‘A Place for Us’ by Fatima Farheen Mirza

a-place-for-us-mirzaA Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza is work of art. A melody, almost, that sings to the reader and never stops, not even when the pages are closed.

A Place For Us tells a story of the “All American” life in a very different way than anglo white Americans will be used to. The family that Mirza follows is an American family, Hadia, Huda, and Amar are all born in America. The family identifies as much with being American as they do being Muslim, and that for some in the family is a challenge, especially those who don’t always want to identify with being Muslim. The children, fighting to fit in both at their mosque and in school struggle often to come to terms with what it means to be an American and a Muslim. Besides, for most of the story, they are only children, also struggling to find meaning and purpose, to feel loved, and to accomplish what they feel is expected of them.

Mirza does a beautiful job of weaving past and present as if it were a seamless tapestry, shifting between time periods almost unnoticed. We hear from nearly every family member’s perspective as Mirza slowly unravels the tragic, beautiful, and engrossing narrative of the family’s life. Throughout the novel, as the perspective shifts, we begin to know each character more intimately, finding more and more respect, forgiveness, or anger at that character depending on the reveal.

Perhaps what makes the novel so moving, so fully charged with an energy that not only propels readers forward but makes it nearly impossible to stop is that the main themes of the book are inescapable for us all. Issues of family, duty, faith, and regret are those that shadow all our lives whether for good or for bad in ways that make the novel somehow relatable even if the reader does not share the faith of the family, their home country, or their problems. Through bursts of anger, disappointment, and doubt though the family holds some thread of being together as a family, of their culture, of their lives as Muslim Americans.

Mirza has a beautiful and poetic voice that rings out with an aura of wisdom. You wouldn’t know this was her first book if the back cover didn’t say so: she has the power and grace of a generations old writer.

Slated for release by Hogarth Press in June of 2018, you can preorder a copy of A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza 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

 

 

‘Woman No. 17’ by Edan Lepucki

woman-no-17-lepuckiWoman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki is a novel about nothing more complicated than identity. Told from dual perspectives, Lepucki tears readers back and forth between two opposing yet coexisting worlds. The first, the world of Lady, is the perspective of a middle-aged house wife turned writer who is in the middle of a self-maintained separation from her husband and who is constantly thinking about her ex-boyfriend of 18 years ago who was verbally abusive. She is grappling to raise both her toddler Devin and her teenaged son Seth who suffers from some type of disability that keeps him from speaking. So, in her struggles Lady puts a call out for a nanny. And who arrives but our second main character and voice, S. S is an artist who has just broken up with her boyfriend and who has decided to relive her mother’s past in an attempt to better understand her alcoholic, juvenile mother’s point of view.

Both Lady and S are constantly trying to redefine themselves through new names (Lady was once Pearl and then becomes @muffinbuffin41 on Twitter; S’s really name is Esther who is actually wearing the persona of her mother Katherine Mary), new titles (Lady is a housewife turned aspiring writer; S is an artist turned nanny), and even through the actions they partake in to become the personas they are trying to embody (Lady seeks companionship in the much younger S as well as romantic relations with the man who abandoned her for a $2,000 check; S has become an alcoholic and her mother for her character).

Woman No. 17 is twisted with heartbreak, humor, and a constant reminder of the pressures we put on ourselves to be everything that we aren’t. Lady and S are plagued by their inadequacies, by their pasts, and by the generational failure of their mothers to be good mothers. In their constant search for their own identities, Lady and S are also grappling with the identities of their deluded mothers who couldn’t take care of their children.

