‘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’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.

‘Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir’ by Jean Guerrero

crux-guerreroWhat is it that determines definitions: defines something as one thing instead of another? What delimits fiction from reality, sanity from insanity? Borders: the lines that stand between; the lines that distinguish “different” from “same.” Borders that are rarely clear and often obfuscated by our own perceptions, by what we bring to the table, the baggage we carry.

Borders are what Jean Guerrero investigates in her narrative nonfiction release Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir. Guerrero sets out not only to tell her story, but to tell that of her father through both her memories and the investigative work it requires to unravel her family’s troubled and often curricular past.

Guerrero begins by setting the scene, by introducing the reader to her parents, to what life was like growing up as the child of her parents. Her mother, an acclaimed doctor with expectations that reach no lower that straight A grades and flawless chastity, holds one end of the parenting tight rope. Her father, a potential schizophrenic who sees every action as sabotage or a symptom of being spoiled, holds the other. Guerrero finds herself trying to walk between them, seeking desperately to both please and thwart their expectations, wishes, and demands of her.

Most of Guerrero’s life is spent without her father, wondering where he is, thinking he’s dead. The other part of the time, Guerrero spends, at least her childhood, terrified of her father. Terrified of his mania, of his accusations, of feeling like a failure in his eyes. Her mother spends most of Guerrero’s childhood trying to forget her husband, arguing that he’s schizophrenic and telling Guerrero, whenever she acts out of line in her mother’s eyes, that she suffers from the same mental illness. Her father meanwhile, claims he is being targeted by the CIA for mind control experiments, and Guerrero experiences moments that make her question the dubiousness of his statements.

Guerrero finds her way through her troubled childhood to come out an investigative journalist constantly seeking for the truth that alluded her as a child. But the biggest mystery, the biggest truth she hopes to hold is that of her father’s life. Travelling through Mexico to piece together the mystery of her family and her father’s past, Guerrero uncovers a cycle of abuse that has perpetuated her family’s suffering. She learns of the terrors that the women who came before her suffered to give her father life and her. She learns of the terrors her own father suffered and that potentially led him to the depths of his current despair.

A beautifully moving and terrifying memoir, Crux is a book that attempts not to teach, but to learn and keep on learning beyond the pages of its covers. Guerrero brings to the table systemic issues that cannot be eradicated by a single story, but she suggests that maybe through constant inquiry, searching, and an attempt to do better we can break free of the demons of our past.

Slated for release by One World Press on July 17, 2018, you can preorder a copy of Crux: A Cross-Border at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction 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.

‘Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One’ by Raphaelle Giordano

your-second-life-giordanoYour Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Raphaelle Giordano is a feel-good self-help in the form of a novel.

Giordano’s main character Camille, has hit a rut in her privileged, routine, upper-class life. She has everything that points to success and happiness, but no feelings to match that image. On a particularly “rough” day, Camille gets into a car accident and meets Claude, a routinologist who offers to help her get her life back in order. Claude has an entire curriculum for Camille to follow that involves more extreme adventures like riding in a hot air balloon and scuba diving, as well personal tasks such as creating lists of what Camille’s vision for her life is.

While the reader never quite gets to know any of the characters or truly feel Camille’s frustrations and despair, the point of the novel seems to be touching on something different than a typical story arc. The book reads as a how-to to happiness instead of a novel about a specific character.

Slated to be released by G.P. Putnam’s Sons on July 24, 2018, you can preorder a copy Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Raphaelle Giordano 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.

‘Welcome to Lagos’ by Chibundu Onuzo

welcome-to-lagos-onuzoWalking in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and others in the Nigerian literary canon, Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos is the next contemporary Nigerian novel. Onuzo leads readers through a thematically riveting novel as she paints a picture of Nigeria’s beauty, horror, and the perceptions of both the its people and those looking in on its people.

We first meet Chike, an upright soldier who finds himself in the throes of indecision as he is told to murder an entire village. Abandoning his post and finding a host of unlikely characters along the way, Chike becomes the father figure to this vagabond group of Nigerians. A runaway wife who is finished being abused, a young girl overcoming a battle with a newly experienced trauma, and eventually a corrupt(ish) politician are only a few of the characters in Chike’s cohort.

Throughout Welcome to Lagos, themes of morality, forgiveness, and corruption are explored as we learn to love the characters we thought we were meant to hate. Characters are reborn in the eyes of the reader, and we watch them grow from outlaws or weak characters to commendable and ferocious leaders. Onuzo has a unique ability to draw in readers through these themes in ways that make you forget the who of the story and instead feel rooted in its many messages.

Though the characters often felt distant and it is hard to truly get to know any of them because of Onuzo’s panoramic perspective, Welcome to Lagos is a novel that is driven to share itself with the world.

Published by Catapult in May of 2018, Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo 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.