Tag Archives: literary fiction

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?


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.


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.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Marlena

I’m a little late with my March BOTM club selection (Julie Buntin’s debut novel, Marlena), but you know what? It was just as good in April as March, and someday I’ll catch up again. I actually finished this book a few days ago and have been struggling to put together some formal thoughts. Although I loved this beautiful novel, it’s hard to say exactly why because I have very little in common with the characters and their story. And yet, somehow, I could relate.

About the book: Cat’s parents are FullSizeRender (12)newly divorced, and she’s moved with her mom and brother to Silver Lake, Michigan. Her mom cleans rich people’s houses for a living, and her brother, Jimmy, has put off college to work at a plastics factory to help their mom pay for the tiny house they’ve moved into. Next door is a barn that’s been converted into a home for a meth chef and his two uncared-for children: Marlena and Sal. Marlena is a seventeen year old girl trying to take care of herself and her eight year-old brother while also keeping her dad out of legal trouble. Having been introduced to the drug-and-alcohol scene from a young and impressionable age, and having no role models to speak of, she’s already developed some bad habits and a reckless streak. She befriends Cat almost immediately, and leads her down a dangerous path, but she also tries to protect her from some of the worst aspects of her own life. It’s a doomed relationship from the start, but that doesn’t stop them from giving it everything they’ve got.

Marlena is primarily one of those coming-of-age stories that explores what happens when a young girl faces bigger conflicts than she’s equipped to handle yet. It’s told from a future perspective, in alternating viewpoints of the narrator’s present and her past.

“When you grow up, who you were as a teenager either takes on mythical importance or it’s completely laughable. I wanted to be the kind of person who wiped those years away; instead, I feared, they defined me.”

The thing about friendships in literature is that they’re either unrealistically perfect or make the reader want to slap the friend that’s making an obviously horrid decision. In real life, while true friendships are great, there’s always a little jealousy behind the love and desperation behind the loyalty. Maybe you’d do anything for your friend, but you expect the same in return, and yet people are imperfect and often just end up hurting each other even with their good intentions. Marlena hits true friendship right on the nose, complete with those moments when the main character hates her best friend, when she tags along no matter the cost, and when the friend encourages bad choices. It’s a real, gritty friendship.

“I thought being her best friend meant keeping her secrets. I trusted that she knew what she was doing.”

The story benefits from its point of telling, as well. It’s a story about fifteen and seventeen year-old girls, but the narrator is in her mid-thirties by the time she’s telling it. This gives the reader two things: room to doubt some of the details that have been weathered by time and memory, and insight into life and meaning that the narrator lacked as a teenager. Cat can look back and recognize aspects of the story that she didn’t understand yet while she was living it. She sees how she could have helped, in a way that she probably didn’t fully grasp at the time and which gives the story it’s sense of tragic guilt.

“Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be.”

Marlena is not a plot-driven book. The reader is told right away which of the characters will not survive, and even the event in the narrator’s present that keeps that part of the story moving forward is a small event, and an anticlimactic one. This, in a sense, fits the story well, though. Marlena’s life was a spark that burned hot and quick, and after it’s gone out there’s simply nothing left. That’s the problem with losing a loved one–they’re just not there, and nothing you can do after can reignite the lost connection. So in a way, the disappointment of Cat’s present fits right in with the tragedy in her past.

“…that day, I learned that time doesn’t belong to you. All you have is what you remember. A fraction; less.”

The only thing I might mention disliking about this book were its sentence fragments. The rules of grammar exist to be broken, I know, it’s an artistic thing; but there were so many beautiful, complete sentences in this book that I’d stumble upon the half-finished ones occasionally and not know what to do with them. There’s nothing wrong with sentence fragments, really, it’s just that they reflect connections in the writer’s thoughts, and sometimes those connections are less clear to readers. It can be a fault of the book when the writing is so lyrical and grammatically perfect that the narration becomes boring, so maybe the fragments help in the end, but they did require a couple of reads sometimes when I was trying to make grammatical sense of a long sentence fragment that just tied back to something mentioned earlier. These awkward little stops and starts were the only problem I had with the writing style.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. At first, the cover made me wary. I think the white swirls are supposed to maybe represent cigarette smoke, but to me they looked like ribbons. The glowing red letters at the ends of the words maybe represent the glowing end of a cigarette, but at first it just looked like some odd pattern with the lettering. An actual cigarette on the cover might have turned me off from the book completely, so perhaps there is something to be said for the subtle approach, but for most of the time I was reading it just looked nonsensical. Between that and the instant removal of plot by Cat mentioning Marlena’s sad and pathetic death, I was skeptical. But somehow this book made me feel everything, even though my own life has been nothing like the story Cat is telling in this novel. This one’s going to stick with me.

