Tag Archives: magical realism

Review: The Pisces

I could not let summer escape completely without jumping on the literary mermaid trend. I added several mermaid books to my TBR this year, but the first one I picked up features a merman. Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is a 2018 release about a woman who falls completely in love with a merman, and wow, is it weird. In a good way.

thepiscesAbout the book: Lucy, 38, has been working on her thesis about the spaces in Sappho’s poetry for 7 years. Her funding is going to be pulled if she doesn’t have a satisfactory draft to share with her advisory committee by the end of the summer. And to top it off, her boyfriend just traded her in for a younger woman. Things get pretty dark before Lucy’s sister convinces her to dog-sit at her fancy house on a Californian beach. In California, between group therapy meetings for the love obsessed, Lucy rediscovers the world outside of her long-standing and dissatisfying relationship– by sampling other relationships, including one with a mysterious merman who just might be the perfect match for Lucy.

“I knew that what I wanted was something that couldn’t exist. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t something I wanted.”

I can see why a lot of people might dislike this book. Lucy herself is unlikable, the narration is intimate and graphic (bordering on merman erotica), there’s some neglect and mistreatment of the dog, and the premise is just downright strange (as is the case with much of the magical realism genre, in my opinion). But I found some redeeming qualities.

“I’d always imagined that there was a subjective reality. But there was nothing subjective about this. I was objectively selfish and cruel.”

First, is the narrative voice. Despite her flaws, some of Lucy’s thoughts are surprisingly relatable. They simultaneously make a farce of modern relationships and serve as a guide through them. There’s a point at which adult language and content in a book can become excessive and overbearing, but in my experience it’s also such a relief to read a book with language that doesn’t shy away from expletives and bodily functions– when literature skirts around them there’s almost a sense that that content is undesirable, abnormal. The Pisces talks about farts, and dog breath, and waxing, and menstrual blood. There were a few times while reading this book that I thought the details were almost too much, but I appreciated Lucy’s bare honesty.

There’s also an admirable level of honesty in Lucy’s relationship with Theo (the merman) in this book. Sure, sometimes she lies and she’s quick to admit it to the reader, but one reason her relationship with Theo seems to work so well is because they are so willing to speak whatever’s on their minds. About death, sex, poetry, love, etc. They can admit when they’re scared. Some truths are omitted, but what they do share is refreshingly straight-forward.

“Was it ever real: the way we felt about another person? Or was it always a projection of something we needed or wanted regardless of them?”

Next, I loved the way that Lucy’s other relationships– though some of them are clearly bad and going nowhere– offset the cues Broder points to for healthy relationships. What goes wrong with these other men (and with the female friendships Lucy is forming in California as well) is held up as an example of what doesn’t work, and why. Lucy is flawed, yes, but she admits her flaws and sometimes even embraces them. Which doesn’t mean that thinks she’s always right, only that she’s always Lucy. Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants or how to get it, but she’s learning which questions to ask and she’s always listening for answers. With Theo, she learns a sort of gender-defying love in which sometimes he seems (to her) more like a woman and is “strong in his softness,” and sometimes when she detects his vulnerability and comforts him she seems (to herself) more like a man. Much like the two fish that comprise Pisces, Lucy claims that she and Theo are two parts of one being, that they are the same. This complete acceptance is balanced by the more rigidly gender-typical encounters Lucy has with other men who only want to sleep with her. Between the lines lies a beautiful exploration and defiance of gender norms.

“You never think, in your fantasies, that the object of the fantasy can be hurt. I had known that he was sensitive. But I hadn’t trusted that it was real, or at least, that it was as real as my own sensitivity. I didn’t believe that he could actually feel betrayed. Was it because he was a man and I was a woman? I thought that only I could feel that kind of shame, need, and rejection. I thought that only a woman could feel that. It all seemed crazy now. I was crazy when I was the one begging for someone to stay and I was crazy when I was the one leaving.”

And, of course, there are the Greek elements and parallels. Mermaids, mermen, sirens, etc. all come with certain stereotypes from Greek mythology, and while The Pisces does not strictly adhere to what one might expect from merfolk, there are darkly captivating parallels in Lucy and Theo’s story that harks back to the old myths in a way that Greek fans will enjoy. There’s also ample mention of Sappho and her work, with strong echoes in Lucy’s own work and experiences. The Pisces is modern through and through, but it shows plenty of respect for its Greek roots.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I must admit I wavered on this rating. There were a few things I disliked about the book (especially the pet neglect),  but I don’t think I’ll be able to stop thinking about this one for a while and it was certainly an engrossing read. This is one of the easiest 5-star reviews I’ve written lately, which I think speaks to how incredibly interesting I found this book. I’ll be keeping an eye out for any future novels from Broder, and you can bet that I’ll be picking up more of these new books about merfolk.

