‘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.

‘Jenny in Corona’ by Stuart Ross

jenny-in-coronaJenny in Corona by Stuart Ross has all the elements of a strange, intriguing, and insightful novel.

Our narrator, Tyrone, is a twenty-something “meat head” as his sometimes-girlfriend Jenny would describe him. Tyrone, or Ty, as he much prefers, takes readers through the full gamut of his life from the time his music teacher sexually abused him (despite the fact that he is reminded by many and by himself that ‘he wanted it’) to his multitude of current dilemmas. He and Jenny have an on-again off-again relationship, each pushing the other away simply in order to have the other come begging for more. Ty alternates between imagining his future with Jenny and daydreaming about a life with his boss, whom he happens to be having an affair with. Ty’s mother has been dead for years, his father is hyped up on meds all day, and he lives under a death metal guitarist who writes satanic music but also attends church.

Ty’s life is a whirlwind of absolute mess, not unlike most twenty-somethings in our modern age. He vacillates between wallowing in self-pity, to hating everyone around him, to loving everything and everyone and seeing the whole world as potential. He moves between being dissociated with his current situation to so acutely feeling his own pain that he can’t function in the world around him.

A beautiful, moving, and utterly strange novel, Jenny in Corona definitely takes a dedicated reader who is willing to follow the wiles of Ty’s brain through all the memories and feelings and disconnectedness he shares with us.

Released by Tortoise Book in 2019, Jenny in Corona by Stuart Ross 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 Art of Regret’ by Mary Fleming

the-art-of-regret-flemmingThe Art of Regret by Mary Fleming is a story about more than just regret, it’s about healing, about hurting, and mostly about what it means to be an imperfect human being.

At the beginning of the novel, Trevor McFarquhar it seems, has mastered the art of regret. He runs a run-down bicycle shop in Paris that’s about to be closed down, sleeps around with at least two women at a time, and has less than kind thoughts about most of the people in his life. He is a cynical, selfish man who is afraid of everyone and everything, but most of all himself and his past. He has a snobbish American family and a beautiful sister-in-law whom he decides to tangle with in a less than respectable way. When the whole family finds out, Trevor is ostracized.

In the five years that he doesn’t speak to his family, Trevor acquires not only a new bicycle shop, but a friend, a dog, and some sympathy (if not yet empathy) for the people around him. When Trevor reunites with his estranged brother, his world turns upside down for better and for worse.

Fleming’s second novel is a whirlwind of action-packed drama that leaves the reader always eager to turn the page. While Trevor is not the most likable of characters, even in the end, he is a very human character whose flaws and triumphs many can relate to. The Art of Regret leaves readers with the feeling that change is possible: challenging, yes, but possible. The reader leaves with the feeling that there doesn’t need to be an art to regret, but rather that we can remember the good and bad times alike. We can take them with us and not let them rule us. We can ease regret through right action and effort towards change.

An inspiring and wholly realistic book, The Art of Regret will be published by She Writes Press on October 22, 2019. You can preorder a copy 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.

‘Relief by Execution’ by Gint Aras

relief-by-execution-arasGint Aras’ newest release, Relief by Execution, is an essay about cultural community, universal calamity, and the power of transformation.

Aras begins his long-form essay with an introduction to himself: the son of Lithuanian refugees living in a segregated neighborhood in Chicago. We learn of the unsurprising racism in Aras’ neighborhood and his family’s equally racist attitudes. We learn of Aras’ own brushes with brutality by the hands of his father, and we learn that Aras is interested in the complicated relationship between Christian and Jewish Lithuanians.’

At first the story seems jumbled, a mix of interesting and horrifying events that don’t quite piece together. That is until, Aras embarks on his own adventure to his homeland and feels at odds with visiting the concentration camps in Europe, but why? Aras admits that it’s not because he’s afraid of being emotionally affected by the atrocities committed against humanity; instead, he’s afraid of being excited by them. His family’s racist past, his own firsthand experiences with abuse, and eventually his post-traumatic stress disorder involving those experiences haunts him into believing he might be as bad as those he judges from afar.