Further recommendations:

  1. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Here’s a coming-of-age story about a fifteen year-old girl growing up in Minnesota who meets with death in a strange and painful way before she understands that she could have helped prevent it.
  2. The Girls by Emma Cline. This one’s also a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl, in this case one who becomes involved with a Manson-esque cult in the 1960’s. It’s full of the same sort of commentary on what it means to be a teenage girl that Buntin does so well in Marlena.
  3. Faithful by Alice Hoffman. If it’s the tragedy of Marlena that appeals to you, nothing beats Faithful for difficult emotion and the struggle to rise above one’s past. Also, this is a book for lovers of dogs.

Coming up next: I’m currently finishing up Cassandra Clare’s City of Fallen Angels, the fourth book in her Mortal Instruments series. Unlike the first three volumes in this series, this one is a first-time read for me, and without the nostalgia factor it’s a bit of a different experience. I hope I’ll end up enjoying this one as much as the other Cassandra Clare books I’ve read so far, and I also hope to have a review ready for you tomorrow, so stay tuned!


The Literary Elephant

Review: History of Wolves

I’ve recently finished reading Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, a new adult literary fiction book. This one is set in northern Minnesota, which is rare for a novel and personally interesting to me because I’ve been to that part of the state and have spent a lot of time in other parts of Minnesota, as well. Also, one of the cover blurbs calls the book’s pages “haunted,” which was all the encouragement I needed for a book about a teen finding disaster in “Nowheresville.”

FullSizeRender (7)About the book: Madeline (Linda) is a fifteen year-old girl (in the central thread of the book’s mixed chronology) struggling through school. She lives deep in the woods where even the snow plows won’t go, sometimes taking an hour or more to walk straight home from her bus stop after classes. Her parents live in a cabin on the site of a disbanded commune they once helped found and have a very hands-off approach to parenting. Then there’s the fact that one of the teachers who works closely with Linda is arrested for child pornography. But most importantly of all, the biggest event in her life is the tragic death of 4 year-old Paul, the son of the new neighbors who move into the fancy house across the lake from Linda. She babysits him all summer between ninth and tenth grade, and maybe she could have done something to save him; but the fact of the matter is that he’s dead by fall, and Linda will never be the same.

Linda states early in the book, during narration of her History Odyssey competition in middle school, that the history of wolves doesn’t really have anything to do with human history–and it doesn’t, at least in the way the judges mean. And yet, the wolves and the general wildness of northern Minnesota have everything to do with what happens to the humans in this book. Linda’s life, like the wolves’ lives, is about instinct and survival. It’s about the fine line between predator and prey.

“I wasn’t scared, though. I didn’t need to think of myself as a walleye drifting along in a current somewhere, just waiting for my hook. I was yearning for it.”

The thing about teenagers is that they’re eager for motion–their lives are on the verge of becoming their own and they’re waiting for something to happen that’ll tip them over the edge into adulthood. Linda finds herself inexplicably drawn to the story of her arrested history teacher and the girl in her class who spoke against him. She’s almost obsessed with the story, following their lives after everything happens at school and writing letters even years later. She was so close to it all, and there’s so little she has to be close to. The woods are isolating for Linda, and for everyone in her town.

“Heaven and hell are ways of thinking. Death is the false belief that anything could ever end.”

I liked the relationships in this book. They felt awkward and uncommon, not the storybook kind of love that lots of books seem to strive for. There’s something unusual in the relationship between Linda’s parents, for starters, apparent in the fact that they helped found a commune but also in how they continue their lives and behave around their daughter as she’s growing up. The relationship Linda sees between Leo and Patra (her new neighbors) is strange, as well. First, there’s the fact that Leo is largely absent although he’s a big part of their lives. Then here’s Linda’s infatuation with Patra. Linda doesn’t have many good adult role models in her life, and her respect for Patra, combined with Patra’s interest in Linda’s approval, leave Linda with an almost romantic attachment to Patra. They’re close friends in an odd way for young women eleven years apart in age and Linda doesn’t quite seem to know how to categorize her regard for Patra. Then in the latest parts of the timeline, Linda shows bits of her relationship with Rom, which is also an unexpected sort of love. Linda thinks he isn’t quite right for her, and maybe that’s true, but they make an oddly compelling pair. These relationships reminded me of relationships in reality–they’re often more one-sided than fictional romance, or crop up between the wrong people, or happen without intent from either party.

