‘We Are the Light’ by Matthew Quick

An old-fashioned movie theater is situated against a dark sky.

We Are the Light, by Matthew Quick (author of Silver Lining’s Playbook) is the New York Times’ best selling author’s latest work.

An epistolary novel, We Are The Light is told from the perspective of Lucas Goodgame who is writing letters to his therapist Karl. Throughout the novel, these letters go unanswered as Lucas attempts to use his relationship with Karl and the tools Karl has taught him to climb his own way out of depression (and potentially psychosis).

Lucas is a classic unreliable narrator. Plagued by trauma and grief, Lucas sees angels, communes with his dead wife, and has an entirely unsettled perspective on life. Lucas isn’t alone though, he has friends (old and new), including a young highschooler who is also trying to survive a similar and connected grief. Together, these two characters attempt to settle their anguish side-by-side.

Fast-paced and full of emotion, We Are The Light is a quick and easy read for the most part, despite its heavy content. The one place the book falls short is in the obsessive Jungian (similar to Freudian) psychology. It is so saturated in the story that readers might be tempted to think Quick is being satirical. But it is clear by the end, this is not the case. The overt discussion and connection to psychology can feel overdone and overbearing; however, it is one of the main avenues through which Lucas battles his demons.

Heartfelt and unique, We Are the Light is a book with all the feels. The book is slated for release from Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon and Shuster, in November 2022. You can preorder a copy of the book from your local independent 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.

‘Midstream’ by Lynn Sloan

Lynn Sloan’s Midstream is a novel that captures what it means to be woman in America agnostic of time or place. 

We see a forest through what looks like a cracked mirror on the cover of Lynn Sloan’s new novel, Midstream.

Polly Wainwright works as a picture editor for Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). It’s 1974. A once aspiring filmmaker, Polly has settled for a steady job in Chicago while her boyfriend is off across the seas covering the end of The Vietnam War. Polly, though, has responsibilities. She has a mother to take care of, a paycheck she needs to collect to keep afloat. She doesn’t have the time or space to galivant into the jungle, to pursue her dreams, like all the men in her life.

Until…

Polly’s life is thrown askew when she finds out the project she’s working on at EB will fold at the end of the year and almost the entire staff will be laid off. There’s that, and her relationship with her boyfriend is slowly sinking. And on top of that, Polly is faced with her own mortality when her best friend falls seriously ill. Oh, and a mysterious package arrives. 

All of this sets Polly on a different life course she always dreamed of, but never dared to pursue.

Polly takes us back to 1962 when she worked as an assistant on a film project, showing us all the ways things went wrong and why she ended up where she did. But Polly’s past creeps up on her in more than just memories as she is reunited with old acquaintances to uncover a potential mystery.

Midstream is a novel about a woman who is midstream in an unsatisfying life, when she decides to turn it around. Polly makes the decisive effort to forget about, or ignore as best she can, the sexist tropes that have kept her down and to subtly fight against them. 

Sloan reveals in a number of ways how being a woman forces us into boxes, creates untrue narratives that are perpetuated (even by other women), and gives us hope that we can break free. With the overturning of Roe v Wade and the rapid descent back into a time of even greater oppression and subjugation for women, Midstream is a very welcome novel.

Slated for related from Fomite Press in August of 2022, you can preorder a copy of Midstream by Lynn Sloan from your local independent bookstore today.

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.

“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin

The cover art of Zevin’s book is a snowy mountain stylized after Japanese artist Hokusai.

As avid readers we live for the next best book. The one that will force us to stay up far past bedtime hiding under the sheets to read by phone light so as not to wake our wives or husbands or children. The one that will make us cry so many times our eyes will sting. That will make us miss the characters, the world, that will make us think and speak in the narrator’s voice long after we’ve put the book down to enter into “real life.” Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (author of the Storied Life of AJ Fikry) is that book.

