BOOK REVIEW | The Comewdown by Rebekah Frumkin


3/5 stars

A sweeping family epic that covers a lot of ground without turning into a paperweight, Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown is perfect for readers who enjoy dysfunctional family narratives.

The basic plot: a drug deal goes wrong, thus entangling the dealer’s and the addict’s families for generations. There’s a mysterious yellow suitcase that everyone wants to get their hands on, issues of race and religion, and a whole lot of characters named Leeland or Lee. There are a lot of characters, time frames, and multiple family lines to follow – bookmarking the character map at the start of the book is a must.

The first half of this book felt like a 5 star read for me, and then it eventually started to feel like a chore. I could have been the problem – I just isn’t care to decipher which Leland I was reading about in any given moment, and therefore started to fall off track with the book. Sometimes I want my books to feel like work, especially when the payoff is there. This wasn’t one of those cases.

Frumkin is clearly a fantastic, clever writer – I initially though this book would be a slam dunk for me. I could very well pick this up for a re-read in a year and absolutely love it from start to finish, but I just wasn’t fully jiving with it this go around. It’s a good book that lost it’s way by becoming unnecessarily complicated.

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BOOK REVIEW | The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

5/5 stars

In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness, you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone. 

Wow, what an epic journey! I was not prepared to become so deeply invested in this book; in fact, I resisted it. I’m not sure why I thought it would be hopeful and light, but boy was I wrong.

1974. Ernt Allbright was a POW in the Vietnam war; there are signs of ptsd, but nothing too overwhelming yet. When he receives word he has inherited some land and a cabin in Alaska, he jumps at the opportunity for a fresh start. His wife, Cora, is steadfast in her dedication to Ernt, so they pack their lives into a VW bus, and head to Alaska with their 13 year old daughter Leni. They are unprepared as they head into the desolate landscape, and resistant to help when they arrive. They soon learn that Alaskans take care of one another, as they are welcomed into their new community.

Through hard work, they family settles in and their new life begins. As the cold arrives, Ernt begins to unravel. He becomes angry, rages, and is violent with Cora. As the years pass, Ernt’s condition worsens, creating a danger in the home that is as frightening as the dangers of the Alaskan wild. We watch Leni grow up, fall in love with a boy named Matthew, and stay by her mother’s side no matter the cost. The story takes a turn that had me cheering (literally), but then the journey swerves into unexpected territory.

I was hooked from the first page; the narrative is gripping, fast paced, and visual – it reads like a movie. Part adventure story, party dysfunctional family narrative, and part coming of age, this book has it all. This is a story of survival, perseverance, home, and the extremes, both good and bad, that we will go to for love.

BOOK REVIEW | A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison


5/5 stars

It has always amazed me how far broken glass can fly – and how often you find a sliver after you’ve swept the mess away.

My thoughts are a little scattered after finishing A Small Indiscretion; there’s so much more to this book than I was expecting. There is an element of mystery that initially drew me in, but I wasn’t expecting such a rich, complex story.

We follow the life of Annie Black through an explanatory letter she is writing to her son, Robbie. We know that Robbie has been in an accident, and that a mistake Annie made around 20 years ago was a contributing factor. What we don’t know is how the pieces will connect – through alternating timelines, Annie recounts the year that she spent in London and reveals how a past obsession has caught up with her in an unimaginable way.

At age 19, Annie flees an unsatisfactory life in California for adventure in London where she will work in an office by day, and drink too much at night. She quickly becomes entwined in her boss Malcolm’s life, and discovers facets of his marriage that shock and intrigue her. By way of Malcolm, she meets a young photographer named Patrick, and an obsession begins.

Ellison’s writing is quiet and poetic, and at times staggeringly beautiful. I found myself so caught up in Annie’s life that I wasn’t trying uncover the mystery surrounding Robbie, I was truly along for the journey. This is a family drama, certainly, but it’s also so much more. This is a book about the implacability of the past, the complexities of marriage, and the damage that secrets can create. This is not a perfect book and Annie fell a little flat for me at times, but when a final sentence brings tears to my eyes I know I can’t give a book less than 5 stars.

