‘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.

‘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.

‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn

dunbar-edward-st-aubynDunbar by Edward St. Aubyn is the latest in Hogarth’s Shakespeare project. A modern retelling of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, King Lear, Dunbar takes on the themes of greed, family, and madness with verve and anguish.

In St. Aubyn’s version of Lear, Dunbar is a media mogul who has recently decided that he needs an extended, if not permanent holiday from working, but with all the same perks of being the head of his corporation. He tries to convince his lawyer, Wilson, to put his two daughters in charge while still leaving him with all the proper bonuses. Wilson, in attempt to save Dunbar from what he sees to be a terrible mistake, tries to persuade Dunbar against making the decision he’s so set upon. Dunbar, in a fury fires Wilson, and after a chain of rather uncertain events in his memory, ends up in a mental institution in England.

We meet Dunbar in the institution where he has made friends with a famous alcoholic actor who promises to help him escape. Close on his heels though, are the two daughters he realizes have upended his plans in an attempt to take over the entire company and divest their father of all power. They aren’t the only one’s perusing Dunbar though. Dunbar has another daughter, Florence (Cordelia reincarnated) who had been stripped of her shares in the company after divulging her disinterest in ever being a part of management in the business. Dunbar, in his enlightened state, realizes the mistakes he’s made regarding his daughters, and makes every attempt to right his wrongs.

A thrilling and often terrifying account of one’s man’s effort to repair the mistakes he’s made in the name of greed, Dunbar is a beautiful parallel to Shakespeare’s King Lear. The hatred the readers build for nearly all of the characters is matched only by the overwhelming love we are made to feel for Florence. St. Aubyn’s best character by far though, is Peter, the alcoholic actor who, as nearly all other characters do, gives way to the greater temptations of greed.

St. Aubyn does a beautiful job of recreating one of Shakespeare’s arguably greatest works, and he does so by not simply retelling the story, but entirely reinventing it.

Released by Hogarth press in October of 2017, Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn 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.

‘How to Behave in a Crowd’ by Camille Bordas

how-to-behave-in-a-crowd-bordasA novel where everything and nothing is said all at once without the slightest regard for conformity, How to Behave in a Crowd is both a hilarious and gloomy collection of pages.

Author Camille Bordas follows the life of a family in France over the course of a very short time during which a very lot happens. From realized dreams to actualized death, the Mazal family finds its way lost in a tangle of happiness and despair without often being able to distinguish between the two. Told from the perspective of the youngest of six siblings, Isidore, How to Behave in a Crowd is a novel about so much more than the words let on.

Told in a stark and rather dry tone, Isidore takes on the persona of someone who, despite what the title suggests, often does not know how to behave in a crowd. His thoughts are based in pure reason without much emotion, yet his actions, more often than not take into account the people around him. He, unlike his brothers and sisters, is not a child prodigy working towards a first or second PhD after skipping years of schooling. Instead, Isidore is the odd one out. The one who does infuse compassion into his encounters with others (unlike his siblings), the one who takes everything literally, including the advice given to him by homeless people who are clearly taking advantage of him.

Over the course of the novel, Isidore, sees people he loves achieve their dreams, lose their passion, and sometimes even die. Throughout his experiences, he is always looking at others, always trying to determine their thoughts, always trying to impress them without ever realizing that he has something to offer.

In the end, we can only infer what Isidore has learned from his experiences, as always he won’t really tell us what’s going on in his mind, or maybe he doesn’t know what’s going on beneath the literal thoughts that fill his head, but we know he’s learned something important. Bordas does a beautiful job of portraying the very real experiences of the human condition through the literal though never static view of Isidore.

Published by Tim Duggan Books in 2017, How to Behave in a Crowd 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.