is the characters who run the show and we see them living their lives as completely normal people, some influenced by the changes in the laws more than others.
What is more interesting is to see them each grow as people, independently choosing their own paths to find out who they are and what they want, despite what society (which could mean their own community, or the world at large, depending) thinks of them. Each one is such a strong example of how you can overcome restrictions to get what you want, or change your path in life to move toward a better life.
One thing I'd like to address are all the comparisons to The Handmaid's Tale--this book is nothing like that. I guess it's got such good name recognition right now that it pulls a lot of weight but if you're expecting high dystopia, shocking and brutal conditions for women, and more, to misquote Sir Ian McKellen, this is not the book you're looking for.
Red Clocks is dystopic, yes, but it is on the mild side compared to Atwood's masterpiece and that is where the similarities end. It is completely its own story. Zumas has created a story that is almost more frightening because the background of what the characters are living in, could be just over the horizon for us. You never know. And, they just live through it, every day, like normal—life goes on. While I have a hard time comparing anyone to Margaret Atwood, I just think you're going to enjoy this one if you give it a try.
It really spoke to me as my first 2018 novel, because these are themes that I am contemplating myself—trying to start fresh and overcome obstacles—often ones that I've placed in my own way—to truly start living and doing what it is I believe I'm meant to do.
I'm done walking through every day just going through the motions—I want this to be the year I can look back on and see that I accomplished something, some movement toward my dreams. And it doesn't have to be huge, but it has to be me. I'm the only one who can do it.
No matter what your views may be on abortion—that really isn't the point of this book. Zumas has dug into the lives of normal women and found resiliency, strength, and a desire to change their own lives.
Isn't that what we all want?
My thanks to Little Brown for my finished copy of this book.
It's that time of year again. . .
How did this happen? It is so crazy to me that another year has blown by, though this one was no walk through the park.
But we made it and I know one of the things that kept me sane were books. Books are like an escape—somewhere we can pretend that the rest of the crappy stuff in the world isn't going on, or see a different version of reality that is even scarier than the one we live in, or just laugh for a while, or go on an adventure, or a thousand different things. Books are truly magic that way. I read 145 books in 2017, which is probably an all-time high for me, but I think I really needed books this year, as a safe place to go when it seemed like the rest of the world might just fall apart.
In other areas of my life, I feel like I went a bit inert. I didn't write as much as I wanted to—I certainly wasn't as active on this blog as I could have been! But I am planning for next year, planning that goes beyond just flimsy resolutions. I want to get things done.
Beyond all that, I read some great books, some that really stuck with me. I hope you might take a look at my top ten and be inspired to give these books a try sometime in 2018. I'd love to hear your favorite books too, so I can add them to my list.
THE RESURRECTION OF JOAN ASHBY by Cherise Wolas
Though I usually have trouble choosing one solid favorite book of the year, that slot goes to this debut novel with no contest. At 544 pages, it will take a bit of commitment, but every page is truly a gift.
Exploring both Joan's sprawling life and her own writing is such a dynamic and emotional experience and makes this book unique, but I stayed for the beautiful story of exploration of self and discovery of identity—something we can all connect with.
My thanks to Flatiron, and especially Nancy, for providing my finished copy of this book.
HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado
This short story collection is a must—for women, for readers, for people who just lived through all the crap of 2017.
The stories here pulse with originality, crossing all the genre lines from sci-fi and fantasy to experimental to crime drama and beyond. She doesn't stop for a breath and barely lets the reader breathe either, pushing them into her characters—their space, their experiences, their bodies—in every story. Where she is most successful, she leaves the reader obscured in the fog; you have to let the stories sit with you and entangle with them emotionally, sometimes more than intellectually. Her writing reminded me of Angela Carter at times.
My thanks to Graywolf Press for providing my finished copy of this book.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders
This one is probably not much of a surprise to see here, but I think Saunders is one of the finest writers of the modern age and it was great to see his first novel—a genre- and form-bending (if not breaking) masterpiece—get a lot of attention all year. I both read and then listened to the audio (in that order), which if you like the book I definitely recommend. The audio version has a full cast, sort of like a play, where each character has a different voice actor.
Besides just breaking novelistic conventions, the plot and characters of BARDO are brilliantly conceived and developed. It is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, and truly weird story in the way that only Saunders can invent.
My thanks to Random House for providing my finished copy of this book.
TORNADO WEATHER by Deborah E. Kennedy
This is the story of a young girl who goes missing, which doesn't seem like such an innovative storyline, but it really tells the story of all the people who live in her small town, following a group of them after her disappearance as the continue to go about their daily lives. Each of them have some sort of connection to her, whether it be strong or just tangential, but in the end the story is more about the people left behind—an innovative viewpoint for a mystery story. I can't recommend this one enough.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my finished copy of this book.
THE FACT OF A BODY: A MURDER AND A MEMOIR by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
I am a true crime buff (murderinos unite) so this one was definitely on my radar early in the year. What I didn't expect was its beautiful and haunting mix of memoir and reporting elements. The writing is simply stunning, the type of writing that really stops you in your tracks and makes you remember why you love reading so much in the first place. And the story, though not some famous serial killer or the like, goes much deeper and really dug into my heart as I read it.
If you read The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson and loved that, this one is for you too.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my ARC of this book.
HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay
I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but I'm glad that two books can be represented on my list this year. I just read this one a few days ago, but there was no question that it would join the ranks of my top list. Gay has such a powerful voice and telling her story is obviously not something that she takes lightly. This book carries the weight of the actions enacted against her, how she has tried to deal with it, and also realizes that her story is not the only story out there. That is a lot.
MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent
This is not an easy book to read. It has difficult moments that have been very divisive, but there is a such a beauty, strength, and reality in the main character of Turtle, one that felt very true to me. I loved the way the natural world and her movement through it was described so fully, but her interiority was kept close to the vest; it takes a long time for her to come into her own.
This book is probably not for everyone but I loved the writing and can't wait to see what Tallent comes up with next.
SHADOWBAHN by Steve Erickson
This book is doing something so different and interesting, it is difficult to ignore. With fiction becoming something that feels sadly mass-produced—one book does well and then six months later I see a bunch of books come out that all seem exactly the same as that one—it is a true pleasure to read something original, not only in narrative, but it structure and style as well.
The story here can't get any weirder, which in itself I love, but the writing is stunning and Erickson's innovative thinking puts him in my top list.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. How have I not read her debut yet? This layered book deals so acutely with the finer points of character, really showing how there is no black and white, no right or wrong, only shades of gray. Maybe this is a lesson that our whole country needs to learn right now. I loved all the characters, likable or not, and the way the stories come together is both heartbreaking and emotionally cleansing. She is a talent.
THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
Another huge one at 582 pages, I might consider this one required reading for the state of our nation today. It is not quiet about bigotry and hatred for all classes of people who have been othered, and Boyne has a real knack for showing both the absurdity and the terror of such situations and how it has a lasting impact. A beautiful and important novel.
My thanks to Crown/Hogarth for providing my ARC of this book.
There are definitely others I could recommend and there are others that I didn't get to that I have a suspicion would fight for a spot on this list. Well, there's always next year!
I am hoping to get plenty of reading done in 2018 of course, but I'm making a resolution to focus more on my current collection of books and reading some classics and other books rather than just frontlist titles. We will see how it goes—there's a whole world of books of course, and I'd like to get started right away!
I mentioned reading two epic novels back-to-back in my post about The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. Well, here comes the other one.
John Boyne returns with The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a novel spanning the lifetime of a Dublin-born lad named Cyril Avery (but he’s not a real Avery, you know, as he was adopted, and as his adoptive mother and father like to remind him all the time). Cyril knows pretty early that he is gay, but any sort of homosexual lifestyle is not condoned in the slightest in Ireland while he is growing up there, so he spends much of his life hiding who he is and, for various reasons, not really understanding what it means to be loved.
Navigating love, tragic loss, confusion, success, family, and the curious cosmic turnings of the universe across several countries and multiple decades, Cyril tries to fit in, to find his place in the world, and to be at peace with who he is.
Boyne has an innate skill for dialogue, cutting surgically straight through situations with such clear, concise language you can see the heart of the matter literally beating right there, on the surface of the page. It makes you want to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, while at the same time cry because it is so obvious that some people just won’t ever be able to unclench their hearts and relinquish their hate.
This book could almost be required reading in our nation today with the state of things the way they are. The book lays out the types of bigotry, hatred, violence, and even nonchalant dismissal of people who are deemed other and therefore wrong, shining a fierce light on the behavior of people toward other people. In the end, we are all people who deserve the same amount of respect and chance to life their life no matter what you’ve been conditioned to believe.
This book discusses gay men, unmarried women who are pregnant, people with AIDS, and other minority groups who have been and sadly sometimes continue to be marginalized, ostracized, and even brutalized and murdered for their supposed otherness. The book takes on these topics in a way that is direct and real, through the history of place and how thoughts and opinions changed (or didn’t) as the years passed, just as Cyril experienced them.
While an inherently tragic figure who makes more than a few mistakes and finds himself in tumultuous situations more than a couple of times, Cyril is a very likable character who is the reader’s constant eyes and ears in this world. I found myself getting indignant on his behalf more than once, coming up with some choice remarks for his abusers, but Cyril tended to hold back and was even-keeled, just a constant observer.
I found him endearing and flawed, and by the end of the novel, I was missing him already, sorely wishing I could have seen more of the intervening years of his life that the novel skipped.
In frank, everyday conversations that Cyril has with the wide cast of characters, conversations that are full of easy hate, lack of understanding, and sometimes friendly voices of reason as well, the reader develops a sense of the world he lived in, the fear of persecution he experienced, and the trauma that not being able to be yourself can inflict on a person. A world that many people like Cyril did live in, and a world that many people are currently living in, right here in the freedom of the United States in 2017.
On a smaller scale, it is also the story of Cyril’s personal discovery, a coming of age piece told over the years of his life, as he figures out who he is. He and Joan Ashby are not so different after all—everyone is looking for a way to be happy, to find some semblance of what that might mean, and then catch it and try to hold onto it with all their might—with all their heart.
Thank you to Hogarth Press for sending me an ARC of this title.
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I don’t think anyone dives into a 500+ page book lightly; it’s somewhat of an undertaking. But I have to admit, I do tend to be drawn to bigger books, and although they take a bit of commitment, I have had many good experiences with long books. In fact, I've just finished two back to back, two that were both deeply emotional, propulsive, extended saga-like books—for the characters and the reader—I need nothing more than to lay on the floor and decompress. They were long and brilliant, and I went on quite a journey with the characters. What more could you ask for?
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is without a doubt in my best-of-2017 list for the year. It is the type of book that as I came closer to the end, I found myself reading smaller chunks at a time, savoring the book and trying to keep it from ending. It is a phenomenal achievement and it is so impressive that it is Cherise Wolas’s debut novel.
The book centers around Joan Ashby, who, in the beginning, is a wildly successful literary author in her mid-twenties. After having sworn off men, love, marriage, and especially children, she gets married and finds herself expecting a child. Knowing full well that it will change her life and the trajectory that she has in mind for herself, she decides to have the baby anyway, to start a family and make her husband happy, though it isn't what she wants. One becomes two, and her writing, though she tries to keep it alive, gets pushed to the background in the intervening years as motherhood consumes her.
The novel is an exploration of self and identity, what it means to find yourself and how your experiences and choices collect and culminate to make you who you are. It is devastating, opening, and ultimately a redemptive story—one that I felt very at home in, despite not having much in common with Joan’s personal struggles.
The character of Joan is so richly rendered that she feels very real, so real, that I expected to be able to walk into a bookstore and find one of her own titles sitting there on the shelf. I loved that bits of her novels were worked into this book; they were an unique passageway not only into her own mind but even more so, into how others chose to view her.
Not only is the story compelling, but the writing is just exquisite. This is the type of literary novel that you want to get completely lost in. Rich descriptions of place and vivid depictions of people (not just characters, but seemingly three-dimensional people) just permeate each page.
During the passages taken from Joan’s books, I often found myself so sucked into the new and gripping narrative of her work that I would completely forget about the main thrust of the plot, or why I was getting to read pieces of her pages anyway. Now that is good writing.
Joan is not a perfect character by any means. She is just figuring out what it means to be happy, to make those she cares about happy, and to live a life that means something—to leave something worthwhile behind. As so many of us do, she struggles with her path in life, and whether or not the reader identifies with her directly, that narrative thread is one that we are all familiar with. The “who am I” part of life where we are just grope about in the dark, searching for some semblance of an answer.
It is hard to explain why I identified with this book so much, but sometimes things find you at the right moment, just when you are looking for something, even if you don't know exactly what it is is. book was soul-searching and redemptive for me, reminding me why I love books so much in the first place. Why I read, why I want to write. Why books are important.
I can’t recommend this book more highly. Not only will it top my list this year, but I will be recommending it for a long time to come.
Thank you so much to Flatiron Books for sending me a finished copy of this book.
Get your copy of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Find out more about the author, Cherise Wolas
Find out more about the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan)
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Read on for an interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
This summer is getting hot. So hot all I want to do is stay inside with a big glass of iced tea and a good book, away from the burning rays of the sun. But what happens when the book brings the heat to you?
This book really hit me in ways I didn't expect. For all the bright, dazzling sunshine in it, this is a very dark book.
It is the story of a town turning on its itself, on its own humanity.
It is about loss and grief, and the blaming, paranoia, and mad rage that can follow.
It is about what heat can do to a mind, or perhaps just what the mind blinds itself to and then blames on other elements.
It is a coming-of-age story—but not the warm and fuzzy one that is usually associated with that term.
The summer of 1984, Fielding Bliss's father invites the devil to Breathed. When a scrawny thirteen-year-old black boy shows up claiming to accept that invitation, it is not what anyone expected. But then the heat comes. And unfortunate accidents start piling up, mysteriously connected to the boy who calls himself Sal. Is he really the devil? And what is going on in the previously quiet and quaint town of Breathed, Ohio?
Fielding narrates his story from the future, where he is an old man, still licking the wounds from his past and suffering—for what, we don't yet know. But this technique puts a cloud of dread over the whole book. Something wicked this way comes, but you'll have to read on to find out.
As the summer progresses, the heat stifles everything and things go from bad to worse with secrets coming out— including secrets about Fielding's own family—innocents caught in the crossfire, and even Fielding's neighbor turning everyone against Sal in a strange religious fervor.
The book examines good and evil, presenting the situation bare, sometimes even metaphorically and through Fielding's eyes, you as the reader are the judge. Who is right and who is wrong? Can this even be decided?
The prose is unexpected, sometimes strange or unfamiliar in its description, but always lyrical, something I was continuously wrapping my mind around while reading. McDaniel is a very unique writer and her influences from southern gothic writers and other literature are keenly felt, but adapted in a way all her own.
The book is highly stylized and more like a fairytale than realistic fiction, hovering just above reality and told in a heightened state. But somehow, the little town of Breathed is meant to exist in its own world, and Fielding is trapped there, not only in the summer of 1984, but even later in his life, even just in his mind.
For me the real revelation doesn't lie in who the devil actually is, but in how everyone reacts to who they think he is, or what they are told to think. Perhaps it is that there is that spark of evil inside all of us, waiting for that heat wave to catch flame.
And now, a short interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
Shelf Stalker: What are you reading right now?
Tiffany McDaniel: I am reading Ruth Franklin’s bio of Shirley Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life. Jackson is a wonderful writer, so it’s nice to be able to learn more about her and her life.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
TM: I still have lots of reading to do, but so far my favorite authors are:
Ray Bradbury—I love his novel, Dandelion Wine. It’s a beautiful, melancholic story that touches on those experiences we have coming-of-age.
Shirley Jackson—I still have yet to read her entire collection, but one of my favorite novels of hers is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A wonderfully told story of two sisters wrapped around the mystery of who poisoned the rest of their family.
James Wright—A poet from my land of Ohio. Above the River is the entire collection of his writing. His voice is a beautiful contribution to the poetic verse.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
TM: There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world, experienced by both humans and animals. I’ve always thought the superpower to heal and remove pain would be something that one could do a lot of good with.
SS: OK, on to the book!
I know you are from Ohio, but can you tell me how you got the idea for this book?
TM: The novel started first as a title. It was one of those hot Ohio summers that I felt like I was melting. Out of true heat, the novel was born. I start writing a new novel with two things: the title and the first line. Because I don’t outline or plan the story ahead, the title and the first line work together to shape the entire rest of the story.
SS: What was the purpose of having the book set specifically in 1984?
TM: When I was thinking about this story, the 1980s came to mind. When I think of that decade, I think of the neon colors, the big ambitions, and the big hair. It seems like a decade-long summer to me, which I thought made the perfect setting for this particular summer in the book. I chose 1984 in particular because it aligned with my George Orwell 1984 theme. Orwell’s novel is all about herd mentality and the importance of preserving individual thought. This is something the characters in my novel deal with, especially when it comes to answering the question: Who is the real devil?
SS: I loved how heat was an integral and constant part of the narrative—I really felt its presence while reading! Can you talk about why heat is so important to the book?
TM: The heat was an interesting character to write, and I say character because the heat is a character that developed just as the other characters around it did. The arrival of the heat coincides with the arrival of the boy claiming to be the devil. The heat allows for a certain “hellish” atmosphere, all the while becoming the evidence for those who believe this boy to be the devil. The heat has not only a physical effect on the characters, but an emotional and mental one as well. Without the heat, you don’t have the same story.
SS: Fielding acts as a sort of an outside narrator to the events of the novel—he reminded me of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Why are his eyes the ones we see the story through?
TM: I wanted to explore this story through the eyes of someone coming-of-age. I chose thirteen years old because that’s an age when most of us began to shed the skin of our innocence and take on the maturity of who will be as adults. It’s also the age they say Joan of Arc began to hear her voices, so it seems a divine age as well. All the novels I’ve written thus far are told through first person. From the first line, I have the narrator, and his or her voice will deliver the rest of the story. Fielding was the right character to deliver this story because it is through him that we understand the relationships and dynamics of his family and of his community, both before and after the devil’s arrival. The story couldn’t be told through the eyes of Sal because Sal needs to remain a mystery to us, and a first person lens on his story would have opened up the mystery just a little too much. But with Fielding we get the story through a lens that allows us to be both outside and inside the mystery as it unfolds.
SS: The book examines evil as a part of the human condition. But evil isn't necessarily black and white. To what extent do you feel this is true? Or, why were you interested in pursuing this as a subject?
TM: I’ve always been interested in good v. evil, and I think on some level I’ll always be exploring this. But more than that, I’ve always been interested in that gray area between good and evil, the area I think most of us live in. With these characters in the novel, you’ll see that they are all capable of good and evil. Even the villain of the story has his moments where he is revealed to be more than the evil he bears. It’s about nothing being clear cut, and just because someone is called “devil” doesn’t mean they are devilish. Ultimately, it's a story that explores what it is to be human, and the grief and the happiness of that very existence.
SS: Can you tell me about your writing process? Like, do you write a certain amount every day? At a certain time of the day? Do you take lots of notes first or just go straight to the computer?
TM: I don’t have a routine, probably because I’ve never been a very scheduled person. I seem to work in chaos and am always trying to stay or get organized. I’m an insomniac so sometimes I write at night. Sometimes during the day. I don’t have a particular word or page count I strive for. It’s like going to a big faucet with a big bucket. You turn the faucet on and sometimes you have a lot coming out, sometimes it’s just a drip. The trick is to be present. There are lots of distractions in today’s world, so the best thing we can do is to turn off the noise and focus only on the page in front of us. My process is that I don’t take notes. I don’t outline, or plan the story ahead. I think if you plan a story too much, it can domesticate the story, and I like to preserve the story’s wild soul.
SS: Do you have anything else in the works right now?
TM: I have eight completed novels. I should say that while The Summer that Melted Everything is my first published novel, it’s actually my fifth or sixth novel written. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, and wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine for The Summer that Melted Everything. It was a long eleven-year journey to publication, full of rejection and perseverance. I write darker literary fiction and I was often told I was risky to publish, which is something I think female authors hear more than their male counterparts. As far as what's next for me, well, I've returned to that very first novel I wrote when I was eighteen. It’s titled, The Chaos We’ve Come From and it's inspired by my mother's coming-of-age in southern Ohio from the 1950s to the death of her father in the early 1970s. It’s been fourteen years since I first wrote this novel, so it feels like a good time to return to this story and to these characters.
A huge thanks to Tiffany McDaniel for sending me a copy of her book and being so generous with her time to answer my questions!
Get your copy of The Summer that Melted Everything
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It begins with a girl.
No, it begins with a mother, and how that girl thinks of her, wants to please her, wants to be her, hates her.
How to fill the void left by a mother who can’t seem to get it right? Do you find a new mother?
Be your own mother? Create a mother with art, with work, with the barriers you put up against the world?
This is a book about mothers, but it is also a book about identity and how much of that identity, especially for girls, is based upon mothers. It is about individuality, about growing up (or not) and finding your place in the world, and then filling that space with something.
Esther, who goes by S, wants to be a subversive, or at least some kind, of artist and she’s recently broken up with her boyfriend. Now she feels the need to prove herself, to do something big—something with meaning that will get her noticed. But she also needs a job, so she becomes a live-in nanny for Lady, an aspiring writer recently separated from her (very-rich) husband, and the mother of two boys, a young toddler, Devin, and a teenager, Seth.
What follows is an entangled narrative, each character wrapped up in so much more than just the simple timeline of the book. The past beats heavily in them, even if they don’t know why.
While the book is focused on the actions of the characters in the present, it is swirling with the tensions of the past. Both Lady and S have strong connections to their mothers that they can’t ignore, and they are constantly trying to come to terms with their damaging upbringings, even as their current situations spiral out of control.
Lady is estranged from her mother and her issues and insecurities run deep. Her mom seems to be the main reason why she’s writing a memoir, though she can't quite admit that to herself, and though she’s living the high life in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills now, that is not at all where she came from.
S’s parents are divorced and it seems like S takes on more of the parenting role when she’s around her mom—cleaning up her apartment, getting rid of the alcohol, confiscating a bunny that is sure to get her mom evicted. But still, S clings to her mother, wanting to know who she is, or perhaps why she turned out the way she did, even taking on her identity as part of her new art project. S dresses sloppily like her mom, acts carefree, speaks like her, and drinks wildly. The “S” that Lady knows is not Esther.
And then there’s Seth. He’s never said a single word despite being completely normal otherwise, and he vibrates with a strange energy, like a bomb ready to go off at any point. His mom has protected him his whole life, kept him to herself, but it has become smothering and he wants to experience, he wants to know.
There are surprises here. There are rich characters living dense, real lives, dealing with modern and strange situations. While I didn’t fully connect with California, Lepucki’s first novel, this one feels much more resonant and true to me.
There is a shocking disregard for what identity means in our tech-crazed world, where you can hide behind your social media feed, where you can be some form of anonymous whenever you touch the screen. And who are you really? Are you who you are in the real world? Or are you the screen you? Are you who you used to be? Are you your parents? Some sort of amalgam?
The way Esther puts on her mother’s skin with such ease is almost scary—it is like taking over someone’s identity simply because she was tired of her own, or possibly lacked her own altogether. The way these characters struggle to come to terms with what it means to be themselves is fascinating and wrenching. They deal with a two-sided coin: the real-world identity struggle of shedding the sins of your parents, and the meta-world struggle of forming a persona through social media or creative means: This is what our society is.
Thoughtful, well-written, highly evocative of a specific place and a specific moment, this book is well worth a read if you’re looking for more depth than a quick summer read.
Get your copy of Woman No. 17 here
Find out more about Edan Lepucki
Find out more about the publisher, Hogarth/Crown (Penguin Random House)
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“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
--Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene II
There is something a little mysterious, a little intoxicating about Shakespeare. Of course, for many of us, it is a lot mysterious—in fact, nothing but mysterious—and conjures up memories of long afternoons in dusty high school lit classrooms trying to puzzle through the meaning behind every line, sometimes every word, of Romeo and Juliet.
But to see it performed, that is truly something else, that is the way it was meant to be consumed. It filters down to a part of your soul that feels right, feels true, and even if you can’t quite grasp the meaning of every phrase, you feel something special burning at the core. Or maybe just a tingle.
For the seven students in their last year of theatre study at the elite art school in the novel If We Were Villains, Shakespeare is like this, but also, he is more. They live in the bard’s texts, studying him with such constant devotion that it filters into their real lives.
They talk in texts, frequently, having Shakespearian conversations that all seem peppered with double meanings, hidden layers, and sometimes it is unclear whether you are speaking with an actor or their character.
Each of the seven has their type: strong, leading man Richard; his opposite, the sultry Meredith; the beautiful hero James; the wispy maiden Wren; the fool Alexander; and then there’s Filippa and (our story’s hero) Oliver, who seem to get the leftover roles, slipping into whoever is secondary, but never playing the lead.
Who are they really? Is there a separation between the stage and reality? What happens when that line seems to bend, and then snap?
And snap it does. Oh, yes.
Aren’t you all waiting for the turn?
The book is set up in five acts, much like a play, and while the main action of each follows the seven during their fourth and final year at school, each one begins with a prologue, set ten years in the future.
Oliver has just been released from prison, sentenced for something that happened at school, something that he may or may not have done, and now he’s going to tell the real story. To the man who put him away.
And the curtain rises . . .
Rio holds onto the tension of seven characters very well, stringing them along in an even way, making sure they are all developed characters, and I thought she had a great voice for natural dialogue. I can’t claim to know that much about Shakespeare, but I do dabble a bit and I actually quite enjoyed the Shakespearian language spilled across the pages; it developed the characters in unexpected ways when I stopped to really examine what was going on with the bard’s text. I think it even helped me figure out the twist . . .
The seven kids flit in and out of reality, fighting and giving in to obsession, mimicking the violence and drama of the plays (or is it that the plays begin to mimic their lives?) and they begin to come apart at the seams, each breaking down in their own way.
A very promising debut and interesting character study type of novel from a bold and inspiring voice. The only thing I’d ask for in a follow-up book is to cut down on the adverbs—let your descriptions do the work! Ah, well. Room to grow.
One final thought: The ending will rattle your soul.
Whether you like Shakespeare, don’t remember a bit of it from high school, swoon over the lilting words, or shrink away from them in pure fear, this book has a bit of mystery for everyone and it might even bring you a bit closer to learning the mysterious staying power of the bard.
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Find out more about the author, M. L. Rio
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Find out more about the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan)
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This is a book about straight up life. At times, we are all hot messes. At times, everyone can be a bit unlikable. At times, it definitely can be difficult to get up off your ass and actually do something about your life, something that you should do, can do, and actually want to do.
Andrea is just like us. She is pretty average, coasting along through life, not really doing anything extraordinary and ignoring the things that get hard and the things that hurt.
She is an art school dropout who now only sketches the view of the Empire State Building out her window every day, until they build a new skyscraper that blocks that view.
She is stuck at a job she doesn't really care about, dodging promotions and commitments.
Her best friend is settling down and getting married and doing the whole kid thing and doesn’t really have time for her anymore.
Her brother is dealing with his child, who has a terminal illness and her mom has moved out of the city to live with them, leaving Andrea feeling abandoned.
She has meaningless one night stands or horrible dates or some strange relationships that are fruitless and she’s not really sure if her being single is by choice or because she is undateable or some other reason. But she isn’t really looking for a guy to solve her problems.
Basically, Andrea’s problems are not the problems that so-called society thinks she should have, not at her age. She should be having the married-babies-working or stay at home mom problems.
And somehow, all it seems she can get from society is everyone looking down on her, thinking less of her, or directly telling her to pull her shit together, that she’s doing it wrong.
I read some reviews that so hated this book because they didn’t find Andrea to be a likable person. Is she a bit singleminded and self-absorbed? Yes. But so are we all. How often do you actually think about other people during the day versus yourself? Yeah.
Attenberg even writes the entire first chapter in second person, which to me, calls attention to the reader that, hey, this story is about you. Maybe not the specific details, but the story. So pay attention.
Maybe we don’t ever really “grow up” in the sense that we are always just trying to figure everything out, find the best way to be ourselves, to have a place in the world, and make all those dumb adult things work.
I felt it was very refreshing to read a book with a leading female that really digs right to the heart of actual living, cutting through all the crap and focusing on what is really there. This is Andrea’s life. It isn’t a story about her needing to fill her voids (literally and metaphorically) with men and chasing after everything that society tells her she should want. She is just trying to figure life out and she may not be the best at it.
The book is interesting because if you can really look at Andrea’s flaws, if you can see past your frustration with her to the root of the issue—what is causing her to avoid her family, to waste her time with her niece?—then perhaps you might see places in your own life where you are doing the same thing.
The book doesn’t try to explain who Andrea is or why she is living her life the way she is. Instead, it is almost more of a set of interlocking short stories, each one detailing a different interaction that made Andrea who she is.
This seems to echo New York City itself, how everything can become very compartmentalized and each moment exists separate from others. Even people seem to drift in separate spheres, while at the same time, they are literally right next to each other, passing each other on the street, in cars, brushing up against each other in the subway.
It also echoes the way we live our lives, treating each segment as separate: home life, internet life, Instagram life, Twitter life, work life. We put a piece of ourselves into each segment—who really knows who they are anymore.
All Grown Up is a compulsive book, the short chapters making it easy to just keep reading, to try to put together the puzzle that is Andrea, about who she is in this moment and who she has the potential to become.
It’s something we all have inside us, this potential. How long are you going to make yours wait?
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Find out more about the author, Jami Attenberg
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Find out more about the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Who can recognize the ending as it’s happening? What we live, it seems to me, is pretty much always a surprise.
Marlena is a book about so much more than a girl, or even both the girls who inhabit it—insightful, self-effacing narrator Cat and her ethereal, almost mythological Marlena—it is about the boundaries which they crave to expand beyond and end up ultimately caging themselves into.
These boundaries begin with place and circumstance: the two young girls are poor, in the middle of nowhere, and coming to the point in their mid-to-late teen years where they need guidance.
Marlena has a father who is deeply ensconced in the drug trade and a younger brother she has to look after. She has a habit and a creepy older dealer she can’t kick.
Cat’s mom is newly single and juggling jobs and keeping food on the table and Cat finds it easy to slip out of her 3.8 GPA and into a freer lifestyle, following Marlena and her friends around, getting drunk and high, and skipping school.
To her, it seems like she is experiencing life for the first time and there are almost no consequences. Even as she tells the story from a point in her 30s, far away in New York City, where she still hasn’t really accepted her alcoholism, Cat doesn’t seem resigned to or embarrassed by the events as they happened in the past.
The current-day Cat seems worn down—like she is envious of the potential the girl she used to be had, how now she doesn’t see it in herself. But she never did see it in herself—what is so different now? What are we all wasting time on, right?
It’s almost as though she wishes she could freeze that moment in time, and live there—she would almost do it. Especially those months before.
Even though they weren't perfect and she wasn't exactly happy, I got the sense that she really felt she lived more in those months than at any other time in her life.
When it seemed like nothing could go wrong and everything teetered on the brink but they only had one way to go and they would get out of that town and start over.
Doesn’t everyone have a moment like that? But would it really change anything?
I was prettier in reflection. The fragmentary me that lived in shop windows, puddles, the hood of a car passing by, the dark spot in Marlena’s eye—that girl was sheer potential.
Buntin's prose has moments of great insight, especially for teenage girls. It felt very real and caught in the moment. High school was all about changing something fundamental or physical about yourself in order to find out who you really were, to uncover the real you.
I think we can all look back on our high school years and sense a kinship in feeling to this book in some way. Maybe you were in with the drama kids or the band geek, but everyone had their thing that they identified with that also put them on the outside.
And the root of the story is this unknowable, untouchable, godlike Marlena. But, of course, she is none of that.
She wasn’t the most popular or even very well-liked at school. She wasn’t the smartest. She was a drug addict, she lived in a dirty house, hung out with dangerous people, made poor choices for herself and led others to those choices too.
She was just a kid, trying to survive and hoping to get out someday.
This book magnificently portrays all the sides of Marlena, putting her on a pedestal as Cat saw her and also putting her in her place as just another human making some bad decisions.
She is intricate and real, nuanced and confusing, but in the end, she is still a character we don’t get to hear from. This is Cat’s story and I wonder if, had she been given the chance, Marlena would tell it any differently.
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Find out more about the author, Julie Buntin
Find out more about the publisher, Henry Holt & Co (Macmillan)
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My hand’s on the handle of the screen door and I pause, turn. The thought of going inside, drinking a glass of water, reading, undressing—the thought of doing these living things makes it hard to breathe and I think of Crazy Horse and massacres and muscle-bound dudes shooting pool and sex. Which of these thoughts will cast Her in the darkest light, will help me get free?
With sparse, languorous sentences that nonetheless hold a masterful deep-seated tension throughout, The Glamshack is a look into the interior landscape of a man on the edge of self-discovery, and, even larger, it chronicles the ubiquitous nature of us all.
Henry has found the woman of his dreams, he even thinks he loves her, but the problem is that she is engaged to another man and she’s leaving to go visit this fiancé in New Orleans.
Henry has twelve days to figure out what he’s doing with his life. And what it looks like from the outside is living in someone else’s pool house, having an affair with a woman who’s about to be married, and flushing his job down the drain.
But there is a lot more going on beneath the surface. Henry’s story begins not with the entrance of the unnamed Her into his life, but with childhood memories and how he sees an unlikely parallel of his story in the long-past Plains Indians wars.
What is interesting about The Glamshack is the inversion of the expected gender roles. In a book like this, you would generally expect the Henry character to be a woman. Instead, we get the opposite, and we follow Henry’s introspection, his male point of view, and the world looking back at him.
I think it's important that the book is set in 1999, just before the new millennium, when there really is nothing in the book to suggest that it has to be set in this time period. This setting, which the reader is reminded about at the start of every chapter that isn't a memory, is significant.
It is about to be a turning point, the collective holding of breath before something new begins. Henry, and perhaps the rest of the world, are stuck in stasis, but when the clock turns over, it could be a reset, a chance to try again, be better, have freedom. Who knows what will happen. 1999 represents the top of the rollercoaster for Henry, what happens after these 12 days could potentially determine his freedom.
His job involves writing for what he dubs the “Glamrag,” a magazine mostly full of advertisements where “editorial doesn’t count for shit” and he is in charge of interviewing photographers, tv commercial directors, model scouts, and the like.
But he doesn’t seem to be able to ask the right questions, to really get any story now that She is in his head. And his job is on the line. None of these ordinary things seem to matter to Henry anymore, though.
In glamorous LA, everything is surface level. All anyone seems to see in him is that he would make a good model. He’s got a look and he’s got “as little as possible going on behind the eyes.” That’s all it takes to be a male model: a good looking body and nothing in your head.
Is that what attracted Her to Henry? His prettiness and emptiness? And what makes Her so valuable to him anyway?
I spent a lot of time trying to dissect their relationship, since even though Henry is the one telling his story, I didn't find him that redeeming of a character—there really isn’t that much going on with him. He seems damaged, fixated on bringing everything back to this childhood obsession with a madman in the woods, who may have been a figment of his own imagining.
Henry uses his twelve days to unravel his relationship with Her and see what went wrong, if it even did. He delves into his childhood, grasping for threads, and it seems he spent a lot of his childhood running—it’s almost like a totem for him. A type of power.
But being so fast at running means you are always running away from something, hiding from something. And perhaps the madman resides there too, something to shield him from getting too close to the truth.
What makes their affair so special? Perhaps the point is that it isn’t. Perhaps the point is that there is nothing special about Henry or his experience, much as he tries to distinguish himself, to dig through himself to create meaning, to find substance.
It's another history of broken promises and scarring, sadness and broken hearts. Perhaps it's a bit dramatic to compare one torrid love affair to the decades-long struggle and oppression suffered by the Native Americans, but it gives an interesting insight into Henry’s mind.
There is darkness in all of us. What matters in the end is what you’re searching for, what you consider to be worth giving up everything else for. Freedom? The divine? A woman?
What’s the difference really?
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Find out more about the author, Paul Cohen
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.