‘Navigate Your Stars’ by Jesmyn Ward

navigate-your-stars-wardJesmyn Ward, two-time winner of the National Book Award, is releasing a print version of a commencement speech she gave at Tulane University in 2018. Illustrated by Gina Triplett, Navigate Your Stars is a lush and moving piece of work.

The speech, now in book form, traces Ward’s own life back to her roots in a rural, black community. Ward shares the judgements she passed on, what she saw as, her apathetic family and begins to unravel the narrative of her history. Leading readers through her own struggles with what it means to be someone who does their best and still doesn’t get anywhere, Ward sets up a situation with which many will be familiar.

If you grew up anywhere in the Gen X to Millennial generation, you’ve probably been given the spiel of how important it is to go to college. Like many, Ward believed college to be the end all and be all of her life. If only she could go to college, then…she would be a success, she would have a good job, she would be happy. As many postgraduates can attest, this is not the reality that is experienced first-hand.

Ward takes the time in Navigate Your Stars to remind readers that life is about more than making a single good choice. It’s about hard work, perseverance, and doing the best you can with what you have. In the end, Ward reflects back on her previous judgements of her family and realizes how unfair they were. As people of color living within the confines of systemic poverty and institutionalized racism, she realizes they did the best they could with what they had, and really that’s all anyone can do.

A deeply poignant work, Navigate Your Stars is both comforting and rousing. Ward reveals the most vulnerable parts of herself, admitting failure and showing readers that even (most) famous writers don’t get to where they end up easily.

Navigate Your Stars by Jesmyn Ward is slated for release from Scribner in April 2020. Preorder a copy from your local independent bookstore today.

Please remember during these tough times for our economy to still order your books from your local independent bookstore! Help support local businesses during covid-19!

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.

‘Beginning With Cannonballs’ by Jill McCroskey Coupe

beginning-with-cannonballs-coupeBeginning with Cannonballs by Jill McCroskey Coupe tells the story of two childhood friends growing up together. Divisions of race, class, and ideology deign to keep Hanna and Gail apart, but they keep finding their way back to one another. Across the expanse of time, the two main characters fight to both reunite and divide themselves as they grow from girls into women with husbands and children of their own. Each finds out things about one another, their parents, and their own children as they live and learn together.

While the issues that the book take on are important, Coupe’s handling of the content often comes off as stilted. Events take on a sort of sugarcoated veneer that makes even the more horrific happenings in the book seem ineffectual. A well-intentioned book with important issues to contend with, Beginning With Cannonballs simply falls short in its delivery.

Slated for release by She Writes Press in May of 2020, you can preorder a copy of Beginning with Cannonballs by Jill McCroskey Coupe at your local independent bookstore.

Please remember during these tough times for our economy to still order your books from your local independent bookstore! Help support local businesses during covid-19!

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.

‘After the Hunger’ by MaryEllen Beveridge

after-the-hunger-beveridgeAfter the Hunger is the latest short story collection from MaryEllen Beveridge. In this collection, Beveridge explores a myriad of questions relating to the experience of being human. Chief among these is where do we belong and how does belief shape our lives?

Beveridge looks at these questions through the lens of characters who have all lost something. Whether it’s the life they once knew, a loved one, or the idea of a loved one that’s been shattered, all of Beveridge’s characters are grappling with these fundamental questions of place and faith.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is entitled The Sisters. In this story, the two main characters, Mac and Jet, are career estate sale groupies. They hunt down estate sales and buy all that’s valuable – and some things that aren’t. Facing the realities of mortality and Jet’s own aging parent, the characters in The Sisters grapple with all sorts of challenges related to their own involvement in this dismantling of people’s lives. Jet sees both the emptiness of the houses she leaves behind and the mystery of the fullness that was once there.

A well-written, detailed collection of short stories, After the Hunger is a book for readers who love detail and sensory descriptions. Beveridge masterfully describes people, characters, and places in After the Hunger.

Released by Fomite Press in February of 2020, you can order a copy of After the Hunger by MaryEllen Beveridge from your local independent bookstore.

Please remember during these tough times for our economy to still order your books from your local independent bookstore! Help support local businesses during covid-19!

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 Beauty of Their Youth’ by Joyce Hinnefeld

beauty-of-their-youth-hinnefeldThe Beauty of Their Youth is the latest literary work by award winning author Joyce Hinnefeld. A collection of short stories, The Beauty of Their Youth introduces five characters who struggle with making sense of their present lives through both the chartered and unchartered territories of their pasts.

From a middle-aged daughter struggling to understand her dead mother through the help of an unsuspecting neighbor, to a German woman who goes to the greatest lengths to find and preserve an authentic and different self, all of Hinnefeld’s characters are deeply tragic yet entirely relatable. No matter the age or situation of the character, Hinnefeld has a way of drawing the reader into the narrative and erasing all sense of distance or difference.

Focusing mainly on the role of the past to help understand and make sense of the present, Hinnefeld takes this idea and creates worlds in which the reader can immerse herself in that very challenge with passion and with empathy.