Further recommendations:

  • The narrator of The Pisces strongly reminded me of the narrator of Emma Cline’s The Girls, not necessarily in style but in content, despite the vast difference in premise between these two novels. The Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson cult in 1960’s California, but just as Lucy explores love and desire (and the trauma that accompanies them), so too does Evie brush with love and violence, searching for herself within the narrative of her life.

Have you read any (great or terrible) sea creature novels this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Everything Under

Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under is the fourth book I’ve read from the Man Booker 2018 longlist, and so far it’s my favorite. I was initially drawn in by the gorgeous cover, and when I read the synopsis of this magical realism tale I couldn’t resist picking it up.

everythingunderAbout the book: Gretel spent the first thirteen years of her life in a boat on a river with her mother. The two of them speak their own language, comprised of a mix of ordinary English and made-up words specific to their unique experience. But the winter she’s thirteen, Gretel and her mother are running from something, and by the time she’s sixteen, Gretel is struggling to navigate the world on her own with a vocabulary that no one recognizes. Later still, Gretel’s half-hearted attempts to find her mother by calling hospitals, police stations, and morgues turns up a clue– and once she’s started looking, there’s no going back. It takes reuniting with her mother for Gretel to finally understand what she and her mother have been running from all along.

“This world was never good enough for you. You always thought there was more; you spent your whole life waiting for something more to come along.”

Everything Under utilizes a format that many mysteries have used before: a mix of alternating past and present chapters. Though here, they’re divided not by vague or bland perfunctory terms of time, but by the identifying locations of each part of the story: ‘The River’ for Gretel’s childhood on the boat, ‘The Hunt’ for Gretel’s search for her mother, and ‘The Cottage’ for Gretel’s life at home after finding her mother. This is only one small example of how precise and engaging the language of Everything Under remains throughout the story. Gretel is a lexicographer who updates dictionary entries, and the focus on individual words, word origins, word variations, etc. is exactly the sort of detailing that fans of bookish books will enjoy. This is a book not just for story lovers, but language lovers.

As long as we’re on the topic of format, I want to also mention that Everything Under is a retelling of a few old classic stories. The most obvious, perhaps, being Hansel and Gretel’s tale of lost parents and breadcrumbs, which is beautifully alluded to here. But there’s also a connection to a certain Greek myth that I won’t mention because I’ve seen a few reviews that consider knowing the Greek myth ahead of time a spoiler. I’m not sure I would agree, especially considering the fact that if you figure it out at any point before the final reveal (and there’s a good chance of that if you’re at all familiar with this myth) you’ll still know exactly where the story’s heading. I knew the myth going in, and really enjoyed being able to spot the similarities for a more thorough compare/contrast. But I’ll leave that decision up to you.

“It was a pattern laid out behind you like a reversed breadcrumb trail you could have followed– if you’d had the impulse– to prove that you were no one to be depended on.”

There’s also a bit of magical realism in Everything Under that can be a decisive factor in the reader’s enjoyment of this story. For much of the book, there’s continual reference to something that could be a metaphor, and I do think the story would have been effective if it had taken that route. But knowing ahead of time that this book has been categorized as magical realism, I was ready to take that metaphor more literally even before the end of the story when there’s no longer any avoiding the reality of this element.

I don’t always like magical realism, because it tends to feel like an excuse for neglecting to lay out rules in one’s fictional world when it’s not done impeccably well. But I did love the magical aspect in Everything Under, even if the story might have been just as strong without it. The reason I especially liked it is that I think the magical aspect gives the book an unpredictable twist for readers who do know which stories are being retold and unearth this story’s secrets long before Gretel’s mother admits them. This monster could have been a metaphor… but seeing this horrible truth turned into a tangible terror was a very efficient way of waking the story up and giving these characters something new to face that their older counterparts had not encountered. I can see how this element won’t work for everyone, especially since it does seem like an unnecessary and dramatic addition to what is already a beautiful story. But making the fiction in Gretel’s and her mother’s lives more real for them also made the story more compelling for me. I’m infinitely curious about the blurry line between fact and fiction, and Gretel and her mother walk that line like a tightrope.

