Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I’m on a quest to eliminate my BOTM backlist, and the first one on the agenda was my December selection, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It’s adult literary fiction, which was all I knew going in other than that Eleanor’s social skills are nonexistent at best, and abrasive at worst.

“Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome? Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?”

eleanoroliphantiscompletelyfineAbout the book: Eleanor has a crush. He’s a musician, and she’s seen him on stage once. They’ve never met. Nevertheless, she decides he’s absolutely the man of her dreams, he’ll fall madly in love with her when they meet, and he’s the key to turning her life around. And so she embarks on a self-remake journey and reconnaissance mission to learn about him before making her move. In the meantime, she’s thrust into a new social circle when she aids an elderly man who had a heart attack in the street; between her experiences with them and her weekly conversations with Mummy, she reveals a dark and tragic past that has made her adult life bleak and lonely. Her difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives has always made her seem so aloof and strange, but as the musician and the elderly man (along with a few other new acquaintances) begin to turn her life upside down, she learns that she’s not as remote and untouchable as she thought.

“Although it’s good to try new things and keep an open mind, it’s also extremely important to stay true to who you are. I read that in a magazine at the hairdressers.”

Eleanor’s dark past is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. The reader learns almost right away that there is more to Eleanor than meets the eye, and every subsequent clue is deeper and more curious. Her personality alone is enough to captivate the reader, but she also gives frequent hints about people in her past that turned bad (or were always bad without her quite understanding), the origin of her facial scars, and certain disastrous events which led to further hardships and her current life situation.

“Life is all about taking decisive action, darling. Whatever you want to do, do it– whatever you want to take, grab it. Whatever you want to bring to an end, END IT. And live with the consequences.”

I don’t know much about Asperger’s, but I’ve seen reviews claiming that Eleanor exhibits similar symptoms from the Autism spectrum. This is not a matter directly addressed in the novel, but from what little I do know, I do believe that this could be a contributing factor in Eleanor’s unusual personality. If this is indeed the case, I want to mention that the novel handles it pretty well. First, because it’s subtle. Eleanor has been mistreated, perhaps taken advantage of because a child with a neurological disorder can be particularly vulnerable, but the story is essentially about Eleanor, it’s not a moralizing reprimand to the masses about how to (and how not to) treat persons with Asperger’s; not that those books don’t have their place, but I find a subtle approach like this more endearing and effective. But most importantly, Eleanor Oliphant also offers readers examples of kind people who persist in helpful relationships with Eleanor not because of or despite any social difficulties she might display, but because she’s a person who needs friends like any other person needs friends. I know the world needs more diverse books– better representations of genders, races, disabilities– and this is the kind of novel I like to see fulfilling that demand: it’s informative but not preachy, enlightening but still fun. Eleanor is a fantastic character.

“Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.”

Sadly, the present-day part of the plot is fairly transparent. It takes very little observation of Eleanor’s social encounters to figure out exactly how her plans with the musician are going to end up (though I was actually a bit disappointed with how internalized that final confrontation was, I was expecting more… confrontation), and almost as little time studying Raymond’s personality to know how things will end up with him. Even Eleanor’s secrets from the past are not entirely surprising when they’re finally revealed, due to the constant hints throughout the narrative that guide the reader to the truth. A little more subtlety with these techniques would’ve made this a definite 5-star read for me, but I think it’s a testament to how well-written the rest of the novel is that I couldn’t put the book down despite predicting where it was headed.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer– a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved Eleanor. She may be a bit unusual in her willingness to say out loud the first thought that pops into her head, but she has some darn good points to make in some cases, and even when I could see the mistakes in her assumptions, they never failed to amuse me. Eleanor Oliphant was Honeyman’s debut novel, and you can bet that I’ll be anxiously awaiting any new works she’ll have coming out in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a darker classic about a young woman who becomes dangerously depressed when she goes out to find her place in the world. Unlike Eleanor, who’s tragedy lies in her past and can be pushed behind her, Esther’s catastrophes take place during the time frame of the novel, which she struggles to turn back around.
  2. A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman is a lighter book with similar themes. Ove, an elderly Swede, has been grouchy and cantankerous (and downright unsocial) since the death of his wife– but when a new family moves in next door, he begins to see that he still has a few things worth living for. This book is as humorous as it is emotional, perfect for fans of Eleanor.