Aras’ story is one of healing and acceptance but not of giving in, of forgiving, or of letting go. Aras’ does none of those things as he draws the story full circle from the Holocaust to his own experiences. Instead, he provides an inspiring reinterpretation of what it means to be both a victim and an abuser. The issues of nature versus nurture battle hard in Relief by Executionas Aras’ struggles with both pulls. Is it his nature to feel violent and maladaptive thoughts, or was it his upbringing that instilled these values?

A beautifully crafted and poetic essay that deals with multiple big-ticket issues in a cohesive and fluent way, Gint Aras’ Relief by Execution is a pocket-sized must-read.

Slated for release by Homebound Publications on October 9, 2019, you can preorder a copy of the book from your local 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.

‘Renia’s Diary: A Holocaust Journal’

renia's-diary-spiegelAs we near a world where survivors of the Holocaust are soon to be figures of the past, the stories, memories, and mementos of those who are still among us start to hold an even greater weight than they already did. Elizabeth Bellak is one such survivor who decided, after decades of hiding away her sister’s diary, to share it with the world.

Renia Spiegel was a young Jewish girl living in Poland when Hitler came to power. Her diary chronicles the time before Hitler and the war all the way to her experiences living and hiding in a ghetto before being killed by the Nazis. Renia’s Diary is exactly what its title betrays: a diary. Renia shares with us her feelings about school, her friends, boys, her complicated relationship with her mother who is not with her, as well as poetry to encapsulate it all.

The historical importance of a document like this makes readers wonder what historians will glean from the text through close and continued reading over the years.

Full of interesting details and facts about the time, as well as melodramatic, teenage angst, Renia’s Diary is a diary in every way, sharing the inner most thoughts and feelings of a young girl living through the hardest time of her life.

Slated for publication by St. Martin’s Press in September 2019, you can preorder a copy of Renia’s Diaryfrom your local independent 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.

‘Out of Darkness, Shining Light’ by Petina Gappah

out-of-darkness-gappah

Racism, misogyny and the ironies that arise from situations in which we “do right” are just a few of the topics taken on in Petina Gappah’s new novel Out of Darkness, Shining Light.

A historical novel that fictionalizes the actual removal of a missionary and doctor’s body out of Africa in the late 1800s, Out of Darkness, Shining Light is told from two unexpected perspectives. One is Halima, Doctor David Livingston’s cook, and the other is Jacob Wainwright, a freed slave and a Christian. Through these two narrators, we are afforded a glimpse into the harrowing journey of the group that literally carried Livingstone to the edge of the Earth.

While the frame of the novel centers around Livingstone’s removal from Africa, the core of the book gets at much deeper themes. Halima is a slave who is maybe not a slave, who is treated like the woman she is: not as worthy, intelligent, or capable as her male counterparts. She is chastised for having feelings towards another man when her partner is abusive, and their union is forced. She is made fun of for loving a child that isn’t hers. She’s told she can never own a house even if she is free one day, simply because she’s a woman. And yet, it’s Halima who provides for the group. Halima who in the end is shown to be the strongest of all.

Jacob Wainwright on the other hand, the pious Christian that he is, denounces the savagery of his countrymen and aims to convert all of Africa to the one true religion: Christianity. He parallels his savage counterparts in his treatment and view of women as inherently evil, in his blasé reflections on punishment and death, and in his othering of all who are not what he sees as the ideal. And yet, he in many ways is a victim of his circumstances: stolen as a child, shipped across the sea, and taught the white man’s view of white vs. wrong.

A cutting, funny, and most often horrifying novel, Petina Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a beautiful and soulful book that tells a story that desperately needs to be told.