“I thought again, as I walked, about how everything ran alongside everything else; about how– if I tried hard enough– I could shout back, and my younger self would look up from the bank and hear me.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I cannot think of a single thing I did not love about this book. I will read anything Daisy Johnson writes, starting with her only previous publication, a collection of short stories called Fen, and I hope she writes a whole lot more. I can’t wait to see what other gems are on the Man Booker 2018 longlist– next up, The Mars Room.

Further Recommendations:

  • The only other adult magical realism novel that I love is Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest. This is a short novel set in Australia and focuses on an elderly woman who accepts help from a stranger who offers to help with the running and upkeep of her household. Matters are complicated by the tiger that this woman believes she can sense hiding in the house.
  • My other favorite from the 2018 longlist is Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a seemingly disjointed small novel about three men’s tragic lives, and the event that sees them all brought together. This is another compelling little story with beautiful prose and timely morals.

Are there any magical realism titles you’ve particularly enjoyed?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

I’m still waiting for my April Book of the Month box to arrive, but it’s taking so long that it’s throwing off my reading. Instead of spending this extra time reading more from my BOTM backlog, I’ve been checking out library copies of past BOTM selections that I don’t own. First Goodbye, Vitamin and now Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, which was also a contender for BOTM’s 2017 book of the year.

sing,unburied,singAbout the book: Jojo, Kayla, and their mother, Leonie, live in Mississippi with Leonie’s parents. Leonie isn’t well-equipped for childcare, so Jojo takes care of his baby sister Kayla, and their grandparents make sure  both children are fed and housed and shown some kindness and attention. Leonie’s boyfriend, the father of her children, has been in jail for three years but he’s getting out now. Leonie plans to take her bad-news best friend (who also has a boyfriend in the same facility) and her reluctant children to retrieve him. Jojo doesn’t particularly like his father, Kayla has never met him, and their grandmother is very sick at home. They don’t want to make the trip. But Leonie gives them no choice, and there’s a bit of destiny involved. At the prison, they pick up an extra passenger– a ghost that only the children can see, a stuck soul with ties to their family.

“Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none.”

I’ve read one of Ward’s works in the past: her memoir, Men We Reaped. I loved her writing style and the concepts she worked into that story, but in the end I felt like she had just scratched the surface, like she could reach the meat of the story but was trying too hard to make it elaborate and some of its potential was lost in the process. It was the sort of book that left me feeling like she maybe hadn’t quite gotten into the swing of things yet and I should check back in with a later publication. So I picked up her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing; a lot of people seem to love it and it was nominated for plenty of awards. But ultimately I had the same experience as with Men We Reaped: I loved the ideas behind the story and I’m so sure that something Ward writes will be a strong favorite for me, but Sing, Unburied, Sing wasn’t it.

“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”

The main plot of the book (this is premise, not spoiler territory) is Leonie (and crew)’s trip to the jail to retrieve her boyfriend. So much of the main story line takes place in the car, or on the stops they have to make during the journey. Although a few interesting things do happen during that trip, it’s the least exciting part of the book. It doesn’t give the reader much new information about the family, except for some of the backstory and ruminations that surface at that time which could have been written in other ways without that long trip.

The point of the journey, from a plotting perspective, is the encounter with Richie. Richie was a friend of Jojo’s grandfather, and is a ghost at the time of Jojo’s story. Richie’s is one of three first-person perspectives in the book (along with Jojo’s and Leonie’s), but the strongest parts of his story are the parts we see through other characters’ eyes. Richie’s backstory was the most impactful part of the book for me, but his perspective chapters also seemed the most bland and/or unbelievable. I like a supernatural twist, usually. My problem with Richie wasn’t that he was a ghost, but rather that he spent so much time trying to convey what it felt like to be a ghost though none of his description seemed new or surprising as far as ghost characters go.

The supernatural aspect was not a total wash for me, though. By the end of the book, when Jojo sees birds in a tree and is beginning to understand the lingering nature of wrongs done to African Americans, I felt all the sadness and creepiness and outrage that it seemed I was supposed to, though the otherworldly life/death/magic details near the end were stretching my suspension of disbelief to its limits. The image of the birds in the tree is strong enough on its own, in my opinion, and the points Jesmyn makes with it saved the story for me after the crossing-over chaos nearly ruined it.