Have you read any books that surprised you lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: Some Luck

One of the categories in my 2017 reading challenge was “a book that takes place in your hometown.” But I live in small-town Iowa and there are no books written about my hometown. I don’t give up easily though, so I widened the category to “a book that takes place in your home state,” which led me to Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first book in a trilogy of Iowan history that follows one fictional family over a span of 100 years. And honestly, I could not have found a better book for this part of the challenge even if something had been written about my hometown.

someluckAbout the book: Walter Langdon just put a down payment on a new farm. In the year 1920, he’s back from serving in the war, he’s recently married, and he’s moving off of his dad’s farm to try his luck on his own. Walter and Rosanna’s first son has just been born, and the grand adventure of their life begins– even though both of them grew up on farms before they were married, the farm work combined with parenthood seems like the biggest job in the world– and maybe also the most rewarding. They will go on to have five more children as the years progress, and the reader will follow each one of their lives through a history of Iowan culture until a calamitous event in 1953 affects them all– and sets the tone for Some Luck‘s sequel.

First of all, I know Some Luck is not going to be the book for everyone. There’s going to be a very small audience that appreciates it, which is a shame, but I understand it. It’s about Iowa. It’s about farming. It’s about family. There’s not much plot, though some events carry over for months or even years through the narration. The book is divided into chapters by year– I assume in the entire trilogy there will be one hundred chapters, as the saga covers 100 years. Book one covered 33 years, from 1920-1953. It’s further divided into unlabelled sections within each chapter for different perspectives and events that happen within that year. And it all adds up to: a sort of Little House on the Prairie from later in history, geared toward adults.

“Of course, his father laughed. He could afford to laugh– he owned his farm free and clear. And more than that, his father always laughed at farming and what a joke it was on the farmer.”

It sounds pretty unimpressive so far, right? At first, I too was unimpressed. The book opens on a new family settling into their new farm, and several of the earliest sections in the book are “narrated” by the new baby. I’m talking surprisingly intelligent babble about waving spoons and rolling over and teething. But this first baby is going to be important to the story, and after only a couple of years, he does become a pretty interesting narrator. I was addicted about five years in.

“On a farm, you knew that you could die from anything, or you could survive anything.”

I should be able to explain what’s so great about Some Luck after reading all 400 pages of it, but it’s hard to put into words exactly where the magic comes from. The characters are generally quiet people, with simple, hard-working lives. There are births and deaths and marriages. But each character has their own personality– they are unique in the way that their family members see them and in the way that they see themselves. It’s incredible to see the difference between those two points of view. And it’s incredible to see such ordinary lives in such an ordinary way; the characters are not particular heroes or villains, there are no fantasy elements, the story is not especially driven by romance or revenge or learning, though all of those things happen and more. It’s just a story about some fictional people in a mostly real setting (the Langdons’ hometown is fictional, though many real Iowan towns make an appearance) that reminds its readers that we’re all human, and we’ve all got our own story to tell. Even if you think your story isn’t much, it exists, and it’s yours, and even if the people who will understand it are few and far between, they’re out there. That’s the magic of Some Luck. It’s quiet, but it’s not trite.

It’s like the stories that your grandparents tell, if your grandparents are farmers. It’s a whole way of life, and like all cultures, it comes with its own particular hardships and rewards. You can die in a freak storm, or you can fall down a well and then go about your day as if nothing unusual has happened at all.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I will definitely be continuing with this trilogy. I know that Smiley also has published a Pulitzer Prize winner, which I might also check out eventually, but my first priority is The Last Hundred Years trilogy. And I think reading it as a trilogy will bring out the best aspect of the story: the gradual change.  Even in one volume, thirty-three years, every chapter has felt like a continuation of what came before, and most of it is unremarkable, just the regular progression of seasons and life on a farm. And yet over the course of those thirty chapters, everything changes. I’m excited to see how things will look as the timeline approaches the current year.

