Monday, March 5, 2018

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

First, I would like to thank Grove Atlantic for my copy of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, as well as the beautiful letterpress bookmark! Thank you! 

When I read the synopsis for Freshwater I was instantly intrigued but also a little hesitant to be honest. This isn't a story I would normally have pulled off a bookstore shelf on my own. But much to my surprise, I ended up really taking a lot away from this story. Freshwater left me rattled, it unsettled me and left me anxious for Ada, the main character. Those things aside, this debut is superbly and bravely written in a way I haven't seen in a long time. A beautiful story about a broken girl, Ada, whose mind has been shattered into other "selves", leaving the reader to wonder if those selves are truly gods or simply parts of Ada's brain struggling to survive the events she has lived through. 

"The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside, maybe that's the exact definition of madness..." p. 93

These fractured selves of Nigerian girl Ada, the collective WE that is telling the story, made me question everything I had previously assumed I knew or felt about depression, suicide, mental illness and multiple personalities. It gave voices to all of those pieces of Ada that had been compartmentalized inside her mind because of early and then later traumas. Some of the passages in this story took my breath away. It was like peering behind a curtain and seeing the truth of something I had only read about. 

I found myself copying quotes into my journal again and again while reading and also needing to take breaks when bits of the story became too intense. Sometimes this meant rereading a passage or two, to grasp the meaning of what was happening between Ada and her opposing selves inside the marble room of her mind. 

As much as this wasn't an "easy" story to read, the writing and imagery has left its mark on my heart and is a story that I won't soon forget. 

240 pages
Published by Grove Atlantic 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

I AM I AM I AM by Maggie O'Farrell

Having not read any of Maggie O'Farrell's novels, I wasn't sure what to expect from her book I AM I AM I AM.  A memoir, this collection of stories illustrates seventeen brushes with death and their affect on O'Farrell's life (emotionally and physically). Thank you Aaknopf of my free copy in exchange for an honest review. 

Each of the stories, some shorter than others, left me with a sense of fear, disbelief, anxiety. O'Farrell writes beautifully and in such a way that you can almost place yourself in her shoes. Reaching for those silver steps under the water, frantically searching for the lock button in your car, hoping against hope that man on the path means you no harm. A few of the stories left me shocked, I can't imagine all seventeen of these scenarios playing out in my own life. Even one or two of them would be more than enough for a person to rationalize. 

"If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away form them, to shrug them off, but they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not." p.32

I sought out this book specifically because of my own experience following the birth of my son five years ago. An event that did not go as planned for myself and left me feeling shocked, pieces of myself strewn about that I clumsily tried to pick up and put back together in the first weeks and months at home with my brand new baby. Knowing one of O'Farrell's stories centered around her own near death labor experience, I was curious. I wanted to read this not just for the "what happened" but for how she put herself back together afterwards. There are few people in my own personal life I can discuss this topic with in any sort of depth, when it comes to having someone truly understand my own feelings. 

When I finally reached the last story, I was tempted to go back and reread a few of chapter. By the end O'Farrell's words had crescendoed to a larger sense of hope. This woman who had escaped deaths grasp so many times, in moments that had one thing or the other happened instead....well it just puts life in perspective. Her strength to battle on, knowing that death can be around any corner at any time (she has proof!) is truly inspiring. Im sure that many people would have been crushed under the weight of just some of those experiences, let alone all of them. I spent a lot of time discussing some of this with my husband as I was reading, including a few "what would you do" moments. One of my favorite parts of reading a good book is wanting to share it with him, to discuss what is happening in a story or bounce my thoughts off of him. 

Thank you Aaknopf for this copy! I truly enjoyed reading it. 

I AM I AM I AM by Maggie O'Farrell
Published by Aaknopf
304 pages

Monday, February 19, 2018

Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block

Thank you Flatiron Books for my copy of Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block! 