My one critique of the book is about Seth’s disability. Seth does show some of the hallmark signs of selective mutism (SM) in memories that Lady has from his childhood, especially because of the unstable home life that he had and the potential anxiety he was experiencing. However, in his adulthood, his lack of speech is clearly not a form of anxiety. He is not even shy, let alone suffering from social anxiety. Selective mutism is in and of itself an anxiety disorder and often does not persist past childhood, though symptoms of anxiety will follow children through their whole lives. While, Lady admits that she doesn’t know the cause of Seth’s disability, and perhaps it is just from her point of view that he has SM, I struggled with this label for him. Lady is clearly not thorough in any of her research, thought processes, or other areas in her life, so if we could chalk it up to Lady’s perspective and not Lepucki’s I’d feel more comfortable with the label. Nonetheless I feel like labeling Seth with SM in the novel portrays a false perception of the disability to readers, and SM needs a lot more coverage than it gets to begin with.

Despite this critique, a beautifully written and often tragically hilarious novel, Woman No, 17 has all of the elements of a success. While it often reads a bit slow, I would argue that’s part of the structure and purpose of the book. Life is moving inexorably slowly for the character’s living in Lepucki’s world, and so it is for the reader too.

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki was released by Hogarth in early 2018 and 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.

‘The Sky at Our Feet’ by Nadia Hasimi

the-sky-at-our-feet-hashimiNadia Hashimi’s second foray into middle grade fiction, The Sky at Our Feet, is just as thrilling, relevant, and heartfelt as her first, One Half from the East. In The Sky at Our Feet, we meet Jason D. an Afghan, or an American, or maybe both, he’s still not quite sure himself. A young boy who has just been told some of the dark secrets from his mother’s past, Jason D. suddenly has a lot more questions about his past, his family, and his own identity.

One month after finding out that his mother is living as an illegal immigrant in the United States, she is taken from the laundromat where she works as Jason D. watches helpless from afar. Now, Jason D. is more than confused, he is alone, scared, and suddenly charged with a mission to find his mother. Through a series of seemingly unfortunate events, Jason D. ends up in a hospital where he meets Max, the girl who will help him to answer some of the deepest questions he has. On a day trip that turns into the biggest adventure of his life, Max learns more about himself and what it means to have an identity than he ever could have imagined.

The Sky at Our Feet is a story that is relevant not only because of the heightened media around illegal immigration, but also because of the deeper questions it asks. What makes somebody who they are? What does it mean to have an identity? What does it mean to have an identity that is tied to the place that you live? The place that you’re from.

An artful and exciting novel, The Sky at Our Feet is both inspiring and thought-provoking without ever letting the reader stop for air. With its fast-paced, non-stop action, it’s hard not to read The Sky at Our Feet all in one sitting.

Slated for release by Harper Collins in March of 2018, you can preorder a copy of Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi at your local bookstore.

Read more young adult 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.

‘Home & Castle’ by Thomas Benz

Home & CAstle - BenzHome & Castle by Thomas Benz is a collection of short stories that take on questions like “why me,” “how bad can it get,” and “is this really what my life has become?” At least these were the questions that constantly bounded back and forth between the pages as Benz’s characters floundered their way through the lives that had become something other than they had imagined they would be.

Nobody in Home & Castle is an extraordinary person, or even a kind person for that matter. They are flawed in ways that many humans are, imperfect in ways that sometimes made you hate them or want their wives to find out their schemes. Yet, despite their imperfections, Benz has a way of drawing the reader into these flawed, sometimes twisted fantasies of the often-misogynistic characters in attempt to unravel their minds just a little bit.

In one of the strongest stories, The Casual Imposter, we meet Blake, an average Joe who is always mistaken for another average Joe. Nearly everywhere he goes, he’s met by some stranger who thinks he’s someone else. As Blake begins to feel more and more invisible as himself, he also begins to gain a confidence, or maybe a self-consciousness, that encourages him to play along with what he feels like is a trick the world is playing on him. Blake decides to be the person he is mistake for, which he thinks might “be the key to breaking the curse.” After episodes of of anxiety, nearly giving himself away, and after ruining the reputation of the man he’s pretending to be with his own dreams of cheating, Blake gives the sham up only, in the end to meet the ultimate irony of all. Someone he cares about can’t recognize him.