A throwback to the past in so many ways, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’s setting is perhaps one of the most well-crafted elements of the book (and the entire book is well-crafted). Taking place in a variety of east coast and west coast towns across the span of the 1990s, Zevin’s characters remind us (or teach us if we are very young) what the world was like at the dawn of technology. Those characters: Sam, Sadie, and Marx are college kids when we first meet them. College kids with the dream to make a video game together.

Throughout the course of the novel, we follow mostly Sam and Sadie through their game-making venture as well as into their childhoods, and sometimes even the far-flung future. Zevin is a master of time and seamlessly weaves together a narrative of love, friendship, and art in a way that the reader feels as if we too are a character. Sure, we don’t know (yet) the thing in Sam’s past that makes him the way he is, but Zevin makes us feel as if we do know. The way she reveals elements of each character’s past and future is brilliant and enmeshes the reader so fully in the world that it’s hard to get out.

You’ll see there’s not much about plot in this review. And that’s intentional. The plot is also brilliant, but it’s everything else that’s mind-blowing, everything else that make me want to read the book again, and again, and again. But fine, a little taster of plot:

Sam and Sadie’s friendship (or lack of friendship) is the core of the novel, and through their relationship we explore not only their love of games, but also their past traumas, their relationships with their families and lovers, their artistic passions, and so much more. When we first meet our characters in college, Sadie is the only girl in her MIT game development class while Sam is a bored Math major at Harvard who dreams of doing something great. Okay, that’s it.

One of the pieces of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow that Zevin does so well (is there anything she doesn’t do well…?) is take something like playing video games and make it both accessible to those who don’t play and yet make it the ultimate experience for those who do. Even if you are a casual gamer like me, (someone who played the classics as a kid, who was a master among my friends and novice compared to my high scoring brother who held world records, who still picks up any new Animal Crossing or Zelda game) you will find so much comfort and joy and immersion in the virtual world’s Zevin creates. That’s because we don’t just hear about the games, we often get to play them, sometimes in depth, in a way in which we can see the pixelated characters and objects all around us.

Zevin explores relationships, art, ableism, classism, racism, sexism, and a multitude of other important topics that are often not discussed in everyday life let alone in books. She’s brilliant (did I say that?).

God, I need to just go read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow again. While I do that, please preorder your copy from your local independent bookstore.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin is slated for released by Knopf on July 12, 2022. I can’t say it enough: preorder it now. 

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.

Warda: My Journey from the Horn of Africa to a College Education by Warda Mohamed Abdullahi

Warda: My Journey from the Horn of Africa to a College Education by Warda Mohamed Abdullahi is an inspiring and eye-opening account of one young woman’s determination, persistence, and grit. 

This autobiographical narrative is told by Warda herself, looking back on her life, her struggles, and the people who helped her along the way. The book doesn’t just tell Warda’s story though. It tells the story of her family, the many countries she’s called home, and of how war and turmoil can tear apart families and dreams.

We begin with Warda’s father, learning about this own struggle for an education in the face of many obstacles. We learn about his passion for education and his drive to both obtain his own education and ensure his daughter’s. We also meet Warda’s grandfather: an old-fashioned man, a farmer, someone who knows his place and what he believes to be the place of others in the family. Then we meet Warda.

Warda was born in Saudi Arabia to Somali parents, but due to lack of opportunity and discrimination, Warda ends up moving all over Africa living with different family members, meeting new people, and receiving a different kind of education everywhere she goes. From farming to Islamic studies to eventually pursuing an education in the United States, Warda’s adventure is full of excitement and turmoil, but she never gives up.

Just in time for World Refugee Day, Warda is a memoir for anyone who wants to read a book that provides new perspectives, offers a unique lens through which to view the world, and that steps outside of traditional memoir storytelling. Warda illuminates the many inequities refugees face not only to survive but to maintain their wellbeing, peace of mind, and even the simplest of human rights: for families to remain together. 

Published by Beaver’s Pond Press in December 2020, Warda: My Journey from the Horn of Africa to a College Education by Warda Mohamed Abdullahi is available for purchase now.

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.

‘Still the Night Call’ by Joshua Senter

A row of trees is reflected by the sun to show their image in the water as well.