“It’s weird how joy goes through a grown man’s face, so that for a second you can see him the way he was as a kid: all smooth faced and unguarded.”

The narration in this book is always focused on Linda’s life and observations, but it skips around between years in her chronology to focus on different players and events. We mainly see Paul’s fate in the summer of Linda’s fifteenth year, but mixed with it we also see what happened earlier with the arrested history teacher and later the fate of Linda’s own family and childhood home after she’s grown up and tried to move on. The timeline skips around, and while everything connects, I did find the later details of Linda’s life less interesting until the causes and affects of Paul’s death become more clear in the fifteen year-old part of Linda’s story.

“Everything she did, she did when she should have known better.”

This quote (above) shows the aspect that reminded me most of Emma Cline’s The Girls. There’s that awkward period in growing up when a person starts to realize how the world works and that they have responsibilities in it but they aren’t quite ready or sure of how to handle things. There’s no smooth transition between cared-for child and responsible adult in reality–at some point, the child sees the burden of responsibility waiting there to be picked up, neglected and accumulating on the ground where no one else can reach this particular bundle. Stories like History of Wolves explore the possibility of a burden of responsibility presenting itself before the child is grown enough to spot the burden and lift it him-/herself. Linda might have saved Paul’s life, if she’d been a little more equipped to deal with that task. Sometimes in life we fail, and we blame ourselves even though there was nothing else we knew to do to prevent that failure. That is where the sadness resides in this book.

“Dawn is a free pass. I’ve always thought that. The hours between four and seven belong to a few fidgety birds and maybe a last bat charging mosquitoes.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was in a mild reading slump with this book, so even though it was short it took me about a week to finish. I don’t think that affected my opinions of the story itself and I don’t think it was at all the fault of this book. In any case, while the plot moved slowly for me at points, I did find the emotions of the story particularly moving and I’m glad I finally managed to find my way through to the end. I’ll be interested to see what works Fridlund might publish in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Emma Cline’s The Girls would be a great choice for readers who find Linda’s character and situation compelling. This one is centered around a cult rather than a commune, but features the same sort of inquisitive, inexperienced girl who’s trying to find her way in life by following people who shouldn’t ever have been leaders.
  2. Alice Hoffman’s Faithful is a novel for the reader who devours stories of unstoppable tragedy and its aftermath. This one has the same gritty sadness as History of Wolves, with a bit more redemption discovered before the final page is reached.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, a collection of retold myths about the infamous Odin, Thor, and Loki, among other mythological Norse characters. This is a book about power and destiny, rebuilt from the ashes of ancient lore and culture. I loved it, and can’t wait to share.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Faithful

I’d heard of this book’s release, and I’d certainly heard of Alice Hoffman, but Faithful was low on my radar until I saw it on my library’s new arrivals shelf and got a closer look. I was absolutely drawn in by the beautiful cover, and the description sounded like just the sort of sorrowful tale I was in the mood for during the snowy months, so I picked it up on impulse. It was not a mistake.

faithful2About the book: Shelby and her best friend were driving on a snowy night in a Long Island town when the car hit ice and slid off the road. Shelby is home again the very next day, but Helene, her friend, would never never wake from her comatose state. People believe she gained extraordinary healing powers, but Shelby can’t bring herself to visit and find out–believing her guilt and sorrow to be her penance for walking away from the accident while Helene lies ruined, Shelby doesn’t want to be healed. At first, she can barely stand to leave her parents’ basement, except to wander the town alone at night. Ben supplies her with pot at first, and then more than she can ever repay, but Shelby isn’t ready to move on. She sees misery every day, everywhere she goes, and tries to lessen that misery to start paying back her debt of wrongdoing. Her best friends are the dogs she rescues from abuse and neglect, and they keep her going even when she doesn’t want to move. There’s only one person who can save Shelby from herself, but she’s not sure he/she even exists. Shelby is receiving postcards from some anonymous source that she thinks may somehow be Helene, or her guardian angel. Someone pulled her out of the car that night before her mother and the ambulance arrived, but Shelby doesn’t remember much, and she doesn’t trust her flashes of recollection. She wishes the angel had helped Helene instead, but the angel knows no mistake was made.

“You rescue something and you’re responsible for it. But maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running.”