Though parts of the book seemed boring or unnecessary, I was reminded right away in the first chapter why I was trying again with Ward, and why I’ll probably pick up another of her books in the future: her writing is visceral and beautiful, her insights sharp and her emotions radiant. Though very little actually happens to Jojo throughout this book, he’s extremely sympathetic and easily my favorite character. His grandparents are unique and fascinating, with a wealth of history to share. Even Leonie (and her boyfriend, though we don’t see as much of him) who we’re not meant to like, is humanized in a way that helped me understand her questionable motives even when I did not remotely agree with them. Ward has talent, especially with character.

“But I knew this was her cottage, and when it all came down to it, I’m Black and she’s White, and if someone heard us tussling and decided to call the cops, I’d be the one going to jail. Not her. Best friend and all.”

And the best part is the culture she captures so vividly. There is better representation in American literature with every passing year, but Ward’s voice still stands out. She shows the significance of familiar history in new and evocative ways.

But after convincing me that the past is important, I wish she had ended Sing, Unburied, Sing with an eye toward the future, to leave me with more to think about after closing the cover on this book. I’m afraid I’m going to forget everything but the image of the birds in the tree pretty quickly, though as long as that sticks with me I’ll know I have the most important piece.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The writing style in this book kept me engaged, even in the places where I doubted the story. I still feel that Ward has so much potential, but I think Men We Reaped has already stuck with me longer than Sing, Unburied, Sing ever will. I will probably try again with a future publication of Ward’s, assuming there will be one. I’m so sure that I’m going to love one of her books eventually, but it wasn’t this one. She has important things to say, and I can see why it’s been a popular choice, but I didn’t find as much here as I hoped for.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for another novel from a writer of color about the current impact of a long history of racism, try Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, which features a modern family torn by injustice and jail time minus the focus on ghosts and magic. This is a great choice for someone looking to read about social issues of race without the magical realism element.
  2. If, like me, you appreciate the messages that Sing, Unburied, Sing has to offer more than the way they’re offered, let me recommend Ward’s Men We Reaped. Although this book is a memoir, it reads as easily as fiction and its messages are emphasized by the truth behind them. This book focuses on recent deaths and despair as a result of past racism.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Gwendy’s Button Box

Short Books February continues for me with Stephen King and Richard Chizmar’s Gwendy’s Button Box, a 170 page novella (of which some pages are pictures, or completely blank so that the chapters start on the right side of the page spread) that I would call magical realism. I hesitate to name an age range, but I’ll explore that more below. For now, I’ll just say I picked this one up on a whim at the library (which fulfills a slot in my reading challenge) and I think it’ll also be the last of the short books I will be reading this month.

gwendy'sbuttonboxAbout the book: The summer before Gwendy Peterson starts middle school is spent trying to rid herself of the baby fat that earned her the nickname Goodyear (like the blimp) in elementary. Every day she runs the Suicide Stairs, and she’s sworn off chocolate. But one day her final sprint up the stairs ends in meeting a strange man named Mr. Farris, who says he’s been “keeping an eye on” Gwendy, and he has something for her: a box with eight buttons across the top. The button box is a huge responsibility, but it also offers several gifts, including rare silver dollars and special chocolate treats that turn Gwendy’s life around like magic. Mr. Farris tells Gwendy very little about what the box actually is or does, but Gwendy spends the rest of her childhood finding out.

“And for a while, everything is all right. She thinks the button box goes to sleep, but she doesn’t trust that, not a bit. Because even if it does, it sleeps with one eye open.”

I picked this book up because it had Stephen King’s name on the cover, and because it I found it at a time when I wanted to read short books. I had no expectations whatsoever, which was probably a good thing because this book is… weird.

The point of the story, as best I could tell, was the discovery of the button box’s power. That felt like a weak premise right away because it’s clear that Mr. Farris knows what the box is and just isn’t saying. Personally, I find stories in which one character spends the entire length of the tale trying to discover what another character obviously knows to be a bit ridiculous, not to mention frustrating. There’s no way for Gwendy to ask Mr. Farris more questions after he disappears though, so she spends years keeping the box safe, testing its limits, and learning how deeply it affects her life even when she hides it at the back of the closet to be studiously ignored for months at a time. The end of the story, after all of Gwendy’s learning, struck me as rather anti-climactic, though the button box and even Gwendy found a bit of redemption in the final conversation.