Further recommendations:

  1. Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s well-known children’s series, the Little House series. They take place through Laura’s childhood and describe aspects of her life, everyday life and big events, that took place as her family tried to make a home for themselves on largely unsettled prairie land as the United State expanded west. They are technically fiction novels, and most of them read like children’s books, but I still find them fascinating as an adult. It’s U.S. history, or a very particular sub-genre of it like Some Luck, more about past culture than major politics or wars or the sort of things that history books tend to focus on.
  2. Again, fiction, but again, if you’re looking for those snapshots of past culture, I’m going to recommend Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. There’s some time travel, some supernatural stuff going on, there’s a giant romance through the series, but it also shows glimpses of cultures. It starts in 1940’s Scotland, and from there goes to 1740’s Scotland, but there’s also 1960’s America, 1740’s France, 1760-70’s America, 1760’s Jamaica, etc. The romance was a guilty pleasure for me, but seeing all these different places and ways of life was really what sold me on seeing it through.
  3. If you’re looking for a nonfiction snapshot of a past cultural and historical moment, try Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. This one reads like fiction, but it follows the assembly of the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800s. There’s a real-life murderer in there, the beginnings of electricity in America, the invention of the Ferris wheel. There’s architecture, fraud, giant sums of money. But also it’s just a really fascinating glimpse into the way people– seemingly ordinary people– lived in that time period. People that history doesn’t remember much. It’s great.

What’s next: I am ALMOST DONE with my 2017 reading challenge. Barring some unexpected disaster, I should have no trouble fitting in the last two books I need this year. The next on that list is Homer’s The Iliad, the famous classic about Achilles and the Trojan War, and other well-known characters from Greek mythology. I’ve read some of this book before, but never finished. I’m starting over today.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Lover

It’s crunch time for my 2017 reading challenge, so I’m trying to pick up as many books as I can to complete the challenge in the next two(ish) months. My latest challenge book has been Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, a book I started for school and never finished.

theloverAbout the book: A fifteen year-old French girl from a poor and hateful family meets a wealthy Chinese man on a ferry crossing the Mekong River in the early 1940’s. He claims to have fallen immediately in love with her, and she is in want of his money; so begins a year-and-a-half-long affair. The girl is narrating this time from a future point in her life, and mixed up in the telling of her first confusing love is the fate of her family and personal aspects of her transition to adulthood.

About the format: The girl becomes a writer after her affair, and is narrating her own story. She does so disjointedly, in block paragraphs separated by white space. Each paragraph is its own little story, sometimes reflecting on one character and jumping to another, often jumping in time, occasionally switching perspective between what it was like for the fifteen year-old girl in her present and what she thinks about herself and her lover when she looks back at that time.

This is not a book for the lazy reader– it is emotional and character-driven, with little plot and a lot of beautiful reflections on love and life, poverty and death and girlhood. There are gems here, for readers willing to mine for them. Great lines are not difficult to find, but putting the story together that connects the paragraphs, finding the common threads and noting juxtapositions between the paragraphs is more of an effort.

“The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line.”

One of my favorite things about this book is the way the tone of things change as the novel progresses. We see at first a poor but close family, but as the narrator’s “disgrace” grows as a result of her transparent affair, we learn that her mother is irresponsible and depressed, her elder brother cruel and selfish, the younger brother admired but insubstantial, and soon gone. At first we see the narrator accepting love as a means for money, but before she will even admit to herself that she can’t keep her fifteen year-old heart separate from the affair the reader sees that there’s more to her relationship with the Chinese man, as well.

“Very early in my life it was too late.”

My other favorite aspect of this book is that the beauty lies not in the plot or surprises of the novel, but in the telling of it. The narration is blunt and makes no effort to hide truths about what has happened to her, what will happen to her, and what she feels about it all. The beauty comes in the way she connects the affair to the ruin of her face, the loss of immortality, the severing of ties among her family that will begin soon after she leaves the lover. We see her learning and growing from the very first page, and the way Duras manages to convey both an understanding of the growth and a willingness to let the reader create his/her own morals from the hard lessons is magnificently done. Unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, the emphasis of The Lover is not on the morality of an affair between a young girl and an older man, but on its effect, both immediate and eventual. It’s sympathetic in its emotion.

“It’s while it’s being lived that life is immortal.”

“I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Although I was absolutely drawn in by the rich and insightful prose, and marked many lines and perspectives that I’ll certainly revisit, the lack of plot made this a slower read for me. Generally plotless books seem to me to have little point; I would not say that The Lover has no point (it has many), but it was easier for me to read in snippets than altogether at once, despite its brevity. At barely over 100 pages, I didn’t need much actual reading time to finish this one, but I did need breaks to digest it between sittings. I wish my class in school had read the entire novel and discussed it more, because even though I absolutely enjoyed reading this book I feel that I could still learn more from it.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading two books, one a reading challenge book (Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, a book I’m rereading from my childhood) and one not (Karin Slaughter’s The Good Daughter, a library book). The former is YA contemporary, a mild romance that deals more with grief and self-acceptance than love, and the latter is a mystery-thriller about a traumatized family learning the truth of an attack that left someone dead, when another attack occurs nearly thirty years later.