Oliver Loving was one of this year's releases I couldn't wait to read and I was thrilled to receive a copy from Flatiron Books at the beginning of January. Without a second thought, I picked it up and started reading as soon as it came in the mail. I was not disappointed! This book captured me from the very first chapter and pulled on my heart strings all the way to the end, leaving me emotionally depleted but satisfied with the story's ending. 

Told from varying viewpoints, the story of Oliver Loving centers around the loved ones and friends of a young high school age boy who is in a coma, the result of a school shooting- simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His mother, father and brother are the main story tellers of Oliver Loving, weaving their tale back and forth and around each other and Oliver, who remains silent in a hospital bed. The devastating effects this event has on each of these people will break your heart. Their stories are written with such honesty that it took barely any effort to view life from their perspective. The guilt and sacrifice, the vices and much pain. The author made each of their lives transparent in such a way that as I was reading I was able to empathize and feel for each of the characters, I could reach in and feel as if I was sitting in that hospital room looking at Oliver Loving myself, holding his hand and waiting for a sign. 

When I read a book that emotionally pulls me in like this one, I find it hard to remove myself when its finished. I tend to carry around those emotions for a while, until the dust settles a bit and I can finally place the book onto the bookshelf. It took me a while to process my feelings when I was finished with Oliver Loving. The ending gave hope to what otherwise would have been a depressing and sad group of characters. I turned that final page with peace of mind that everyone is where they should be, even Oliver. And that my friends, is what really makes for a great reading experience. 

400 pages
Published by Flatiron Books 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

How do you review a book that broke your heart multiple times and then left it a bit rearranged at the final page? I'm not sure either, but I'm going to try. Thank you to St. Martins Press for the free copy of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.

With these lines in the first few pages, I knew I this book was something special. "The last frontier was. like her dad, it seemed. Larger than life. Expansive. A little dangerous." (p.12) How prophetic those words became, as I continued reading.

What I noticed first about Leni was her perceptiveness. Her ability to watch her parents interact, watch the world around her move and make her own assessments. So many times they were spot on. Even as a young girl, Leni knew the relationship between her parents as well as the three of them was something volatile. Something that maybe wasn't "normal". But it was her normal and she persisted throughout the story to hold on to that, for longer than I may have been able to.

Leni's courage, tenacity, perseverance and bravery made her a hero in my eyes. She was so strong, even when she felt or looked like she wasnt. In a world literally freezing and dying in front of her eyes, she only grew stronger. I admired that about her throughout the story. Time and again a situation arose where I feel I would have given up, lets be honest. The chores! The frustration at being isolated. Living a life of tiptoes, quiet voices and fear. She was. so. brave.

The setting of Alaska became its own character to me as the story progressed. Hannah's descriptions of life throughout the summer and fall preparing for winter made Alaska sparkle in my mind! Full of life and abundance. As all of that slowly and then abruptly died, as night fell faster and longer, Alaska seemed to show its alter ego. Reading it the way Hannah described, everything took on a new meaning. No longer just a dad struggling with PTSD and two women who are trying their best to love him, it became a story that mirrored Alaska's descent into the dark winters. Often it struck me how  Leni's life, her thoughts and feelings, became woven and connected to the world surrounding her.

"The dark ages fell back again, receded until there was only here, only now. A sunlit day, a celebration, a family. Life was like that, full of quicksilver changes. Joy reappeared as unexpectedly as sunlight." (p.378)

What I loved most about reading this story is how connected Kristin Hannah made me feel to the Alaskan wilderness. In a way, it made me fall in love with a place I've never been. With each page I felt myself fall deeper into the story and could almost pretend (ALMOST) that I was in Alaska too, as I crunched through the snow to take my doggies outside at night. I cannot imagine what such a landscape truly looks like in person, let alone what a place referred to as "the last frontier" could do to your soul. Leni's story stole my heart, broke it and then put it all back together by the time I turned the last page. She was far braver than I could ever imagine being and a better person than most.