In the title story Home & Castle, we meet Drew, a middle aged, once popular, wealthy, and well-to do man who has lost it all. Suddenly, he finds himself, the stay-at-home dad while his wife thrives along beside him. This kills Drew because he can’t stand the role reversal of our gendered society. Drew, at first a pitiful character, starts to become someone the reader herself feels embarrassed by. This embarrassment, Benz reminds us, though, is only the function of what society labels “normal” or even “acceptable.”

Benz’s writing is a lyrical wave of softness that washes over the reader, slowly, sometimes sleepily, and the stories begin to feel less read and more felt or almost experienced. Benz’s writing is refined, funny, and often sarcastic in a perfectly resonating way. By no means a speed read, Home & Castle is a beautiful collection nonetheless.

Home & Castle was published by Snake Nation Press in January of 2018. You can purchase a copy of Home & Castle by Thomas Benz at Indie Lit.

Read more reviews of books published by small presses at Centered on Books.

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

‘American Wolf’ by Nate Blakeslee

american-wolf-nate-blakesleeLike watching Planet Earth in your mind’s eye, American Wolf, is an adventure that lets you experience moments on Earth that most people haven’t even dreamed exist. Author Nate Blakeslee tells the story of O-Six, one of the most famous Yellowstone wolves. O-Six was shot by a hunter during a brief period in which wolves were removed from the endangered species list. Blakeslee tells O-Six’s story through a variety of lens covering issues of politics, environmentalism, and humanity.

Told is a very Eric Larson style narration, American Wolf is a literary non-fiction work that covers fact with the guise of fiction. Blakeslee’s sources include everything from interviews to field notes, and his method for compiling these facts build beautifully into a narrative form that tells more like a story than an account of history. Part of what adds to the literary element of American Wolf is the multiple points of view that Blakeslee takes up throughout his telling.

O-Six is only one of many characters who makes an appearance in American Wolf. Others include O-Six’s murderer, alias Steven Turnball; wolf expert Rick McIntyre; the wolves of O-Six’s pack and those of rivalry tribes; as well as senators, governors, and even Barack Obama. Blakeslee’s drama weaves between wolves hunting food, humans hunting wolves, humans fighting humans and wolves fighting wolves all the while allowing readers to see all sides, even if one side is clearly preferred.

While Blakeslee advocates strongly for the wolves in American Wolf, he does not do so at the expense of the other players on the field. He very pointedly captures the arguments from all sides: arguments about the controversial reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone in the early 1990’s and the debates around when and if to remove the wolf from the engendered species list and thereby open the wolf to being hunted. We hear from ranchers, from hunters, from environmentalist, and politicians, seeing the intricacies of what one act can do to a person, a town, a country.

Blakeslee does a fantastic job of capturing the unique and desolate beauty of Yellowstone from the point of view of a creature few who’ve travelled to Yellowstone have even seen. Barreling through trees, battling against bears, fighting for survival, Blakeslee makes his readers feel like they are there, swooping through the forests and plains of Yellowstone beside the wolves. And when you aren’t in the park, the battles are just as heated in civilization.

A beautiful, moving, and essential piece of literature during a politically heated time, American Wolf was published in 2017 by Crown Publishing. You can purchase a copy of American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee 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.

‘This Far Isn’t Far Enough’ Lynn Sloan

this-far-isnt-far-enough-sloanThis Far Isn’t Far Enough encapsulates perfectly the feeling in every one of Lynn Sloan’s new short stories. The stories in Sloan’s collection are tragedies that nearly break your heart, or often do. Every sad ending, it seems, is the result of someone not going far enough or something not being quite enough: someone trying but not hard enough, someone succeeding, but not in the way they imagined, or someone simply being swallowed by the reality of their incapacity to evoke change in their lives.