While America has been a politically divided country for over two centuries, the gap between America’s parties seems to grow wider as their values become more and more associated with a sense of an old and new America. Still the Night Call by Joshua Senter is an attempt to bridge that gap, or at the very least to encourage empathy for those standing on the other side.

Still the Night Call’s lead character Calem Honeycutt is a dairy farmer in the Ozarks of Missouri. When we meet Calem on page one at 4:30 AM, he tells us almost immediately about his plans to kills himself that night. Over the course of the day, we follow Calem as he works the farm with his father, attempts to reconcile his deep debt, and reveals to readers his struggle with depression. Through it all Calem is constantly linking his problems back to changing America, the corrupt politics of all parties, and the recognition of his own ineptitude at truly understanding things beyond the farm.

To illustrate many of these issues, Senter introduces us to a host of characters who are both like and unlike Calem. We meet Calem’s parents who are quintessential American traditionalists—Dad milking cows, Mom making breakfast. We meet Calem’s sister Caitlyn through memories and phone calls—the rebel who ran away to the city to live out her liberal dreams. Then we meet Calem’s friends and neighbors—people he loves and who have tried their best both to find happiness for themselves and for their families often by doing things like voting for Trump. Senter shows each of these people’s biases and the way they judge and define one another by their values and politics.

Calem time and again reminds readers that he is not your stereotypical red-American-farm-boy. He actually stands somewhere in the middle of the radically left and right people around him. Sure, Calem (like everyone in his community) voted for Trump in 2016 even though he thought Trump was incompetent and ridiculous. But Calem voted for Trump because Trump promised something no one else did: a return to the glory days of traditional America when farmers didn’t struggle the way they do now. Even though Calem believes in gay rights, abortion, and a host of other human rights issues we don’t often associate with Republican leaning individuals, he chose to vote for Trump to better his own life.oldjjj

Calem openly claims that he doesn’t understand the wider world. And part of that understanding Calem is missing is his own place in the world. Calem identifies with many marginalized groups in America including transgender people and women and can’t seem to understand how being a white man makes him anymore advantaged than a person of color or someone of a different gender. What Calem doesn’t understand is intersectionality. He hears chanting of “down with the patriarchy” and assumes everyone hates straight white men. Calem doesn’t have the education or bandwidth to step back from his own situation and examine the ways in which men have dominated American decision making since its founding and how problematic that is. There is some sense that if only Calem could have a wider experience of the world, he would see himself and his place in that world differently. Instead, Calem is deeply attached to his life and career and doesn’t want to experience change on the farm, in his community, or within the world at large.

Where our empathy for Calem is strongest is in his struggle with mental health. His inability to act, his inability to truly understand anyone else’s position but his own, seem all to tie back to his struggle with mental health. Another important issue that is covered in Still the Night Call is the stigmatization of mental health issues, especially among men. Caitlyn volunteers at a women’s shelter in the city, and Calem wonders if something like that exists for men, but Caitlyn quickly explains that men don’t seek help the way women do. So while the undeniable truth that being a white man in America gives you some sort of upper hand, we see the price that comes with: how we’ve raised so many of our boys into men who can’t ask for help, who need to achieve greatness, who can’t empathize and understand because they’re taught instead to get ahead, to hide weakness, and to never admit defeat.

Still the Night Call addresses all of these important issues and more. If you are a staunch liberal or a staunch conservative, your politics and values likely won’t change after reading Senter’s book, but it seems his hope is that at the very least you’ll gain some empathy and understanding for the other side. If nothing else, Still the Night Call highlights the way mental health affects people’s lives no matter their social status, gender, or political values.

Named best Indie Book of 2021 by Kirkus review, Still the Night Call by Joshua Senter is available for purchase at your local independent 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.

‘Until We Meet’ by Camille Di Maio

It’s 1943. The United States has entered World War Two. Men are off fighting. Women are at home trying to fill the void. 