Beautifully told and utterly engaging, The Beauty of Their Youth by Joyce Hinnefeld is a quick but in-depth collection of stories.

The Beauty of Their Youth by Joyce Hinnefeld is slated for release by Wolfson Press in March 2020.

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.

‘If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues’ by Philip Cioffari

cioffari-bluesPhilip Cioffari’s latest novel If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues is set in 1960’s New York and tells a story of boyhood and growing up.

Hunt is the book’s main character, an eighteen-year-old kid from the Bronx whose expectations seem to be constantly flouted. The novel takes place on his birthday, which is also the day of his school’s prom, and he believes, the next big moment of his life. The night doesn’t quite pan out the way he expects though, and things turn from bad to worse as Hunt finds himself not only turned down by the love of his life but also on the run from a notorious gang.

While the plot points of the book are empirically action packed, the narrative itself lacks luster. Hunt is your typical, ego-centric, blithely chauvinistic man-boy of the 1950’s while his friends and enemies are equally stuck in their stock characterization. Perhaps for a certain generation, Cioffari’s novel could be a sentimental amble down memory lane, but for the average reader without any nostalgic stock in the time or place, the novel falls fairly flat.

Slated for release on February 14, 2020 by Livingston Press, you can preorder a copy of If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues by Philip Cioffari 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.

 

 

‘Amnesty’ by Aravind Adiga

amnesty-adigaWhat does it mean live in a world where not being seen is the only thing that will sustain you, but when being seen is the only thing that can keep your spirit alive?

Danny is struggling with just this question as an illegal immigrant in Aravind Adiga’s latest novel, Amnesty. Danny is a cleaner, cleaning away the secrets and mysteries of the privileged, white Aussies who refuse to do it for themselves. Those same people who see him only as the color of his skin or the thickness of his accent. Those people who see him as the same brown person from across the street or from that Southeast Asian restaurant. Danny spends his days both hiding from and trying to be seen by these people.

And then he meets Radha, a brown woman whose luxurious home he’s hired to clean. A woman who at first seems to genuinely care for him, who offers to help him, but who ends up being as corrupted and swallowed by the white-washed world she lives in. Radha is forced to take on a certain persona to protect herself from further degradation because of the color of her skin. She treats Danny like a pet, taking him to gamble and drink with her and her secret lover Prakash. Danny has left that life behind though, having refused to clean for Radha and her lover for months. Until the morning he’s cleaning a neighbor’s home and finds that Radha has been murdered.

Danny tries to convince himself that Radha’s murder was random, an act of violence committed by any person who might have had nothing against her. But he knows this isn’t true. He knows Prakash had something to do with it. He knows Prakash has murdered her. But what can he do? He, an invisible, illegal immigrant? Someone no one sees? Someone who spends his life trying to be invisible and slowly dying because of it?

Danny struggles with these fundamental moral questions as he weighs what it means to be human, to be a human who has suffered, to be a human who has an obligation to those around him even if they don’t look like him or want him.

A beautiful and poignant novel that tells a story that was dying to be told, Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty is a must read of 2020.

Slated for release by Scribner in February 2020, you can preorder a copy of Adiga’s Amnesty 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.

‘American Dirt’ by Jeanine Cummins

American-Dirt-CumminsAmerican Dirt by Jeanine Cummins tells one of the most important stories of our time. A story of heroism and bravery, of fear and unfairness, and of what it means to live a life to its fullest.

Lydia and Luca are the two main characters of American Dirt: an upper-middle class mother and son from Acapulco. Their lives are turned upside down on page one when their entire family is murdered by an infamous gang. The pair narrowly escape from the wreckage alive and quickly turn from their quiet lives to become migrants in a sea of rage and despair. Their destination is el norte, but they have no idea how they’re going to get there or of the terrors they will encounter on the way.

On their journey, Lydia and Luca befriend others who are fleeing dangerous and unstable lives for the hope of something better. While their journey is a harrowing one and the messages that come from it are important, where American Dirt falls short is in its character development and plot-line. The characters all have what seem like interesting and exciting backgrounds that the reader gains access to; however, it often feels like the way in which we learn about those characters is through an information dump rather than through a slow and meticulous crafting of the characters and their relationships to one another. People die, but never is the reader close enough to the character or the action to feel the anguish of that death. These backgrounds and characterizations also prove to be stereotypical in every way. Similarly, the plot points in the book appear action packed and empirically should evoke terror, but they feel very scripted and somewhat too easily escaped. In this way, the important messages of American Dirt, while still visible and pertinent, get somewhat lost in the book’s almost didactic, staccato feel.

Overall, Jeanine Cummins’ book is one that tells a story of paramount importance at a time when migration and migrants are such buzz words in our contemporary culture. It becomes problematic when told by someone who lives outside of the reality of what it means to be Mexican, Mexican-American, or an asylum seeker. The issues brought up in the book need attention called to them, but the questions remain as to whether this was the best way or best person to tell this story. Cummins herself addresses this in the afterword of her novel, but defends her decision to write the book based on personal experience, heritage, and the importance of the story itself.

Slated for release from Flatiron Books in January of 2020, you can preorder a copy of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins 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.