This book is beautifully dark. The main character starts the book with some pretty serious depression, and it’s the kind of narration that makes your soul weep but at the same time there’s this little voice in the back of your mind that says, “yes, I’ve thought that,” or “I would do the same thing.” In the horrifying scenario of having been involved in the demise of her best friend, Shelby succeeds in showing the narrator just how empty and meaningless life can become after such a tragedy. It’s not the sort of coping that anyone who hasn’t driven their best friend off the road and into a permanent coma can understand, and yet the reader is given this eerily close look at the devastation Shelby faces. We think we can sympathize. But Shelby shows us how much we just don’t know.

“She’s afraid of ruining someone else’s life. She wonders if there’s some sort of poisonous antibody in her blood that hurts anyone she’s close to.”

My favorite thing about this book is that although the emotions run heavy and the narrator is dark and twisted, the pacing of events in Faithful keep the story from becoming a constant sob fest. Shelby is deeply wounded and confused, but she’s out rescuing pets and errant teens and tackling one challenge at a time instead of curling up in a ball and waiting to die. Her thoughts are sticky and sad, but she keeps facing day-to-day life as it’s thrown at her, doing the best she can with what she has. It’s not much, but it keeps the story moving.

“Feelings are best left concealed. They can bite you if you’re not careful. They can eat you alive.”

Another perk: this is a book for animal lovers. Shelby adds more dog friends to her life than people, and the narration gives them each distinct “petsonalities” that are fun to watch throughout the book. And if you’re not a dog person, that’s okay too, because there’s a character who’ll agree with you, saying:

“I’m sticking with books. They never let you down and they don’t judge you.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. We all have dark thoughts sometimes. Maybe you didn’t send your best friend into a coma in a horrible accident at seventeen, but sometimes the world gets you down anyway. Misery loves company, they say, and it truly did feel a bit cathartic to share some depressing thoughts with someone who really understood them as well as Shelby. I don’t usually reach for particularly sad stories, but that’s the thing–this is the aftermath of the sad story. Shelby is still horribly sad, but it’s a story about finding hope and life again where it was once dead. The messages, ultimately, are positive and encouraging for anyone who feels down about their lot in life. Faithful is definitely more sad than happy, but it ends with the assertion that all is never lost.

Further recommendations:

  1. Emma Cline’s The Girls is another great novel about ups and downs and tragedy. Technically, this one features a fictional Manson-like cult in the late 1960’s, but more deeply, it’s about what it means to be a girl, to be human, and/or to have a difficult past. This book shows how easily one can be swept up in trouble and how to cope with the aftermath. It’s a powerful and emotional read about finding oneself.
  2. Lucky You by Erika Carter is a 2017 release about three girls in their early twenties who escape to a run-down house in the Ozarks to escape their troubles in life but realize they can find problems off the grid, too. This is a coming-of-age story that’s less sad but no less thought-provoking that Faithful; the characters are ridiculous and often wrong, but they’re searching for their place in the world just like anyone else. They merely take an odd path to their destinations. This is a great read for anyone who feels a little lost–because at least you’re not that lost.

P. S. Does anyone have any other Alice Hoffman recommendations for me? I may be interested in reading more works by this author but I don’t know where to start.

Coming up next: my final January read was Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species, a YA stand-alone that features three high school seniors whose paths intersect as their hometown struggles with several instances of rape. Each main character is affected in a different way, but the only way to stop abusers is to stand together and finally tell the truth. It’s a powerful new YA book that every teen should read. Check back early next week for more info.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Lucky You

Erika Carter’s debut novel Lucky You is an brand new/upcoming 2017 release that I received in my first Book of the Month Club box. This book is only available through Book of the Month until its scheduled release date in March, so I was excited to be able to read it a little earlier than most. If you’re looking for a great book for this spring/summer, read below to find out why I think this one would make a great pick.

About the book: Rachel is the sort of luckyyougirl who needs a cause. So when she decides to save the environment with her rich, egotistical boyfriend, she sets off to live in a run-down house in the Ozarks with a self-sustained lifestyle. Ellie is the sort of girl who believes that if she can’t see the trouble she’s caused for herself, it no longer exists. No matter what she does, she thinks can run away and start over if things get too difficult, so that’s what she does: drops everything and moves out to the Ozarks to join her friend’s cause without telling anyone but Rachel. And Chloe is the sort of girl who listens for voices in the static of the turntable and the “speaker holes” of the shower head. She’s pulling her hair out by the roots, but won’t admit she has a problem. Chloe is susceptible to believing what she’s told, so when Rachel tells her that moving out to the Ozarks with the others will make Chloe’s life healthier and happier, she listens and makes the switch. But it turns out four people can find just as much trouble off the grid, and their problems are not as easily ignored as they once imagined.