Four women sit by the water in New York City knitting socks

This is the setting in which Camille di Maio places her latest book Until We Meet. The historical fiction novel centers around two friend groups: one training for the war, and one back home—both waiting for the war to be over. 

Margaret, Gladys, and Dottie are in New York, taking over the absent men’s jobs (and often, to their surprise, enjoying them!), knitting socks for soldiers, and dreaming of their futures. Margaret’s brother has been deployed, and Dottie is in love with that brother and is secretly carrying his baby. Gladys is the model image of the modern woman in 1944: she doesn’t care for romance or gendered ideology, or anything that doesn’t fit her notion of what it means to be independent. Then there’s John (Margaret’s brother), Tom, and William, training for the war they know they will eventually be sent off to fight in.

In the age of letter writing, Dottie, John, and Margaret all share a pen pal in one another. John, though, feels bad for his friend William, who receives no letters from friends or family and asks his sister to write to William in the hopes of cheering him up. Margaret agrees, and so ensues a tangled story of friendship, love, and identity.

Eventually we come to be most closely tied with Margaret and Tom. Tom, who is now writing letters to Margaret in William’s stead, but still signing those letters, William. And Margaret who is eagerly awaiting the return of the men but also already lamenting the day she will have to give up her welding job at the navy yard to those same men. The story continues to gather speed, leaving readers reeling for Tom to come clean and for Margaret to stand strong and grab hold of the future she wants.

Until We Meet shows the strength of friendship, particularly female friendship and the way the women at home support and lift one another up. This is a time of change for women, and some of the women are more open than others to that change. Dottie wants a typical life of the stay-at-home mother, Gladys wants anything but, and Margaret, for the first time in her life, stands somewhere in between. While Dottie and Gladys feel sure in their dreams and feelings about independence and lifestyle, Margaret feels there is no place for someone like her: someone who does want a family but also wants a career and her own passion. This is something Margaret struggles with throughout the novel, trying to rationalize to herself how it could work, what she’s entitled to, and what it means to be a woman in the 1940s.

Much of the novel is told epistolary form, and these letters are often the most engaging sections of Until We Meet. Watching a relationship unfold between two characters who have never met is a hard move to pull off and has the corollary feel of online dating today. Do you know someone you haven’t met? Can you love someone you’ve only met through words? What changes about a person on the page, or today on the screen? 

In these two ways, Di Maio draws a nice corollary to how things in the 1940s were in some ways radically different, and in others almost a shadow image of the world we live in now. Women still struggle with the question of whether to stay home and raise a family, go to work, or juggle both. Love and friendship is, now more than ever, blooming in a space our bodies can’t reach.

A romantic and engaging novel, Until We Meet weaves a carefree sentiment with tough subject matter to offer a thoroughly enjoyable read. Di Maio does a fantastic job of painting the challenges present for both men and women at the time and portraying characters that embody each these changes in and challenges.

Until We Meet was released by Forever, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing owned by Hachette Book Company Group, Inc., in March 2022. You can purchase a copy of Until We Meet at your local independent bookstore.

Read more historical fiction reviews on Centered on Books.

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

‘The Wolf Den’ by Elodie Harper

Elodie Harper’s historical fiction debut The Wolf Den is a rare look into the lives of women living in bondage in the city of Pompeii just years before the monumental eruption of Mount Vesuvius. 

The cover of The Wolf Den is an orange and black illustration that portrays the women held captive there dancing, playing the lyre, and sitting contemplatively.

Harper takes readers on a journey into the heart of the Roman Empire’s Pompeii from the perspective of Amara. Amara, a Greek woman sold into sexual slavery, once lived a life of prestige and certainty, until the man who provided for her (her father) died. Now, Amara is forced to live as a prostitute at the behest of a conniving and unsympathetic master. Amara though, and we soon discover many of the other women, are not as servile as their male oppressors would hope. With her friends by her side, Amara aims to be free again one day, and readers join her as she battles both internal and external hurdles to that freedom.

