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.

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BOOK REVIEW | Broken River by J. Robert Lennon

5/5 stars

This book is so unique. It opens with a violent scene: a family in upstate New York is trying to escape from their house with their young daughter in tow. The whole scene is narrated from the perspective of “the observer”, a ghost-like presence that floats in and out throughout the entirety of the book. We do not know what the family is trying to escape, but the husband and wife are murdered as their daughter hides in the woods, leaving the young girl alone. The killers remain on the loose, with the observer being the only witness to the crime.

Over the years, the abandoned house becomes a spot for young lovers to find privacy and eventually for vandals to destroy. Realtors try relentlessly to sell the house – it is renovated beautifully, and then destroyed again. No one wants to buy a house where murders have taken place. After a long vacancy, the house is finally sold, renovations take place yet again, and a new family moves in.

Karl is an overgrown teenager – childish, irresponsible, and unfaithful. His wife Eleanor is a cancer survivor and begrudging, though successful, “chick-lit” novelist who suspects her cancer may have returned. Irina, their adolescent daughter, is witty and wise, brave and insecure, and an aspiring writer as well. Eleanor and Irina take a great interest in their home’s history, unknowingly becoming  apart of its narrative. A local resident, Samantha, soon becomes entwined with the family, culminating in a dramatic denouement.

It’s difficult to put into words that which makes this book so good. I cared about these characters – they are all spiraling in different ways, and I wanted them to wake up. They are messy, real. The omnipresent observer served as a clear vantage point for everything going on – sort of a non-judgemental landing place that helped to piece it all together. This is the sort of book that begs the question: what does it all mean? How much control do we have in our lives? Are we really writing our own narratives? Is everything predetermined? There are no bells or whistles here, just great storytelling and character development. I’ll definitely be checking out Lennon’s other books in 2018.

BOOK REVIEW | All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage

4/5 stars

I’m going to blast out a few very quick reviews today, as I want to get caught up before the new year.

All Things Cease to Appear continually reminded me of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, though the 2 books are very different. In both books, a crime is committed and the details surrounding it never fully become clear. Much like when crimes happen in reality, I suppose.

George Clare returns home one day to find his wife Catherine murdered and their young daughter alone. He quickly becomes the top suspect in the case, and as we learn more about his marriage we begin to suspect him too.

The shining star of this book is Catherine – she transforms throughout the story, finally reclaiming her independence from a bad marriage shortly before he life ends. I went into this expecting a thriller, but this is literary fiction with mystery and tragedy as the drivers. Atmospheric, unsettling, beautifully written.

 

BOOK REVIEW | Ill Will by Dan Chaon

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.

Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient’s suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.

My thoughts:
This book is completely my wheelhouse – incredibly dark, twisted, pure literary goodness. I was on edge the entire time, but not because of the action – this book is not fast paced but rather a calculated unraveling of the pieces of a puzzle. I felt uneasy while reading it, and the discomfort made me squirm. I’m honestly in awe of Dan Chaon and what has accomplished with this story.

When Dustin Tillman was a child, his parents, aunt, and uncle were killed. His foster brother, Rusty, was arrested for the crime, Dustin’s testimony and the Satanic Panic of the 80’s playing major contributing factors in his conviction. Years later, Rusty is released from prison, exonerated by new DNA evidence. Meanwhile, young men are turning up drowned in rivers across the country. Dustin, a psychologist and widow with two sons of his own, is treating a new patient who believes he has insights into the drowned men, and all is not what it seems.

Initially this plot and Chaon’s direction seen straight forward – a sinister novel about murder, revenge, and hysteria. There is so much more here though, and I soon began to question Dustin and his memories. As we learn about his past, more questions arise than are answered.

The ending of this book will drive some readers mad, but I actually found it perfect. You are not going to get a perfectly wrapped up story, and questions are left unanswered. This book was a hell of a ride, and I loved it so much I have already stated reading Stay Awake, a book of Chaon’s short stories.

BOOK REVIEW | Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
One hot August day a family drives to a mountain clearing to collect birch wood. Jenny, the mother, is in charge of lopping any small limbs off the logs with a hatchet. Wade, the father, does the stacking. The two daughters, June and May, aged nine and six, drink lemonade, swat away horseflies, bicker, and sing snatches of songs as they while away the time.

But then something unimaginably shocking happens, an act so extreme it will scatter the family in every different direction.

In a story told from multiple perspectives and in razor-sharp prose, we gradually learn more about this act, and the way its violence, love and memory reverberate through the life of every character in Idaho.

My thoughts:
Perhaps it’s what both their hearts have been wanting all along – to be broken. In order to know that they were whole enough to break.

I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by the writing in a book. I read beautifully written books all of the time, but Ruskovich’s prose is absolutely stunning. It’s simple and lyrical, yet carries so much weight. Simple revelations or descriptions would nearly move me to tears. I read this book slowly, because it’s the only way to read a book like this. I savored the prose, and was completely enthralled with the characters. Ruskovich tells the story of a deeply broken family and the power of memory.

Anne is a music teacher who married a man named Wade. Wade is loosing his memory to dementia, and came to her intent on taking piano lessons after hearing that it can help with memory. He was married previously and had two daughters, May and June. On one tragic day, he loses it all. Years later, he is haunted by the parts of his memory that he can recall, as well as the parts that he is loosing. Anne meets Wade during the early stages of his memory loss, and desperately wants to care for him and find her way into his heart. The story is told from multiple perspectives and timelines, making for a well rounded picture of the family. We hear from Anne, the girls, Wade’s ex-wife Jenny, and more.