The other “point” to the story is the so-called improvement in Gwendy’s life. The story opens with Gwendy’s concerns about surviving middle school, and as the narrative progresses through Gwendy’s school life, her concerns about fitting in are a big part of what’s driving the story, and possessing the box does change that part of her life. But Gwendy’s desire for popularity and her curiosity about the box push the story in opposite directions; the box helps her fit in, but only to an extent. She wants to use the box on the rest of the world, but only to an extent. The reader keeps waiting for the big things to happen: for the buttons to be pressed, for the box to give Gwendy so much of what she thinks she wants that she realizes it’s not really what she wants. I feel like Gwendy’s Button Box misses an opportunity in not pushing one of these boundaries farther than it does. The biggest catastrophes in the story aren’t clearly the fault of Gwendy or the box, however, and the reader is left only with Gwendy’s assumptions about the box along with Mr. Farris’s assurances that “it wasn’t that bad.”

Perhaps the most confusing point of the story though is its age range– Gwendy is never older than a college grad, and her entire college experience is wrapped up in one short chapter. Most of the book takes place during Gwendy’s childhood, through her high school years. The book doesn’t seem to be aimed at any particular target audience. The pictures seemed like the sorts of illustrations in a YA book that depict scenes from the story without revealing any further information, but some of the ideas about the power to blow up any place in the world, the difficulty in receiving exactly what you wanted no matter the effects, or the need for deception when you can’t explain where you got something or how– these are presented in more adult ways. The fact that actions and even wishes can have consequences isn’t a bad lesson for younger readers to learn, but some of the comparisons to the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the poisoned Kool-aid tragedy, etc. might be lost on younger readers, though I do think younger readers would be fine with the book even if they miss some of the finer implications of world power.

Despite my complaints and confusions, but Gwendy’s wasn’t a bad reading experience. Just confusing. It feels like one of those stories that’s really cool in conception but in reality isn’t quite carried out as well as hoped. It isn’t even the writing style exactly that holds me back about this one– I love Stephen King’s writing and his style is obvious in many details of this book. I’m not sure what was missing, but Gwendy’s didn’t make enough of an impression for me, good or bad.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is definitely a food-for-thought book, but the particulars of the story just didn’t grab my attention. Things happened… but I wasn’t very strongly invested in any of them. I had no difficulty reading this book cover to cover in one sitting, but when I closed the book I had one of those “that was it?” moments. I wasn’t disappointed per se, but I thought that it should’ve gone farther. I’ll still be reading more Stephen King books, but for now I think I’ll stick with the ones I know more about so I have a higher chance of finding the ones that really interest me.

Further recommendations:

1. Gwendy’s reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, although on a smaller scale. Gaiman’s Ocean is a beautiful little fantasy book about the magical (and dangerous) aspects of childhood, written for adults. It blurs the same reality/unreality line that Stephen King’s books often explore, but it’s utterly engrossing in a way that Gwendy‘s wasn’t for me. If you generally like Stephen King and you’re looking for something short and odd, go for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, especially if Gwendy’s Button Box isn’t quite what you’re looking for.

What are your favorite short books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I loved Neil Gaiman’s Coraline as a child (although the other mother’s button eyes particularly terrified me), and when I read his new Norse Mythology book earlier this year I was inspired to pick up a few more of his novels. I had high hopes for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it definitely lived up to my expectations.

theoceanattheendofthelane

About the book: A man is attending a funeral near his childhood home, and decides afterward to detour down the lane where his family used to live. Without knowing quite why, he passes the place where his parents’ house once stood and continues down the lane. As he nears Hempstock Farm at the very end, he begins to remember things from his past, about the girl who lived there at the end of the lane, who called the fish pond behind the farm house her ocean. He believes Lettie has gone to Australia, but as he visits her family and sits beside Lettie’s ocean, he undergoes a sort of daydream about what really happened to Lettie, the frightening adventure they might have shared in childhood, a dream that may or may not be a memory.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an adult novel that primarily focuses on an event from the (nameless) narrator’s seventh year. It’s a book for grown-ups about what it was like to be a kid. For that reason, I spent most of the book comparing what I would have thought of the story if I had read it for the first time as a child, and what I actually thought of it having read it for the first time just now, in my adulthood. Much like Coraline, I think that this is a book younger readers can enjoy (cautiously, because it is somewhat horrifying), although adults will find different nuggets of truth within its pages. I’m mentioning this comparison because of the magical realism aspect of this novel– it does that great thing where the reader can decide for him-/herself how much of the magic is real, and how much is a child’s nightmare, an elaborate dream-gone-wrong, a fictional elaboration of hard truths that a seven year-old would not have understood or known how to engage with. As a child, I would have taken every single detail of the narrator’s dream/memory for truth, but as an adult, I enjoyed seeing the blurred line between what was true and what a child might imagine and accept as truth. Ursula Monkton may actually be a monster, or she may just be a mean woman having an affair with the boy’s father. Maybe Lettie, the boy’s one friend, really does abandon him to live in Australia, or maybe there’s a more fantastic explanation for her absence. It’s up to the reader.

