‘The Language of Trees’ by Steve Wiegenstein

the langauge of trees-wiegensteinIn the Ozarks of Missouri, a community of early 19th century settlers face the challenges of an ever-changing America in Steve Wiegenstein’s latest novel, The Language of Trees.

Daybreak is a utopian society that has thrived for 30 years until it is suddenly shaken by the outside world. Now, it’s up to the founders’ children to not only maintain their community, but to thrive within it when the world seems set against them. It is a post-Civil War America, and Daybreak has met with little trouble since the war until a group of loggers move in nearby and offer to buy a large chunk of the community’s land. With the loggers come love interests, the ideals of capitalism, and the threat of what selfishness can do to a community.

Each of the characters takes a turn to show the reader Daybreak from her eyes, even characters that at first seem to be villains. Wiegenstein, though, does a fantastic job of staying in a single character’s head at any one time. Through all of these different perspectives, Wiegenstein is able to truly build the idea of community within the reader’s mind.  The reader becomes acquainted with each character so fully that even those who are less honorable are still able to be sympathized with.

Melding history with fiction, allure, and mystery, Wiegenstein paints a beautiful and romantic picture of 19th century America: a world where even in hardship, a community can stick together.

The Language of Trees is the third in Wiegenstein’s Daybreak saga. With the next generation of characters leading the way, though, The Language of Trees is just as strong on its own is it is within the series.

Slated for release by Blank Slate Press on September 26, 2017, you can preorder a copy of The Language of Trees by Steve Wiegenstein at your local bookstore.

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FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Girl in the Blue Coat’ by Monica Hesse

girl-in-the-blue-coat-hesse.jpgGirl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse is a novel steeped in history, passion, and emotion. A coming of age book that tells the story of the main character, seventeen-year-old Hanneke’s experiences in Amsterdam during World War II. Hanneke is an angry citizen of Amsterdam during the German occupation in 1943, angered not only by the Germans’ presence, but mostly because her boyfriend died during the war and she feels responsible. Now, Hanneke works in dealings on the black market, delivering goods like coffee, chocolate, and cigarettes to her fellow citizens.

At the beginning of the novel, Hanneke is completing a routine drop off at Mrs. Janssen’s house, a woman Hanneke knows well and whose son and husband have also died at the hands of the Germans. When Mrs. Janssen invites Hanneke to stay for real coffee and pastries though, Hanneke is suspicious of what more Mrs. Janssen might want from her. After reluctantly agreeing to join the old woman, Hanneke begins to relax and wonders if perhaps Mrs. Janssen is merely lonely. And she is, though not exactly for the reasons Hanneke was thinking.

Mrs. Janssen reveals to Hanneke that she was hiding a young Jewish girl in her house, a girl she not only feels responsible for because the girl’s whole family is dead, but a girl she has also come to love as a daughter. Though Hanneke has never worked in dealing with contraband people, she decides to help Mrs. Janssen almost as a way to please Bas, her dead boyfriend. She knows he would help Mrs. Janssen if he were alive, so in an attempt to regain the trust she thinks Bas has lost in her, she decides that hunting for this girl is the right choice.

Along the twisting roads of mystery leading up and down Girl in the Blue Coat, Hanneke finds much more than and not at all what she was ever looking for. She finds unsuspecting friendships, passion for a cause, and more than one reason to keep living her life.

Though marketed as a young adult novel, Girl in the Blue Coat is an exhilarating and powerful read for any aged booklover.

The paperback version of Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse was published by Little Brown and Company in April of 2017. You can purchase a copy of the novel at your local bookstore.

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FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

 

‘The Cauliflower’ by Nicola Barker

the-cauliflower-barkerThe Cauliflower by Nicola Barker is a semi-biographical, spiritually investigative, and entirely comedic novel about the Hindu Swami Sri Ramakrishna, about religion in general, and about perspective.

The Cauliflower is told from a variety of perspectives and from a multitude of vantage points. Spanning a wide cast of characters, all who have some form of contact with Sri Ramakrishna, the book does not follow a conventional biographical telling, instead, the various narrators skip through years out of sequential order but in an order that reveals more about the characters themselves.

While The Cauliflower is a biographically fictional story of Sri Ramakrishna and his rise to “fame,” Barker also investigates interlaying themes that extend beyond the simple telling of this one particular story. The nature of reality of the ability to clearly define anything is a theme that recurs throughout The Cauliflower in a variety of ways. In fact, the reader is made to question what exactly this book is: is it a book, a biography, a newspaper report. At one point, Barker raises the question herself, “Is this book a farce, a comedy, a tragedy, or a melodrama?” Though she does not answer her own question, it appears by the end, that The Cauliflower, and by extension life, must be all three.