Throughout the novel, Harper does nothing less than exalt women: their strength, the numerous obstacles they have had to overcome throughout history, and their bravery in the face of these struggles. There is not one point in the novel where womanhood, or the role of a female character is portrayed as anything less than powerful and capable. Never are women subjugated, fearful creatures in any way that diminishes their bodies, self-respect, or strength. Harper does a uniquely superb job in valorizing the women portrayed in The Wolf Den while also perfectly capturing the complicated nature of trauma, self-sacrifice, and independence. The story of these women’s lives is not romanticized in any way, but instead they are portrayed with dignity, a sense of humanity, and a voice that has been stripped away from them for centuries.

A truly compelling novel, it will be hard to put The Wolf Den down once you start. Harper’s plot, protagonist, worldbuilding, and prose are all of the highest quality and well worth the investment of all 400+ pages.

Previously published in the UK, The Wolf Den will make its US debut on March 29, 2022. Preorder a copy from your local independent bookstore today.

Read more historical fiction reviews on Centered on Books.

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

Geographies of the Heart

Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is a beautiful and all-too recognizable story about family, love, and aging.

Told as a series of short stories (some previously published as standalone pieces), Geographies of the Heart traces four generations of the Macmillan family. Each chapter or story is told from a different perspective, centering issues of viewpoint, empathy, and one’s personal history. Hamilton Summie illuminates through each character’s perspective how these elements inform the way a person acts, interacts, and responds to the challenges life throws at them. 

The main character of the three perspectives is Sarah Macmillan. We meet Sarah in a college coffee shop on a first date with a (maybe) great catch. We follow Sarah through breakups, her marriage to this same coffee shop date, the birth of her first child, the death of her grandparents, and through the challenges of navigating family relationships within and outside of these life events. Over the course of Geographies of the Heart, we also hear from her husband Al, her sister Glennie, and even a few others.

Hamilton Summie does a beautiful job of capturing not only the struggles of what it means to be a family, but also the most beautiful and touching pieces of that relationship. Even as someone who doesn’t have a sister, who hasn’t lost a grandparent in the same slow grueling way Sarah does, I found myself deeply connected to her character, her struggles, her constant questioning. Themes of forgiveness, remembrance, our connection to our past—however desirous or repelling to us— are only a few of the topics explored in Geographies of the Heart. Hamilton Summie also asks readers to question what responsibility in each of these contexts mean: who is responsible for initiating and accepting forgiveness, who is responsible for remembering and documenting a collective past that involves more that just one person, and who is responsible for the marks (for better or worse) left on a generation as they age? 

A thought-provoking and emotional read, Geographies of the Heart might especially call to you if you are a parent, a sibling, or have recently lost a loved one.

Published by Fomite Press in January 2022, Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is available for purchase at your local independent 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 Trayvon Generation’ by Elizabeth Alexander

The Trayvon Generation by Elizabeth Alexander is an honest and thought-provoking look at the insidious racial ideologies embedded in American culture. A poetic, passionate, and imperative read, The Trayvon Generation reveals truths, horrors, and the promise of a solution. 

Alexander chronicles the ways throughout history in which black people have been thought of as hardly human, pointing to these historical viewpoints as the basis from which we still understand race today. While the Constitution may not label a person of color as 3/5 of a human anymore, that sentiment still reigns in the minds of white America because of our history. We have been taught time and again that black people are not fully human, that black children are men (not boys), that black people themselves are to blame for the poverty, crime, and lack of education that plague so many of their communities. Alexander reminds us that black people were brought to this country as property, thought of as subhuman, and within that historical context have never regained the status of being fully human in the eyes of our culture at large.

While Alexander highlights so many truths in her book, one might ask, so what? We know this. How many books on race and racial inequities have been published in the past decade; how many have been lauded since the 2020 riots? And while my response would be “never enough,” I would also note that Alexander does something wholly different with The Trayvon Generation. She draws in poets, photographers, and black artists of all kinds to illustrate her argument that it is art that might have the power to save us as a nation and a collective people. 

