reviews

The Comedown // Rebekah Frumkin

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co. and Netgalley for an early review copy of The Comedown by Rebekah Frumkin, which will publish April 17, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

I’ll admit to struggling a bit with Rebekah Frumkin’s debut novel, The Comedown.  Initially it was a bit slow, and I felt caught up in confusion over the characters.  I had a hard time keeping everyone straight, especially when there were four characters with the same name; I resorted to drawing up a family tree, which was a huge help in the long run.  You know how a writer can get so familiar with their own story that they forget how to explain it to their readers?  It’s just become so clear to them that they assume everyone else is at the same level of clarity?  I figure that’s what happened to Frumkin.

Once I got past the initial character confusion, it was relatively smooth sailing.  Frumkin has that unique quality to her writing that makes you revisit paragraphs and offer up a resounding “yes.”  The Comedown defines her as a promising new voice in literature and a skilled storyteller.  It’s a decent debut effort though I can’t say I was particularly blown away, and I did struggle to finish, skimming the last few chapters.

Despite the lack of “wow” factor overall, there were many individual pieces of The Comedown that I admired tremendously, one of which being the timeline.  Frumkin jumps around in time brilliantly; the book is a collection of character studies, and bits and pieces are gradually revealed with each character to create the bigger story.  The Comedown also features some nice commentary on police brutality; it’s subtle but still very much there.

In general, Rebekah Frumkin’s debut is bold and refreshing, a slow burn character study written with mesmerizing prose.  Fans of family sagas will love The Comedown.

Note: The Comedown contains trigger warnings for suicide and drugs.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Alternate Side // Anna Quindlen

Thank you to Random House and Netgalley for an early review copy of Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen, which will publish March 20, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Some days Nora Nolan thinks that she and her husband, Charlie, lead a charmed life- except when there’s a crisis at work, a leak in the roof at home, or a problem with their twins at college.  And why not?  New York City was once Nora’s dream destination, and her clannish dead-end block has become a safe harbor, a tranquil village amid the urban craziness.  The owners watch one another’s children grow up.  They use the same handyman.  They trade gossip and gripes, and they maneuver for the ultimate status symbol: a spot in the block’s small parking lot.

Then one morning, Nora returns from her run to discover that a terrible incident has shaken the neighborhood, and the enviable dead-end block turns into a potent symbol of a divided city.  The fault lines begin to open: on the block, at Nora’s job, especially in her marriage.  With an acute eye that captures the snap crackle of modern life, Anna Quindlen explores what it means to be a mother, a wife, and a woman at a moment of reckoning.


Alternate Side was my first Quindlen, but it won’t be my last.

The book begins with an “alternate side” street parking debate and quickly grows into something much more complex, as the parking situation heats and sparks a conflict between two members of the street’s tight-knit community- a conflict that shakes the Nolan’s marriage and puts them on “alternate sides.”  (See what I did there?)  A chain reaction of events slowly puts Nora Nolan over the edge as she comes to realize just how unhappy she truly is.

From the summary, Quindlen’s latest seems like a fluffy women’s fiction selection, chock full of upper-class problems in an affluent neighborhood, but it’s more than that; Alternate Side briefly touches on ideas of racism and sexism.  In one instance, Nora contemplates why each homeowner is white and all of the “help” (i.e. housekeepers and handymen) are POC; in another case, Nora considers taking a different job and struggles deciding what to do when her husband, Charlie, says he would prefer if she didn’t take it.  These insights aren’t a main part of the book, but Quindlen shares enough to spark conversation.

My only complaint with Alternate Side are the abrupt transitions between past and present.  There is no clear distinction between flashbacks and the present-day narrative; Quindlen would jump to the past, and I could only tell from the ages of Nora’s children, Oliver and Rachel, who are college-aged in the present.  It’s a small detail, but it did become frustrating.

Overall, Alternate Side was a pleasant surprise, and I’ll be looking out for more from Quindlen in the future!

Read if you liked: (1) Modern Lovers by Emma Straub for its realistic cast of characters, its meager marital drama, and the indescribable ambiance of New York City; (2) The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer again for the New York atmosphere and enigmatic ensemble, but also for the plot involving a sudden conflict with long-lasting consequences.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Exit West // Mohsin Hamid

One word continues to come to mind when trying to describe Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, and that word is quiet.  Silent.  Subdued.  Subtle.  Its storytelling is understated, but I also found it to be very underwhelming.  I could not have received more recommendations for Exit West, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t quite live up to the hype.  While I read this book, I kept hearing a voice in the back of my head saying, “You should be loving this… why aren’t you loving this?” and while trying to summarize my thoughts, I definitely struggled with not writing a rave review.  Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to read it, or maybe I’m going through a reading slump, but Exit West just didn’t do much for me.


From the jacket:

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet- sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed.  They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city.  When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors- doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price.  As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice.  Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through…

Exit West follows these remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are.  Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.


“We are all migrants through time.”

-Mohsin Hamid, Exit West


Exit West is not a “flowery” book by any means, but that’s because it doesn’t need to be.  The story is enough in and of itself.  Hamid writes long, sprawling sentences full of clear, simple language, and there’s beauty in that simplicity.  I picked up Exit West amidst my study of Romantic poetry for class, so Hamid’s style was a breath of fresh air compared to Wordsworth and Coleridge!

The biggest part of Exit West was the magical realism.  I absolutely loved the concept of the doors… but I was not too keen on the execution.  I think Hamid didn’t fully commit to the magic doors concept like he needed to; it seemed like it was an idea he quickly introduced and threw around a little bit without really utilizing it.  (Also, not going to lie, the doors reminded me a bit too much of Monsters, Inc., and I was glad to see Barry thought so too, yet his opinion on it was a bit more extreme than mine!)


“To love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

-Mohsin Hamid, Exit West


Overall, I have mixed feelings on Exit West.  It was underwhelming to say the least.  I enjoyed it; I didn’t love it but certainly didn’t hate it, and I’m sure that I’ll pick it up again at some point when I feel clear of any hype or pressure surrounding it.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Freshwater // Akwaeke Emezi

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for an early review copy of Freshwater by Awkaeke Emezi, which will publish February 13, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Ada has always been unusual.  As an infant in Southern Nigeria, she is a source of deep concern to her family.  Her parents successfully prayed her into existence, but something must have gone terribly awry, as the young Ada becomes a troubled child, prone to violent fits of anger and grief.  But Ada turns out to be more than just volatile.  Born “with one foot on the other side,” she begins to develop separate selves.  When Ada travels to America for college, a traumatic event crystallizes the selves into something more powerful.  As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these alters- now protective, now hedonistic- move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dangerous direction.


Akwaeke Emezi’s debut Freshwater is one of the most talked-about books of the year so far, and with good reason.  It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before- unique and refreshing, powerful and profound, with vivid imagery and so so so many good lines.  (I can’t even begin to count how many gorgeous quotes I underlined!)  Emezi is an immensely talented writer; she certainly knows how to style a story and keep its audience captivated.

Freshwater has a distinct narration style, told from both the individual and the collective “we.”  Each narrator is somewhat unreliable, yet Emezi still makes you feel for them and understand their motives.  I’m not going to lie, I was a bit confused by the narration at various points throughout the novel, so if you’re thinking about reading Freshwater, I’d recommend checking out this Twitter thread first, wherein Emezi explains the basic concepts of Nigerian mythology and the ogbanje.

Overall, I found Freshwater to be an eye-opening and thought-provoking tale.  I can’t even begin to explain what this book made me feel.  It’s so original, so authentic, so deserving to be read.  Do you ever read a book that just sort of quietly resonates with you, that blows your mind and makes you sick at the same time?  I think any review I attempt to write just won’t do this book enough justice, so I’ll keep it short and sweet.

If you choose any book to read this month, make it Freshwater.  It’ll blow you away.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Call Me Zebra // Azareen Van der Vilet Oloomi

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Netgalley for an early review copy of Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vilet Oloomi, which will publish February 6, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Zebra is the last in a line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts.  When war came, her family didn’t fight; they took refuge in books.  Now alone and in exile, Zebra leaves New York for Barcelona, retracing the journey she and her father made from Iran to the United States years ago.

Books are Zebra’s only companions- until she meets Ludo.  Their connection is magnetic; their time together fraught.  Zebra overwhelms him with her complex literary theories, her concern with death, and her obsession with history.  He thinks she’s unhinged; she thinks he’s pedantic.  Neither are wrong; neither can let the other go.  They push and pull their way across the Mediterranean, wondering with each turn if their love, or lust, can free Zebra from her past.
 
An adventure tale, a love story, and a paean to the power of language and literature starring a heroine as quirky as Don Quixote, as introspective as Virginia Woolf, as whip-smart as Miranda July, and as spirited as Frances Ha, Call Me Zebra will establish Van der Vliet Oloomi as an author “on the verge of developing a whole new literature movement” (Bustle)


I tried.  I really, really did.  But I just couldn’t do it.

When I saw Call Me Zebra on The Millions’ Great First-Half of 2018 Book Preview, I thought it sounded amazing.  A romance in a European city with a main character who loves literature?  Check, check, and check.  However, this book ended up being extremely disappointing and I stopped reading around a quarter of the way through, which says a lot because I generally like to stick it out and finish every book I read.

I think the main problem for me was how disconnected I felt from the narrative.  Oloomi’s writing style was enough to give me a headache, simply because I found it so difficult to decipher the complicated language she used.  And the thing is, it wasn’t complicated in a beautiful way, like reading eighteenth century literature, but it was complex in the way that it seemed like she was trying too hard to make it sound introspective and quotable, and it came out disorganized and confusing.

Overall, I don’t have much to say other than Call Me Zebra just wasn’t for me.  It’s categorized as “absurdist fiction” in the likes of Camus, Kafka, Vonnegut, etc., so if you’re interested in works by those authors, I’d suggest picking up Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra.  Perhaps I am just not a fan of the genre.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Self-Portrait with Boy // Rachel Lyon

Thank you to Scribner, Simon and Schuster, and Netgalley for an early review copy of Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon, which will publish February 6, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Lu Rile is a relentlessly focused young photographer struggling to make ends meet.  Working three jobs, responsible for her aging father, and worrying that the crumbling warehouse she lives in is being sold to developers, she is at a point of desperation.  One day, in the background of a self-portrait, Lu accidentally captures on film a boy falling past her window to his death.  The photograph turns out to be startlingly gorgeous, the best work of art she’s ever made.  It’s an image that could change her life…if she lets it.