Another related theme is the meaning of veracity and certainty, particularly as it relates to religion and perspective. As mentioned above, The Cauliflower is told from different perspectives, but the reader can’t be certain who is telling the truth or what “truth” even means in the novel. Many of the characters disagree on certain events or even on descriptions of other characters; but further, the characters also disagree with themselves. Barker seems to beg the question, what is truth when we all are standing in, and coming from, different places – even if we are all seeing the same thing? This metaphor is extended to religion, and not only the Hindu religion that Sri Ramakrishna inhabits, but all religions.

Though The Cauliflower is a bit slow in the beginning because the reader needs to meet and become accustomed to not only the numerous characters and perspectives, but also the general layout of the book as rather disoriented, once it does pick up speed, it is hard to put down. Overall, this journalistic, meta-reality novel is a beautiful and comedic look into the intricacies and complication involved in living life, following religion, and finding peace with perspective.

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker was released in 2016 by Henry Holt & Company 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 Orphan’s Tale’ by Pam Jenoff

the-orphans-tale-jenoffAn enthralling and entrancing read, Pam Jenoff’s The Orphan’s Tale is a beautiful and heart wrenching book. Told from the perspective of the book’s two main characters, The Orphan’s Tale is a story of interconnected love, heartbreak, and sacrifice.

Noa is an outcast who works in a railway station in Germany in the mid-1940s. She has been excommunicated by her parents for sleeping with a German soldier and becoming pregnant. After being forced to give up her child, Noa finds refuge working in the station until she comes across a train car headed east towards the notorious “camps.” She usually ignores the goings on in the station, but something draws her to the car. Inside she finds piles of living, dead, and near dead infants on their way to what end she can’t imagine. In a flurry of desperation, empathy and remorse for her own lost child, Noa takes a baby: a Jew. But now she must run.

Astrid is also an outcast. A Jew who had married an officer of the Reich but was kicked out of their home after he received an order to divorce Astrid. She is now back to the life she always knew: the life of the circus. Things are going as well as they can be going for a Jew hiding during World War Two, until Noa shows up at the circus.

Now the two women are both seeking refuge under the guise of the circus’ act. At first enemies, the two women learn to care for one another in the ways that no one else can. A story of love, betrayal, hope and loss, The Orphan’s Tale is nearly impossible to put down. Jenoff’s fast-paced narrative style propels the reader into the worlds of both Astrid and Noa with a verve and emotive quality that is all encompassing.

Based on historical research, The Orphan’s Tale is a book of fiction, but Jenoff considers the book a tribute to those whom she based the tale off of.

Slated for release by HarperCollins Publishers on February 21, 2017, The Orphan’s Tale is available for preorder 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.

‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang

human-acts-kangHuman Acts by Han Kang is an eloquent and masterful investigation. It is an investigation into humanity, into the existence and nature of the soul, into the effects and implications of our memories. Originally written in Korean and published in 2014, translator Deborah Smith does a superb job of expressing these sentiments in her stunning yet detached translation of Human Acts.

The book is split into several narratives, each told by a different character, but all interrelated. Human Acts begins, though, with a student uprising in South Korea in the 1980’s. This is where the reader meets, or essentially is, Dong-ho, the character that stitches together all the rest of the stories. Told in second person perspective, Dong-ho’s narrative becomes the reader’s story: a story that then follows the reader through the rest of the book, a story told through a multitude of eyes, eyes that have seen Dong-ho, eyes that haven’t. Every perspective, every retelling, is an attempt to crack open the mystery of death, the mystery of evil.

Dong-ho haunts the characters of Human Acts through their memories or knowledge of him. The characters cannot escape the injustices that were done to Dong-ho nor the innocence he embodied. In fact, no character can turn away from the horror surrounding her despite any effort to do so. Even if given the chance to run from the pain or the terror, no one can. They need to absorb it, to be with the horror happening around them. Whether to justify the existence of those who perished or to stand staunchly against ignorance and in unison, Kang never fully reveals.

The desperate search for “why” pervades Human Acts in a way that makes the question also burn into the reader’s mind. Why such terror? Why such hatred? Why such pain?

Han Kang does a superb job of wrapping together her themes without providing an answer to any of the questions she raises. She seems to point to the fact that we are all human: these terrible acts have been committed by humans. Humans who have jobs. Humans who have families. Humans who feel. Humans who love. Humans who hate.

Beautiful, terrifying, and an absolute must read, Human Acts by Han Kang will be released in the United States on January 17, 2017. You can preorder a copy at 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.

‘The Invention of Wings’ by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk KiddBestselling author Sue Monk Kidd released her latest novel, The Invention of Wings, in January of last year.  A historical novel rooted in the story of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the first female abolitionists and two of the first modern feminists, The Invention of Wings looks at issues of gender, race, and morality from a uniquely dual perspective.

The novel vacillates between being narrated by Sarah Grimke, a young southern belle, and Handful, a slave on the Grimke plantation. Both girls are subversive and oppose not only authority, but also convention, even at the young age of eleven when we first meet them. Kidd follows the girls from childhood into middle age, allowing for the reader to see and understand the situations occurring in and around their lives with a more vibrant and deep verve. There are certain stories and situations that are told both from Handful and Sarah’s point of view, while other events that are extremely important to Handful don’t even make it into Sarah’s narrative (and vice versa), because she is either unaware of them or can’t understand the impact of such events.

While both Handful and Sarah have a certain sisterly bond of love that they both acknowledge, there is a fissure between them that continues to grow as they age. Handful begins to see more and more that Sarah can never understand her position as a slave. Kidd juxtaposes the women’s rights movement with the abolition movement in so that each mirrors the other as a mode of imprisonment. However, Sarah’s issues, though vital in their own right, are often shadowed by the horrors of Handful’s life.

Sarah can at times be an overbearing and frustrating character, especially when she is placed next to Handful, whose greatest trouble can’t even come close to comparing to Sarah’s. In a certain way, The Invention of Wings, shows that everyone’s own biggest issue is as important to them as the next person’s own biggest issue no matter the gap between those issues. Sarah’s dreams and desires cannot be discounted by any means, but in comparison to Handful’s simple wishes for freedom, it’s difficult to have sympathy for the often whining, young southern princess.

Nonetheless, The Invention of Wings is full of strong female characters, Sarah included, who both take a stand against their oppressors and who offer inspiration by virtue of their will, courage, and perseverance.

Published by Penguin Books in January 2014, The Invention of Wings is available 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.

“At The Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen

At the Water's Edge by Sara GruenAt the Water’s Edge by bestselling author of Water For Elephants Sara Gruen is a novel of romance, adventure, and history. The book takes place in the midst of World War Two in Philadelphia and then in Scotland as a high society love triangle comprised of the narrator Maddie, her husband Ellis, and their mutual best friend Hank head on in search of the Loch Ness monster.

Ellis and Hank both have purported ailments that have kept them from enlisting in the war: Ellis is color blind and Hank is flat footed. The two men are so shamed by their inability to enlist that they decide to head to Scotland to find and film the Loch Ness monster and prove themselves heroic. Maddie is forced to come along since she has nothing in Philadelphia but a mother-in-law who wants to dissolve her son’s marriage and a father who wants nothing to do with her.

So, the three head to Scotland and check into a local inn where we meet more of the novel’s characters including Anna, Meg, and Angus. From here the story spins into tangents of monster hunting, Maddie’s slow acclamation to life outside of her china walls, and a love affair that develops only very late in the novel. Ellis and Hank, though most especially Ellis, turn out to be entirely dreadful human beings who are not only careless, but conniving, evil, and abusive. Much of the novel is spent describing the ways in which Ellis talks down to Maddie, tries to physically abuse her and emotionally berates her for what he sees as her imperfections. Frustratingly, Maddie does nothing to stand up for herself, and though this is a period piece set in a time when men did have the power to commit their wives to mental institutions, it is entirely maddening to watch Ellis dominate his wife and for Maddie to fall into patterns that reassure Ellis’ behavior.

There is definitely an air of melodrama in the book as well with Maddie constantly fainting, becoming woozy, or needing a man to save her from distress. There are few strong female characters at all in fact. Meg still pines over her boyfriend after he beats her nearly dead for wearing a pair of silk stockings that he assumes Meg slept with someone to obtain, while all of the women passively wait to be married and disappear into their respective husbands. Once again, the time period of the piece must be taken into account when trying to understand Gruen’s intention drawing such characters, but it is no less defeating for readers.

It is difficult to be surrounded by a hoard of characters for which the reader develops little sympathy because of their obnoxious behavior. The plot and all of the tangential subplots, however, are arresting and intriguing in a way that allows the reader to overlook potential frustrations in the novel’s characters. Being primarily plot driven, At the Water’s Edge will most definitely prove to be another blockbuster once a film is made.

At the Water’s Edge is slated for release from Random House Publishing on March 31, 2015. You can preorder a copy of the book here.

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.