“It was warm and overcast when she left. There was something irresistible about leaving without telling anyone. It was like jumping on a train leaving town, tearing through the landscape, like the kind of character Crush Heat Burn sang about.”

This book is told through three perspectives and is divided into parts rather than chapters. The timeline is navigated by flagged months and years at the beginnings of the sections. I really enjoyed that loose sort of chronology to specific dates. (Am I the only one who can never keep track of the dates in books?) Separating time this way and alternating between characters really gives each section its own aura and helps the reader understand each character’s situation at its vital points even if the characters themselves remain just out of reach. There’s something disagreeable about each of them, and yet they all have thoughts we’ve thought before and can’t quite resist.

“People love stuff so much they just have to go and ruin it.”

“She watched until they were gone. A violent emptiness took over, a brutal vacant space; it was almost pleasant.”

This story is filled with irredeemable characters, but they’re intentionally unlikable. The book mocks them, and you have to keep reading to see what disaster they come up with next. We all know those people who say something and seem to mean it entirely, but even as they speak we know it’ll only be a matter of time before they turn a complete 180 and just as adamantly stand on the opposite side of the debate. These are people who are trying to fool themselves, and then wonder why they’re spinning in circles. But at the same time, as ridiculous as they are, they’re also completely ordinary. Readers can sympathize with the characters’ destructive impulses, the urge to have a cause just for the feeling of belonging to something greater than the self, the feeling of wanting a change so badly that it doesn’t even matter what the change is or whether it sticks–it’s just something to do that’ll open new doors.

“But Rachel would say no, a thing doesn’t just happen, you have to force it to happen, and then by the time you get it–it seems natural.”

“Soon she would quit doing ridiculous stuff like this. When her real life started, she would quit humiliating herself with ridiculous behavior.”

I found that this book would’ve made a better summer read than winter, although the timeline actually spans around two full years. The lazy, oppressive heat of summer from the middle of this book is really what stuck with me–the rest felt like “before” and “after.”  The whole narrative span, however, shares the same seedy and atmospheric quality that made the places feel like reflections of the people in them, and infinitely more real. There’s grit to Lucky You, and it’s this undeniable sense of difficulty and unpleasantness around the three main girls that prevent the reader from writing them off entirely. They’re bleeding souls, and they have reasons to bleed, but only the reader can see that their efforts to pick off the scabs are hurting rather than helping their chances.

“She had so many former selves now; she worried she would unravel and divide into all the copies she’d made of herself.”

“She didn’t want to be on nodding terms with any of her former selves. It made the world feel small. She worried, sometimes desperately worried, that all her previous lives were going to catch up with her.”

The end resonates with the beginning, giving a sense that nothing has really changed. This is the sort of ending that drives some readers mad, but I love it because it feels like real life. The end of a story is rarely the end–and Lucky You is a book that admits that. One of the main points I drew from this book is that people can go around and around in circles. That’s not to say there’s no resolution or character growth–but clearly no one’s perfect yet by the end, just as no one in reality is perfect, even after learning some tough lesson.

“She was twenty-three, and she’d done nothing. Would she still be nothing at twenty-four? Twenty-five? Thirty?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the kind of book that isn’t addicting as much as it is resonating. I didn’t feel that can’t-put-it-down compulsion to keep going, but after I put it down, little details would nag at me constantly until I picked it back up again, and then I had new fodder for thought until I picked it up again. This kind of narration is the stuff that’ll stick with you all day.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Girls by Emma Cline feels like an obvious comparison. Although the characters in this book aren’t in a cult, the narration has that same sort of mindless quality–the characters are floating through life, following friends and odd urges and learning about life by separating themselves from it. They’re older than the narrator of The Girls, but they have that same loyalty to each other, to a cause, that sets them on questionable paths and features those same relatable statements about what it means to be alive and not quite know where you’re going. The Girls is a fictional take on the Charles Manson cult and murders of the 1960’s.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Alice Hoffman’s newest novel, Faithful, a tragic coming-of-age story about a young woman who lost her best friend as a teen and is trying to learn how to move on with her life. I found it very powerful and oddly relatable–also packed full of dogs–and I can’t want to share my thoughts on this one with you tomorrow.


The Literary Elephant