But the decision to show the photograph is not easy.  The boy is her neighbors’ son, and the tragedy brings all the building’s residents together.  It especially unites Lu with his beautiful grieving mother, Kate.  As the two forge an intense bond based on sympathy, loneliness, and budding attraction, Lu feels increasingly unsettled and guilty, torn between equally fierce desires: to use the photograph to advance her career, and to protect a woman she has come to love.

Set in early 90s Brooklyn on the brink of gentrification, Self-Portrait with Boy is a provocative commentary about the emotional dues that must be paid on the road to success, a powerful exploration of the complex terrain of female friendship, and a brilliant debut from novelist Rachel Lyon.


I have to be honest, I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into with Self-Portrait with Boy.  I was initially drawn in by the stunning cover, and I’ve been craving an artistic read since I read I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson a few years ago, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

One of the things I appreciated most about this novel was the characters.  None of them were exactly likable, and Lu was probably the biggest anti-heroine I’ve ever read, but I became invested in each character and their relationships.  They felt remarkably real; even Lu’s loft came across as a character of its own.  For me, the best kind of story is that in which the atmosphere feels essential, and Self-Portrait with Boy is definitely one of those tales.

It was difficult to adjust to the quotation-less dialogue, but once I got past it I was able to immerse myself into the story and fully enjoy it, if “enjoy” is the right word.  Self-Portrait with Boy was slow moving at first, but it eventually picked up at full speed and I found myself flying through it.

What really worked for me was the supernatural element.  Lu is haunted by the ghost of the falling boy as she struggles to decide what to do with her self-portrait, either destroy it or find a place for it in a gallery; I believed this haunting to be a manifestation of her guilt, having grown close to the boy’s mother, Kate.  It was a nice addition to the story, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

All in all, Rachel Lyon’s debut, Self-Portrait with Boy, makes her a powerful voice to look out for.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Everything Here is Beautiful // Mira T. Lee

Thank you to Pamela Dorman Books, Penguin Viking, and Netgalley for an early review copy of Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee, which will publish January 16, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Two sisters- Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the headstrong, unpredictable one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing.  When their mother dies and Lucia starts hearing voices, it is Miranda who must find a way to reach her sister.  But Lucia impetuously plows ahead, marrying a bighearted, older man only to leave him, suddenly, to have a baby with a young Latino immigrant.  She moves her new family from the States to Ecuador and back again, but the bitter constant is that she is, in fact, mentally ill.  Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until, inevitably, she crashes to earth.
 
Miranda leaves her own self-contained life in Switzerland to rescue her sister again- but only Lucia can decide whether she wants to be saved.  The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans- but what does it take to break them?
 
Told in alternating points of view, Everything Here Is Beautiful is, at its heart, the story of a young woman’s quest to find fulfillment and a life unconstrained by her illness.  But it’s also an unforgettable, gut-wrenching story of the sacrifices we make to truly love someone- and when loyalty to one’s self must prevail over all.


Everything Here is Beautiful is simply a beautiful book, inside and out.  Mira T. Lee writes with a style reminiscent of Celeste Ng and Hanya Yanagihara; she clearly knows how to craft a story.  The book is told from multiple points of view, including the two sisters, Miranda and Lucia, as well as Lucia’s husband Yonah and later her boyfriend Manuel.  Lee changes her writing style according to the character- she jumps from short, abrupt sentences, to long, flowery ones.  She even changes between first and third person at several points during the novel, which is a pet peeve of mine and normally seems too stylistic, but here it’s smooth and successful.

At its heart, Everything Here is Beautiful is about the sisterhood between Miranda, the hardworking and reliable older sister, who is seven years senior to her younger counterpart Lucia, the energetic, enigmatic one of the pair.  Miranda has always acted as Lucia’s caretaker, from their immigration to America to their mother’s death to Lucia’s battle with mental illness; Miranda feels haunted by the promise she made to her mother before she died, that she would always look after her baby sister.  In a way, Lucia almost resents Miranda for this, and the seemingly perfect life she has with her husband in Switzerland.  It’s a complicated relationship, both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

Mira T. Lee’s debut novel Everything Here is Beautiful is eye-opening, introspective, and moving.  The portrayal of Lucia’s illness, a complicated combination of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and manic disorder, is alarmingly accurate, and Lee handles mental illness as a real health problem without being too preachy.  The themes of sisterhood and mental illness lie at the forefront of the story, but Everything Here is Beautiful is also about immigration and the struggle to obtain a green card in America.  With these major themes, Lee packs a lot into one novel, but it never seems like too much.

Mira T. Lee is definitely an author to look out for, as Everything Here is Beautiful might just make my 2018 favorites list!

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.