“I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.”

I’d also like to talk about how unique this story is. Anyone can write about monsters, but Neil Gaiman is the only author who’s ever made me wonder if I should be afraid of a piece of cloth. “The fabric of reality” is a familiar phrase, and toward the end when things start falling apart there is a sort of philosophical use of reality as a fabric, but when Ursula Monkton first appears as something resembling  a weathered canvas tent, the reader is probably skeptical. I was skeptical. And yet, it works. Children can be afraid of anything, which allows the reader to suspend disbelief, and before long the reader is frightened right along with the narrator about what this cloth-woman can do. It’s not a technique I’ve ever seen tried before, and I found myself pleasantly surprised with the payoff.

And, of course, this is the sort of Neil Gaiman book that’s very quotable. From the first chapter to the last paragraph, Gaiman has littered this novel with little gems about looking back on one’s childhood. There were times I thought these observations might be a little too direct or cliched, but somehow they worked, coming from a man’s daydream of being a seven year-old. Here are a few more of my favorites:

“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

“Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have, like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Magical realism is often hit-or-miss for me, and the last Gaiman novel I read (Stardust) was too episodic for my taste, so I was wary going into this one. I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would, especially for this time of year. It’s creepy in an unexpected way. I will be reading more of Gaiman’s books after this success, but I’m not sure which one I’ll go for next. Any suggestions for me?

Further recommendations:

  1. Coraline, also by Gaiman, is a great little horror book that’s more young-reader friendly. The “other mother” in here was actually pretty scary for me as a child, but I loved it. If you’re looking for more like The Ocean at the End of the Lane to simultaneously remind you of your childhood and give you a scare, Coraline is a great pick. And if you know a young reader who likes spooky stories, it’s a good fit for him or her, too.
  2. If you’re looking for another magical tale of childhood that’s fun to read even as an adult, try C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Boy, the first novel in his Chronicles of Narnia. Gaiman mentions the Narnia books in TOatEotL, and I agree that those books would be a great fit for fans of this one. The main characters are children who travel unknowingly to a fantasy place, and accidentally set big things in motion with their explorations.

Coming up next: I’ll be reviewing Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty next, a science fiction thriller (after loving Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter I had to try this genre again). In early 1700s Russia, a pair of automata are “born,” and three centuries later their existence coincides with a researcher’s personal quest to solve the mystery of an “avenging angel.”

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: A Million Junes

I wanted to read all three of my new Book of the Month books in June, but for some reason Emily Henry’s A Million Junes sounded the least exciting so I saved it for last. But I was wrong, so wrong to neglect it because this is now absolutely one of my favorite books of the year.

About the book: June O’Donnell has amillionjunestwo rules: Stay away from the falls, and Stay away from the Angerts. The rules are both more and less important now that June is eighteen and her dad, writer of the rules, has been dead for ten years. Both rules are turning out to be harder to stick to than ever before, but even considering breaking them feels like an insult to her dad’s memory. Even if she develops an instant crush on the enigmatic Saul Angert when they run into each other (literally) at a town event, everyone knows there’s bad blood between the Angerts and O’Donnells. Bad things happen when their paths cross; June has seen proof of that. As her feelings for Saul deepen, however, June is also receiving what she believes to be messages from her dad. The O’Donnells live in a magical place, a thin place where the borders between worlds is weak, and through the gaps June slips into memories of her family’s past that might finally explain why the Angerts have been enemies of the O’Donnells for generations–but she doesn’t know whether finding the answers will end the feud, or drive her and Saul apart forever.

“I think life is about learning to dance even when you’re sitting still. You learn to dance when you cook and clean, when you bite into cherries, and when you lie in clean sheets. It’s easy to believe that if you could do it all over, you’d do everything different.”

