‘Midstream’ by Lynn Sloan

Lynn Sloan’s Midstream is a novel that captures what it means to be woman in America agnostic of time or place. 

We see a forest through what looks like a cracked mirror on the cover of Lynn Sloan’s new novel, Midstream.

Polly Wainwright works as a picture editor for Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). It’s 1974. A once aspiring filmmaker, Polly has settled for a steady job in Chicago while her boyfriend is off across the seas covering the end of The Vietnam War. Polly, though, has responsibilities. She has a mother to take care of, a paycheck she needs to collect to keep afloat. She doesn’t have the time or space to galivant into the jungle, to pursue her dreams, like all the men in her life.

Until…

Polly’s life is thrown askew when she finds out the project she’s working on at EB will fold at the end of the year and almost the entire staff will be laid off. There’s that, and her relationship with her boyfriend is slowly sinking. And on top of that, Polly is faced with her own mortality when her best friend falls seriously ill. Oh, and a mysterious package arrives. 

All of this sets Polly on a different life course she always dreamed of, but never dared to pursue.

Polly takes us back to 1962 when she worked as an assistant on a film project, showing us all the ways things went wrong and why she ended up where she did. But Polly’s past creeps up on her in more than just memories as she is reunited with old acquaintances to uncover a potential mystery.

Midstream is a novel about a woman who is midstream in an unsatisfying life, when she decides to turn it around. Polly makes the decisive effort to forget about, or ignore as best she can, the sexist tropes that have kept her down and to subtly fight against them. 

Sloan reveals in a number of ways how being a woman forces us into boxes, creates untrue narratives that are perpetuated (even by other women), and gives us hope that we can break free. With the overturning of Roe v Wade and the rapid descent back into a time of even greater oppression and subjugation for women, Midstream is a very welcome novel.

Slated for related from Fomite Press in August of 2022, you can preorder a copy of Midstream by Lynn Sloan from your local independent 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.

“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin

The cover art of Zevin’s book is a snowy mountain stylized after Japanese artist Hokusai.

As avid readers we live for the next best book. The one that will force us to stay up far past bedtime hiding under the sheets to read by phone light so as not to wake our wives or husbands or children. The one that will make us cry so many times our eyes will sting. That will make us miss the characters, the world, that will make us think and speak in the narrator’s voice long after we’ve put the book down to enter into “real life.” Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (author of the Storied Life of AJ Fikry) is that book.

A throwback to the past in so many ways, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’s setting is perhaps one of the most well-crafted elements of the book (and the entire book is well-crafted). Taking place in a variety of east coast and west coast towns across the span of the 1990s, Zevin’s characters remind us (or teach us if we are very young) what the world was like at the dawn of technology. Those characters: Sam, Sadie, and Marx are college kids when we first meet them. College kids with the dream to make a video game together.

Throughout the course of the novel, we follow mostly Sam and Sadie through their game-making venture as well as into their childhoods, and sometimes even the far-flung future. Zevin is a master of time and seamlessly weaves together a narrative of love, friendship, and art in a way that the reader feels as if we too are a character. Sure, we don’t know (yet) the thing in Sam’s past that makes him the way he is, but Zevin makes us feel as if we do know. The way she reveals elements of each character’s past and future is brilliant and enmeshes the reader so fully in the world that it’s hard to get out.

You’ll see there’s not much about plot in this review. And that’s intentional. The plot is also brilliant, but it’s everything else that’s mind-blowing, everything else that make me want to read the book again, and again, and again. But fine, a little taster of plot:

Sam and Sadie’s friendship (or lack of friendship) is the core of the novel, and through their relationship we explore not only their love of games, but also their past traumas, their relationships with their families and lovers, their artistic passions, and so much more. When we first meet our characters in college, Sadie is the only girl in her MIT game development class while Sam is a bored Math major at Harvard who dreams of doing something great. Okay, that’s it.

One of the pieces of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow that Zevin does so well (is there anything she doesn’t do well…?) is take something like playing video games and make it both accessible to those who don’t play and yet make it the ultimate experience for those who do. Even if you are a casual gamer like me, (someone who played the classics as a kid, who was a master among my friends and novice compared to my high scoring brother who held world records, who still picks up any new Animal Crossing or Zelda game) you will find so much comfort and joy and immersion in the virtual world’s Zevin creates. That’s because we don’t just hear about the games, we often get to play them, sometimes in depth, in a way in which we can see the pixelated characters and objects all around us.