This book is painfully sad, but has so many moments of joy and beauty within. I adored the scenes with May and June as little girls, swimming in water barrels and playing the game MASH. Ruskovich so perfectly captured the innocence of childhood, and I loved getting to know them. Wade’s memory loss really resonated with me, as I watched my Grandmother suffer with Alzheimer’s, and eventually completely forget who I was. It’s absolutely shocking and heartbreaking to experience.

Here’s the thing – this book will not be for everyone. It’s completely character driven, and I think some readers will find this dissatisfying. There is a plot here, but the plot is the force behind the characters motivations and choices, not what keeps the story moving forward. For me, this book was nearly perfect. Ruskovich crafted something truly unique with Idaho, and I will be anxiously awaiting her next creation.

BOOK REVIEW | Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization, and the government is involved in sending secret missions to explore Area X. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

Annihilation opens with the twelfth expedition. The group is composed of four women, including our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all of their observations, scientific and otherwise; and, above all, to avoid succumbing to the unpredictable effects of Area X itself.

What they discover shocks them: first, a massive topographic anomaly that does not appear on any map; and second, life forms beyond anything they’re equipped to understand. But it’s the surprises that came across the border with them that change everything-the secrets of the expedition members themselves, including our narrator. What do they really know about Area X-and each other?

My thoughts:
I completely forgot I had to read this for my book club, so I put my other books aside to read this. I must say I was pleasantly surprised! I’ve heard all of the comparisons to LOST, and I have to agree – this felt very reminiscent of that show. Similarities include, but are not limited to: hog hunting, placebos, a mysterious monster (smoke vs slime), and a mysterious vessel of sorts (a hutch vs a tower). In case you’re wondering, I thoroughly enjoyed both.

We open up with an all female crew venturing into Area X. Our narrator is the biologist and she is traveling with the psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. This is the 12th expedition into Area X, which is being studied by a government agency called Southern Reach. Throughout the story we learn more about the 11 expeditions that traversed Area X before them, as well as the motivations behind the biologists involvement in the project.

This is an imaginative, science-fiction read, but I didn’t personally find it to be scary or a work of horror as many call it. For a short book, I didn’t read it as quickly as I thought I would. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, and the majority of the book is made up of the biologists thoughts and observations, which made it feel a bit slower than I expected. This is a fun and escapist book, and I will be continuing with the series and hope to find answers to some of my questions!

BOOK PREVIEW | April 2017 Anticipated Reads

Here are the books I’m looking forward to in April! What will you be reading this month?

No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell WattsNo One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts
Release date: April 4, 2017

The Great Gatsby brilliantly recast in the contemporary South: a powerful first novel about an extended African-American family and their colliding visions of the American Dream.

JJ Ferguson has returned home to Pinewood, North Carolina to build his dream home and to woo his high school sweetheart, Ava. But he finds that the people he once knew and loved have changed, just as he has. Ava is now married, and wants a baby more than anything. The decline of the town’s once-thriving furniture industry has made Ava’s husband Henry grow distant and frustrated. Ava’s mother Sylvia has put her own life on hold as she caters to and meddles with those around her, trying to fill the void left by her absent son. And Don, Sylvia’s undeserving but charming husband, just won’t stop hanging around.

JJ’s newfound wealth forces everyone to consider what more they want and deserve from life than what they already have—and how they might go about getting it. Can they shape their lives to align with their wishes rather than their realities? Or are they resigned to the rhythms of the particular lives they lead? No One Is Coming to Save Us is a revelatory debut from an insightful voice that combines a universally resonant story with an intimate glimpse into the hearts of one family.

 

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth StroutAnything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Release date: April 25, 2017

Here, among others, are the “Pretty Nicely Girls,” now adults: One trades self-respect for a wealthy husband, the other finds in the pages of a book a kindred spirit who changes her life. Tommy, the janitor at the local high school, has his faith tested in an encounter with an emotionally isolated man he has come to help; a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD discovers unexpected solace in the company of a lonely innkeeper; and Lucy Barton’s sister, Vicky, struggling with feelings of abandonment and jealousy, nonetheless comes to Lucy’s aid, ratifying the deepest bonds of family.

With the stylistic brilliance and subtle power that distinguish the work of this great writer, Elizabeth Strout has created another transcendent work of fiction, with characters who will live in readers’ imaginations long after the final page is turned.

 

Borne by Jeff VandermeerBorne by Jeff Vandermeer
Release date: April 25, 2017

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company—a biotech firm now derelict—and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump—plant or animal?—but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts—and definitely against Wick’s wishes—Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.

“He was born, but I had borne him.”

But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same. 

 

The Boy in the Earth by Fuminori NakamuraThe Boy in the Earth by Fuminori Nakamura
Release Date: April 4, 2017

An unnamed taxi driver in Tokyo has experienced a rupture from his everyday life. He cannot stop daydreaming of suicide, envisioning himself returning to the earth in what soon become terrifying blackout episodes. His live-in girlfriend, Sayuko, is in a similarly bad phase, surrendering to alcoholism to escape the memory of her miscarriage. He meets with the director of the orphanage where he once lived, and must confront awful memories of his past and an abusive family before determining what to do next.