Slated for release by Scribner Books on September 10, 2019, you can preorder a copy of Out of Darkness, Shining Lightby Petina Gappah 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.

‘This Tender Land’ by William Kent Krueger

this-tender-land-kruegerWilliam Kent Krueger’s latest novel, This Tender Land, takes on the task of emulating the American Classic in a number of ways. A group of outcast youngsters, down on their luck, living in an abusive, historical setting escape their captors to adventure down the Mississippi. Harkening back to landmark works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin and Great Expectations, Krueger’s novel awakens a sort of nostalgia for the American Classic in the reader.

While the cast of characters is interesting and the adventures manifold, the novel breaks down in its ambling structure and stride. The action is spread thin across the pages, making it challenging for the reader to keep pace. Krueger has moments where the intention is clear and the prose beautiful, but overall, the novel takes a heft of patience and perseverance to sift through.

Slated for release by Atria Books on September 3, 2019, you can preorder a copy of This Tender Landby William Kent Krueger 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.

 

 

‘We Will Tell You Otherwise’ by Beth Mayer

WeWillTellYouOtherwise-MayerWe Will Tell You Otherwise is the short story collection from debut author Beth Mayer.

Already winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press, We Will Tell You Otherwise is an eclectic and sometimes harrowing set of stories. Mayer takes ordinary people and puts them extraordinary situations that are simply life. For example, the opening story tells the tale of a young boy’s first encounter with death: both a cadaver and a knife fight in the same night. In this story, “Don’t Tell Your Mother,” Mayer explores the coming of age narrative in a very different way.

Characters in Mayer’s collection often have a blunt or almost nonchalant way of talking about hard material. There’s the father whose son has cancer, who tells the reader plainly at the beginning of “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” that the cancer is “likely going to kill him eventually.” There’s the sister whose eight-year-old brother wants to be committed to an insane asylum who tells us “[t]he real problem with [her brother] is that he is eight and has yet to find his true calling.” We hear these stark, almost outlandish statements from people trying to order the chaos of their own lives into something manageable.

All of the characters are rich and unforgettable in Mayer’s collection. They all come to the page with their own unique set of problems and often leave with those same problems. And the reader is offered only a glimpse of what it all means. There’s a sense that the world is disorder, sadness, and sometimes joy. Sad characters laugh, miserable characters dream, and some of the most unfortunate of them all get away from what’s haunting them somehow.

A moving and unique set of stories, Beth Mayer’s We Will Tell You Otherwise is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press on August 20, 2019. You can order a copy from Black Lawrence Press 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.

‘At the Narrow Waist of the World’ by Marlena Maduro Baraf

at-the-narrow-waist-Baraf.jpgAt the Narrow Waist of the World by Marlena Maduro Baraf is a narrative that investigates mental illness, issues of belonging, and the influence of family and generational past.

Told as a memoir that focuses on Baraf’s own mother, At the Narrow Waist of the World centers most of its conversation on mental health and how sanity is a complicated aspect of the human condition. Throughout Baraf’s life, her mother suffered from a number of psychotic breakdowns and spent years in psychiatric facilities. Through her memoir, Baraf attempts to both capture the memory of her mother and form a greater understanding of her mother’s influence in her own life.

In tandem with Baraf’s struggle with her mother and their nuanced relationship is Baraf’s internal battle with the notion of belonging. Growing up Jewish in Panama while attending a Catholic school, Baraf was at a constant loss as to how she fit in to the world around her.

At the Narrow Waist of the World tells one woman’s story of navigating the struggles of her adolescent and young adult life and how she both overcame and still lives with those struggles. While none of Baraf’s burning questions are necessarily answered, she does seem to come to peace with and embrace some of the more difficult aspects of her life.

Mixing English and Spanish, text and photographs, letters and remembered dialogue, At the Narrow Waist of the World is an eclectic and quick read.

Published by She Writes Press in August 2019, At the Narrow Waist of the World is available for purchase at 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.