Zevin explores relationships, art, ableism, classism, racism, sexism, and a multitude of other important topics that are often not discussed in everyday life let alone in books. She’s brilliant (did I say that?).

God, I need to just go read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow again. While I do that, please preorder your copy from your local independent bookstore.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin is slated for released by Knopf on July 12, 2022. I can’t say it enough: preorder it now. 

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.

‘Still the Night Call’ by Joshua Senter

A row of trees is reflected by the sun to show their image in the water as well.

While America has been a politically divided country for over two centuries, the gap between America’s parties seems to grow wider as their values become more and more associated with a sense of an old and new America. Still the Night Call by Joshua Senter is an attempt to bridge that gap, or at the very least to encourage empathy for those standing on the other side.

Still the Night Call’s lead character Calem Honeycutt is a dairy farmer in the Ozarks of Missouri. When we meet Calem on page one at 4:30 AM, he tells us almost immediately about his plans to kills himself that night. Over the course of the day, we follow Calem as he works the farm with his father, attempts to reconcile his deep debt, and reveals to readers his struggle with depression. Through it all Calem is constantly linking his problems back to changing America, the corrupt politics of all parties, and the recognition of his own ineptitude at truly understanding things beyond the farm.

To illustrate many of these issues, Senter introduces us to a host of characters who are both like and unlike Calem. We meet Calem’s parents who are quintessential American traditionalists—Dad milking cows, Mom making breakfast. We meet Calem’s sister Caitlyn through memories and phone calls—the rebel who ran away to the city to live out her liberal dreams. Then we meet Calem’s friends and neighbors—people he loves and who have tried their best both to find happiness for themselves and for their families often by doing things like voting for Trump. Senter shows each of these people’s biases and the way they judge and define one another by their values and politics.

Calem time and again reminds readers that he is not your stereotypical red-American-farm-boy. He actually stands somewhere in the middle of the radically left and right people around him. Sure, Calem (like everyone in his community) voted for Trump in 2016 even though he thought Trump was incompetent and ridiculous. But Calem voted for Trump because Trump promised something no one else did: a return to the glory days of traditional America when farmers didn’t struggle the way they do now. Even though Calem believes in gay rights, abortion, and a host of other human rights issues we don’t often associate with Republican leaning individuals, he chose to vote for Trump to better his own life.oldjjj

Calem openly claims that he doesn’t understand the wider world. And part of that understanding Calem is missing is his own place in the world. Calem identifies with many marginalized groups in America including transgender people and women and can’t seem to understand how being a white man makes him anymore advantaged than a person of color or someone of a different gender. What Calem doesn’t understand is intersectionality. He hears chanting of “down with the patriarchy” and assumes everyone hates straight white men. Calem doesn’t have the education or bandwidth to step back from his own situation and examine the ways in which men have dominated American decision making since its founding and how problematic that is. There is some sense that if only Calem could have a wider experience of the world, he would see himself and his place in that world differently. Instead, Calem is deeply attached to his life and career and doesn’t want to experience change on the farm, in his community, or within the world at large.

Where our empathy for Calem is strongest is in his struggle with mental health. His inability to act, his inability to truly understand anyone else’s position but his own, seem all to tie back to his struggle with mental health. Another important issue that is covered in Still the Night Call is the stigmatization of mental health issues, especially among men. Caitlyn volunteers at a women’s shelter in the city, and Calem wonders if something like that exists for men, but Caitlyn quickly explains that men don’t seek help the way women do. So while the undeniable truth that being a white man in America gives you some sort of upper hand, we see the price that comes with: how we’ve raised so many of our boys into men who can’t ask for help, who need to achieve greatness, who can’t empathize and understand because they’re taught instead to get ahead, to hide weakness, and to never admit defeat.

Still the Night Call addresses all of these important issues and more. If you are a staunch liberal or a staunch conservative, your politics and values likely won’t change after reading Senter’s book, but it seems his hope is that at the very least you’ll gain some empathy and understanding for the other side. If nothing else, Still the Night Call highlights the way mental health affects people’s lives no matter their social status, gender, or political values.

Named best Indie Book of 2021 by Kirkus review, Still the Night Call by Joshua Senter is available for purchase 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.

‘City of Orange’ by David Yoon

The cover image of City of Orange by David Yoon is a futuristic scene of rolling neon orange hills.

David Yoon’s latest novel City of Orange has the feel of a post-apocalyptic novel with the emotional verve of true literary fiction.