BOOK REVIEW | All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
This book is stunning. It’s challenging, disturbing, and will make you uncomfortable. Bryn Greenwood creates a relationship that by all practical accounts will make your stomach turn, and flips the table so drastically that you will question everything you know to be right and moral. I found myself struggling with some of the scenes, but also found myself justifying so much of it. I had to ask myself, what defines love?

It’s 1975 and Wavy is a little girl at 5 years old. Her parents are addicted to drugs, and she is living with her aunt Brenda and her cousins. As a result of her trauma, Wavy doesn’t speak, leaving everyone to think she’s mentally challenged. Wavy eventually goes on to live with her he grandmother, and finally ends up back with her mother.

Living with her mother, Wavy takes care of herself and her younger brother, Donal, cleaning and preparing food. A few years have passed and she is 8 years old when a chance encounter with 19 year old Kellen occurs. Kellen, a criminal who works for Wavy’s father, crashes his motorcycle by her house, and Wavy rushes out to see if he is OK. There is clearly a connection between the two, and after her becomes aware of Wavy’s living situation, Kellen steps in to help. Kellen cleans the house, buys food for Wavy and Donal, and begins to pay for Wavy’s school fees. Over time, Wavy begins to trust Kellen, and the two become inseparable.

As the years pass, Wavy and Kellen’s relationship evolves from something innocent to something more – there are many moments that gave me pause. Their connection, however, is something hard to define, something more than love. Is Kellen a pedophile? Is he taking advantage of Wavy in her disadvantaged situation? There is no sexual attraction between Wavy and Kellen initially. Kellen states “that’s not the only thing love means. You just got your mind in the gutter”.

Told from multiple points of view, we gain other character’s perspectives on their relationship. Naturally, many characters are horrified by their bond and work to keep them apart. Greenwood herself is the ” daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer”, and has stated that this book was partially inspired by her relationship with an older man when she was 13 years old. Greenwood has created a world in which this relationship feels right, regardless of how inappropriate much of it is. As a mother and a fierce protector of children, I’m blown away by her feat. Only a skilled writer can craft a story like this and have you rooting for the couple. I’m looking forward to more from Greenwood, and may have to check out her backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Enid, long-time matriarch of the Lambert family, sets her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.
Published to universal acclaim, Jonathan Franzen’s novel about a post-modern family breaking down in late-twentieth-century America is a comic, tragic masterpiece. Richly realistic, darkly hilarious, and deeply human, The Corrections has been a fixture on bestseller lists since its debut and was one of the most talked-about books of the year.

My thoughts:
Finally, after way too long, I have read Franzen. Yes, this was my first. I’m not sure what my expectations were going into this book, but I must say I really liked it. I think I was prepared to hate it purely based on Franzen’s reputation for being, you know, a pretentious asshole. I love confident, bold writers, but cannot stand it if there is no merit behind the big personality. Thankfully, I was able to connect with it and understand his appeal.

This is the story of a family, the Lamberts. Enid and Alfred, the matriarch and patriarch, are living together in a way that many couples live together after a lifetime – as roommates. Enid longs for Alfred’s touch and attention, while Alfred grows increasingly irritable and senile. Alfred has always been moody and distant with his family, while Enid fantasizes about romance and the ideal family. Enid wants, more than anything, to have one more Christmas celebration in their hometown of St. Jude. This means attempting to rally her three children, Gary, Chip, and Denise, together for the event. This sort of sounds like the setup for a fun holiday movie, but I can assure you that is not what this is.

I’m finding this review difficult to write – there’s a lot going on with this book, but there’s also not a lot going on – which I realize makes no sense. There’s action and advancement of the story line, but this is heavily character driven. Franzen shines with his characters. He has created a cast of flawed people with messy lives that many will hate, but I found myself relating to each member of this family for different reasons. Enid’s desire for love and family, Alfred’s internal space and need for privacy, Gary’s depression and the pressures of family life and responsibility, Denise’s search for identity, and Chip’s hunt for success. Some of the moments that hit me the hardest in this book are so quiet and unassuming that they can easily be missed. For example, a family meal that no one is enjoying only to be topped off with a desert of pineapple, igniting Alfred to become angry with Enid. It’s not a loud moment, but it also is. If that makes sense.