Through art, black people have asserted their humanity, their hope, their struggle, in ways that future generations can see, be inspired by, and build from. In each chapter and section of the book, Alexander showcases artists’ work and details the ways in which that work has functioned to both teach and arouse action.

The Trayvon Generation is a lesson in art, history, and social justice told with the poetic verve only Alexander could deliver. An absolute must read for all Americans, I couldn’t recommend this book enough.

Slated for publication by Grand Central Publishing in April of 2022, you can preorder a copy of Elizabeth Alexander’s The Trayvon Generation from your local independent bookstore today.

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.

‘One Must Tell the Bees’ by J. Lawrence Matthews

A reimagining of Sherlock Holmes’ last adventure, One Must Tell the Bees: Abraham Lincoln and the Final Education of Sherlock Holmes by J. Lawrence Matthews starts out as a delightful and light read.

In Matthews’ version of this Holmes installment, we get stories within stories, mysteries layered on mysteries, and all in model Holmes style. At the beginning of One Must Tell the Bees, Watson receives a letter from the retired Holmes indicating that Holmes has started abusing narcotics again and needs Watson’s aid as a doctor. With his letter, Holmes also sends a manuscript detailing his first ever case and his own origin story. This is a story Holmes claims he’s told no one, not even Watson: one that involves the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Abraham Lincoln. Watson, perturbed by the urgent nature of his friends’ request, rushes to Holmes’ aid in the English countryside, taking the manuscript along with him. From there, readers are whisked on a wild journey to 1860s America through Holmes’ manuscript while simultaneously following Watson on a harrowing train ride. 

Charming, spectacularly detailed, and thoroughly engaging, One Must Tell the Bees unfortunately falters hard in one major place: Matthews’ portrays all of the African American characters in the novel as subservient and deferential. While it could easily be taken for granted that a freed slave (such as the leading African American character, Abraham) would act in such a way, I wanted that assumption to be challenged. In his portrayal, Matthews reduces the African American characters in the book to stock characters with colloquial vernacular that Holmes narrates in an entirely unhelpful way. In an interview with Big Blend, Matthews talks about the research he did to accurately portray the history and people he depicts, including reading the diaries of enslaved people. But what I wondered the whole time I read the book, was not what research Matthews did, but to what lengths he went to involve real, living black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in accurately portraying BIPOC in the past. Did he have sensitivity readers, editors, reviewers that were people of color?  

Similarly, Matthews portrayal of Holmes and Abraham Lincoln only further espouse problematic white-savior narratives. Not only is there a feeling of “white man saves the day” in the book, but there’s also a strange moralizing component as well. These perspectives aren’t uncommon, and often garner a wealth of positive reviews (e.g., The Greatest ShowmanThe Help), but that doesn’t mean we need any more of those perspectives circulating.

All of these feelings were tangled in the fast-paced, engrossing narration, and I often found myself second guessing what I was thinking. Was I over analyzing Matthews’ portrayal of people of color, of white men in the novel? And then I found the interview with Big Blend mentioned above, and my suspect feelings were confirmed. In the interview, Matthews argues for maintaining Confederate statues so as not to forget our past. And while the sentiment of remembering our past and learning from our mistakes is a commendable one, doing so through glorifying slave owners and people who fought to enslave other human beings (no matter what their arguments to the contrary were), is not quite the way to go about remembering our past. Unfortunately, the interview only confirmed the hunches I had about the book.

Matthews has already announced a sequel to One Must Tell the Bees, and my greatest hope is that he does the work to address the above-mentioned issues in his sequel in order to write a more social justice conscious book.

One Must tell the Bees was beautifully written, captured the style and tone of Holmes with fervor, and was undeniably enjoyable most of the time; however, its major flaw is one that can’t be overlooked.

Published in May of 2021 by East Dean Press, One Must Tell the Bees: Abraham Lincoln and the Final Education of Sherlock Holmes is available for purchase at your local independent bookstore.

Read more historical fiction reviews on Centered on Books.