City of Orange follows a nameless man who wakes up in a desert with a splitting headache and only echoes of memories of his former life. He knows he has a name, but he can’t remember it. He knows he had a daughter and wife, but he can’t remember their faces. He looks around him and he knows the world has ended. Our nameless protagonist must battle the heat, the barrenness, the unlivability of the desert, but most of all he must battle himself, his fractured memories, and the mystery of his own past. 

As City of Orange progresses, Yoon gives us more and more of his character’s past, what the world was like before the fall—until it becomes clear that something is missing. Suddenly, readers are whisked into an entirely unexpected turn of events as memories and events unravel to reveal a truth that seems all too obvious once revealed.

While the setting of City of Orange appears post-apocalyptic in nature, the narrative itself is pure literary fiction. Tackling topics of loss, the effects of social media and technology on mental health, and the complicated nature of our deepest relationships, Yoon accomplishes a difficult feat with City of Orange. A truly compelling story told in a truly compelling world will grab at the heartstrings of readers in this emotionally charged novel.

Slated for release in May 2022 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, City of Orange by David Yoon is available for preorder 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.

Geographies of the Heart

Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is a beautiful and all-too recognizable story about family, love, and aging.

Told as a series of short stories (some previously published as standalone pieces), Geographies of the Heart traces four generations of the Macmillan family. Each chapter or story is told from a different perspective, centering issues of viewpoint, empathy, and one’s personal history. Hamilton Summie illuminates through each character’s perspective how these elements inform the way a person acts, interacts, and responds to the challenges life throws at them. 

The main character of the three perspectives is Sarah Macmillan. We meet Sarah in a college coffee shop on a first date with a (maybe) great catch. We follow Sarah through breakups, her marriage to this same coffee shop date, the birth of her first child, the death of her grandparents, and through the challenges of navigating family relationships within and outside of these life events. Over the course of Geographies of the Heart, we also hear from her husband Al, her sister Glennie, and even a few others.

Hamilton Summie does a beautiful job of capturing not only the struggles of what it means to be a family, but also the most beautiful and touching pieces of that relationship. Even as someone who doesn’t have a sister, who hasn’t lost a grandparent in the same slow grueling way Sarah does, I found myself deeply connected to her character, her struggles, her constant questioning. Themes of forgiveness, remembrance, our connection to our past—however desirous or repelling to us— are only a few of the topics explored in Geographies of the Heart. Hamilton Summie also asks readers to question what responsibility in each of these contexts mean: who is responsible for initiating and accepting forgiveness, who is responsible for remembering and documenting a collective past that involves more that just one person, and who is responsible for the marks (for better or worse) left on a generation as they age? 

A thought-provoking and emotional read, Geographies of the Heart might especially call to you if you are a parent, a sibling, or have recently lost a loved one.

Published by Fomite Press in January 2022, Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is available for purchase 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.

‘Caroline’ by Adrian Spratt

In his debut novel CarolineAdrian Spratt poses a question that has likely been on many people’s minds since March of 2020: In the face of hardship, difference, and isolation, what makes us who we are?

The cover of the novel ‘Caroline’ is an olive green color with an illustrated collage of pictures related to the book: a swatch of red hair layered on a scene from New York City, atop a vinyl record, atop an army green type writer.

The novel follows Nick, a young lawyer navigating his job, his relationships, and his disability in 1980s New York. In an industry dominated by able-bodied writers writing ableist narratives, Caroline is a welcome deviation from the norm. Spratt, a former lawyer turned novelist, lost his vision at thirteen (just like Nick), and writes a novel where, though disability is central to the character and themes, it is more than anything simply a part of Caroline the way disability is a natural part of the human condition. This is in contrast to the way many able-bodied writers incorporate disability into their books, sensationalizing or moralizing it.

Nick is a young lawyer who meets Caroline at a fiction writing class and a tumultuous relationship ensues. Meanwhile, Nick is battling ableism at his law firm, from random people he encounters, and even within his family. Through it all through, Spratt is constantly asking readers to think critically about a variety of philosophical issues related to disability including how sight contributes to the enjoyment of art, Aristotle’s argument that a mental image is central to being human, and many more. Spratt does this in a way that shows the challenges, nuances, and contradictions that surround so many of these issues, while also portraying Nick as the perfectly capable human being that he is.

SPOILER ALERT. If you don’t want any plot spoilers, skip this next paragraph.

