‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.