What are you reading as the year winds down?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Eligible

The idea of a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice caught my attention before I had even read Jane Austen’s famous classic. Now that I’ve read both the original work and the modern translation (Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible) back to back, I’m even more enthused. Generally I love a good retelling, but the fairy tale trend is starting to bore me a little. Here, though, is a fresh rendering of social engagements, prickly personalities, family misfortune, and– of course– romance.

eligibleAbout the book: Liz Bennet is one of five daughters in a notable Cincinatti family that is quickly falling into crippling debt. The Bennet parents are eager to marry their daughters off to help both generations financially, but of course, nothing seems to be going as planned. The eldest, Jane, is more interested in being a mother than a wife, and is taking steps to start the next phase of her life without marriage. Liz, the second eldest, has the most stable job and income, but her boyfriend is already married to someone else. Mary isn’t interested in marriage at all. Kitty is single, but has her eyes set on someone her parents disapprove of, and Lydia seems to have found the perfect match, until an unexpected secret about her boyfriend comes to light. The sisters are reunited for the summer in Cincinnati following their father’s heart attack, but the drama of their love lives is only beginning. At a 4th of July barbecue, the Bennet girls meet the Bingleys and their friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Some of their first interactions are favorable, others decidedly not. Everything is going to change over the course of the summer, and marriage will inevitably find some of the Bennet sisters, but their relationships may look nothing like the sensible matches their parents expected for them.

“He looked, Liz thought, like a model in a local department store newspaper insert: handsome, yes, but moody in a rather preposterous and unnecessary way.”

First, I’d like to note that you can read Eligible without reading Pride and Prejudice, and find just as much enjoyment in it. You’ll even get a good sense of the classic’s plot, because Eligible is loyal to the original in many respects, despite the change in time. But I would say that if reading Pride and Prejudice (or even watching a film of it) just before picking up Eligible is a move you’re considering, you’ll probably find the most enjoyment of this retelling with Austen’s original work fresh in mind. I also believe that readers who did not like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may like Eligible more. I recommend giving it a chance.

Next, let’s look at the narration. Pride and Prejudice uses a third person narration that focuses primarily on Elizabeth’s thoughts and experiences, but does venture to note some details about the other characters’ lives that Elizabeth would not have been privy to. In Eligible, however, the narration focuses solely on Liz, except for one chapter about Jane’s life at the beginning of the novel, and a chapter of Mary’s life at the end. Eligible‘s chapters are very short, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Both of these structural components are good choices for the novel– Liz’s thoughts pull readers in, and the short chapters are convenient for stopping and starting (or finding excuses to read just one more).

Pride and Prejudice has its humorous moments, but I laughed out loud probably half a dozen times in the first fifty pages of this novel– unusual for me. I thought knowing the characters’ personalities fairly well from the classic would take some of the entertainment out of discovering their ridiculousness in Eligible, but that was not the case. There is something even more amusing about (albeit fictional) people from the early 1800s being planted in a modern setting and let loose– though technically Eligible‘s characters are new, they are certainly based on the old and their absurdity remains intact.

” ‘He’s a lawyer in Atlanta, and he’s very active in his church,’ Mrs. Bennet said. ‘If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.’ “

Even more important than the humor though, is the fact that Eligible tackles some tough topics familiar in the current day and age, and Sittenfeld handles them well. There are LGBTQ+ characters and nonwhite characters. There are difficult, prejudiced characters, who are encouraged to change their minds. Liz responds to everything life (or her family) throws at her with an open mind and a willingness to help those who need it.