While the central questions of the book are clear and thoroughly engaging, where Caroline falls short is in the portrayal of women and themes surrounding women. Just as able-bodied writers writing about characters with disabilities or white writers writing about characters of color often don’t do justice to the people those characters represent, multiple women in the book become defined by their experiences and trauma in ways that men can’t fully understand. While maintaining the view that writers should only write about their own demographics and personal experiences would make for a very boring literary landscape, it’s inarguable that a fair amount of thought and effort needs to be put into portraying characters that are different from the writer . I wouldn’t argue by any stretch that Spratt did not put this effort in, only that he missed the mark in his representation. So, while I commend and am absolutely ravenous about the positive portrayal of people with disabilities in Caroline, I have a hard time reconciling that with the portrayal of women in the novel. As a woman myself who actively opposes gendered, male-centered views of women’s bodies and experiences surrounding their bodies, I feel it’s important to discuss and bring these issues to light. 

Overall, Spratt brings an important voice to the literary table that offers an often ignored, but vital, perspective.

Slated for release from Books Fluent on February 15, 2022, you can preorder a copy of Caroline.

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.

‘Honor’ by Thrity Umrigar

What is honor? Is it your value as a human being? Is it your worth in relation to your actions? Is it the weight with which other’s view you? Thrity Umrigar seeks, not to answer this question, but to pose it in a way that forces her readers to interrogate its meaning in her latest novel by the very same name: Honor.

Honor begins with a newspaper clipping: a woman and her husband have been burned alive for their interfaith marriage. A marriage between a Hindu and Muslim is nothing but dishonorable in their small Indian village. The woman, Meena, and her unborn child, though, survive the burning. Backed by a lawyer fighting to change the corrupt legal system in India, Meena presses charges against her two brothers—the men who burned her husband to protect their honor and hers. 

Next, we meet Smita. An American journalist who was born in India and hasn’t returned since she left at fourteen, Smita is suddenly summoned to the country by her coworker who is stationed in India. At first, Smita thinks her friend and coworker simply needs some help recovering from an emergency surgery, and Smita, though hesitant to return to the place of her birth, pushes her apprehension aside for her friend. When Smita arrives though, it quickly becomes clear that her coworker called Smita to India for a very different purpose: to take over coverage of Meena’s story. Smita is thrown into a whirlwind of emotion as she attempts to navigate not only Meena’s heartbreaking story and the inherent issues they illuminate for her homeland but also Smita’s own deep-seated traumas that lay hidden in that same land. 

Misogyny and patriarchy, class and privilege, racism and toxic masculinity are only a few of the major themes that Umrigar explores in Honor. She poses tough questions such as: are people born evil or are they made evil by their circumstances, by their station in life, by the way they are treated and made to feel dishonorable? Umrigar doesn’t by any means hide her stance on many of these questions and issues, and she often flat out tells the reader what she thinks is right and wrong, but not always. By the end of the novel, we are still left with an elusive feeling as to who was “good” and who was “bad.” We hate Meena’s brothers for what they’ve done, and yet that feeling is somewhat challenged when we learn that the brothers too were pressured to fulfill a task they thought to be handed down by the gods. Umrigar clearly paints a complicated picture not only of India and the issues illuminated by the country’s policies and practices, but issues that Smita points out exist everywhere.

Part drama, part romance, part social justice call-to-action, Honor is a novel that quickly draws you in and doesn’t leave much room for dawdling. While the plot and backstories of the characters often feel a bit canned, this somehow doesn’t detract from the engaging nature of the novel. It works because Umrigar sets Honor up in such a way that we are compelled to seek out the why, not the what of the novel. Why did it happen? Why did it have to happen? Why were these characters compelled to make the choices they made? And while the answer seems to lie somewhere in the title of the book, still the reader asks “Why? Why is that honor? Why is that what honor means to him, to her, to you?”

Slated for release by Algonquin books in January of 2022, Honor by Thrity Umrigar is an important and deeply tragic book that asks all the right questions of humanity. 

You can preorder a copy of Honor by Thrity Umrigar 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.

‘What a Wonderful World This Could Be’ by Lee Zacharias

Lee Zacharias captures something deeply universal in her new novel What a Wonderful World This Could Be: namely, what it is to be human. 

Alex is the novel’s main character: a woman confronted with questions and decisions about what it means to be a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a person. We follow Alex from her early teen years in the 1960s to her later adult life in the 1980s as she navigates personal issues of neglect, depression, and love within the larger backdrop of civil right issues and political tumult.