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

‘Caroline’ by Adrian Spratt

In his debut novel CarolineAdrian Spratt poses a question that has likely been on many people’s minds since March of 2020: In the face of hardship, difference, and isolation, what makes us who we are?

The cover of the novel ‘Caroline’ is an olive green color with an illustrated collage of pictures related to the book: a swatch of red hair layered on a scene from New York City, atop a vinyl record, atop an army green type writer.

The novel follows Nick, a young lawyer navigating his job, his relationships, and his disability in 1980s New York. In an industry dominated by able-bodied writers writing ableist narratives, Caroline is a welcome deviation from the norm. Spratt, a former lawyer turned novelist, lost his vision at thirteen (just like Nick), and writes a novel where, though disability is central to the character and themes, it is more than anything simply a part of Caroline the way disability is a natural part of the human condition. This is in contrast to the way many able-bodied writers incorporate disability into their books, sensationalizing or moralizing it.

Nick is a young lawyer who meets Caroline at a fiction writing class and a tumultuous relationship ensues. Meanwhile, Nick is battling ableism at his law firm, from random people he encounters, and even within his family. Through it all through, Spratt is constantly asking readers to think critically about a variety of philosophical issues related to disability including how sight contributes to the enjoyment of art, Aristotle’s argument that a mental image is central to being human, and many more. Spratt does this in a way that shows the challenges, nuances, and contradictions that surround so many of these issues, while also portraying Nick as the perfectly capable human being that he is.

SPOILER ALERT. If you don’t want any plot spoilers, skip this next paragraph.

While the central questions of the book are clear and thoroughly engaging, where Caroline falls short is in the portrayal of women and themes surrounding women. Just as able-bodied writers writing about characters with disabilities or white writers writing about characters of color often don’t do justice to the people those characters represent, multiple women in the book become defined by their experiences and trauma in ways that men can’t fully understand. While maintaining the view that writers should only write about their own demographics and personal experiences would make for a very boring literary landscape, it’s inarguable that a fair amount of thought and effort needs to be put into portraying characters that are different from the writer . I wouldn’t argue by any stretch that Spratt did not put this effort in, only that he missed the mark in his representation. So, while I commend and am absolutely ravenous about the positive portrayal of people with disabilities in Caroline, I have a hard time reconciling that with the portrayal of women in the novel. As a woman myself who actively opposes gendered, male-centered views of women’s bodies and experiences surrounding their bodies, I feel it’s important to discuss and bring these issues to light. 

Overall, Spratt brings an important voice to the literary table that offers an often ignored, but vital, perspective.

Slated for release from Books Fluent on February 15, 2022, you can preorder a copy of Caroline.

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.

‘Honor’ by Thrity Umrigar

What is honor? Is it your value as a human being? Is it your worth in relation to your actions? Is it the weight with which other’s view you? Thrity Umrigar seeks, not to answer this question, but to pose it in a way that forces her readers to interrogate its meaning in her latest novel by the very same name: Honor.

Honor begins with a newspaper clipping: a woman and her husband have been burned alive for their interfaith marriage. A marriage between a Hindu and Muslim is nothing but dishonorable in their small Indian village. The woman, Meena, and her unborn child, though, survive the burning. Backed by a lawyer fighting to change the corrupt legal system in India, Meena presses charges against her two brothers—the men who burned her husband to protect their honor and hers. 

Next, we meet Smita. An American journalist who was born in India and hasn’t returned since she left at fourteen, Smita is suddenly summoned to the country by her coworker who is stationed in India. At first, Smita thinks her friend and coworker simply needs some help recovering from an emergency surgery, and Smita, though hesitant to return to the place of her birth, pushes her apprehension aside for her friend. When Smita arrives though, it quickly becomes clear that her coworker called Smita to India for a very different purpose: to take over coverage of Meena’s story. Smita is thrown into a whirlwind of emotion as she attempts to navigate not only Meena’s heartbreaking story and the inherent issues they illuminate for her homeland but also Smita’s own deep-seated traumas that lay hidden in that same land. 