There’s a lot of unpack with this book, and a lot more going on than I will touch on here: economic crisis, sexuality, depression and mental illness, elder care, and so much more. Readers who enjoy beefy books that call for analysis will likely be at home with the Corrections.

BOOK REVIEW | The Nix by Nathan Hill

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.

My thoughts:
There is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones.

The Nix is exactly my type of book: long and sprawling, detailing complex human relationships. Almost immediately, this book reminded me of John Irving. Elements of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp abound, thought it manages to retain its own unique voice. I’m not sure if Nathan Hill was inspired by Irving, but I couldn’t help but compare him to one of my favourite writers. Hill tackles politics, activism, and mother and son relationships with a smart comic voice that completely drew me in. I laughed out loud more than once while reading this.

Samuel Andresen-Anderson is an apathetic college professor and struggling writer. His mother, Faye, abandoned him and his father when he was a young boy, leaving him with a gap in his life that he has been unable to fill. Meanwhile, a 60 something year old woman is thrown into the media spotlight after committing a bizarre crime, and he soon realizes that the woman is his mother. The media is quick to label Faye as a radical hippie with a troubling history, but that’s not the woman Samuel remembers. When his publisher offers him a deal to write a tell-all book about his mother, he begins the journey into re-discovering the woman who abandoned him all those years ago.

This is an ambitious debut novel for Hill, and I am so impressed by its strength. This book is over 600 pages long yet I didn’t want it to end. His prose and wit are razor sharp, and his ability to connect this wild story to the human condition blew me away. This deeply emotional journey centers on the power of forgiveness and the value of the supporting characters in our lives.

BOOK REVIEW | The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Young Jude Brighton has been missing for three days, and while the search for him is in full swing in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, the locals are starting to lose hope. They’re well aware that the first forty-eight hours are critical and after that, the odds usually point to a worst-case scenario. And despite Stevie Clark’s youth, he knows that, too; he’s seen the cop shows. He knows what each ticking moment may mean for Jude, his cousin and best friend.

That, and there was that boy, Max Larsen…the one from years ago, found dead after also disappearing under mysterious circumstances. And then there were the animals: pets gone missing out of yards. For years, the residents of Deer Valley have murmured about these unsolved crimes…and that a killer may still be lurking around their quiet town. Now, fear is reborn—and for Stevie, who is determined to find out what really happened to Jude, the awful truth may be too horrifying to imagine.

My thoughts:
Ania Ahlborn takes the dysfunctional family to new heights with her latest book, The Devil Crept In. She explores the lengths that a mother would go to to protect her child, while delivering just the right amount of mystery to keep you flipping the pages.

Stevie is a bit of a weird kid: he has a speech disorder, a couple missing fingertips, and no friends except for his cousin, Jude. With an abusive drunk for a step-father and an older brother who wants little to do with him, Stevie depends on his relationship with Jude for escape. Jude, who developed behavioral problems after his father’s death, is known to be aggressive and is often in trouble. When Jude goes missing, most people chock it up as Jude acting out again. Stevie knows that Jude didn’t just run away and is determined to find him, even venturing out into the woods to search for him on his own. Stevie is a great unreliable narrator; he’s constantly on edge and questioning every shadow he sees while trying to find answers. Suddenly Jude returns – but, it’s not the Jude that Stevie knew: he’s unresponsive and blank, with peeling, itchy skin.

The story is told in three parts, and is a bit slow to get going. I really enjoyed the middle section when we are introduced to Rosie and her struggles. Rosie’s longing and self-consciousness are relatable, and in a strange way I understand the choices she made. You’ll have to read the book to understand what I mean! The action picks up in the final third, and it’s a brutal and gruesome as I hoped it would be. I could have done without the epilogue, as I wasn’t crazy about how it capped off some of the story lines. Ahlborn really shined in her capture of Stevie’s childhood, and I completely believed I was in the mind of a ten year old boy. I also loved the big brother / little brother dynamic between Dunk and Stevie – Ahlborn totally nailed this relationship. It’s hard to read a story like this and not be reminded of the King; I can certainly feel Ahlborn’s influence, and fans of his will likely enjoy this book.

My only complaint with this book is that it just wasn’t scary enough – I didn’t feel a foreboding sense of dread. . Creepy? Definitely. Disturbing? Heck yes! This was a great read, but not one that kept me up at night.