A little more comparing/contrasting: Liz has so much more dialogue in this book (especially with a certain tall dark and handsome man) than in P&P, which was one of the things I loved most about this updated version. Her climactic dialogue near the end of the story is filled with less apology than in P&P as well, which I was happy to see. Apologies are a good thing in healthy relationships, but here we see characters ready to move on without rehashing every offense they’d ever uttered. A plus. Alternately, while I thought Darcy’s overheard remark at the beginning of Eligible was worse than his saying in P&P that the girls in town were only tolerable, I did like him in this novel a lot earlier on. In contrast, I thought Liz was more obviously blind to the possibility that she was making mistakes in Eligible. She seems more brash in Eligible, more impulsive and outspoken about her opinions where I saw cautious reserve in P&P despite her strong opinions. Kathy de Bourgh makes a much better character in Eligible, though her character and her role in the plot is perhaps the most changed from her place in P&P. The change is apt. And Eligible‘s main strength comes from the biggest change of all– the centralization of focus on family. Each of Liz’s sisters is crucial to the tale Eligible has to tell, complete with their own morals and wonderfully distinct from each other. It’s a great dynamic, and it only improves as the book progresses.

“Time seemed, as it always does in adulthood after a particular stretch has concluded, no matter how ponderous or unpleasant the stretch was to endure, to have passed quickly indeed.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book. It still had the air of a classic, but was easily readable (not that Pride and Prejudice is difficult to read, but classics generally take a bit more time to parse the difference in language usage). I want to look into reading more from the Austen Project series, which features modern retellings of each of Austen’s works (though I don’t believe they’re all published yet).

Further recommendations:

  1. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an obvious choice for readers who’ve enjoyed Eligible (or plan to) and haven’t yet gotten around to the original classic. Even if you’re not a classic fan normally, let me highly recommend this one to anyone who appreciates a funny romance.
  2. White Fur by Jardine Libaire has a sort of crossed plot between Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice. This one’s definitely an adult story (the romance is a bit explicit in places), but it has the same sort of hate-love at the beginning, and a problematic affection between a wealthy heir and a poor independent, neither of whose families support their relationship.

What’s next: I’m just finishing up Cate Holohan’s Lies She Told, a new release thriller (and a September Book of the Month selection) about a mystery writer whose life turns into a similar mystery. As the lines start to blur between her fictional novel and her real circumstances, everything falls apart and nothing is certain.

What’s your favorite retelling?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Exit West

There were several books on the long list for the Man Booker Prize this year that had already found their way to my TBR, and my interest in reading them was heightened by seeing them on that list. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West was one of those books, and it was the first one I decided to pick up.

“Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what exactly she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions…”

About the book: Saeed and Nadia live inexitwest a war-torn country that’s increasingly dangerous to inhabit. They ward against the bombs and guns as best they can, but then the cell service is shut down throughout the country, their employers close the agencies they work for, municipal services fail. A death brings them closer together, living under the same roof though they haven’t been married yet, and the need to leave grows every day. There are debates everywhere about the best ways out of the country, but the surest method seems to be the secret doors, magical doors with the power to take a person out of one place into an entirely new one. But even if they can escape their ravaged country, there is no guarantee of safety; and when safety seems possible, they may discover that the intensity of their experience held their romance together better than peace ever could.

“She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not.”

The style of writing in Exit West is hard to describe, but I find it compelling. The narration is third-person, and focused generally on Saeed and Nadia’s experiences, but it also roams to other people in other corners of the world to give the reader a sense of the global state as matters expand. On a smaller level of style, the sentences run on very long sometimes, the ideas inside them separated by commas though it all falls under the same umbrella topic. It flows easily from one point to the next, and grammatically they do seem to be coherently single sentences rather than annoying run-ons, but it can be hard to keep track of where you’re at in the sentence structure if you’re not paying attention. It worked for me, but I’m guessing that less patient readers might not enjoy it as well.

“…the end of a couple is like a death, and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us of the value of things, which it did for Saeed and Nadia, and so even though they spoke less and did less together, they saw each other more, although not more often.”

There is no name given to the country in this book, but it feels like a very real place. Certainly in our world there are countries in which civilians live in constant fear under warring governments. There are clues in the book suggesting that the nameless country and city are very like countries and cities in the Middle East, which also gives the story more of a real feel because the details of culture are familiar from modern life. The realness makes the statements and implications of Exit West that much more powerful.

“People vanished in those days, and for the most part one never knew, at least not for a while, if they were alive or dead.”

Saeed’s and Nadia’s home city is not the only thing that goes unnamed–the groups of people are also given general titles rather than real, specific ones. They are the militants, the migrants, the natives. A good choice, because the fighting groups are not what’s important here– the war could be any war, but the fear and consequences in the lives of the civilians is a universal possibility. Though I have basically nothing in common with Exit West‘s main characters, I found them both very likable and understandable, even when they argued opposing points. The namelessness makes this a story that both teaches about others’ experiences, and also teaches the reader a bit about the humanity inside him-/herself.