This book is a mystery. It’s a romance. It’s magical realism. It’s an exploration of grief. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a ghost story. And it does all of those things well.

“This is rapidly becoming a bad teenage retelling of a Shakespearean comedy.”

I laughed so much while reading this book. June and Saul’s flirting is hilarious. There are serious moments, and sad moments, and triumphant moments, but the first half of the book makes great use of humor to pull the reader in and lighten what might otherwise be a very tragic tale. And yet it’s all about balance. I stayed up late, reading for the funny banter, but I marked many quotes about what it means to grieve and move on when someone you love is gone forever. This is a fun read that’s also full of strong messages, and those messages are the part that will stick with me and keep this book in my list of favorites for a long time.

“I wanted to forget this feeling forever. The feeling of being ripped into two people: the you of before and the one you’ll always be once you know what it is to lose something.”

A Million Junes is sophisticated YA. It’s YA for all ages. It’s YA because its main characters are 18 and 20 and coming-of-age, but it’s a great choice for any age group because it’s not lewd or crass, and covers some hard topics that are widely applicable.

“I am very small, and don’t find myself wishing I were any bigger. All I want, with my one tiny moment, is to love you. If you remember anything about me, remember the truest thing: I will love you after all the stars have burned out, after the sun has died and ice has covered the earth, after the last human has taken her last breath.”

There’s an interesting female-female friendship in A Million Junes, as well. June and Hannah are supportive and kind to each other, even in situations when they might be interested in the same boy, or one of them is getting the other one in trouble. Often in books (especially in YA) girl friends can be uniquely cruel to each other and quick to hate, but June and Hannah sort things out calmly and stick together. Of course, since this book is focused on the turmoil in June’s life, we see Hannah routinely asking if June’s all right and what she can do to help, but their friendship is such that I’m sure June would give Hannah just as much love and attention if the situation were reversed; as it is, June’s problems dominate their conversations, but there is textual evidence of June’s compassion and consideration in the friendship, as well, even if it’s mostly internalized. It’s a great example of a literary female friendship.

And did I mention the phenomenal father/daughter relationship? Sometimes books have great dads, but this book realistically addresses the ups and downs of the relationship–realizing that no one is perfect no matter how much you love them, and that even death can’t take them away completely. June’s dad seems a lot like I imagine Ronan’s dad (from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle) would have been like, magical dreaminess and all. If I had to pick a single purpose of this book, it might be June’s reconciling of the fact that her father’s dead and not who she thought he was, but she will always love him anyway.

“Maybe some people die gradually, move away from their bodies over time, but others–the people who shine–go in an instant. You can see their souls in their eyes until the last possible second, feel the gap in the world the second they’re lost.”

I was expecting a simple elegance to the ending after the rest of the book ran so smoothly, but the answers to A Million Junes‘ mysteries are convoluted. I had to do some serious mental juggling to keep straight which Jack O’Donnell is which (June is technically Jack O’Donnell IV, which means there were three others before her, plus the original Jonathon O’Donnell nicknamed Jack a few generations earlier) and what “the curse” means for different individuals, before I finally got it all straightened out. If I had to name a complaint about this book, it may be the multi-faceted layering of those final answers about the family feud, especially when all those secrets lead to such a simple choice for our main characters. It felt a bit like the plot was digging itself into a hole that Henry was determined to pull it back from at any cost, but I suppose even if it turned messy the plot survived the struggle.

My reaction: 5 out 5 stars. As I mentioned above, this one’s going straight to my best-books-of-2017 list. I was not expecting to love this book nearly as much as I did, and those are the best sort of reading surprises. I’m ecstatic to also have Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World unread on my shelf because I NEED more of this wonderful writing in my life. My July TBR is already overfull, but expect a review on Henry’s first publication in the near future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun is a contemporary YA that also addresses the death of a parent and the ups and downs of other close relationships–mainly the bond between twins, but also in friendships and young love. No magic here, but plenty of art and family history intrigue.
  2. For another compelling YA book that’s important for readers of all ages, try Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species. There are some great friendships and parents in this one, teens standing up against rape, a little romance, and a coming-of-age story for a group of high school seniors learning strength and morality.

Coming up next: Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, a beautiful YA novel about foster sibling love and coping with mental illness. This is one of those heavy-hitting YA books that covers a myriad of difficult topics meant to raise awareness of real life problems, and despite its easy readability it packs a powerful punch.

What are your favorite heavy-hitting YA books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant