The First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

the-first-conspiracy-meltzer-menschThe First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch tells the story of America’s first acts of criminal espionage against the government and the government’s first act of counter espionage.

Meltzer and Mensch follow the development of a plot against the Continental Army prior to the start of the Revolutionary War and follows this plot through to the independence of America from Great Britain. The plan involves bribery, treason, and potential plans for murder, and the plan it seems infiltrated the army itself involving people close to George Washington both professionally and personally. While following this plot, Meltzer and Mensch are also keen to point out the ways in which this first act of counter-espionage came to inform current institutions such as the Secret Service and FBI.

While the book is teeming with fun historical facts and interesting tidbits from America’s cultural past, it too often reads like a textbook. The characters are distant and unreachable, possibly in part because of their historical presence and also because of Meltzer and Mensch’s marriage to telling the truth. It’s arguably challenging to create a compelling character when you can only know that character through Congress notes and an odd journal entry. Similarly, the conflict in the book, while undeniability riveting in its content, is not as much so in its telling.

Throughout the course of the book though, Meltzer and Mensch achieve their goal of telling the history of American counterintelligence and sharing details of American history that might have been glossed over in our grade school textbooks.

Slated for release by Flatiron Books in January of 2019, you can preorder a copy of The First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch from your local bookstore.

Read more non-fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

 

 

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

bridge-of-clay-zusakMarkus Zusak author of the acclaimed novel and now title movie, The Book Thief, is on the verge of his second release. Zusak’s latest work Bridge of Clay, is a multigenerational family portrait that deals with issues of loss, regret, creation, and the danger and joy of love. Told by Matthew Dunbar, the oldest of the Dunbar brothers, Bridge of Clay is less about its narrator and more about Clay: the brother who bridged a broken family, a broken past, and a broken peace.

Bridge of Clay reaches across and through time to tell the story of the five Dunbar boys. The story, though, starts before the brothers are born, with their mother Penelope and the struggles she overcame to become the person they came to know. There’s also the boys’ father, Michael, and the loss and pain he was swept up in before and after his sons were born. Then there’s the meeting of Penelope and Michael in the midst of a piano delivery gone wrong. There’s the Iliad and the Odyssey. There’s Carey, an almost-famous jockey and Clay’s best friend. Threads and threads woven together to tell Zusak’s saga.

Through all this mass of time, Matthew begins his story at one of many beginnings, which is also a middle and an end. Much of Zusak’s novel is told in this way: circling through distant past, near past, and present so that the reader at times can’t be sure which part of the circle she’s in or why it matters. Sometimes the reader reaches the curve of that story arc 100 or 500 pages later and suddenly something makes perfect sense. While this device can make aspects of the various storylines seem irrelevant, in the end  it makes the reader realize she’s read a masterpiece. That being said, she needs to make it to the end to have that realization.

Much of the novel is contemplative in nature and has a beautiful stillness that moves the reader into all different ranges of emotions: joy, sadness, pain. The effort it takes to maneuver through the tangles of time and truly get to know the characters is great; however, the end makes all the reader’s struggles well worth while and rewards those who have the stamina to make it.

Slated for release by Knopf publishing on October 9, 2018, you can order a copy of Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak from your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Shelf Life of Happiness’ by Virginia Pye

shelf-life-pyeShelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye is a book about the expiration of happiness: the end of its shelf life.

In Pye’s collection of short stories, ordinary characters find themselves with everything they could’ve wished for, or nothing they ever wanted, and either way, the equation equals despair, longing, or defeat. While some characters may find glimmers of the happiness they seek or even the insight of a way out, we as the reader are left to wonder if they’ll pursue that happiness or not.

In “Redbone,” a painter is confronted with the meaning of love and art at the end of his life as he literally battles rough waves to stay alive. “My Mother’s Garden” explores what it means to be stuck in a cycle of life that isn’t your own.

In these and Pye’s other six stories, characters struggle to find themselves and to discern what it is that might elongate or inspire the happiness that has worn out in their lives. For most of Pye’s characters, there is at least the recognition of a next step even if it’s not taken.

Slated for release on October 23, 2018 by Press 53, you can pre-order a copy of Shelf Life of Happiness from your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai

the-great-believers-makkaiLife is beautiful. Life is terrible. Life is blind and unforgiving. Rebecca Makkai delves deeply into what it means to be alive, what it means to feel like the last person alive, and what it means to leave someone behind and keep living in her latest novel The Great Believers.

Told from a dual perspective, Makkai sets one storyline in Chicago during the AIDS epidemic in the early nineteen eighties paralleling this narrative with a continuation of the story in 2015 Paris. Yale is the main character on the Chicago scene, a man in his late 20s living both a dream and a nightmare he never thought possible. The story begins with Yale attending the funeral of one of his best friends, Nico; the first of many funerals to come. Yale’s friends it seems are disappearing, literally disappearing into themselves as they are ravaged by diseases so uncommon, so debilitating and rampant, that there’s hardly anything left of the friends he knew.

AIDS has hit Chicago, and Yale, a gay man living in Boystown is learning just what that means. But Yale is safe, he and the love of his life, Charlie, have gotten tested. They don’t have it. They have lucrative and fulfilling jobs, a home, a perfect life. They’re safe. He hopes.

In 2015, Fiona, Nico’s sister, is desperately trying to find her daughter. Fiona, whose seen so many die, whose lost so many to an unknown emptiness, has somehow lost her daughter too, a daughter she knows (she hopes) is alive in Paris. Fiona spent her youth caring for Nico and his friends in Chicago acting as their saviors, their families, their friends. While in Paris, Fiona finds herself at battle with the ghosts from this past: a past so dredged in love and hatred that she can’t separate it from the present; a past that haunts her and her daughter, someone who hardly lived through its darkness; a past that reminds Fiona over and over again that no one has really “survived” it, there’s too much left that’s broken.

Running beside Yale and Fiona is an unsuspecting character, a character that spans all time and space, that stands for social justice, inequity, and everything in between: art. Art features prominently as both a source of remembrance and a way to be forgotten in the histories that follow.

Makkai tells a compelling and absolutely necessary story with The Great Believers, one that asks questions about the meaning of life, love, and art. Beautifully told and impossibly true on levels much deeper than the plot (which Makkai based on real events but which are in fact entirely fictional), The Great Believers is a book no one should miss.

Released by Viking in June of 2018, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Rust & Stardust’ by T. Greenwood

rustandstardust-greenwoodMost serious readers have heard of Lolita, the iconic novel that barreled through controversy and outrage to become a lasting legacy in the literary world. Few people, though, have heard of Sally Horner, a young girl who potentially inspired Nabokov’s horrifying contribution to modern literature. Rust & Stardust by T. Greenwood finally tells Sally’s story, giving back the narrative that was taken from her.

Greenwood’s novel starts off as most crime inspired novels do, with something unsettling. Sally only wants to be liked by the girls at school and is willing to do anything to join their club. So, when they ask her to steal something from the local store for her initiation, Sally, though hesitant, agrees. When she’s unsuccessful in her petty crime, however, the consequences seem far more steep than she had ever imagined. A man claiming to be an FBI agent stops Sally, and tells her she is under arrest for her delinquency. However, he’s willing to help her out and take her to Atlantic City to speak on her behalf in front of the judge who will preside over her case there.

Sally, while maybe a bit gullible, is also an 11-year-old girl, living in the late 1940’s who is being told by an adult a seemingly plausible truth she can’t seem to argue. Besides, she is the criminal here. What can she do? This experience starts Sally’s nearly two year long journey with her kidnapper and abuser.

Rust & Stardust, though at times terrifying and nauseating is a hard book to put down. Greenwood follows to a T Sally’s real route with her kidnapper adding in, through fiction, the characters and stories that only Sally could’ve known. If you go in thinking Rust & Stardust is merely a fictional novel, you might find its premise hard to believe, the sequence of events so impossible it becomes frustrating. But, when you realize that these events were the only things Greenwood didn’t fictionalize, the novel becomes even more heart wrenching.

The one area where Greenwood falls short is in the connections she makes between the reader and the characters. While it is impossible not to feel for Sally and her hardships, it does seem challenging to truly understand or get close to any of the characters. Part of what might make this so difficult is the shift in perspective between so many different characters.

Nonetheless, Rust & Stardust is a novel whose pages seem to never stop turning.

Slated for release by St. Martin’s Press in August of 2018, you can preorder a copy of Rust & Stardust from your local bookstore.

Read more book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Pillow Thoughts II: Healing the Heart’ by Courtney Peppernell

pillow-thoughts-peppernellCourtney Peppernell’s new collection of poetry Pillow Thoughts II: Healing the Heart is focused primarily on what it sounds like: love.

Peppernell’s collection is separated out into five sections that correspond to a specific circumstance that is related to love. There is everything from “If your hearts is in love” to “If your heart is missing someone,” and each section focuses on giving advice and providing anecdotal stories in the form of poetry to match that advice.

While Peppernell does begin and end the book talking about the power of the self, most of the collection focuses on the importance of relationships and how influential relationships are on the self.

Slated for release by Andrews McMeal Publishing on August 7, 2018, you can preorder a copy of Pillow Thoughts II: Healing the Heart by Courtney Peppernell from your local bookstore.

Read more poetry book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Mourning Dove’ by Claire Fullerton

Mourning-Dove-FullertonMourning Dove by Claire Fullerton tells a story mostly of relationships and of the meaning of the word “home.”

Millie Crossan is our narrator, but the story is much less about her or about any one person in particular. Instead, Fullerton attempts to get at the nature of what it means to be a sister, a daughter, a wife, and human being stumbling through the overgrown brush of life. Finley, Millie’s brother, is her guide, especially in times of despair: times like a big move, a divorce, and death. Finley seems a miracle, untouchable, always holding the answers Millie is looking for, especially in the absence of their father.

As the siblings age and grow apart though, Millie begins to see that perhaps Finley’s answers aren’t always the “right” answers, and that maybe there aren’t any right answers at all. Life goes on in unexpected ways, and at the end of it all, what Millie wants most is relationship and connections with people.

Mourning Dove pulls readers through a family’s lifespan sometimes with grace and sometimes with a little bit too much information. Fullerton tells a compelling story, but often with so much detail and backstory that it can become overwhelming. Despite the occasional drag in momentum, Mourning Dove is a beautiful and heartfelt novel.

Released by Firefly in June of 2018, you can purchase a copy of Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.