Though the underlying theme seems to be the same across stories, Sloan does a superb job of diversifying her characters and setting each scene on a new and fresh stage. There’s the story of Ollie, the chef betrayed by his partner, friend, and lover Donnie. Ollie who is given a chance at a comeback after a scandal at his previous restaurant. But is this new chance enough? Will Donnie always haunt Ollie even in his glory – haunt him through others and through Ollie’s own memory? Is a new restaurant enough to erase the pain?

Then there’s “A Little 1,2,3;” the story of Betty, a window confined to an assisted living home with not only the memories, but the visceral visions of her recently deceased husband beckoning her towards death. If only he hadn’t slipped while cleaning the gun. All Betty wants is to be with her husband, to escape the reality of all that she can’t remember and all that she can. But will death be enough to find happiness? Could death at the hands of the same gun that killed her husband save her from her misery?

Every one of Sloan’s characters is a monument to “what if” and “if only” and they remind readers to stop, to erase this ever-present message in humanity’s mind, because even under the guise of “if,” it could still not take you far enough. Life could still be just what it is or just what you don’t want it to be. Sloan’s characters remind us to make the effort, to live fully in what you have, and to cherish everything without the “if.”

Slated for publication by Fomite Press in February of 2018, you can reserve a copy on Amazon.

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.

‘The Last Girl’ by Nadia Murad

the-last-girl-nadia-muradIt could’ve been me. It could’ve been you, your mother, your wife, your daughter. It could’ve been any woman living in the “wrong” time, the “wrong” place, believing the “wrong” thing. Nadia Murad’s story is the story of every woman who could have been her and wasn’t. Her story is the story of every woman in her tribe who had been her to someone else: a slave, an object, a sabayya.

Nadia grew up in a village outside of Mosul, Iraq called Kocho. Her family lived a simple life of farming, community, and prayer. But they weren’t Muslim. They were Yazidi, an almost dirty word to the leaders and followers of ISIS who were quickly taking over Iraq. And so, when ISIS decided they wanted the Yazidi gone and they needed a collection of dispensable of women to keep them occupied, they began destroying the Yazidi, killing their men, kidnapping their boys, and forcing their women into a slave of sex trade.

But it was still hard for Nadia to believe anything would happen to her village, to her. Nadia was born in 1993, there hadn’t been an attack on the Yazidi in her life time. Even when ISIS came to Kocho, surrounding the borders and denying anyone entrance to and exit from the city, Nadia still had faith that everything would be okay.

And then it wasn’t. And then all of the men were dead. And Nadia was separated from her family. And she was sold. And she was raped. And she was beaten. And every ounce of dignity she had was taken from her. And she didn’t give up.

This isn’t a story about how it all ends. Nadia is the author. We know it has a “happy” ending. She lives. This is a story about what happened. This is a story about what nobody else knows is happening, what nobody is listening to, what happens when one group of people decides another isn’t worthy to be alive. This is a story about genocide and rape as a weapon of war. For Nadia, this is more than just a story, her story, this is the story she hopes will be the last. This is the story, she hopes, that will be about the last girl who was ever sold into slavery, who will ever have everything worth anything taken from her, who will have to survive to ever live again.

The Last Girl is an account of something so terrible and so recent it’s hard not to sit and think about what you were doing three years ago or less when the events of the book were taking place. It’s hard not to be enraged, deflated, encouraged, and hopeless all at the same time. The Last Girl is terrible, beautiful, and absolutely worth every moment of every person’s time. It’s a story that everyone should read, that everyone should be aware of is truth. It’s a story so powerful because it’s history and it’s the news all in one. It’s a story that should be read, that should be listened to, so that Nadia can have her dream, and so that every girl who’s experienced anything even close to Nadia’s story can one day find peace that somebody somewhere was the last girl ever stolen, the last girl ever abused, the last girl ever whose body was not their own, even for a moment.

Published by Tim Duggan Books in November of 2017, The Last Girl by Nadia Murad is available for purchase 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.