Well done, Kristin Hannah, on such a beautifully written story that I won't forget anytime soon.

Other quotes that spoke to my heart:

"Night swept in like nothing Leni had ever seen before, this winged shadow of a creature too big and predatory to comprehend." (p.97)

"In literature, death was many things- a message, catharsis, retribution. There were deaths that came from a beating heart that stopped and deaths of another kind, a choice made, like Frodo going to the Gray Havens. Death made you cry, filled you with sadness, but in the best of her books, there was peace too, satisfaction, a sense of the story ending as it should." (p. 117)

"What happened to you if you hoped too hard for the best and got the worst? Was it better not to hope at all, to prepare?" (p. 121)

"...the sad and scary truth that you could love and hate the same person at the same time, that you could feel a deep and abiding loss and shame for your own weakness and still be glad that this awful thing had been done." 



Published by St. Martins Press

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

"Most adults claim not to believe in magic, but Klara knows better. Why else would anyone play at permanence- fall in love, have children, buy a house- in the face of all evidence there's no such thing? " p. 103

When I started The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, graciously given to me by Putnam books to review and share, I was excited but also a little nervous. I had been looking forward to this book for months and after talking to Chloe on IG a few times (she is the sweetest human) I was starting to worry...what if I didn't like it? I finally had a quiet evening ahead of me so I lit my favorite winter candle and settled in to read the prologue, wondering what I would think.

You guys. THIS BOOK. Now I am worried I have set my reading expectations for 2018 so high nothing else stands a chance at comparing (or at the very least getting a five star review). I finished the prologue, set the book down and took a deep breath. Already the Gold siblings were getting under my skin, in a good way. I am the oldest of four, we have the same Girl Boy Girl Boy age difference and I can see a little of each of us in each of them. It was slightly unnerving to then in my mind picture myself waiting in a dingy hallway to find out our fortune, knowing I would go last because I am the oldest. Wondering if my siblings were all okay.

These thoughts carried me through the rest of the story, as I met and grieved with each of the Gold siblings. Simon and his courage to live the life he wanted, Klara and her determination and belief in the power of magic, desperately trying to make her audience feel. Daniel and his steadfastness and quiet intelligence. Varya and her loneliness, hurt by so much and unable to break free from its weight. Each character brilliantly written, memorable in not just their actions but also their personalities.

Then there is the question. Would you want to know the day of your death? What would you do if you knew when it was? I thought these were easy questions before I started this book. Obviously, yes and then I would APPRECIATE EVERY DAY and LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST right? Right???! Except those questions aren't really all that easy. As Chloe's story weaves in and around the fortune teller's predictions for each of the Gold siblings, you slowly realize how devastating that afternoon was for each of them. How it pointed their lives down paths they may not have taken otherwise (good or bad) and the emotional toll of this knowledge pulled them apart from each other. It created a separation between them and any other person walking down the street. The ripple effect of the knowing was far reaching and frankly, catastrophic for all of them.

 I grieved alongside Varya throughout the entire book, even though we don't really "meet" her until the end. As the oldest, it was all too easy to imagine how she felt. Her responsibility as the oldest, caring for her mother and pushing away her own feelings and needs to ease the monumental pain that she had already endured. Too much.

Altogether, this book created in me such a feeling of hope. Hope in the unknown and the power of it. We don't need all of the answers (look how that turned out for the Gold siblings) to live a full life. I think that is what I took away from The Immortalists. That the power of the not knowing how much time we all have is what makes life full, what makes it something to appreciate and be grateful for every morning.  Chloe wove these themes brilliantly all the way to the end, in such a way that will make this story one I will remember and treasure for a long time.

Thank you so much to Putnam for sending me a copy of The Immortalists! And well done Chloe. You deserve every bit of praise and five star review.