“For when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

My favorite part of this book, however, is the magical realism. In my opinion, Exit West is an example of magical realism well done– the doors are the only fantastical detail of the story, and they serve a purpose in pushing the limits of war and desperation where they need to go, rather than existing just to exist. Exit West is a thought experiment, both a lesson in the results of war and inequality, and a chance to look at what might happen to the world if borders ceased to exist. With the existence of magical doors, almost any person can go almost anywhere. The characters can’t choose where the doors appear or where they lead, but they do allow for a steady flow of people from place to place. Some of the doors are guarded (as best as they can be), and some are capitalized upon, but even so they essentially remove the restrictions of borders that exist in the modern world. It’s both frightening and beautiful to see the highs and lows humans are capable of under such changed rules of movement.

“The affect doors had on people altered as well. Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had heard about the doors and the war and the romance of this book before I began reading, and those are really the biggest points. But even knowing what to expect, I was underprepared for the strength of this book. The ideas inside it are important and timely, though mixed with enough fictional elements to lighten the heaviest parts of the story and keep it entertaining as well as enlightening. I may pick up Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist at some point, and I will certainly be checking out more books from the Man Booker Prize longlist.

Further recommendations:

  1. For more great writing set in the Middle East, try A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. This is a phenomenal historical fiction novel set in Afghanistan, also highlighting the challenges and consequences of war and the nature of love.

Coming up next: I’m just starting Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom, a new thriller release about a mother and her four-year old son trapped in a zoo after hours. I believe the whole book takes place in only a short matter of hours, which sounds intriguing. I’m eager to see who will leave alive.

What are you reading to wrap up the month?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Sisters Chase

I’ve been loving Book of the Month Club all year, but never so much as in the month of June. It was so difficult choosing from the five new selections this month because I wanted to read every single one of them. I even put some high priority books from my TBR on hold when my box arrived because I just couldn’t wait to dive into the the new books. And now that I’ve read Sarah Healy’s The Sisters Chase, I have a new favorite BOTM book for 2017.

About the book: Diane wasthesisterschase young when she had her first daughter, Mary, and the two of them are more or less alone in the world until baby Hannah joins the family when Mary is 14. There’s no father present for either of the girls, and even the grandparents are gone by the time Hannah is born, so when their mother dies in a car crash four years later, the sisters Chase are truly on their own. Old enough to act as Hannah’s legal guardian, Mary is forced to make some tough choices about their lives. Though the changes she makes are not always positive or even necessarily legal, Mary has only ever wanted to protect Hannah. The two of them set off in a Chevy Blazer and live by Mary’s wits in motel rooms and camp sites and shabby apartments, searching for love and answers and some elusive shard of peace that has always been denied to them both.

“The Chase girls stayed the next morning until it was time to check out, lying on the bed and basking in the infinitude of being nowhere.”

About the layout: the narration is told entirely in the third person, usually focused on Mary but occasionally veering to describe details that Mary wouldn’t know about other characters. Each chapter is offset with a year marker, highlighting a few key years in the 1970’s and 80’s. The timeline is perfect for the story–Mary’s cross-country driving expeditions are made possible by an extra degree of anonymity that hasn’t existed since the more recent digital era; the lack of cell phones is crucial to Mary’s rambling freedom. There are just enough time-accurate details to ground the story in its temporal setting without turning its focus away from Mary.

About the writing: The Sisters Chase is beautifully and emotionally woven (with just a hint of romance) from the beginning. Although there aren’t as many one-liners as I expected from this poignant narration, there’s a finesse of language that keeps the reader going even when the plot hits a (rare) slow point. This book bleeds tragedy, though there are happy moments, as well. It’s not the sort of sorrow that can make a reader cry without context; the sadness of The Sisters Chase comes in the implications and inferences, the masked emotion behind simple actions, the meaningfulness slowly revealed in every seemingly random move that Mary makes.

“At first, Mary decided not to think about it. She decided to tightly fold up the facts in her head again and again. Mary could do that. Mary could lock away parts of her mind, of her heart. Mary could hide things.”

About the characters: each and every person introduced in this story is unique and significant in some way, but the most interesting characters, of course, are the three Chase women. A sort of Gilmore Girls-type friendship is evident between them, despite (or perhaps because of) Diane’s firm but gentle wisdom, Mary’s fierce wildness, and Hannah’s dreaminess. With Diane gone (though always in Mary’s memories and thus present throughout the book), Mary is free to make some truly questionable decisions, but her devotion to Hannah keeps her from going off the rails completely.

” ‘Yes. I wanted you to love her. I didn’t want yo to live for her,’ [Diane] said. I didn’t want you to have to.’ “

The thing about Mary is that she always operates with an escape hatch in mind. She won’t go anywhere or start anything without knowing how she can flee before things go too far south.

“…Hannah feeling the optimism of going somewhere, Mary feeling the relief of having left. The Chase girls were always happiest in those brief moments of in-between, when neither of them was sacrificing, neither of them being sacrificed.”

I saw the big plot twist coming from the very beginning. I saw it, but dismissed it. I wondered about Mary’s past secrets, but when I did, so much was going on at the forefront of the story that it didn’t seem to matter what had happened before. It didn’t matter whether my guess was right because it didn’t change the fact that Mary was presently lying and stealing and bribing her way to cold, hard cash. And then when the past did matter, there was so much fresh emotion layered onto that big lie that it still didn’t matter that the reveal lacked surprise. It made me cry anyway. More trusting readers than me will probably find more shock-value in the big reveal, but my point here is that even if you see it coming, it’s worth it.

“But what Mary knew, what Mary had always known, is that when you stay still, leg in a trap, trouble can find you.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book sneaked up on me. I knew right away that I loved the writing and the emotion it contained, but it still took a long time for me to realize just how hard it was going to be to get over the story. Mary is intriguing all the way through, but I had no idea until close to the end that my heart was going to break into a billion pieces for her family. I have very little in common with Mary, but I won’t be able to forget her for a long time. This is one of my favorite books of the year, and I’ll definitely keep an eye on this author going forward.

Further recommendations:

  1. Marlena by Julie Buntin is another 2017 release (and BOTM selection) about two girls who feel like it’s them against the world until tragedy knocks them back into their places. This is another great example of how friendship can overcome almost anything. It’s harsh and gritty in the same way as The Sisters Chase, and it’s also more about the emotion in something unstoppable rather than the event itself. It’s about how girls grow up, in a place where there are no right answers.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Cassandra Clare’s City of Lost Souls, the 5th book in the Mortal Instruments series. I’m getting so excited about nearing the end of both the Mortal Instruments and the Infernal Devices, which I’m reading simultaneously because I’m going through the Shadowhunter books in publication order. Things are heating up in both sets, and I’ve never gotten this far before so I have no idea what will happen or where it will end.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: White Fur

The new selections for Book of the Month Club are perfection this month. I wanted to be reading them all at once, but since I only have one set of eyes I had to choose–and I chose to start with Jardine Libaire’s White Fur. I would classify it as a romance, although it’s unlike any romance I’ve ever read.

whitefurAbout the book: Jamey and Elise are from different worlds. Jamey, the heir to a multi-million dollar corporation, has been raised with a lot of cash and little emotion. Elise, who has only ever had enough to get by and sometimes not even that, falls deeply in love with him at first sight and has enough emotion to carry them both. At first it’s a battle to prove Jamey really does love her, but the real battle comes later–when neither of their previous lives will fit them both and the only way to survive is to start over and locate middle ground. For Jamey and Elise, it’s never been about the money, but their friends and family seem incapable of overlooking the difference in their social classes and the only people who can accept their relationship are each other. Is that enough? And even if it is, how will they escape the loud opinions of the masses?

“He grew up thinking you’re supposed to work till your eyes bleed, be exhausted all the time, get money, get houses, get prestige, do good, be important, be busy, get on the board, run out of time, cancel lunch with friends, run out of gas. Why? Why did he believe them when they said that? Why did he believe anything they said?”

I must admit, the premise of this book worried me. Rich guy falls for broke girl, and tries to make uppity family accept her? There are so many ways that story has already been done, some of them with less success than others. But even though those things happen, they’re not what this story is about. Elise doesn’t want any part of Jamey’s money or power or prestige–she won’t even accept them other than to acknowledge that they’re some of the building blocks that make up Jamey’s life. Jamey isn’t trying to raise Elise’s monetary standing, to bring her up into the world of plenty–he sees good things in her character that have been lacking in his own life, and considers himself the poor party in their relationship. It’s about the money for everyone else, but for Jamey and Elise, it’s about finding where they fit in the world and finally taking the chance to choose for themselves instead of letting their families lay out their futures.

“You go through life thinking there’s a secret to life. And the secret to life is there is no secret to life.”

About the layout: the book starts in June 1987, with a single scene charged with catastrophe and heartbreak. There’s a gun. There’s love, and the questioning of love. And there’s potential for murder. From that scene, the narration goes back to January 1986. Each month is its own labeled chapter. There are further divisions within these chapters that switch back and forth in third person narrative between Elise and Jamey, and the months progress chronologically until we reach that same dangerous motel room scene in June 1987 to finally see its conclusion and aftermath. As Jamey and Elise clash and collide through the rest of the timeline in the book, much of the tension lies not in whether they will fall in love and stay together, but in discovering how they came to be aiming firearms at each other, staring down death and searching for the limits of love. For this reason, the nuances of the relationship keep the reader’s attention: every gesture and thought, every lie and truth and silent action begs to be weighed in the balance against that startling opening scene. Every kiss is a clue.

“What’s the point of anything? Why did we make it this far, she thinks, through hours in our own lives before we met, even after we met, when we were sure we were worthless, but we somehow got to the other side of those times, holding it together, ashamed to be hopeful but being hopeful, when we had no protection and no direction but we kept going anyway, and then we got rewarded, and now it’s being ripped out of my hands?”

Speaking of kisses and romance, I’d like to note that White Fur is a fairly explicit book. It’s solidly categorized as adult literature, and it’s worth mentioning that the physical side of Jamey and Elise’s relationship is often front and center. If you can’t stand reading sex scenes, this isn’t the book for you. White Fur is no Fifty Shades of Gray though. There are R-rated scenes set in bedrooms and beyond, but that’s just one part of the book. It’s the proof that prejudice and class divisions are constructions of the mind, not the heart. The sex is just evidence supporting the underlying messages of the need for equality and love’s perpetual attempt to conquer all. It’s there in abundance, but it’s not the main focus of the book.

“Nothing can ever stay strange for long.”

About the setting: I can’t offer any concrete explanation as to why this book is set in the 1980s rather than present day. I suppose the past offers a bit more anonymity, which allows the characters to move more freely through this world when they’re trying to hide from their opponents, and I suppose also that prejudices were stronger and louder then than they are today. The details of the story fit the time perfectly, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of point to the differences. I don’t think this story would have been impossible to transpose into the world of the 2010s, which made the choice of setting seem a little strange, despite being handled well.

About the characters: White Fur has quite a cast. There’s so much detail given to everyone and everything that each character feels real. I liked that about them, though I don’t think I would choose any of these characters as my friends in real life. Many of them are not bad people. They aren’t unlikable in the way I usually describe characters who seem to have been constructed to alienate the reader, and yet I didn’t particularly like them either. I remained neutrally interested in where they were headed.

“So much of life is about standing on the curb, willing to see what rolls up.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. That opening scene hooked me right away, and with that fresh in mind, the beginning of Jamey and Elise’s relationship remained pretty interesting. Some of the stuff in the middle, after the “I love you’s” and before the gun came back into the story, was much less engaging for me. It was interesting enough that I didn’t have hesitancy about continuing, but the excitement I expected after that opening scene took longer to reappear than I would have preferred. I felt a little deceived. But I don’t regret the time I spent reading White Fur, so it ended up pretty middle-of-the-road for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lucky You by Erika Carter is another gritty book about escaping life’s oppressive constructs, but it’ll take a certain audience to appreciate its subtle messages and futility. I think that audience will overlap nicely with fans of White Fur. It’s grimy and brutally honest, with a little romance and a lot of idealism, but it hits failure and the stickier sides of human nature in a way that takes a patient mind and a willingness to accept that not all endings are happy, or even necessarily endings.

What’s next: I started a second book while i was in the middle of White Fur, so I’ve already got another book finished and in the process of review. After reading A Discovery of Witches earlier this month, I basically threw part of my June TBR out the window in favor of continuing the series. So in addition to White Fur (hence the review coming later than I planned, sorry guys), I’ve also finished reading Deborah Harkness’ Shadow of Night, the second book in the All Souls trilogy. This one’s much like book one, plus time travel and the potential for witchy vampire babies, and if that’s not enough to intrigue you then we have nothing in common.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant