Book Review: Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht

2/5 Stars.

I think I can see what this novel was trying to be: a suspenseful coming-of-age story about small-town secrets; an understated novel that challenges the reader to contemplate complex moral gray areas.

Unfortunately, it just didn’t work. The story is shallow and amateur—the kind of writing that tells with barely an ounce of showing. There are a couple of major events that happen, but there’s such a lack of depth and insight into any of it. Rather than coming across as powerful and tense, these events are completely unbelievable and even borderline ridiculous. I didn’t buy anything I was reading.

It’s a debut novel, so part of me feels bad being so harsh. There’s the semblance of a good story here…somewhere…maybe? Fortunately it was a quick read.

Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

3.5/5 Stars.

Reading this book is like being immersed in a dark and sometimes magical fairytale. There’s such a striking balance of whimsy and depravity.

The story centers around Rose and Pierrot, both abandoned at birth at a Montreal orphanage shortly before the Great Depression. The two children are drawn to each other from a young age, linked by their complementary talents: guileless Pierrot is a piano prodigy and feisty Rose choreographs comedic dance routines.

Separated as teenagers, Rose and Pierrot are swallowed by the seedy underbelly of Montreal. Rose takes up with a dangerous and possessive gangster, while Pierrot becomes addicted to heroin. But neither can let go of the memory of the other, and their mutual dream of putting on a real show.

Going into this, I was pleasantly surprised by how dark and gritty and perverted it was; since “whimsy” and “magic” aren’t really my thing, the darkness keep me engaged. Though out of my usual comfort zone, I’m glad I gave it a chance. O’Neill writes with joy, sadness and conviction about the corrupting powers of the world and the yearning to retain innocence in spite of it all, concluding with a final page that really cements the tragedy of this dichotomy.

I suspect many readers will enjoy this book—so long as they’re prepared for the darker aspects of it.

Book Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

3/5 Stars.

“I was okay just a moment ago. I will learn to be okay again.”

This is a quick and easy read about grief and loneliness with some truly beautiful passages.

Marin abruptly left her old life in California following the death of her Gramps, her guardian since her mother’s passing. Now, it’s Christmas break and Marin is the only one left at her New York campus. Her old friend, Mabel, is on her way to visit for a few days, and it’ll be the first time they talk or see each other in months.

But being together again will force Marin to confront the secrets and regrets that have given rise to the deep loneliness inside her.

It’s a tender and touching story—but maybe just a little too tender and touching for my taste. I loved LaCour’s prose and even highlighted a few passages, but the carefully crafted sentimentality of the story felt too much like YA.

There’s definitely an audience for this book and many readers who will love it. It just wasn’t completely for me.

Book Review: Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki

4.5/5 Stars.

I had such a blast reading this book, with its smart, snarky tone and provocative characters.

After recently separating from her husband, Lady Daniels—a writer living in the Hollywood Hills—hires an alluring young woman named S to live in the guest house and care for her toddler while she pretends to work on her book.

S, having recently graduated from college and hoping to tap into her inner artist, decides to approach her nannying job as a performative art piece, doing her best to fully emulate her estranged mother.

Soon enough, Lady and S become tangled in each other’s lives in ways neither would have expected—like with S growing dangerously close to Lady’s 18-year-old son Seth, who has selective mutism.

If it sounds like the plot of a Lifetime movie, rest assured that in Edan Lepucki’s capable hands, it’s so much more.

She explores some really interesting questions about identity, art, motherhood and female friendship—but the best part is that it’s all wrapped up in a completely enthralling, darkly comic and highly entertaining narrative about women behaving badly.

What a fun read.

Book Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

4/5 Stars.

Salvage the Bones is a brutal and beautiful novel about a family living in rural Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina is about to strike.

Fifteen-year-old Esch is surrounded by boys. She lives with her father and three brothers, whose friends are always around. After sleeping with one of her brother’s friends, she finds out that she’s pregnant.

Meanwhile, her brother Skeetah’s prized pit bull, China, has just given birth, and the puppies are slowly dying. Esch—whose mother died in childbirth—has only ever known motherhood as something that is unmerciful and brutal and tragic.

This is a deeply visceral novel, written in the kind of prose that makes you feel like you can taste and smell and feel everything that Esch is experiencing. There’s violence and harshness within, but also beauty, loyalty and tenderness. Ward explores this juxtaposition in several ways, such as with Skeetah and China, whose bond transcends what you would expect from a boy and the pit bull he owns for dogfighting.

And all the while, the threat of Katrina looms. While Esch and her family doubt the severity of it at first, we readers know what’s coming. This palpable dread mounts to a terrifying and intense denouement that challenges each member of the family in a profound and devastating way.

Book Review: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

4/5 Stars.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” So begins Mother Night, the first person account of Howard J. Campbell, an American spy during World War II who inadvertently became one of Nazi Germany’s most famous propagandists.

Does it matter that Campbell’s radio shows relayed clandestine messages to the Allies if he also succeeded in converting thousands of listeners to Nazi sympathizers? Does his awareness that the rhetoric he spews is horrible absolve him of immorality or worsen it? Do the ends justify the means? What, if anything, is Campbell guilty of? Does any of it really mean anything?

These are some of the central questions at the heart of Mother Night, a postmodern morality tale. Campbell is an absurd (anti)-hero, struggling to reconcile his level of responsibility and, ultimately, his very sense of self. Who even is he?

His nonchalance and ambivalence throughout this journey are, to me, his most striking characteristics—no doubt deliberately crafted by Vonnegut to further emphasis the moral ambiguity of Campbell and his dubious life choices. Do we root for him or anticipate his demise?

I’m relatively new to Vonnegut (this is only the second one I’ve completed) and so far what I find is that I’m deeply fascinated and stimulated by so much of what he writes, yet there’s something that keeps me from being 100% engaged. I’m still trying to put my finger on it. Lines like this certainly do keep me reading more though:

“‘All people are insane,’ he said. ‘They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.'”

Book Review: Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

4.5/5 Stars.

“I wanted to talk to a person, and here you are a real person, you have no idea how hard it is—to find a real person,” remarks one of the characters in Strout’s latest release.

This is a book about real people. In a loose sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout returns to the familiar form of Olive Kitteridge: a series of loosely connected stories about a cast of characters from a small town.

Some writing just has this way of cutting to the core of your being, and Strout’s prose consistently does this for me. She reminds us that each person is his or her own universe, containing secret motivations and yearnings and sufferings that no one else can ever know.

In Anything Is Possible, threads from previous stories will pick up in another, providing a brand new layer of depth and meaning, reminding us that the assumptions we have about each other are often wrong.

We tend to think of ourselves as the center of the world—leads surrounded by supporting actors—and no one explores this fundamental aspect of human nature quite like Strout.

If you like reading about real people, you’ll find them in this book.

Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

3.5/5 Stars.

This dystopian novel imagines an America several decades in the future immersed in a second Civil War.

Sarat is six years old and living with her family in Louisiana when the war begins. Soon they get displaced from their home and wind up in a refugee camp, where Sarat is mentored by an older man who provides her with a unique perspective on the current state of affairs.

The book follows Sarat through to adulthood when, following decades of tragedy and suffering, she finds herself hellbent on revenge against those who have wronged her.

This is a story about the devastating effects of war—and one that doesn’t seem entirely improbable given our deeply polarized political climate.

As compelling as the world that the author creates may be, the real strength lies in Sarat’s character development. The details of the war and the various conflicts are muddy at times, but Sarat’s journey is what kept me engaged.

This isn’t quite on the same level as revered dystopian classics, but it’s a solid read for fans of the genre.

Book Review: Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

3/5 Stars.

This is one of the books that I recognize as being objectively wonderful in spite of my own ambivalence about it. It’s about a young dwarf named Trudi Montag, and her life in a small fictional German town during the rise and fall of the Holocaust.

All throughout her childhood, Trudi yearns to belong, and when she finally does—being German rather than Jewish—the irony is that she no longer wants to. Trudi recognizes from the very beginning that what’s going on around her isn’t right, and eventually she and her father begin harboring Jews in their home.

One of the ways this book is so successful is in illustrating the steady rise of the horrific. The people in Trudi’s town—decent people she has known her whole life—become complicit with the Nazi regime, either out of fear or misguided conviction that Hitler is doing what’s best for their country. This insight felt eerily timely given current events—a warning of how easy it is for seemingly decent people to gradually come to abide unacceptable cruelty.

There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed and the writing was good, but at 525 pages, it was too detailed and drawn out for my liking—with a wide cast of characters. I appreciated Trudi’s personal journey toward self-acceptance and her gradual realization that we each must create a sense of meaning and belonging for ourselves, but much of the supporting characters’ stories felt tedious.

I think many readers would love and appreciate this book more than I did, and while I’m glad to be finished with it, I also don’t regret reading it.

Book Review: One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

4/5 Stars.

This short, claustrophobic novel about two brothers and their abusive father is one of those books you can easily read in one sitting, consumed by the mounting tension and unease.

It’s narrated by the 12-year-old brother, the youngest of the two, and begins with his father manipulating him into framing his mother so that the three guys can flee to New Mexico and start over.

From there, things just get worse and worse. Their father, who starts off subtly manipulatively, gradually becomes more erratic and violent, while his sons struggle to protect each other from this person they once trusted.

It’s a brutal story about psychological and physical abuse and the devastating toll it takes on one shattered family. I flew right through it.