Misogyny and patriarchy, class and privilege, racism and toxic masculinity are only a few of the major themes that Umrigar explores in Honor. She poses tough questions such as: are people born evil or are they made evil by their circumstances, by their station in life, by the way they are treated and made to feel dishonorable? Umrigar doesn’t by any means hide her stance on many of these questions and issues, and she often flat out tells the reader what she thinks is right and wrong, but not always. By the end of the novel, we are still left with an elusive feeling as to who was “good” and who was “bad.” We hate Meena’s brothers for what they’ve done, and yet that feeling is somewhat challenged when we learn that the brothers too were pressured to fulfill a task they thought to be handed down by the gods. Umrigar clearly paints a complicated picture not only of India and the issues illuminated by the country’s policies and practices, but issues that Smita points out exist everywhere.

Part drama, part romance, part social justice call-to-action, Honor is a novel that quickly draws you in and doesn’t leave much room for dawdling. While the plot and backstories of the characters often feel a bit canned, this somehow doesn’t detract from the engaging nature of the novel. It works because Umrigar sets Honor up in such a way that we are compelled to seek out the why, not the what of the novel. Why did it happen? Why did it have to happen? Why were these characters compelled to make the choices they made? And while the answer seems to lie somewhere in the title of the book, still the reader asks “Why? Why is that honor? Why is that what honor means to him, to her, to you?”

Slated for release by Algonquin books in January of 2022, Honor by Thrity Umrigar is an important and deeply tragic book that asks all the right questions of humanity. 

You can preorder a copy of Honor by Thrity Umrigar from your local independent 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.

‘What a Wonderful World This Could Be’ by Lee Zacharias

Lee Zacharias captures something deeply universal in her new novel What a Wonderful World This Could Be: namely, what it is to be human. 

Alex is the novel’s main character: a woman confronted with questions and decisions about what it means to be a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a person. We follow Alex from her early teen years in the 1960s to her later adult life in the 1980s as she navigates personal issues of neglect, depression, and love within the larger backdrop of civil right issues and political tumult.

Weaving between periods of Alex’s life in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Zacharias follows Alex’s transformation from a neglected teen to a conflicted adult. All the while, readers stand beside Alex both cheering her on and cringing at her bad decisions.

While the novel can at times feel a bit disjointed, overflowing with so much plot that the reader can forget where they are and who they’re with, overall, What a Wonderful World This Could Be is an engaging and nostalgic read. Whether you grew up in the 1960s, are an artist, or have simply lived a life that involves love, loss, and heartbreak, you will find something to connect to in What a Wonderful World This Could Be.

Slated for release from Madville Publishing in June 2021, you can preorder a copy of What Wonderful World This Could Be from your local independent 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.

‘City of Orange’ by David Yoon

The cover image of City of Orange by David Yoon is a futuristic scene of rolling neon orange hills.

David Yoon’s latest novel City of Orange has the feel of a post-apocalyptic novel with the emotional verve of true literary fiction.

City of Orange follows a nameless man who wakes up in a desert with a splitting headache and only echoes of memories of his former life. He knows he has a name, but he can’t remember it. He knows he had a daughter and wife, but he can’t remember their faces. He looks around him and he knows the world has ended. Our nameless protagonist must battle the heat, the barrenness, the unlivability of the desert, but most of all he must battle himself, his fractured memories, and the mystery of his own past. 

As City of Orange progresses, Yoon gives us more and more of his character’s past, what the world was like before the fall—until it becomes clear that something is missing. Suddenly, readers are whisked into an entirely unexpected turn of events as memories and events unravel to reveal a truth that seems all too obvious once revealed.

While the setting of City of Orange appears post-apocalyptic in nature, the narrative itself is pure literary fiction. Tackling topics of loss, the effects of social media and technology on mental health, and the complicated nature of our deepest relationships, Yoon accomplishes a difficult feat with City of Orange. A truly compelling story told in a truly compelling world will grab at the heartstrings of readers in this emotionally charged novel.

Slated for release in May 2022 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, City of Orange by David Yoon is available for preorder from your local independent 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.