Weaving between periods of Alex’s life in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Zacharias follows Alex’s transformation from a neglected teen to a conflicted adult. All the while, readers stand beside Alex both cheering her on and cringing at her bad decisions.

While the novel can at times feel a bit disjointed, overflowing with so much plot that the reader can forget where they are and who they’re with, overall, What a Wonderful World This Could Be is an engaging and nostalgic read. Whether you grew up in the 1960s, are an artist, or have simply lived a life that involves love, loss, and heartbreak, you will find something to connect to in What a Wonderful World This Could Be.

Slated for release from Madville Publishing in June 2021, you can preorder a copy of What Wonderful World This Could Be 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.

‘The Merciful’ by Jon Sealy

A novel that seeks to erase the hard won narrative of good vs evil, The Merciful by Jon Sealy is an epic undertaking.

Sealy’s novel revolves around the death of a nineteen-year-old who is hit by a driver along a dark country road in South Carolina. Instead of setting up the typical, good-person-bad-person dichotomy, though, Sealy instead takes the route of forcing the reader to question what the very terms “good” and “bad” mean. Does “good” mean doing what is right? Does “bad” imply moral misgivings? Is someone made good simply for being the so-called victim of a crime, and the perpetrator of that crime bad for simply being the enactor of that crime, even if it was committed by accident? Sealy forces the reader to face all of these questions and more as he takes us on a crusade to prove the world is not entirely black and white.

Rather than narrating The Merciful from the perspective of say the driver of the car and the family of the dead girl, Sealy instead introduces a whole host of characters as storytellers. Everyone from the driver to the driver’s old college roommate make appearances as key players in the novel. Each character offers a unique perspective, often a diehard belief in one point of view of the case or the other, and a reminder that every argument has more than one side. 

Sealy has a unique ability to keep the words flying off the page, the momentum never sagging despite the drawn-out court case, the large cast of characters, and the repetitive nature of the message he seeks to get across. It’s easy to pick up the book and put it down a day or two later, finished, the characters fresh in your mind, the poignancy of the novel almost intimate insofar as you are constantly reminded that it could have been you. It could have been you who hit and killed a bicyclist and paid the ultimate price. It could have been you who was hit. It could have been you who lost your daughter, your lover, your life.

The Merciful is a book that will keep you reading and might even help you escape the everyday worries of our current time.

Forthcoming from Haywire Books in January 2020, you can preorder a copy of The Merciful by Jon Sealy from your local independent 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.

‘Grown Ups’ by Emma Jane Unsworth

grown-ups-unsworthIn an age where social media rules, where life is monopolized by screens and the identities we create behind those screens, Grown Ups by Emma Jane Unsworth addresses the effects of media on our lives with gusto.

Written in the style of Candice Carty-William’s Queenie, Grown Ups has all the elements of a millennial melodrama. Jenny, our main character and our narrator, is a columnist for a local paper and a social media addict. We meet Jenny in the throes of a break-up, a reunion, and a falling apart. Jenny felt like she had it all until she split up with her boyfriend Art. From there, her whole life seems to unravel in her hands. People stop following her on social media, she has so much anxiety about her posts that she can’t put them up without sending them to friends to double and triple check, not to mention that her friendships are falling apart. On top of all that, she has her mother and her job to deal with.

Jenny’s problems are all too familiar in our technology-driven, screen-burdened age. The relationship and familial issues, the technological obsession, and the perseverance on social media are only a few of the things Jenny deals with in Grown Ups. When it comes to her social media accounts, Jenny is constantly questioning herself, reading into the imagined (or not imagined) subtext of every like and comment, feeling unending anxiety as she watches her number of likes grow. While Jenny’s feelings towards social media border on the obsessive, her anxieties won’t be unfamiliar to many users. Jenny, like innumerable others in our society, is being swallowed by the immediacy and inescapability of the internet and communication.

Readers sit back helplessly as Jenny tears her own life apart with her fixation. In the process though, she comes to be closer with herself and farther from those who have never served her as friends or loved ones.

A journey of self-discovery and meaning making, Grown Ups by Emma Jane Unsworth is a quick, fun, and often hilarious read that dips into the edges of the grave and urgent while remaining light and engaging.

Slated for release from Scout Press in May of 2020, you can preorder a copy of Grown Ups by Emma Jane Unsworth 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.