Other memorable quotes:
"She held them in her mind so that she could feel nothing else- she loved them and loved them until they disarmed her, made her strong and broke her open, gave her powers she did not normally have." p.117

"She understands, too, the loneliness of parenting, which is the loneliness of memory- to know that she connects a future unknowable to her parents with a past unknowable to her child." p.134

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter was graciously sent to my by Grove Atlantic a few weeks ago. Its a rather slim book, one that I knew I could pick up and read fairly quickly. You guys. This book! I finished it within an hour and had so much to process once I was finished...for such a small book it packs quite an emotional punch, especially as a mother.

Written in snippets and short paragraphs, The End We Start From reads almost like a journal. Other characters are named simply by their first initial and the narrator, the mother of baby Z, spends more time talking about her emotions and surroundings than actual or details of events taking place. I love books written this way, where I feel a more realistic connection with the main character and maybe less so with the setting events taking place. I felt completely immersed in the cocoon of warmth between mother and baby, their lives reliant solely upon the other despite the chaos surrounding them. With my own baby still newly here I felt so much of what the mother was feeling first hand, that dreamlike state nursing gives you in the early still dark morning hours, how that connection between yourself and this little being is so absolute. For me, it made this story all the more real and emotional.

"The gasping latch, and his breathing slows in the dark. The world inflates and deflates with him, a giant bellows." p. 52

Paired with the dread and panic surrounding them, the unknown of the everyday, there is so much hope wrapped up in baby Z as his mother marvels at his every growth and achievement. I really thought the ending was so perfect. R, the husband, I could honestly have cared less about. He seemed so unimportant, especially when he leaves them behind. Reading through each passage of hope and perseverance between mother and child made this story less of an apocalyptic doomsday type story and more of a study on how a mother's love for her child and a child's absolute dependence on their mother transcends all things. The world falling down around you and this love remains constant. How beautiful is that?

I highly recommend this story. Its beautiful, precise and brilliantly written. I cannot wait to read more from Megan Hunter! Thank you Grove Atlantic for my copy!

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Selfie As Big As The Ritz by Lara Williams

One of my favorite things about short story collections is the window they give you into an author's writing. (Not to mention during busy weeks, I can pick up a collection of stories and feel satisfied with a few pages of reading!)

A Selfie As Big As The Ritz by Lara Williams was sent to me by Flatiron Books in exchange for a honest review. I'm so grateful! I had read a few reviews on my own regarding Williams' writing and was excited to see for myself why everyone was loving it.

Some of the stories in this collection are just so beautiful, in an unassuming sneak up on you kind of way. I would turn a page, realizing it was the last and promptly start back at the beginning, letting Williams' words wash over me. I needed that second reading to really sink my teeth into the writing, some of it was so emotionally driven and real. Other parts just really funny and clever.

One of the stories, the very first one to be exact, It Begins, is so powerful. The final paragraph, the character sinking her hands into the earth, so simple but just right. I love a story that is more just a vignette, a camera shot, a group of stills that culminate a character's life. If an author can pull that off successfully in a few pages, gosh. I knew after reading It Begins that my opinion of this collection of stories being something I could read during pickup or at the doctor's office was incorrect. I needed quiet and solitude so I could reflect after each one.

This Small Written Thing was another powerful story for me, one that read almost like poetry? Or maybe the emotion was so well written that I was really able to just immerse myself and feel for Flora, the words carrying me along until I was able to picture myself climbing into that bed at the end. This sentence, "The performance of love and the fire of it; an endless negotiation; a series of audience asides, of controlled explosions." Wow.

I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this book of stories. I know if I had read this ten years ago, at age 23, I would've had a completely different experience. That certain stories would have affected me differently, others would have left me wondering. I'm' so glad I had the opportunity to read this now, almost ten years into my marriage and at a point in life that allowed so many of these stories to move me emotionally. Well done, Lara Williams! And thank you again Flatiron Books for the copy!

A Selfie As Big As The Ritz by Lara Williams 
160 pages
Published by Flatiron Books